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

Thermal Burns on Reptiles

©1996 Melissa Kaplan


Burns are most frequently caused by hot rocks. The burns can be severe enough by the time they are noticed by the owner to cause death. Burns may also be caused by undertank heating pads when used without a substrate layer, or by human heating pads when they are the only source of heat. As discussed in Chapter II in the section on heating, iguanas require a warm environment, not a hot surface, to successfully and safely thermoregulate their core body temperatures.

Burns may also come from the overhead heat source. If your iguana is too close to an overhead bulb, ceramic heating element, or infrared lamp, or lies upon such a light, element, or fixture housing such a light or fixture, they may suffer mild to lethal burns. The heat may be intense enough to literally cook your iguana. While you may have always wondered what iguanas taste like, inadvertently cooking yours is probably not the way you envisioned doing it.

Minor blistering and burns may be treated at home by soaking daily in povidone-iodine.

If in doubt as to the severity, or if the skin layer is breached (burned off or blistered and rubbed off), the iguana should be seen by a veterinarian. Burns not only destroy skin, they can destroy the underlying tissue and cause extensive fluid loss. Through the burns themselves, the animal is highly susceptible to invading bacteria and so may get a raging systemic infection as well. The vet may administer fluids or antibiotics and may cut off the dead skin tissue to enable better healing. He or she may also prescribe the daily povidone-iodine soaks, and may dispense a special antibiotic cream, Silvadene. Formulated for human burn victims, Silvadene antibiotic ointment also helps toughen the new skin and helps dead tissue slough off. It is expensive, much more so than the triple-antibiotic ointment recommended for other infections, but well worth the price in this instance.

You may know the saying, "Once burned, twice shy". In the case of burn victims, it is, "Once burned, forever susceptible to burns". If the burn is on the ventral surface (the belly surface or bottom of legs, arms, or tail), do away with all bottom heat sources for the duration of the recovery period. Once the burn is healed, heating pads can be used again in conjunction with overhead or other radiant heat sources, and will have to be covered well with thick terry-cloth towels.

If your iguana is found hugging a light or light fixture or if it never leaves its pad or rock, that is a sure sign that the enclosure is too cold and that you are watching a burn about to happen. Fix the situation before it becomes a problem.

Burns are nothing to mess around with...
The defect in the skin caused by the burn gives easy access to bacteria and fungi to get into the iguana's system. One of the most serious aspects of burns is the resulting dehydration from the destruction of cells that used to help maintain the body's fluids as well as the oozing of fluids from the burn sites, either into blisters or out on to the intact skin or substrate on open lesions.

If you are not sure that what you are looking at is a thermal burn, or it is more than just a single small blister, get your iguana to a reptile vet. The risk of health and life to your iguana is not worth trying to do it yourself...especially if your diagnosis or evaluation of the severity of the burn is wrong...

Related Articles

Blackening Skin/Blackening Skin Syndrome/Vesicular Dermatitis

Black Spots

Hot Rocks

Fluid Therapy

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