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

First Aid For Reptiles

©1995 Melissa Kaplan


Wound Management
Sterile (bacteriostatic) water, dilute (0.5%) chlorhexidine diacetate or povidone-iodine may be used to flush bites, lacerations and opened abscesses. Topical antibiotics, such as a triple antibiotic ointment and silver sulfadiazine, may be used alone or under a dressing.

Aquatic turtles must be kept in a dry tank, put in water only for limited periods each day for feeding and hydration. All reptiles must be observed to see that they do not soak in their water bowls; a sick or injured lizard can be quite adept at working off saturated dressings using only one foot and its rostrum. Such soaking may also cause infection or prolong the healing and must be discouraged by limiting free access to water during recovery.

Bandaging techniques used on lizards and chelonians are similar to those used on mammals and birds. As with fur and feathers, care must be taken to not damage or forcibly remove scales when removing dressings on snakes and lizards. A gauze dressing is first secured by use of a paper tape. This light, low tack adhesive tape is made for sensitive skin and is available in a variety of widths. Once the dressing is secure, the paper tape can be overwrapped with regular adhesive tape; this will prevent the paper tape from loosening.

Vetrap is a light elastic outer bandaging material that is applied over the tape and gauze dressing. It can be used to cover the dressing to prevent its becoming soiled and is mildly water resistant. Vetrap can be used to anchor the dressing by wrapping it around the torso and opposing limb. Vetrap may also be used to overwrap a bandage on the tail; the edges of the Vetrap should extend beyond the edge of the tape on, both sides of the dressing.

Affixing bandages to snakes is where the creativity comes in. Finger cots and condoms may be used as occlusive bandages. The wound is dressed as usual. Then, depending upon the girth of the snake, a finger cot or condom is selected. The sealed end is cut off, and the resultant tube is pulled gently along the length of the body to the wound site. It is best to start at the head and work down, going with the scales. Extreme care should be used when pulling a tube up from the tail. When the tube is seated over the site, wrap each end with adhesive tape, with the tape half on the skin and half on the tube. When cutting the tape, cut the end in a semicircle rather than straight across; this will help prevent the ends from peeling back when the snake moves around.

Finger cots and condoms may also be used on lizard tails. Liquid and spray bandage products may also be used, both on lizards who consistently soak off their bandages and on a reptile whose defect is so extensive that bandaging is not possible.

Once a reptile has been treated, care must be taken to provide a supportive environment to promote rapid, uncomplicated recovery. Temperatures towards the higher end of the reptile's preferred optimum temperature zone should be provided. Hibernation must be delayed or postponed completely until the following year. Good nutrition and adequate intake must be maintained; nutritional deficiencies, such as hypoproteinemia and hypocalcemia, will delay the healing process, with the latter affecting the healing of broken or weakened bones. The environment must be kept as clean as possible during recovery to insure the least amount of contamination of the wound sites. In this case, keeping the enclosure setup simple, easy to clean and disinfect is of paramount importance. While more natural substrates may need to give way to medical needs, necessary furnishings such as hide boxes must still be provided to reduce psychological stress.

Procedure for Treating Minor Wounds, Blisters, Burns

  1. Soak the reptile in warmish chest deep water to which Betadine (povidone-iodine) has been added to color the water to a deep medium tea color. Leave in the tub for 15-20 minutes, refreshing the warm water and Betadine as necessary. If the wound is swollen and crusty, carefully pick off the scab/crusty exudates. Note that if the reptile defecates in the tub, it must be washed out, disinfected and another Betadine soak set up. Flush the wound area with fresh water before being placed back in the new bath.

  2. Remove the reptile from the tub and flush the wound with fresh dilute Betadine.

  3. At night, top the wound with triple antibiotic ointment. Repeat for a week or until the wound is healing over.

  4. If there is any sign of swelling which occurs after the bathing and treatment or such swelling does not abate after a week, the animal must be seen by an experienced reptile vet. Check my Herp Vets for lists of vets.

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