Reptile Health Problems

Acute Stress Syndrome

The signs are dilation of the pupil, tremor, loss of righting reflex, with terminal convulsions and death. This condition is more common in newly acquired animals or those placed in a new environment.
Oral glucose at 3 grams per kilogram body-weight helps the condition, but the causative agent should be removed,whether it is competition, high population density, or other stress-inducing conditions.
In the chronic form of this disease the reptile fails to heal and becomes secondarily infested by bacteria, fungi and parasites. Treat for any infestation/infection, then provide satisfactory environment for that species. In the meantime,force feed.

Blister Disease

This is caused by excessive humidity and is common in winter. Skin (cutaneous) blisters first appear, which are sterile. These become infected and filled with pus. Blisters should be excised, flushed with 50 per cent peroxide and water and swabbed with iodine, three times daily for four days.

Calcium Deficiency

This condition is very common in snakes, lizards and tortoises. Initially there is redness and swelling of the membranes of the mouth. Marked swelling occurs and death by suffocation is possible. As the disease progresses there is continued inflammation and ulceration and increasing quantities of dead peeled skin. The infection may spread to bones of the jaw, causing osteomyelitis. As the disease spreads further it may cause pneumonia, gastrointestinal infection or septicemia. Vitamin C deficiency is a factor in the disease. Additional quantities during the illness help.
Treatment is to flush the area with 50 per cent peroxide and water and gently remove all dead tissue. Rinse • the area with a warm saline solution (1 teaspoon salt per liter water). Then apply topical sulphadimidine orchloramphenicol. Give 10-60 milligrams of vitamin C orally daily and injections of multi-vitamins twice weekly. It is necessary to use antibiotics for at least eight days. Increase room temperature to 32°C. Don’t attempt to feed the reptile. After a week if there is no improvement change the antibiotic.


Cannibalism may sometimes occur as a result of over-crowding or when there is no supervision during feeding. One animal may accidentally swallow another. It may also occur when the wrong species or greatly different sizes of sizes should animals are kept together. Lizards of greatly differing sizes should never be kept together because of the danger of cannibalism. The risk is not as great as when snakes of different sizes are kept together.


As in all animals constipation is caused by incorrect diet. It is particularly common when reptiles are constantly fed feathered or furred animals. Lack of exercise and dehydration also predispose. Signs are decreased appetite, discomfort and sluggishness; snakes are unable to coil normally. The mass may be palpable and visible in X-rays.
The best treatment is to give fecal softeners or oil orally. Enemas with gentle palpation help.


This skin disorder can affect lizards, especially skinks, and presents as multiple raised nodules or as small abscesses 7 millimeter antibiotics. Oral under the skin. Treatment is with antibiotics. Oral antibiotics do not reach therapeutic levels, but long-acting penicillin intramuscularly is effective


A very important disease in larger collections. Signs include bloody diarrhea, depression, lethargy and loss of appetite. Often the first sign of disease is sudden death.
The most effective treatment is metronidazole (Flagyl) as single dose of 275 milligrams per kilogram body-weight,administered orally by stomach tube. Ampicillin should be used concurrently.
Parasites Recently caught reptiles should be isolated until parasites are eradicated.

Eye Disorders

In snakes the eyelids are immovable; the eye is covered by a transparent scale (the spectacle). In conjunctivitis there is a marked distention because of a build-up of pus. If this is left, permanent damage can be done to the eye. The area must be drained and flushed via a small incision at the base of the eye—a job for the vet. Suitable eye antibiotic ointments are then applied.
A few days before skin shedding, the spectacle becomes opaque and this should not be confused with infection. If humidity is too low, shedding may be incomplete and commonly the spectacle will be retained, again confusing the diagnosis. Soak with a moist compress and remove with forceps. Sometimes vitamin A deficiency can cause swellings of the eyelids.


Those reptiles which hibernate should be supplied with as much food as they can eat before hibernation. After they stop eating they should be moved to a darkened area among sacks or leaves in an out-of-the-way place; depend-ing on its size, move their enclosure into a box or a darkened shed.
They must be left undisturbed until hibernation ceases naturally. If woken before, their temperature may be enough to maintain activity, but not enough to stimulate feeding. High mortalities occur after hibernation and before eating.

Iodine Deficiency (Goiter)

Seen in herbivorous reptiles, particularly land tortoises. Signs are lethargy and limbs with fluid in them (edema). Generalized herbivore diets should be supplemented with 0.5 per cent iodine salt.

