Scale rot is a bacterial infection that is very common among captive reptiles, including snakes. It occurs due to overly moist living conditions and the improper cleaning of a snake’s enclosure.
Scale rot (without blisters) can be treated at home and prevented in the future. Reduce the temperature and humidity level of the enclosure, sterilize the cage thoroughly, and apply an antibiotic ointment. If blisters are present, a vet will need to treat the condition.
Overly moist environments, combined with the presence of fecal matter and food waste, lead to fungal and bacterial growth, resulting in skin erosion. Prolonged exposure to unsanitary conditions can result in scale infections and septicemia, leading to the death of your pet snake.
How do I get rid of scale rot in snakes? Click this link to buy Vetericyn Reptile Wound and Skin Care Plus on Amazon and clear up snake rot safely. Also, remember to follow the critical steps (below) to sterilize your snake’s enclosure. Don’t return your snake to its living space until this has been done.
What is Scale Rot in Snakes?
Scale rot is an umbrella term used to describe blister disease, vesicular dermatitis and other forms of dermatitis among reptiles. It can also be used to describe bacterial abscesses and secondary infections that occur following skin abrasions or burns.
It is common among captive snakes, especially ball pythons, corn snakes, and boa constrictors. According to the University of Zurich, the leading cause for dermatophies (diseases of the skin) among reptiles is poor management, particularly when it comes to maintaining appropriate humidity and temperature levels inside the enclosure.
Having overly moist conditions or not replacing a substrate that is too wet is one of the most common causes of scale rot in snakes. Garter snakes and water snakes also have a higher risk of developing scale rot because they have difficulty in drying themselves off thoroughly in their living environment.
As your snake rests on damp bedding, contaminated with feces, urates or rotting food, the snake’s skin can quickly become infected. In most cases, watery blisters are the first sign of scale rot.
With time, these scales start to get swollen and are later invaded by opportunistic bacteria, namely Pseudomonas spp. Then, the infection may transfer into the snake’s bloodstream and internal organs, causing septicemia in snakes, which is a deadly disease.
Scale Rot vs. Mouth Rot in Snakes
Scale rot and mouth rot are two different medical conditions caused by bacterial infections. Mouth rot (infectious stomatitis) is a common disorder in reptiles, which commonly occurs when a reptile is under physical or environmental stress.
Stress can weaken a reptile’s immune system, inhibiting its ability to keep the naturally-present bacteria in its mouth in check, leading to an oral infection called mouth rot in snakes.
Unlike scale rot, where symptoms occur on the scales of a snake, mouth rot presents itself through reddened oral tissues, dead tissue or thick pus in the mouth and drainage from the mouth and nose.
What Causes Scale Rot in Snakes?
In most cases, scale rot in snakes is caused by one or more of the following:
- Overly moist or humid conditions in the snake’s enclosure
- Not sterilizing your snake’s enclosure properly
- Not wiping up any spills or wet areas
- Vitamins A or C deficiency
To prevent scale rot, keep your snake’s enclosure clean and sterile. Always spot clean any water spillages, urine or feces, Failure to do so can easily result in a bacterial infection in snakes.
Pay particular attention to the temperature and humidity levels inside your snake’s enclosure as well and make it a habit to check both daily.
Is Scale Rot in Snakes Contagious?
Scale rot is a bacterial infection in reptiles that can be contagious to other snakes. If one of your snakes has scale rot, it is crucial to quarantine your pet snake until its fully recovered.
For healthy snakes, you should check the humidity of their tanks, clean their enclosure thoroughly and replace any soiled substrate immediately.
Early Signs of Scale Rot in Snakes
Scale rot can present itself in various ways. Pay attention to your snake’s appearance regularly as early detection makes treatment faster, easier, more effective, and less expensive for you.
The condition may appear in the form of discolored, brown, yellow, greenish-black or red scales on the ventral region of the reptile.
To identify any signs of scale rot, turn your snake on its back to inspect its stomach. If there is any discoloration of the scales, the chances are that your snake has scale rot.
It’s common to confuse a snake shedding with the red ulcerations caused by scale rot as the underbelly can turn red during both processes. However, in most cases, scale rot is accompanied by other symptoms such as erosion of the scales and large blisters on the snake’s underside.
Signs of scale rot can also be found on other parts of the snake, such as the tail region. In most cases, areas that are most often in contact with the substrate are likely to be affected.
2) Raised Scales
Raised scales can occur in areas where blood may have pooled beneath them.
