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Reptile Scale Rot

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As reptile pet parents know, reptiles make fascinating pets. They have varied diets—from carnivorous to herbivorous to somewhere in between—as well as a huge range of different behaviors, including burrowing, tree climbing and swimming. As compelling as these animals are as pets, their health issues can be compelling, too. Unlike cats and dogs who generally have illnesses that are familiar, reptile health & wellness is often  foreign and unrelatable to human pet parents at first. 

One affliction that pet parents may see in their reptiles is scale rot. While this term is used to describe what looks like rotting skin  on a reptile, it’s actually a catch-all term that describes any kind of dermatitis (skin infection/inflammation) in reptiles. Reptile pet parents should be able to recognize scale rot, be familiar with its causes and treatments, be aware of how to prevent scale rot and know when scale rot is serious enough to require veterinary care. With this knowledge, reptile pet parents can help ensure the wellbeing and longevity of their scaly friends.

There are specific types of scale rot, including mouth rot and shell rot. This article will review the causes of scale rot, how they can be avoided and what you should do if you notice symptoms in your pets.

Table of Contents

What is scale rot?

Scale rot is a catch-all term that typically describes dermatitis (skin inflammation) that can occur in a reptile as a result of infection, injury, or other illnesses. Scale rot can vary from mild to moderate to severe.  Mild scale rot may be caused by improper conditions in your pet’s habitat. A combination of high humidity levels and lower temperatures can create a breeding ground for bacteria within a habitat. In nature, reptiles regulate their body temperatures by basking in the sun to warm up and hiding in the shade to cool down. They also have access to varying levels of humidity. As pets, reptiles’ options for different environmental temperatures and humidity levels are much more limited.

With high humidity, excess moisture can significantly contribute to the development of scale rot, especially in snakes. Ball python scale rot often occurs when ball pythons are housed in excessively moist conditions. These reptiles’ native habitats are the drier regions of Africa, so they are not typically subject to conditions of high humidity. Because water particles tend to disperse quickly and widely in enclosed spaces, they can cling to substrate and other ball python supplies in their habitats, making it hard for these snakes to dry out. 

If  moisture builds up in the bedding or other parts of the habitat that the snake is in contact with, it can become a breeding ground for bacteria, fungi and other organisms that can cause infection. Moisture can promote bacterial growth from any excess waste hiding in the habitat. Bacteria and fungi also can grow on  rotting food and will thrive in a humid environment. When these moist populations of bacteria and fungi come into contact with a reptile’s skin, they can get into the reptile’s scales, leading to the infection commonly referred to as scale rot. If left untreated, bacteria and fungi can spread from the reptile’s skin into their bloodstream and internal organs, potentially causing organ failure and death.

Snake scale rot is particularly common since snakes can’t always lift their bodies off the bacteria-laden substrate. Scale rot may occur along the entire length of their body in contact with substrate, if they regularly slither around in material that contains bacteria. 

In lizards, scale rot commonly occurs on the tail, so it’s sometimes referred to as tail rot. Bearded dragon tail rot is a commonly seen condition due to this species’ need for low environmental humidity.

In moist conditions, damage to any scale can serve as an entry for bacteria into the skin, leading to scale rot. Therefore, it’s  important to keep an eye on your pet and treat any broken or damaged scales before infection develops.

Identifying scale rot

Reptiles can be resilient pets, and many forms of mild scale rot can be dealt with quickly and simply. However, early detection and treatment is key in preventing it from being a substantially worse problem. Here are some symptoms to look for to help you catch this condition early: 

Discoloration: Any abnormally dark scales on your pet reptile could be an indication of scale rot, especially on the tail and areas most likely to come in contact with bacteria in substrate or waste.

Swollen or raised scales: These can indicate inflammation or infection underneath your pet’s abnormal-looking scales and that scale rot is developing. 

Blisters: These will appear as small bumps on the surface of your pet’s scales that develop in response to exposure to excess moisture. They can occur in the early stages of scale rot. While they are initially filled with clear, sterile (bacteria-free) fluid, bacteria may enter fluid-filled blisters, leading to the development of cream-colored pus inside.

Treatment of scale rot

As mentioned above, the main cause of scale rot is suboptimal living conditions, so giving your pet’s habitat a thorough cleaning and adjusting humidity levels are good first steps in trying to prevent scale rot from developing. This means completely cleaning out feces and uneaten food regularly, fully sterilizing the habitat and décor and frequently replacing the bedding. Temporarily placing your pet in a dry enclosure with optimal temperatures while adjusting their habitat may also help reduce symptoms of lizard and snake scale rot.

If your pet is showing signs of scale rot, they should be examined by a veterinarian. When it comes to treatment, mild scale rot can often be treated at home. Your veterinarian will perform a full physical on your pet to determine the severity of the condition. If your vet thinks the case is benign enough to treat yourself, there will likely be two steps.

