American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association

This article is from the Spring 2000 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.

How Clean is Clean

By Nichole Royer


* Cages should be first
cleaned and then

* Sanitizing is the process
of killing germs and
bacteria on the surface of
the cage.

* The very best (and least
expensive) sanitizing
solution is good old
chlorine bleach.

* One-half tablespoon per
gallon of water is all that
is needed for non porous
surfaces like metal and

* There are 5 steps to
correctly clean and
sanitize cages.

It’s a chore we all do. Like it or not, our critter’s cages have to be cleaned. Most of us have a method that we like, and that seems to work well. We all know there is more to cleaning cages than just changing the litter, but have you ever stopped to think just how “clean” your cages really are?

In researching this topic, I looked to the food service industry. They deal with cleaning surfaces, similar to what we have, on a regular basis. I figure if it’s good enough for me to eat off of, then it’s probably clean enough for my animals to live in.

First we should note that there is a difference between cleaning and sanitizing, and both are very important. Cleaning is the process of removing dirt and other types of soil from a surface. Sanitizing involves reducing the number of microorganisms on that surface to a safe level. In order to produce a truly clean cage, both must be accomplished.

Scrub A Dub Dub

Ideally, cages should be first cleaned and then sanitized. This is a two step process. Cleaning cages involves removing all particulate matter. This can be accomplished manually in large part through the use of water under high pressure and a stiff scrub brush. There are several kinds of cleaning agents that can make this process easier. Simple detergents (dish soap is commonly used) contain surfactants. These reduce the surface tension between the soil and the detergent which allows the detergent to penetrate and soften the soil. For particularly soiled and difficult to clean cages a solvent cleaner may be used. These are often also called degreasers, and they are alkaline detergents that contain a grease dissolving agent. Some of the best to use on metal cages are those designed for washing cars. With all detergents, a high water temperature will make them more effective. Detergents should be completely rinsed off of cages along with the dirt they are removing.

Killing The Germs

Once they are clean, cages can be sanitized. This is the process of killing germs and bacteria on the surface of the cage. In laboratories heat is often used; however, this is not a practical solution for most pet owners or fanciers. Even household dish washers do not get hot enough to truly sanitize. This leaves the chemical sanitizers as our best option. Chemical sanitizing is done in two ways: either by immersing a clean object in a specific concentration of sanitizing solution for the required period of time; or by rinsing, swabbing, or spraying with a specific concentration of sanitizing solution.

Since most cages are large, it is impractical to use the immersion method. Spraying on a sanitizing solution is much more efficient. The very best (and least expensive) sanitizing solution is good old chlorine bleach. Scented or oxygen bleaches are not good choices. Many people who use bleach tend to use much more than is required (or safe). One-half tablespoon per gallon of water is all that is needed for non porous surfaces like metal and glass. You should NOT be able to smell the bleach. This solution can be sprayed on, left wet for two minutes, and then either wiped or allowed to air dry. You do not need to rinse this solution. Porous surfaces like wood, rubber, and soft plastic require a stronger solution: 1 tablespoon per gallon of water is recommended. This should be sprayed on, left for two minutes, rinsed, then allowed to dry.

Water bottles, feeders, and smaller toys present their own cleaning problem, and the immersion method works best for making sure they are properly cleaned and sanitized. Our rats and mice put their mouths on, eat from, and drink from these objects many times during the day. Of all parts of the cage, these are the ones that present the highest possibility of passing something dangerous along to the critters. Because of this, special attention should be paid when cleaning and sanitizing these objects. The best way to do so requires at least two or three buckets/tubs/sinks and a well drained spot that items can be air dried.

  • Step one
    Scrape, rinse, or otherwise remove all loose particulate matter.

  • Step two
    Wash the item in the first bucket using a detergent solution and the hottest water you can stand. A bottle brush, nylon scrubber, and vegetable brush are good tools to have. Replace the detergent solution when suds are gone or water is dirty.

  • Step three
    Rinse the items by immersion in a second bucket of clean water or spraying. Use the hottest water you can stand. This should remove all traces of detergent. Replace water in bucket when it gets dirty.

  • Step four  
    Immerse the items in a third sink full of sanitizing solution. For this use ½ tablespoon of bleach for each gallon of cold water. Do not use hot water, it lessens the effectiveness of the bleach. Allow items to remain in solution for 30 seconds.

  • Step five
    Remove items and allow to air dry.

This 5-step method can also work well for small cages and aquariums. It is ideal for sanitizing laboratory cages.

If this all sounds like rather a long drawn out process for weekly cage cleaning, you are probably right. While feeders and water bottles do require special attention, truthfully it is not really necessary to go through all of this every time your cages are cleaned. The best alternative is to use a product that combines both cleaning and sanitizing into one step. A good choice is a detergent containing an antibacterial component. These are inexpensive and available at most grocery and drug stores. Sanitizers are also available which contain cleaning solutions. Parvosol and Roccal-D are two examples of excellent products which can be purchased through many pet supply outlets. These are diluted per the directions on the bottle, and sprayed onto cages once all the particulate matter has been removed. They should be allowed to remain wet for 2 minutes, then can be wiped dry and immediately put into use. While neither of these methods kill as many germs and bacteria as the full two-step cleaning and sanitizing does, they have both proven more than adequate for day to day use. Many fanciers still like to completely sanitize all their cages either monthly or several times per year, and most do so when changing their occupants.

Cage cleaning is not an exact science, not by a long shot. Most of us do not live under totally sanitized conditions; however, we are not usually restricted to a relatively small amount of living space where germs and bacteria are likely to collect. Because most of us do confine our critters to cages of one sort or another, it’s important we are aware that this can happen. So, how clean are your cages? *

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Updated March 5, 2014