Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Dealing with Iguana and Other Reptile Bites

©1996, 2000 Melissa Kaplan


So there you are, dumbstruck look on your face, a reptile firmly attached to some part of your anatomy. What to do, what to do...


Getting Unbitten
The following techniques work with iguanas and other large, tenacious lizards and snakes.

Wave a rubbing alcohol soaked tissue or cloth in front of their nose, or use an alcohol (sold in drug stores, usually with the diabetic supplies).

Ammonia may do the same thing - its fumes irritating enough to cause the reptile to open its jaws to release you to get away from you. Ammonia pads in foil packets can be found through medical supply catalogs and possibly medical supply houses. They are kept by paramedics and at blood drawing stations in labs and doctors offices, used in place of the old fashioned type of "smelling salts." If you have any of these on hand, they may be waved in front of the nose, not applied to the nose, mouth, or gums. If there is someone else present who can remain calm, a little household ammonia or ammonia-containing cleaning product can be poured on a sponge or rag and held in front of the reptile's nose, not applied to the skin or gums.

Pour some drinking alcohol (rum, brandy, scotch, etc.) into their mouth. In case their glottis (the valve opening at the back of their tongue leading to their lungs) is open at the time, try to aim the reptile's head down to the floor or at least sideways so the liquor doesn't flow into the lungs.

Iguanas and other lizards with gular (throat) folds of skin under the neck can be held upside down while you pull on the dewlap or skin. The disorientation seems to disorient them a bit and gets them to relax.

Cover their head with a cloth or towel or article of clothing. Once their eyes and head are in the dark, they may feel more secure and so will let go.

Once an iguana has been detached, put him in his area with strong verbal admonitions. He won't understand your words, but he will understand your tone and lack of gentleness (you do NOT need to smack him or throw him - treating him peremptorily, without the gentleness with which you usually handle him, does not mean hurting him - as much as you may wish to at the moment!). Other reptiles will probably not care. If your bite was a stupid human feeding error when feeding your snake, he most certainly won't care, though he may be a bit confused as to why that strange smelling meal was pulled away from him.


Treating the bite
Flush well with warm water. Soap it to remove any debris. If the bite is deep, it should be power flushed. Ideally, several 30-60cc syringefuls of sterile saline (sodium chloride) should be pumped into deep or jagged bites to flush out bits of skin, muscle and bacteria.

Swab the wound with Betadine (povidone-iodine, or Hibiclens [chlorhexidine gluconate] or Bactine if you are allergic to iodine products), then top with an antibacterial ointment or cream. I prefer to keep bad bites bandaged 24 hrs/day for the first 2-3 days, then leave it unbandaged during the day, bandaged at night. After this time, I apply Bag Balm during the days to the wound (this is an antibacterial ointment used in the farm industry for many years, and is available at feed stores, country product mail order catalogs, and, increasingly, pharmacies and the first aid sections of grocery stores/supermarkets).

At night, I clean the wound with warm water, then apply an antibacterial ointment before covering with a bandage. This process promotes rapid healing as both the anaerobic and aerobic bacteria are dealt with, and the Bag Balm promotes rapid healing from the outside in. This reduces the risk of wound contamination from other bacterial and fungal sources during the healing process. Note that when used on very deep wounds, the healing tissues under the healed up skin may continue to be tender, even painful, for a while as those tissues heal.


Seeking Medical Treatment
If your bite is deep enough to be a potential problem (rather than a nice neat row of tooth punctures, or minor laceration because you jerked your hand/arm/leg away), then you should seek medical attention.

There is a difference of opinion as to whether animal bites should be stitched or not. Stitched animal bites seem to run a higher risk of infection. (Note: If it does need stitches, they must be done within 6 hours of the incident.) Part of the problem may be the medical community's lack of knowledge as to what type of organisms typically inhabit the biter's mouth, or perhaps because the wound wasn't flushed out well enough, leaving debris and a tooth or two (or more) in there to start festering along with any bacterial organisms ground in during the act of biting itself.

Tell your doctor that reptiles carry Gram negative bacteria in their mouths. This will affect the type of oral antibiotic they prescribe for you if they are going to prescribe any - and be prepared: these antibiotics are expensive, even in their generic form. Take the full course of antibiotics prescribed - even if there is no sign of infection and your wound seems to be healing well. Failure to complete the course of antibiotics means that the bacteria in your system who managed to survive the amount you did take will become resistant to that antibiotic. Antibiotic resistant bacterial strains has become an increasing health problem, at least in the U.S., so be smart and finish the course - it may help you in the future. (Does the term "flesh eating bacteria" ring a bell? This is one of the most extreme examples of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains.)

If you work with animals, especially untamed ones or wild or exotic ones, it makes sense to keep your tetanus boosters up to date. Here, too, are two schools of thought - those who feel that the titers in your blood remain viable enough to fend off infection for 7-10 years, and those who feel that you need to get your boosters every 5 years.


Why Did You Get Bitten?
Bites don't just "happen." Something triggers them - rarely does an animal not let you know that it is going to try to bite. They may not give you a lot of warning, but if you are alert and sensitive to their body posture, movements, and even the look in their eye (head slightly cocked, eyelid lowered slightly, mouth very slightly agape, hatched body on slightly crouched legs, tail raised, twitching slightly from side to side like a cat's, a stiffening of the body, coiling while moving away from you, a slight shift of weight from the front to the back), you know it's going to happen.

Photo of some of the 15 sutures Sue Solomon required after her very tame male iguana, Adam, bit her during breeding season.

Photo of some of the 15 sutures Sue Solomon required after her very tame male iguana, Adam, bit her during breeding season. Photo by Sue Solomon.