The first step is to tend to the blisters. Iodine-based antiseptics and antimicrobial liquids can help clean the blisters to make sure they don’t become infected while the scales beneath them heal. It is important to keep blisters well-moisturized and intact, as ruptured blisters are at a higher risk for collecting bacteria that lead to infection. 

Veterinarians commonly prescribe antibiotics in cases of moderate to severe scale rot. Depending on how advanced the decay is, topical, injectable or oral medications may be used. Consult your veterinarian before administering any drug, as antibiotic doses and recommendations can differ from reptile to  reptile. Bearded dragon antibiotics can be quite different from ball python antibiotics, so you want to make sure you’re providing the proper treatment.

In severe cases, your vet may have to surgically remove scale rot from your pet’s skin, which can be a complicated, risky and sometimes expensive procedure. This is why prevention of scale rot can be so crucial. To prevent scale rot from coming back after treatment, commit to removing all waste and spilled water from the enclosure daily and to thoroughly cleaning the enclosure at least once every two weeks. Ensure the temperature and lighting in your reptile’s habitat is optimal for their species to help prevent excess moisture accumulation.

Mouth rot

Reptile mouth rot (also called stomatitis) is similar to scale rot—but with a few key differences. Mouth rot has multiple possible causes, including poor nutrition, trauma to the mouth, inappropriate habitat temperature and humidity, stress from overcrowded or dirty conditions and immune system compromise from other underlying conditions. Instead of developing blisters, affected reptiles develop swelling and possible discoloration in their mouths, typically along their gumlines. Their scales are not usually affected. Like scale rot, mouth rot typically involves bacterial infection in the mouth that can spread into the bloodstream and into the underlying jaw bones if left untreated. If mouth rot spreads to your reptile’s bones, it can quickly reach and affect vital systems and organs. Much like scale rot, it can be fatal if left untreated.

The first symptoms of mouth rot in reptiles typically include increased mucus and saliva in the mouth. If you suspect your scaly friend has mouth rot, you can attempt to gently open their mouth and look inside—either with tongs or your hands while wearing latex gloves. The gum tissue will typically change color, often becoming deeper red or yellow, and swell as mouth rot progresses, eventually exposing blood vessels and nerves that can make chewing very painful. Reptiles with severe mouth rot often eat little to nothing as a result.

While some types of scale rot can be treated at home, mouth rot is typically more complicated to treat and should always be performed under the direction of a veterinarian. Treatment typically involves injections or oral administration of antibiotics and pain-relievers, plus antiseptic mouthwashes. . Reptile mouth rot treatment is not as easily administered at home and is often better performed with the reptile at an animal hospital, at least initially, until the pet is less painful and more easily treated.

Shell rot

While scale rot can be caused by excess moisture exposure or wounds penetrating scales, shell rot is often caused by an infection developing from an injury to the shell. Bacteria in turtles’ water or tortoises’ bedding often enter penetrating shell wounds causing inflammation, infection and sometimes even abscesses in shells—all of which are considered different degrees of shell rot. Sometimes the lesions associated with shell rot are obvious, while other times, these lesions may not be visible and appear only as shell discoloration. 

Turtle shells are composed of plates of keratin protein (called scutes) with living bone underneath. While these plates are like armor, protecting turtles and tortoises from harm, damage or infection underneath the scutes is common. A wound may penetrate the scutes and  can easily spread to the bones underneath, then into the bloodstream to be carried to vital organs. Severe turtle shell rot, once it spreads like this, can be fatal.

If you notice shell discoloration or damage, it’s important to see your veterinarian right away for proper diagnosis and treatment, typically with antibiotics and antiseptic cleansers. Severe cases of shell rot may require surgical intervention by your vet. Keeping your turtle or tortoise in a clean habitat can be crucial for their recovery.  

FAQs About Scale Rot

Yes, all reptiles—including snakes and lizards—have scales. They help reptiles in many ways, including protecting them and helping retain moisture. Even turtles, crocodiles and alligators have scales, although they are specifically called scutes in these species, and they have slightly different characteristics.

While there are a few different forms and causes of shell rot, this condition typically begins with shell discoloration. Your pet’s shell color may start to fade, or the shell’s texture may become softer or bumpier. Oddly colored spots may appear. As this condition progresses, severe turtle shell rot can actually eat through the outside of the shell, all the way through to the bone underneath.

Because shell rot has multiple causes, treatments can vary. Your veterinarian will prescribe the best treatment for your pet after examining them. Possible treatments include iodine or antibiotic ointments, more intensive oral or injectable antibiotic treatments and even surgery. It is important to consult your veterinarian for a thorough examination and appropriate diagnosis to ensure your reptile receives the most appropriate treatment.

Reviewed by Petco’s Animal Care, Education and Compliance (ACE) Team

Petco’s ACE team is a passionate group of experienced pet care experts dedicated to supporting the overall health & wellness of pets. The ACE team works to develop animal care operations and standards across the organization and promote proper animal care and education for Pet Care Center partners and pet parents, while also ensuring regulatory compliance.