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Most ailments that herptiles get are as a result of poor conditions in captivity. The old saying, 'Prevention is better than cure' is very applicable to captive herptiles. Another reason to prevent herptiles from getting ill is that treatment and/or medicines can become expensive for
some types of ailment.
Failure to do so will usually result in the death of the herptile. In most cases, sick reptiles and frogs take a long time to die. Some people are lulled into a false sense of security when an apparently ill herptile fails to die. Many ailments when they appear, don't appear to affect the health of the herptile, but must be acted upon BEFORE they reach a more advanced (usually fatal) stage.
Virtually all ailments are highly contagious and affected herptiles should ALWAYS be isolated from other captive specimens.
When in doubt as to how to treat an illness, one should seek the advice of a qualified person such as a veterinary surgeon, or more preferably an experienced herpetologist. There is however a general lack of knowledge about the treatment of herpetological diseases among 'qualified' people so more than one opinion may be required.
Treatments to more common ailments are given below. Dosages required depend on the potency of the treatment being used and the size and robustness of the herptile in question.
Should a herptile die of 'unknown causes' a post moretom should be carried out by experienced person/s to find the cause of death.
Leeches commonly act as parasites to freshwater tortoises and frogs, and can kill both, so they must be avoided at all costs.
If leeches are found in a cage, the insides of the cage should be thoroughly cleaned out, and leeches removed. Simultaneously the specimen/s should be cleaned of any attached leeches and then kept in a leech free cage. By immersing specimens in salt water external leeches will drop off, although one should take some care with frogs, who are themselves susceptible to death from exposure to salt water. Inside the mouth must also be checked for leeches. For tortoises the addition of a little salt to water in outdoor cages will generally keep leeches away from the water, where they usually attack the tortoises.
Most herptiles will abstain from feeding at particular times of the year, usually in response to breeding or hibernation activity. Their health will usually not be impaired by this abstinence.
When a herptile fails to eat to the point that its' health is obviously at peril, this abstinence must be treated as an ailment.
Failure to feed normally is usually a response to incorrect keeping of the herptile. This may be due to faulty cage design, temperatures, etc, or co-inhabitants dominating over the herptile that won't eat. Anorexia may also be due to the effects of some other ailment, possibly undiagnosed.
If no apparent reason can be found for the anorexia, then force-feeding may be necessary. When force feeding it is advisable not to use large food items, as the herptile may have difficulty in digestion. Herptiles can be kept alive by force feeding for indefinite periods. Relatively
thin herptiles can be made fairly obese by force feeding if desired.
Force feeding small amounts of food on a regular basis is most likely to act as a stimulant to restore 'normal' feeding behavior. The administering of some vitamins and minerals may also act to stimulate appetite.
Indicated by white or grey patches, fungus can spread rapidly to cover the entire body. The affected area should be painted with codeine or mercurichrome and/or a sixty percent diluted alcohol solution. The procedure should be repeated every 12 hours. Aquarium fungicide should be
added to all cage water during and shortly after treatment, and as necessary to prevent infection recurring. Tortoises are best kept relatively dry and allowed to bask in as much sun as possible during treatment.
Usually a fungal condition, scale rot usually occurs when reptiles are in surroundings which are too cold and/or moist. When affected, scales, usually the ventral ones, appear to die, and eventually fall away from the body. The affected areas should be dried, cleaned and painted with a drying solution such as mercurichrome. This process should be repeated as necessary.
The reptile should also have its' surroundings altered so that the condition does not recur. Scale rot can sometimes take quite a while to heal.
Rarely a problem in itself, a soft shell can make a tortoise highly susceptible to other ailments, and must therefore be prevented. Sunlight and vitamin D act to help harden the shell. Calcium in various forms may be added to the pond water, and calcium rich food such as meat and fish
should be offered.
