In comparison with other household pets, reptiles seem like categorically low-maintenance animals. But their hard exterior doesn’t protect them from everything—they have scales, not an impenetrable suit of armor.
Scale rot is one of the more common reptile ailments. Both curing and preventing it rely on one main factor: cleaning—the enclosure, and the affected area. Keep reading to learn how to treat scale rot, including which products to use for optimal results.
What is Scale Rot?
Scale rot is as a catch-all term for any problem with your pet reptile’s scales or skin, including:
- Blister disease (vesicular dermatitis)
- Ulcerative dermatitis
- Bacterial abscesses
- Secondary infections as a result of burns or abrasions
What Causes Scale Rot?
Curing and preventing scale rot relies partly on identifying what caused it. The primary causes are somewhat interconnected, so it may be a combination of these factors:
- Unsanitary living environment – Caring for a living creature is hard work, whether it’s a pet snake or a newborn baby. Appropriate reptile husbandry includes adequately cleaning their enclosure on a regular basis. You wouldn’t let your child sleep in a soiled crib, so don’t let your pet snake slither around in a dirty terrarium.
- Improper habitat regulation – The temperature and humidity of your pet’s enclosure play a key role in scale rot. Often, when their habitat is too wet and cold, the substrate (bedding) never fully dries, creating the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and fungi that often lead to scale rot—perfect for the bacteria, not so perfect for your pet.
- Deficiency of vitamins A or C – This is less commonly cited as a trigger for scale rot but can contribute to its development. If the living conditions are optimal, this may mean the reptile lacks sufficient nutrients.
How to Identity Scale Rot
Scale rot is similar to wood rot in that it can breed in one damp area and spread throughout the structure—or creature, in this case. The longer it goes unchecked, the more likely it is to create a larger problem. Check regularly for early signs of scale rot:
- Skin or scales are cracked and crusty
- Raised or swollen scales
- Red, brown, or otherwise dark discolored skin, especially near the tail or on the abdomen
- Loss of appetite
When to Take Your Pet to the Vet
Scale rot appears to be a surface-level issue, so many pet owners treat it as such. However, in many cases, there may be underlying conditions and more severe complications if left untreated.
In anything other than the mildest cases of scale rot, you should consult a veterinarian. There are more severe signs that warrant immediate medical attention, in addition to the early symptoms mentioned above:
- Blisters filled with fluid, either clear or blood-tinged
- Abscesses, or ulcers after they’ve shed their skin
The best advice is to consult a herpetologist (or herp vet) when you feel uncertain about treating the issue properly. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you need help—your reptile would thank you, if only they could talk.
The vet may administer antibiotic injections and, in a severe case, sedate the animal to perform a full-scale (no pun intended) removal and cleaning of the infected areas.
Getting Rid of Scale Rot
If you’ve identified this to be a mild case, you can treat your reptile’s scale rot at home.
#1 Clean and Sterilize the Enclosure
Living conditions have a significant impact on your reptile’s health, especially when it comes to scale rot treatment. Thoroughly cleaning the enclosure will improve healing and prevent a secondary infection.
- Transport to a temporary enclosure – Remove your reptile from their usual home and place them in a short-term lodging—like a brief stint in a luxury hotel while your apartment is being fumigated. You could use a large tote or container, as long as the environment is clean and dry, and at the correct temperature and humidity level. You can even add a layer of dry substrate to keep them comfortable.
- Remove soiled substances – Throw out all disposable substrate and thoroughly clean any dishes, bowls, and accessories in hot, soapy water. Anything made of a porous material, like wood, should be disposed of as well in this case.
- Clean the cage – Once the cage is empty of all creatures, contaminants, and equipment, clean the entire surface with hot water and dishwashing liquid, then rinse thoroughly. All organic compounds must be removed entirely before moving onto the next step.
- Disinfect everything – The disinfectant you purchase should be strong enough to kill harmful bacteria and fungi, but safe enough not to harm your pet reptile. There are plenty of brands on the market, but you can also create a solution with household bleach, diluted with about one gallon of water for every half-cup of bleach. The disinfectant takes about ten minutes to thoroughly sanitize the hardware. Rinse thoroughly.
- Wait for the enclosure to dry – To avoid reintroducing the problem you just eradicated, wait until everything has completely dried before moving your pet back to its rightful home. Otherwise, you may end up with additional mold or bacteria.
#2 Adjust the Temperature and Humidity
Your scaly sidekick requires a certain humidity level, but too much can lead to the development and prolongation of scale rot and other bacterial infections. Similarly, they necessitate a specific temperature.
How Humid Should It Be?
There’s no magic number when it comes to how humid their enclosure should be. The perfect balance is entirely dependent on the species, plus snakes require increased humidity as they shed their outer layer, so it may change throughout the year.
