Reptile-Related Diseases and Health Issues

Reptiles, including lizards, snakes and turtles, carry bacteria that can affect human health. Some of these bacteria can be dangerous to immunocompromised individuals.

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Salmonella can be transmitted when faeces are ingested and can cause fever, stomach pains and diarrhoea. It can lead to severe dehydration, septicaemia or death in young children.

Abscesses

Several types of abscesses can affect reptiles. Dry gangrene is a common disease that results from infection in the feet and tail of a snake or lizard, often due to improper hygiene. The affected limbs turn dark grey, then black and ultimately break off. This type of infection is particularly dangerous for young children, elderly adults and people with weakened immune systems.

Mouth rot, also known as stomatitis, is a bacterial disease affecting the tissue lining the mouth of turtles, lizards and snakes. The first signs are tiny, purplish red spots in the mouth that expand and grow along the rows of teeth as the condition progresses. Infections can spread to the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts if not treated promptly. Treatment includes removing dead tissue, cleaning with an antiseptic solution and antibiotics.

Cloacitis is an infection of the cloaca (the passage for urine and faeces) of a reptile. This is often caused by stones or clogs, but can be the result of other infections. In severe cases, the cloaca may be infected with parasites such as ascarids, which cause inflammatory swellings that can damage the intestines and lead to perforation.

Mycobacterial infections are very common in reptiles that are kept in damp, dirty environments. These infections are characterized by thickening of the skin and formation of fluid-filled blisters. If left untreated, these diseases can lead to septicemia and internal organ failure.

Parasites

Reptiles can get infected with a wide variety of parasites, ranging from single-celled organisms to worms visible to the naked eye. These parasites can have very short or long life cycles and vary in their ability to evade immunity and cause illness in their host animals. Parasites can be acquired from food or water, or may be passed between animals by direct contact, or spread through arthropod (insect) vectors.

Some reptiles, particularly turtles and lizards with spectacles (eyecaps), can develop abscesses below their eyes that resemble a lump under the skin, which is filled with black, crusted material. Your veterinarian will carefully open the skin and drain the abscess, flushing the wound with a solution. Then a antibiotic ointment will be prescribed.

Another common problem seen in reptiles is cloacitis, which results from an infection of the vent of the animal – the opening where feces and urine are expelled. Infected reptiles show signs like discharge from the nose and mouth, dry pus in the mouth or eyes, labored breathing, tremors and abnormal posture.

Captive conditions and stress of handling can make reptiles susceptible to heavy infestations by parasites with a direct life cycle (requiring only 1 species for completion), which often result in reduced energy, anemia and death. Infestation by these parasites is usually a sign of poor environmental and nutritional care, which must be corrected to avoid disease.

Respiratory Infections

A common reptile disease, respiratory infections can be caused by a variety of reasons including poor environmental conditions, unfavorable temperature ranges, parasites, other diseases, malnutrition and vitamin A deficiency. Common symptoms include open-mouth breathing, discolored mucus, a lack of appetite and difficulty breathing. In severe cases, septicemia may develop (widespread infection in the bloodstream). Treatment usually involves improving environmental conditions, antibiotic therapy and supportive care such as oxygen therapy.

Reptiles can also carry zoonotic bacteria that can affect people. One such disease is salmonella, which can cause illness in humans that ranges from mild to life-threatening. This is especially true in young children, elderly persons and those with weakened immune systems. Salmonella infections usually appear within a few days after contact with the bacteria. They can be contracted through the feces of infected reptiles, or by eating contaminated food such as rat droppings.

Other zoonotic diseases affecting reptiles that can affect people include echinosporia, a protozoan that causes gastrointestinal irritation with loss of appetite and weight, vomiting and diarrhea. Another is the hepatitis E virus, an enveloped DNA virus that causes jaundice and liver damage in reptiles.

Protozoa can also infect reptiles, particularly those that eat rat droppings, leading to a condition called giardiasis, characterized by abdominal cramps, bloody and mucus-containing diarrhea, weight loss and occasionally septicemia. In some cases, the cloaca, colon and heipenes/phallus can prolapse through the vent, requiring surgery to hold them in place.

Prolapsed Organs

Reptiles may show many disease signs, some specific (such as a cheesy-type discharge from the mouth of a snake with stomatitis) and others general (such as weight loss, weakness, poor appetite). Any deviation from normal should be investigated by a veterinarian.

Adenoviruses can cause fatal liver or digestive tract diseases in certain snakes (gaboon vipers, ball pythons, rosy boas, and king snakes), lizards (Old World chameleons, bearded dragons, and savannah monitors), and crocodilians (copperhead snakes and other members of the pit viper family). Symptoms vary depending on the organ affected but include listlessness, weight loss, diarrhea, bloating, and death. Antibiotics and supportive care (fluid administration, assisted feeding) can increase survival.

Sometimes the ligaments and muscles that support the pelvic organs stretch or rupture, causing them to drop down into the belly. This is called a prolapsed organ, and it can occur in the uterus (womb), bladder, or bowel. Uterine prolapse is the most common, and a veterinary surgeon can correct it with surgery that involves either repair of the tears in fascia or suspension of the prolapsed tissue to stronger structures in the pelvis.

Cryptosporidiosis is infection caused by protozoa (called the Cryptosporidium genus). It affects the lining of the stomach, causing regurgitation and weight loss. It can be diagnosed with radiographs or by examining the stomach area with a scope.