PLA is one of the most popular choices of filament for 3D printing. It’s inexpensive, easy to use, and considered environmentally friendly. Despite being generally regarded as non-harmful, you might wonder if this plastic is genuinely safe for all animals.
PLA plastic is usually not safe for reptile enclosures. While the plastic isn’t dangerous on its own, heating systems in reptile tanks can cause it to melt or vaporize. The byproducts and vapors from heated PLA are what’s potentially dangerous.
This article explores the properties of PLA and how it can affect reptiles and other animals. It also describes what makes this plastic potentially dangerous. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Why PLA Usually Isn’t Safe for Reptiles
PLA (polylactic acid) is a biodegradable plastic used in 3D printing and manufacturing. In addition to being biodegradable, PLA comes from renewable resources like corn starch.
While this would seem to make it great for animals, PLA has some other unique properties worth considering. For example, it has a relatively low melting point. Objects made of PLA plastic can even deform or melt when left in your car on a sunny day.
While thermal resistance isn’t something you need to consider for most pets, reptiles typically need supplemental heat. Devices for that purpose, like heat lamps and pads, can cause PLA to melt and emit harmful vapors in a terrarium.
Also, consider that many PLA plastics for printing contain various additives like coloring dyes.
The effects these other chemicals additives have on reptiles when melted or vaporized are hard to predict. However, it isn’t difficult to imagine that inhaling synthetic vapors might be dangerous for any creature.
To be safe, you should avoid placing PLA hides and decorations in enclosures with heat lighting until there is more research on the subject.
The Science of What Makes PLA Dangerous
There’s not much scientific research specifically on how PLA plastics affect animals like snakes or lizards.
But we do know that it’s harmful to humans when they inhale vapors or small pieces of it. And one study noted respiratory problems in people who spend a lot of time working around 3D printers that utilize PLA.
While humans and reptiles are very different, we are both susceptible to respiratory issues. And for our scaly friends, these kinds of problems are sadly a significant cause of death in captivity.
How Heated PLA Could Affect a Reptile’s Health
Reptiles are prone to lung issues mainly thanks to their unique biology.
While they can survive prolonged periods without food, their cold-blooded bodies are vulnerable to their environment. Even tiny variations outside their required conditions can leave reptiles immunocompromised.
Exposing reptiles to toxic plastic fumes could easily affect their already sensitive respiratory health. Not to mention snakes or lizards basking on hot PLA surfaces could theoretically sink into the slow-melting plastic.
Plenty of heat lamps won’t get hot enough or close enough to be that hazardous. But you might be better off playing it safe for your bearded dragon’s sake.
If you have already placed PLA in your enclosure, make sure your reptiles aren’t exhibiting signs of respiratory issues. These include things like open-mouth breathing and nasal discharge.
Alternatives to PLA for Reptiles
PLA is touted for being an environmentally-friendly bioplastic, though it doesn’t always live up to that reputation. Now that you know it’s not perfect for reptiles either, you might wonder what you should get instead for your critters.
You can break your options down into two basic categories: Natural and Artificial.
Natural options include things like cleaned branches, rocks, and plants. Artificial choices include other 3D printer filaments and the premade plastic molds you see at stores.
Both have pros and cons.
Using natural materials is almost always a solid choice. After all, snakes in the wild spend much of their time under rocks or on branches.
I keep an assortment of stones and rough geodes for my serpents. They love rubbing on the coarse geodes to help with the shedding process. Meanwhile, the way stones hold heat is perfect for basking.
While this path is more authentic and natural, it also requires more attention. Just as PLA can aggravate respiratory issues, so can bacteria and fungi found on wood and rocks.
If you scavenge any of these items for your scaly friends, make sure you thoroughly clean them before placement.
If you’re familiar with PLA, you may have also heard of ABS and PETG. These are two other popular plastic filaments for 3D printing.
ABS and PETG both tolerate higher temperatures than PLA. So, you won’t have to worry much about your creations melting or giving off vapors under a heat lamp.
However, these filaments have their issues too.
Neither comes from the same renewable resources PLA does, and both lack biodegradability. Not to mention ABS is much harder to work with than PLA.
If you don’t want to 3D print, remember that many companies make plastic hides and decorations just for reptiles. These companies also typically test their products for reptile safety and heat lamp tolerance.
Buying these premade pieces of lizard furniture can thus save you effort and provide peace of mind.
Is PLA Safe for Other Animals?
PLA is generally safe for other animals as long as you don’t expose it to extreme heat. It would help if you also stuck to food-safe and dyeless plastics out of caution.
The flexibility and availability of these plastics make them very popular for hobbyists. Using PLA, you can 3D print everything from pet toys to aquarium decorations. Since it’s biodegradable and non-toxic (as long as it’s not too hot), it’s a solid option for these purposes.
Just keep in mind that it’s relatively brittle. So, bigger dogs might tear it apart quickly. There’s plenty of other plastics and materials better for toys in that respect.
PLA’s biodegradability also supposedly leaves it vulnerable to rapid deterioration in aquatic environments, notably saltwater.
Though some, like the one in this YouTube video, question if PLA is really biodegradable or eco-friendly in a practical sense.
There’s a lack of scientific research on how PLA plastics affect reptiles. Still, it is well-documented that PLA filaments and fumes are potentially hazardous to humans.
To be on the safe side, you shouldn’t put PLA plastics in your reptile’s enclosure. Especially if your tanks house heat lamps.