You’ll know the enclosure is too humid when the substrate never fully dries between mistings, or at all. If their bedding is consistently damp, bacteria and fungi are likely to grow in it and eventually affect your pet.
What’s the Right Temperature?
Reptiles aren’t able to internally regulate their body temperature the same way humans and other mammals can. Instead, they depend on their environment: when they’re cold, they bask in the sun, and when they’re hot, they cool off in the shade—they live a simple lifestyle.
But reptiles living in captivity are hardly able to do this. They’re subjected to the temperature of the enclosure, aside from the small variation in heat caused by placing a basking lamp at one end of the cage. They can move away from or towards it, but they’ve lost the ability to self-regulate in the same way. This is why it’s so important to maintain the perfect temperature.
The number varies for each species and season, but a standard temperature for reptiles is between 70 and 85°F, with warmer areas for basking.
If the enclosure isn’t warm enough, this can contribute to the consistently damp substrate. Raising the temperature slightly can decrease the risk of mold and bacteria.
#3 Clean the Infected Skin
Now that the environment is perfectly suitable for your animal’s homecoming, it’s time to address the issue first-hand. With mild instances of scale rot, a topical disinfectant—in conjunction with the essential environmental changes listed above—can be enough to alleviate your reptile of their scale rot.
There are two primary steps involved in a thorough cleaning process:
- Betadine bath – These are especially important for treating any blisters and can be useful no matter how mild or severe the scale rot is. Fill a large bucket or container with lukewarm water, enough for the reptile to fully submerge without drowning. Add one part betadine for every ten parts of water, place your reptile inside, and then cover with a lid you’ve poked holes in. Let them soak for half an hour, then dry them off with a towel. This can help mitigate bacterial infection.
- Antimicrobial spray – Once you’ve soaked and dried the area, apply an antibiotic spray. Vetericyn’s non-toxic, antimicrobial spray is a safe way to clean and moisturize any open wounds and initiate the healing process. Spray the affected areas three to four times daily for the best results.
It’s crucial to maintain consistent treatment and keep the enclosure as clean as possible.
Preventing Scale Rot
The easiest way to deal with scale rot is by never having to deal with it in the first place! Preventing scale rot requires diligent reptile care, starting with a few straightforward steps:
- Daily cleaning – Clean up any spilled liquids, shed skin, or eliminated waste at least once a day. Again, if you wouldn’t let your newborn baby live in those conditions, you shouldn’t let your reptile pal, either.
- Weekly cleaning – Once every week or two, you should perform a more in-depth cleaning, following the sterilization procedure outlined earlier.
- Sturdy water bowl – This may seem deceptively simple, but a sturdy bowl will prevent spillage that leads to damp living conditions and increased bacteria.
- Optimal environment – Maintain the ideal humidity and temperature at all times. Check to make sure the substrate is drying correctly; if not, consider raising the temperature slightly or lowering the humidity. You can reduce the humidity by increasing the ventilation or scaling back on the regular mistings.
Get Rid of Scale Rot For Good
Once you’ve dealt with scale rot in your pet, you’ll want to do everything in your power to prevent it from happening again. The tips outlined above are a good start, but things happen—animals are uncontrollable creatures that spill things, make messes, and yes, regularly eliminate waste.
You can’t control them, but you can prepare for them!
By stocking up on cleaning products, betadine, and a multi-purpose antimicrobial treatment, you’ll be ready for whatever trouble they slither into next.
Reviewed by Dan Richardson, Veterinarian
Dan Richardson has been a practicing veterinarian for over 10 years. He specializes in surgery and orthopedics. Dan is originally from rural western Nevada and attended the University of Idaho for undergraduate study and Oregon State University for Veterinary School. The Richardson Family enjoys camping and spending time on the water fishing, paddle boarding, or digging their feet in the sand somewhere warm.
- Snake Tracks. Scale Rot in Snakes. https://www.snaketracks.com/scale-rot-in-snakes/
- Reptiles Magazine. Identify And Treat Mouth, Shell And Scale Rot in Reptiles. https://www.reptilesmagazine.com/identify-and-treat-mouth-shell-and-scale-rot-in-reptiles/
- Snakes for Pets. How To Get Rid of Scale Rot On A Snake. https://www.snakesforpets.com/how-to-get-rid-of-scale-rot-on-a-snake/
- PetCo. Your Reptile’s Environmental Needs. https://www.petco.com/content/petco/PetcoStore/en_US/pet-services/resource-center/new-pet/reptile-remodeling-proper-habitat-setup.html
- PetCoach. How to Clean and Disinfect Reptile Cages. https://www.petcoach.co/article/habitats-cleaning-and-disinfecting-reptile-cages/