Commonly diagnosed when the reptile suffers from nasal congestion, discharges from the mouth or nose, forks of tongue sticking together, listless behavior, etc, reptiles will usually stop eating when afflicted with respiratory infections. These infections are usually caused by excessively cold or moist cage environments. Treatment is by keeping the reptile relatively warm and by administering sulphur drugs such as 'sulphdimazine tablets' on a daily basis. When possible it is desirable to remove excess mucous and other blockages.
Usually a result of dirty or excessively damp cage conditions, or abrasive surfaces (particularly for tortoises), infections can be treated with a variety of anti-biotics, including Neosporin, Terramycin, etc.
The affected surface/s should be cleaned of dead tissue with a swab, and the anti-biotic powder, ointment or cream should be then applied to the surface, usually every 12 hours. When it is difficult to remove dead skin, scales, etc, from a reptile, soaking it in luke-warm water for a few hours should enable easy removal. The reptile or frog should be held in a cage where debris won't enter the infected areas and cause complications.
Most common in Pythons (Boidae), this disease affects the gum tissue of the mouth, and is often associated with respiratory infections, (see above). It is caused by a bacterium, usually Aeromonas or Pseudomonas, which apparently usually inhabit Pythons mouths without causing problems. Treatment of this disease is tricky and requires persistence.
The affected areas of the mouth should be swabbed with diluted anti-septic such as 'Dettol' or 'Listerine' every 6 hours. (The same dilution that a human would use for a mouth wash). Twice daily an anti-biotic (powder is usually best) should be applied to affected areas immediately after being swabbed with anti-biotic. In all but the mildest cases intra-muscular injections of anti-biotic should also be used on a 24 or 48 hour basis IN ADDITTION to the other treatment.
When all visible signs of the disease are gone, the mouth should be swabbed twice daily with diluted anti-septic for at least 10 days.
More so than most other ailments, mouth rot has a habit of recurring after treatment, so recently affected reptiles should be monitored particularly closely and kept in isolation for a few months after the disease is apparently gone.
Mites are without doubt one of the greatest killers of captive reptiles.
This is a great tragedy as they are so easy to control. These tiny arachnids live under scales, and congregate around the eyes and similar places. The types that kill reptiles are usually red or more commonly brown in colour. Mites breed very rapidly (A 30-90 day lifecycle in most cases), and when in large numbers kill the reptile by blood poisoning.
Reptiles infested with mites typically have raised scales, and the white droppings from these mites are usually highly visible on the scales as white dots. In particularly bad cases mites will be seen walking over the reptile.
Infected reptiles commonly soak themselves in a bid to drown the mites.
In order to kill off mites both reptile and cage must be cleaned of mites.
'Shelltox Peststrips' with 'vapona' as the active ingredient, are the safest most effective means of combating mites. Infected reptiles should be placed in a 'clean' cage with an appropriate amount of strip. The reptile does not usually need to be shielded from the strip in any way, as they have extremely strong resistance to these strips. The cage should have a strong, but not overpowering smell of 'pest strip'. Once the reptile is apparently mite free, it must be maintained in the new cage
with the strip in order to kill off newly hatching mites. The reptile must be assumed to be mite infected for up to 12 weeks after initial treatment, although the amount of pest-strip present may be reduced after 48 hours. (Dead mites should be visible in the cage).
A very few reptiles may show some reaction to the 'pest strips'. In these cases the concentration is too great and should be reduced. Pest strips should be kept away from water, because if they drip into the water, and the reptile drinks it, it may be poisoned and die. For the original cage that the reptile was in, it must be disinfected totally of mites. The easiest way to do this, is to place pest strip/s within the cage so that the smell is overpowering. The cage should be left like this for 12 weeks, when the strips may be removed. When the smell of 'vapona' has subsided reptiles may be reintroduced. By placing pest strips within reptile cages mites can be largely guarded against, without affecting the reptiles in any way.
At all stages of mite treatment the reptile/s should be monitored very closely.
'Drie Die' dust, is a powerful desiccant, which is also effective against mites. Reptiles are known to have eaten food with 'Drie Die' attached without apparent problems.
'Neguvon' powder when mixed with water is also effective in disinfecting reptiles and cages although it can be toxic to reptiles.
