Reptile Skin Basics
Construction, Infections, and Color
©2000 Melissa Kaplan
Epidermis: characterized by complete covering of keratin (the same stuff that makes up mammalian hair and mammalian, avian, and reptilian nails/claws also makes up the plates we call "scales"). The keratin may be thick, as on the belly and tail, or thin, as on the dewlap. The hard spikes on such lizards as bearded dragons and horned lizards are just harder bits of integument, as are the keeled ridges on many snakes' scales and some lizards, such as some iguanas. The keratin is composed of many layers of very thin, flat cells. The closer they get to the surface of the reptile, the more highly compacted they are as they are pressed against by new keratin cells being formed lower down in the epidermal layer, the stratum germinativum. Three such layers of increasingly compacted keratin cells are formed, called, from the surface inward toward the stratum germinativum, the Oberhautchen layer, the beta-keratin layer, and the alpha-keratin. Some reference the epidermis as being three layers:
During shedding (ecdysis), the mitosis in the stratum germinativum forms the new cells moved up to the intermediate zone and those cells up to the stratum corneum. It is during this time that the skin is metabolically active and it in this period of activity that healing will occur. Otherwise, skin is essentially inert.
Dermis: consists of connective tissue. In some reptiles, there may be small bones called osteoderms. These are what form the distinctive specialized scales on savannah monitors and crocodilians, for example.
Reptile skin heals much more slowly than mammalian skin, often taking about 6 weeks for the defect to be fully restored.
Noted reptile vet John V. Rossi, in his chapter on Dermatology in Mader's book, Reptile Medicine and Surgery (pp. 104-117), notes the following skin conditions encountered in reptiles that may be described by reptile keepers as "lumps", "bumps" or "scrapes".
The skin is the body's largest organ and plays an important role in keeping the body healthy. The skin of all vertebrates serves to keep bodily fluids in the body, and keep bacteria, fungi, and parasitic organisms that don't belong in the body out of it. When a problem occurs in the skin, it is important that it be properly evaluated.
Wound healing, while it takes longer in reptiles, is similar to that of mammals: a mix of proteinaceous fluid and fibrin start to form in the defect, filling it in and forming a scab. Epithelial cells start to move into the area under the scab, forming a thin layer. As these cells increase in number, the layer thickens. While this is going on, macrophages and heterophils, the body's clean-up crew, move in under the scab layer and clean up bacteria and cellular debris. Since the most rapid period of growth and repair is during the shed period, which occurs every 4-6 weeks in a healthy reptile (and may occur more frequently over and immediately around the site of an abscess or wound), sutures should, if possible, be left in place for at least 4-6 weeks or until after the next shed, if the reptile starts a shed within a week or so after the surgical procedure.
Interesting note... Wounds and incisions that are oriented cranially-caudally (lined up in the direction from head to tail) heal faster than transverse (side-to-side) ones.
New reptile owners who try to get answers by email or posts in forums, or even by posting pictures, are just wasting what may be precious time: they need to get their reptile to a reptile vet for proper diagnosis, treatment, and learn what they may need to fix in the reptile's captive environment to ensure that the condition heals uneventfully and does not occur again.
Note On Sutures
Sutures placed in the gastrointestinal tract may end up passing through the intestine and cecum, being excreted with the urates and feces. Or, they may lodge in the tract, kidney or bladder. If the latter occurs, uric acid stones may form around them. This can cause impaction or difficulty voiding wastes, or they may lodge high enough in the cecum or intestine that they require surgery to remove them.
why an albino isn't always an albino)
Albinism is the lack of melanin in the skin so the skin is white or pinkish (from the circulating blood). Since pigments give the eyes their color, albinos have red eyes (so colored from the blood vessels in the eye). Photos of this $8,000 "albino" and others I've seen clearly show that they are not albinos. This one is clearly very light green and has light brown eyes. That means he is has some green (made of yellow and blue chromatophores) and very little melanin - enough to color the eyes brown and create the darker stripes along the tail. The few other "albino" iguanas for sale throughout the last several years were similar to this one or had even less of the blue, making them yellow and white with blue eyes.
In general, reptiles have two sets of cells that produce color, the melanocytes and the chromatophores:
The presence or absence, and density and distribution when present, of the melanocytes and chromatophores within each layer will determine the color of the reptile - not some breeder slapping an "albino" label on it. In some static-colored species, the stacks of chromatophores are absent.
Bennett, AR and Mader DR. 1996. Soft Tissue Surgery. In, Reptile Medicine and Surgery. Douglas R. Mader, editor. WB Saunders, NY.
Marsden, Anne. 2000. IML/AIML postings.
Rossi, JV. 1996. Dermatology. In, Reptile Medicine and Surgery. Douglas R. Mader, editor. WB Saunders, NY.
Zug, GR. 1993. Herpetology: An introductory biology of amphibians and reptiles. Academic Press, NY.
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