The enclosure set up a pet reptile will spend its life in is arguably one of the most crucial decisions you must make when bringing a reptile home.
Wood such as oak, dogwood, tuliptree, maple, and crepe myrtle has historically been one of the simplest and most versatile materials to work with because it is accessible and forgiving.
But with changing times and sustainability issues of wood, High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is also becoming popular for reptile enclosures, a highly versatile thermoplastic material.
No matter what material you choose to DIY build (or buy) your reptile enclosures, it’s highly recommended that you select only a reptile-safe paint for both the material’s longevity and your reptile’s health.
As long as you take the proper precautions, choose suitable products and follow the guidelines, you can transform your reptile’s home into a colorful masterpiece while keeping your pet safe and healthy.
In this short guide, I will start by discussing what types of paint should not be used for finishing reptile enclosures, what you should use exactly, and what safety tips you need to follow.
So without any further ado, let’s get started.
Paints NOT to Use for Reptile Homes
Various paint types are available on the market; unfortunately, not all are safe for reptiles.
When you want to decorate your pet’s tank, the first step is to learn about the many types of paint and assess their advantages and drawbacks.
Several issues might develop if your gecko lizard or snake comes into direct contact with harmful paints, such as skin problems and other more severe illnesses like respiratory issues.
The most common types of paint you should avoid using on reptile enclosures are those with high VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds).
These are generally the oil-based spray paints, wood stains, and sealants that come in aerosol cans to apply directly on the surface using a sprayer nozzle.
Be extra careful when using spray paint, as it is more likely to chip and leave small pieces of pigment on the bedding of your tank.
Your pet could find, rub against, or even eat these pieces, which could be dangerous.
Safe Practices When Using Paint for Your Reptile Enclosure
While no paint and wood sealant available is 100% VOC-free, there are still a few varieties that contain significantly fewer VOCs, are eco-friendly, and are considered safe for reptiles at your home.
If you can not find those non-toxic, strictly safe reptile paints or have budget issues (yes, they can be expensive), you can use the paints with VOCs by following specific safety tips and guidelines.
So, here is what you need to do:
1- Move Your Reptile to a Safer Place
When painting the reptile enclosure, the main concern is the paint fumes.
Paint fumes can be dangerous to your reptile’s health, so you must be extra careful when using them.
The best way to protect your reptile from the harmful effects of paint fumes is to move it to a different room while you’re working on the project.
This can be another safe room you or your family don’t use much. If you don’t have that option, you can use a big plastic storage bin as a temporary tank.
Just make sure to line the bottom with a few inches of substrate, some hideaways, and decorations, and your pet will be good to go for a few hours.
2- Properly Ventilate the Room Where You Paint
Once you have moved your reptile to a safer place, you can start working on your project.
Open all the windows and doors in the room you’re painting. Or better, take the plywood enclosure you want to paint in the yard. If it’s cold outside, turn on the heat.
If you are working indoors, switch on your air purifier with HEPA filters to help eliminate VOCs from the air and make the environment smell free and safer.
3- Choose the Low or no VOC Primer and Paint
As we discussed earlier, not all paints are equal regarding VOCs.
To be on the safe side and protect your reptile’s health, use only low or no VOC primer and paint products.
Water-based paints such as latex, chalk, milk, and acrylic paint are typically non-toxic.
They are free from harsh chemicals and will dry faster than other types of paints. So you can safely use these paints to coat your wooden reptile enclosures.
Avoid using chalk or milk paints for enclosures if you use water and marine reptiles. These paints are less durable and can fade away fast.
For marine species, you should generally use water-based latex paint that is water resistant.
4- Apply the Primer First and Then the Paint on the Enclosure
Before you apply the paint, use an acrylic primer on the surface you wish to paint.
Apply it evenly using a paintbrush or a mini hot dog roller to all the sides and edges of the reptile container.
This trick will reduce the chances of paint chipping and getting damaged soon.
Once you have applied the primer, allow it to dry for 1-2 hours, and then paint the surface the same way you applied the primer.
5- Apply the Sealer and Allow the Reptile Enclosure to Dry and Cure
Reptile-safe waterproof sealant (VOC-free, water-resistant sealer) is generally applied to the exterior of reptile terrariums.
It protects the paint from moisture and humidity and keeps it looking fresh for a more extended period.
When you use a sealer, it works in the same way as a primer works to protect your walls from moisture and prevent staining.
An animal-safe clear coat acts like a barrier when applying paint over them, making even less healthy paint safe.
However, make sure to allow the reptile terrarium to dry and cure for at least a week or two before bringing your reptile back to its home.
The Bottom Line
Reptiles are sensitive to their environment, so you must be extra careful when using paints and other chemicals around them.
The best way to protect your reptile from the harmful effects of paint fumes and chemicals is to move it to a different room while you’re working on the project.
Then choose the right type of reptile-safe paint, such as water-based acrylic, to finish the enclosure.
Once you’ve applied the paint, seal it with a reptile-friendly waterproofer to prevent dampness and humidity from spoiling it.
Finally, allow your reptile terrarium to dry and cure for at least a week before returning your reptile back to its habitat.
Jack Luis is a semi-retired painter who loved painting his clients’ ideas on their walls.
He had worked as a painter for more than a decade to serve the customers in areas such as Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Beaufort, Georgetown, SC (South Carolina). Today in his free time, he likes to read and write about the newer techniques that are being implemented in his profession. You may read more about him here or get in touch with him here.
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