The former practice of applying oil to reptiles in a bid to suffocate mites should be avoided as this will also often kill the reptiles. Under no circumstances should 'Dettol' be allied to reptiles with mites. If the mites don't kill the reptile, then the 'Dettol' probably will! This author is aware of at least one case where a supposedly experienced herpetologist applied 'Dettol' to two young Burmese Pythons (Python molurus) which had mite infestations. In spite of their mites, the snakes were otherwise in good health. Within minutes, one of the snakes was dead. The second animal was washed of the 'Dettol' but it also died. It was the intense irritation caused by the 'Dettol' on the skin that killed the snakes.
Most reptiles have a strong degree of immunity to ticks. However ticks reproduce rapidly and can kill reptiles when in numbers, so it is important to keep reptiles clean of these parasites. Ticks kill reptiles by injection of poison and excessive taking of blood. Large ticks are removed by tweezers. When removing ticks it is important to make sure that the head and associated mouth-parts are also removed. Failure to do so could result in further complications. Smaller ticks may be removed using the same methods used for mites. There is a minor risk of infections occurring at points where ticks are removed.
Mainly occurring in snakes these 'blisters' usually arise from excessively damp conditions, and generally poor health of the reptile. If these factors are controlled the blisters should subside. For bad cases, the reptile should be bathed in dilute anti-biotic solution, such as terramycin poultry formula, for about two hours once every three days, about three times.
Internal parasites lead to a host of problems for herptiles and are often hard to isolate and treat. Nematodes (Nematoda), Tapeworms (Cestoda), Flukes (Trematoda) all live on ingested food and when they multiply sufficiently can kill the reptile. Eggs and adult specimens are usually passed in the faeces, so these should be regularly checked. Pet worming tablets containing Piperizine will remove most but not all internal parasites, and should be administered at about the same dose rate as for mammals.
If a herptile is feeding voraciously and not gaining weight, it is likely that it is being affected by some type of parasite.
An enlarged or 'swollen' heart is also usually a sign of infestation by some kind of internal parasite.
Tapeworms are most common in frog eating snakes and are often visible externally as cysts under the scales of the snake. These 'external' worms may be removed by placing a small slit in the skin between the scales and pulling the worms out with tweezers. The worms inside the digestive tract must be removed with 'normal' treatment.
Blood flukes are often hard to detect, and often harder to treat. Internal parasites may produce secretions which prevent the digestive system from operating normally and lead to large calcareous deposits within the intestine, which may block it and kill the reptile.
Larger parasites such as Tapeworms and Pentastomids (Lung worms) (Pentastomida), can cause blockages in the respiratory system and elsewhere leading to rapid and often unexpected death. Tapeworms of over 5 metres are known.
Once a given parasitic worm has been positively identified, it is relatively easy to locate the relevant drugs, etc, necessary to treat the infestation.
To identify and treat most types of internal parasite it is usually best to enlist the assistance of a pathologist or relevant laboratory.
Caused by protozoans of the genus Entamoeba, gastroenteritis can kill reptiles within 48 hours of onset. Entamoeba infestations often occur through contaminated drinking water and a reptile may be infested for up to 12 months before coming down with gastroenteritis. It appears that reptiles kept constantly at over 27 degrees Celsius are usually immune to infection by Entamoeba. Gastroenteritis occurs when the Entamoeba multiply extremely rapidly within the lower intestine of the reptile. This is usually during times of temperature stress (spring and autumn). The Entamoeba produce massive amounts of gasses and the reptiles' body may swell considerably at the rear end. Advanced cases paralyze the rear end completely and these specimens rarely survive, even with treatment. Affected reptiles have severe diarrhea and pass mushy, smelly feces. Treatment involves the oral administering of anti-protozoal drugs such as Iodochlororhydroxyquinoline (Vioform and Flagyl), usually once or twice.
When one reptile in a given cage shows symptoms of Entamoeba, all reptiles in that cage must be treated for infection.

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