Kidney Disease

This is often recognized as the cause of death on post-mortem. Unfortunately it is usually overlooked because the only signs—loss of appetite and sluggishness—fit so many diseases.


Mites are found only on snakes and lizards, particularly around their eyes and anal region. The reptile’s scales will be slightly raised in the infested area and the animal maybe covered with tiny white spots which are the mites’ feces. Mites can be eradicated by suspending a pest strip(dichlorvos compound) from the top of the enclosure for twelve hours. If the infestation is serious take the reptile out, destroy the contents of the enclosure, scrub the enclosure thoroughly with a Malathion solution of 30 milliliters per 5 liters of water, and leave for thirty minutes, then rinse out with copious quantities of water. Leave the pest strip over the reptile for a longer period.

Necrotic Dermatitis (Ulcerative Dermatitis, ‘Skin Rot’)

In this disease expanding dark areas of dead tissue are seen beneath the scales, most commonly on the underside near the cloaca. In lizards the limbs can be affected with eventual loss of digits. Initially the animal is normal, but then develops loss of appetite and lethargy. Factors such as excessive humidity, sub-optimal temperatures, fecal contamination, blister disease and ectoparasites all predispose the disease. It is a common winter problem.
Treatment initially is conservative, to avoid defects. Use per kilogram chlortetracycline orally at the rate of 200 milligrams per kilogram body-weight for ten days and use antibacterial baths. Also dose with vitamin C (10-60 milligrams). If this treatment is unsuccessful, scales and dead skin should be removed from affected areas and different antibiotics used. Correct hygiene, temperature and humidity are important.

Nutritional Diseases

Vitamin A deficiency is seen, especially in terrapins, on a raw meat and green vegetable diet; the initial sign is swell-ing of the eyelids. Secondary infection is common. Some-times there may be respiratory disease evident. Vitamin Additives, especially in the form of liver three times weekly,will clear the condition.
Vitamin D deficiency causes typical rickets in all reptiles. There is skeletal deformity and softening of shells. Depression. lack of appetite and weakness in the legs are also signs. Some lizards appear to utilize ultra-violet light. Supplement the diet with cod liver oil, egg yolk or day old chicks.
Vitamin E deficiency is due to feeding oil-laden fish or obese laboratory rodents to carnivorous reptiles. The signs are decreased appetite, incoordination and death. Vitamin E supplement will cure the disease.
Calcium imbalance due to incorrect feeding: Note swollen limbs.
Calcium imbalance is common in carnivorous reptiles fed whole meat or whole insect diets, and also in herbivorous reptiles. The reason is that the calcium levels in their diets are very low. The signs include shell deformities in tortoises and terrapins, fractures, other symptoms of nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism, and osteodystrophies characterized by firm swollen limbs and tail. On examination one appears well fed, chubby but lame. Limestone, oyster shell or cuttlefish may be placed in the water. Always add calcium carbonate at the rate of 1/2 teaspoon (0.5 gram) per 100 grams of red meat; to fish add 1.5 grams. The better treatment is to change to a whole-animal diet.


Obesity is common in some reptiles, particularly the larger pythons which may feed often and exercise infrequently. In these cases the only option is to reduce the quantity of food.
Edema (filling of the limbs with fluid) is reported in over-crowded lizards. Reduction of the density reverses the condition. Sometimes generalized edema may accompany vitamin A deficiency. The condition may also occur in parasitism, renal failure or goiter.


Roundworms may cause obstructions and regurgitation. In pythons they also cause severe gastric ulceration and perforations of the bowel wall. They are easily treated with piperazine orally 110 milligrams per kilogram body-weight.

Skin Worms

Skin worms present as small soft swellings which if incised with a sharp blade reveal a long, flat, white worm which may be as long as the snake itself. These are immature tapeworms. Drugs are not effective against this intermediate stage and surgical excision is the routine.


Ticks are usually harmless to reptiles but may interfere with their feeding habits. Where there are only a few ticks,remove them with tweezers. Heavy infestations require 0.2 per cent solution of Neguvon as a spray or bath, which is effective against ticks and their eggs.

Tongue Worms

Tongue worms are found in the lungs and air-sacs of shakes, lizards and crocodiles. They require two hosts, and the intermediate host may be a small mammal, a frog or another reptile. They are best not treated because the dying worm may cause fatal obstruction of the airway.


