MSD Manual

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Pet Owner Version

Emergencies of Reptiles


Stephen J. Divers

, BVetMed, DACZM, DECZM, FRCVS, Department of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Georgia

Reviewed/Revised Aug 2020 | Modified Oct 2022

Even though pet reptiles live in carefully controlled environments, injuries and accidents are possible.

Burns in Reptiles

Burns in reptiles may be caused by unscreened incandescent lights or other heat sources. They are treated by cleaning the site, applying antibiotic ointment, and placing the reptile in a clean, dry environment. In uninfected burns, sterile skin protectants can be applied to the area to act as a “second skin.” These products allow the reptile to have access to the water and help keep contaminants out. In severe burn cases, fluids may be given to prevent dehydration, and antibiotics may be required to prevent or treat bacterial infection. A veterinarian can advise you in providing supportive care, including pain management and assisted feeding techniques.

Crush Injuries in Reptiles

Crush injuries to turtles may result in fractures to the lower portion of the shell, the upper shell, or both. The turtle will need to be taken to a veterinarian who can remove the damaged or infected tissues and clean and bandage the injury. Antibiotics will likely be prescribed. Shell fractures can often be surgically realigned and repaired with various types of epoxy, resin, or cement. Healing is slow and may require more than a year.

Fractures in Reptiles

Fractures (broken bones) due to trauma occur in all reptiles. Fractures in long bones can be stabilized with splints or possibly with surgical repair. X-ray images (radiographs) are often needed to evaluate the extent of the injury.

Reptiles may be able to tolerate tail fractures, but injuries to the spine between the skull and the tail often result in inability to expel uric acid salts and feces. Changing the environment (such as providing low branches, a shallow water dish, and nonabrasive substrates) and learning how to manually empty the lizard's bowel may allow the lizard to survive. Because these fractures can be caused by metabolic bone disease, changes to the diet and vitamin/mineral supplements may be needed.

Iguanas may injure their tails by lashing them against the walls or contents of the enclosure. These injuries can lead to infections and may require tail amputation.

Prey-inflicted Bites in Reptiles

Bites inflicted by uneaten prey cause traumatic injuries. These injuries may become infected and inflamed. When possible, reptiles should be offered rodents that have been freshly killed (or frozen and thawed) to prevent injury to the reptile. Dead prey should be discarded after 24 hours if left uneaten. The feeding of live prey is illegal in many countries. Fresh bite wounds may be treated by cleaning with a mild disinfectant. Antibiotics may be needed to treat certain types of infections. Untreated wounds that become infected may form an abscess, which appears as a soft or hard swelling. Abscesses and infected tissues generally require surgical removal or drainage.

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