During breeding season, humans may unwittingly trigger iguana attacks (see Dealing with Iguana Breeding Aggression) through the colors they wear, bobbing wrong, messing with an iguana's diurnal schedule, not providing suitable outlets for aggression and lust (who knew that caring for an iguana meant also providing outlets for the mating drive of lusty males!). Watch carefully, be observant of subtle changes in behavior and posture, be careful to not present any triggers, and be prepared, and you will greatly reduce your risk of being bitten.

That's not to say that you won't be bitten - you may react too slowly, or not have enough time to react, or you may just get stupid and let yourself get distracted for a second (which is why I am still typing with nine fingers six months after getting a bite that I shouldn't have gotten) - but you won't become a close personal friend of the entire emergency room and radiology and pharmacy staff...

Snake keepers most often get bitten because they are stupid. No matter how tame a snake is, when it is hungry and it senses something nice and warm moving around in front of it, especially when it can also smell what it considers to be its usual food (rodents, rabbits, birds), it will strike. The snake is not going to stop to and think, "my prey doesn't wear blue jeans and a tee-shirt". The snake is not going to stop and think at all: it is just going to grab, as quickly as possible, what it thinks is probably food. The lesson is: If you smell like prey (and you will smell like prey if you handled prey within the previous 15 minutes or so), or if the room smells like prey, or if you are with someone who smells like prey, to a snake's brain, you are prey.


A Note on Iguanas...
One of the mixed blessings I've found as people have started to care for their iguanas better is that the iguanas are now hitting sexual maturity and are now able to act as feisty and lusty and obstinate as a healthy iguana should be acting...a far cry (and truly a wonderful change) from the undersized, lethargic, and maturationally retarded iguanas of the past...

Please understand that not all male iguanas get this way - not all will try to aggressively mate with their female owners (or any female) nor will all consider their male owners (or any other male) as competition for territory and females.

Of the dozens of sexually mature iguanas who have lived in my house (and I currently have 5 of them, down from a high of 17 males at one time), only one, Freddy, was aggressive in his attempts to mate with me and who considered other males as competition, and only one other male, Elvys, regularly displayed at me and other during breeding season. None of the others showed any sign of aggression to me or anyone else during breeding season, even if they were competitive, territorial and mating with my female iguanas. This includes my alpha male, Wally, whom I've raised since he was a hatchling.

The two who did display at me or try to mate with me came to me (about a year apart) when they were 7 years of age, so whether you raise a male iguana, rescue him or adopt him at some point in his life has no particular bearing (that we can tell at this point) on how he will react towards you and yours during breeding season. I am of the firm opinion that whether you are subject to extreme breeding aggression does has a great deal with how you interact with your iguana from his very first day with you, how you tame and socialize it (and, since you cannot sex babies, you need to do it right as you won't know for at least one year whether you have a male or female). Both Freddy and Elvys were tame when they came to me, an unusual situation as most who come are still completely or mostly wild and untamed. Fred had been on consignment at a pet store for over year when I rescued him, and was extremely aggressive with all pet store staff, yet, within minutes of our first encounter, was like butter in my hands. Elvys was owned by a male who, at least for the last couple of years that he had him, neglected him.

Doing it right means that you will end up with a tame, handlable iguana, and very likely one who will become well socialized to feeling comfortable and relaxed - regardless of season - with other humans. This also means training the humans in your life to behave properly too, to not tease, annoy or tick off your iguana. No matter how tame and relaxed they are, iguanas are still wild animals, and regardless of what they may let you do to them, they may not be so tolerant of others.


In closing...
Finally, when you keep animals and interact with them, you will, at some point, get bitten. The chances of being bitten increase significantly when the animals with whom you are interacting with are not domesticated animals - species who have been bred for docility and reduces that would lead to owner injury (biting, scratching). Aside from some farm animals, the only other animals who truly qualify for these abnormal (from the standpoint of undomesticated animals) traits are dogs, housecats, some parrots and some small song birds, and corn snakes. All other animals, whether you are talking about iguanas, sugar gliders, hedgehogs, ferrets and other pets du jour who are not derived from domestic stock, always remain, at some level, wild animals with the reflexes and responses of wild animals. And, as with most injuries to humans inflicted by animals, when a human gets bitten, it can generally be traced to something the owner did, or didn't do.

Thus, the more you learn, the more observant and thoughtful you are, the more you will reduce the risk of being bitten. When you do get bitten, keep in mind that the animal isn't being necessarily being malicious or nasty or biting because it enjoys biting. It bit you for a reason. It is up to you to figure out why it bit you so that it doesn't happen again. It is also up to you to deal with the animal appropriately after the bite. Hitting it, throwing it against the wall - any physical act of retribution or punishment - is meaningless. If it is a highly socialized animal, knowing that you are mad (through your tone of voice and deprivation of physical or proximity contact for a short time, such as several hours) is generally enough to get the point across. This may not stop raging hormones and reflexive responses from taking its toll again in the future, but getting deeply mad and resentful at such an animal is like getting mad at an earthquake or a flood. Like a force of nature, you do what you can to prevent damage, mitigate its effects once you see that you may not escape unscathed, but once it happens, you regroup and get on with your life.

Need to update a veterinary or herp society/rescue listing?

Can't find a vet on my site? Check out these other sites.

Amphibians Conservation Health Lizards Resources
Behavior Crocodilians Herpetology Parent/Teacher Snakes
Captivity Education Humor Pet Trade Societies/Rescues
Chelonians Food/Feeding Invertebrates Plants Using Internet
Clean/Disinfect Green Iguanas & Cyclura Kids Prey Veterinarians
Home About Melissa Kaplan CND Lyme Disease Zoonoses
Help Support This Site   Emergency Preparedness

Brought to you thanks to the good folks at Veterinary Information Network, Inc.

© 1994-2014 Melissa Kaplan or as otherwise noted by other authors of articles on this site