When handling tortoises, beware of the sharp claws. Most small tortoises can be picked up as you would hold a sandwich.
To transport a tortoise, put it in a moist cloth bag or in a box lined with moist towels. Avoid overcrowding. Always give the tortoise a good soak before and after the trip to avoid dehydration

Red Disease

Red leg disease in frogs is thought to be of bacterial origin and is extremely contagious. It can be treated with antibiotics. A daily bath in a weak salt solution has been found to be beneficial.


This phenomenon in snakes is not clearly understood but it is known to be caused by stress such as handling or disturbance after feeding. Sharp fluctuations in temperature,overcrowded conditions, internal parasites or various bacterial infections will also cause regurgitation. Sometimes a snake will do this anyway, and then it is necessary to vary its diet, the manner of feeding or the environment. It is not serious— providing it does not go on for weeks.

Respiratory Disease (‘Pneumonia’)

Respiratory troubles usually result from a sudden decrease in temperature, or may be brought on by overcrowding or stress conditions when the animal’s resistance is low. The symptoms are usually difficulty in breathing, nasal discharge, wheezing and gaping.
Raise the temperature of the environment. Give chloramphenicol intramuscularly at the rate of 3 milligrams per 100 grams body-weight. Give vitamins And C daily. Check for parasites.

Salmonella Infection

Clinical disease is rare in reptiles— but they are common carriers of rare Salmonella types not commonly associated with human infection. Signs of this infection include greenish feces with green or yellow-stained wet uric acid. Regular observation will detect infection, which is treated by chlortetracycline orally at the rate of 200 milligrams per kilogram body-weight.

Sloughing (‘Shed Stop’)

Trouble in sloughing old skin is often caused by an environment that is too dry. The old skin may remain on the back, stomach and head regions or on the ends of the toes and tails in lizards.
A close watch should be kept on lizards when they are sloughing, as a build-up of old skin on one of the legs or on the tail can cause it to dry and break off and the blood supply will be greatly restricted.
If a reptile has a problem with sloughing, an overnight soak in a large escape-proof container filled with water and mild disinfectant will usually remove the pieces of old skin. If not, the water will soften the skin so that it can be re-moved by hand.


Temperature is one of the most important aspects of herpetology. All reptiles are ectotherms—that is, they depend on an outside heat source to regulate their body temperature. This is why they are called ‘cold blooded’.
A simple method of providing heat is a 100 watt light globe suspended in or near the enclosure. in the housing for snakes, keep the light globe outside the enclosure or they will attempt to coil around it and get burnt. With lizards, the light globe should be suspended within the enclosure.
By placing the heat source at one end of the enclosure, a range of temperatures is provided.
More sophisticated and expensive heating devices are available—including underwater coils—for certain tortoises or crocodiles.
The temperature of the enclosure should be monitored, especially in summer. Overheating or dehydration can be fatal, or at least cause damage to the nervous system. Subzero temperatures, on the other hand, can result in death from freezing of body fluids. Different species have different optimal temperatures—but the general range is between 20 and 39°C.


Some of the commonest problems of reptiles are cracked shells in tortoises, skin sores from overheating or rough handling, abrasions of the nose and head region (particularly in snakes) and to a lesser extent, fights caused by other animals.
Tortoises are very hardy animals and in most cases a bite wound will heal by itself if kept clean. If a shell-crack is serious, it can be patched using fiberglass fabric or an epoxy resin-based adhesive such as Araldite. Wounds should be treated with 50 per cent hydrogen peroxide and water,all dead tissue should be removed and local antibiotics applied to the area. Sores resulting from overheating should be treated in the same way.
Most reptiles are quite hardy animals and minor cuts and abrasions caused by rubbing will heal themselves. Frogs are also subject to badly rubbed noses. Keep the frog warm and treat quickly with antiseptic cream to reduce infection.

Ulcerative Shell Disease of Turtles(‘Shell Rot’, ‘Rust’, ‘Spot Disease’)

This very common disease was originally thought to be caused by a fungus—but is now known to be caused by bacteria. It is responsible for a fatal shell disease in crustaceans. Early lesions are blotchy, dark, focal discolorations of the shell, which later slough, leaving ulcerations up to 1 centimeter in diameter. Secondary infection may cause death. Affected animals should be isolated, their lesions scraped and treated with chloramphenicol ointment or spray, plus chloramphenicol at 40 milligrams per kilogram body-weight intramuscularly twice daily for ten days.


Minor cuts and scratches may be treated by applying mercurochrome or triple dye to the affected area.