Blisters are minuscule vesicles that may be less than half an inch in diameter. They are typically found on the ventral surface of snakes where contact with the bedding is most common.
In the majority of cases, initial blisters are filled with clear, yellowish fluid that does not contain any bacteria. However, ignoring the condition can cause bacteria from the snake or its environment to contaminate the vesicles and cause an infection.
Snake mites can also transfer bacteria into vesicles. Although rare, certain types of fungi, such as yeasts found in soil can also penetrate the vesicles and lead to fungal infections of the skin.
Once an infection occurs, the snake’s scales may appear very red and start discharging blood-tinged or clear fluid, along with some swelling in that area. It is common to see scales entirely sloughing off as the infection progresses.
At times, bacteria may form abscesses at the site of the blister. This may be followed by ulcers when the next shed occurs and pus-like leakage from the affected region.
Blisters can also merge, resulting in large blotches of infected skin. However, once the infection is treated, the snake may shed normally or shed a few times before its skin completely heals.
If you notice anything that looks like a burn, it could be exposed to subcutaneous tissue as a result of damaged scales from ruptured blisters, swelling or sloughing.
How to Treat Scale Rot in Snakes.
If your snake has a mild case of scale rot before any severe symptoms begin to appear, you should start treatment immediately by quarantining your snake.
1) Clean the Enclosure
According to the Annals of Phytomedicine, inferior husbandry methods, lack of hygiene and malnutrition are among the leading causes of scale rot in snakes.
Thoroughly sterilize your snake’s enclosure, disinfecting everything inside it and replacing all soiled substrate with the optimal substrate for your pet snake. This will help control existing symptoms and prevent the infection from progressing.
Increasing the temperature of the enclosure and providing UV lighting can kill off any pathogens.
What’s Needed for the Enclosure Cleaning Process?
- Brushes. Medium-sized brushes to clean enclosure corners and crevices in decorations.
- Paper towels. Spot clean after your snake whenever needed.
- A backup cage. Provide a clean home whenever you have to clean your snake’s enclosure.
- Toothpicks, Q-tips, razor blades, and putty knives. To reach into tiny spaces and get rid of any hardened material in the cage or its accessories.
- Herp-safe terrarium cleaner. This helps to dissolve hardened substances in the cage.
- Soap or dishwashing detergent. Avoid using anything with pine scent or phenol.
- Sand sifter. This is to remove feces and debris from fine-particulate substrates, such as sands.
- Rubber gloves and goggles.
- Sponges. Keep one set for cleaning and wiping, and a separate one for disinfecting.
It helps to have a cleaning kit that’s exclusively for maintaining the cleanliness of your snake’s tank. Store all cleaning tools and equipment used for cleaning your pet’s enclosure separately from your household cleaning supplies.
To prevent cross-contamination, you should never wash your snake’s tank or any of its accessories in sinks, tubs or anywhere near areas where you bathe or prepare food.
Choosing the right disinfectant for your pet’s cage is a vital step in improving your snake’s living conditions and health. The disinfectant must be powerful enough to wipe out any disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and fungi, but it shouldn’t be so strong that it harms the health of your snake.
Snakes are sensitive to toxic fumes. Therefore, it is critical that you relocate them to another tank in a separate room during your routine cleaning.
Make sure you remove any food, soaps, feces, and urates before using disinfectants as an organic material can prevent it from working optimally. Clean out any mess left behind by your snake in the enclosure and on its accessories with hot soapy water before using a disinfectant.
Once everything has been cleaned, apply the disinfectant to the enclosure and all its accessories. Let the disinfectant sit for 10 minutes and rinse the items thoroughly after you’re done.
If an item is porous, you may have to let the disinfectant remain in contact with it for longer before rinsing it. Wooden items must be washed thoroughly to remove all disinfectant.
Allow the enclosure and all its items to dry completely before bringing in your snake. Although hot soapy water should be enough to clean food and water dishes, it can be beneficial to disinfect them at least once a week.
Make sure you rinse the food and water dishes thoroughly, not leaving behind any traces of soap or disinfectant. It’s good to have two sets of water and food dishes so that there’s always one in the cage, while the other is being cleaned.
How to Clean a Snake’s Enclosure
It’s essential to clean your snake’s enclosure regularly as allowing your ball python or corn snake to slither around in its feces, water or uneaten food can increase its risk of getting an infection.
Clean and disinfect the enclosure, the hides and the substrate at least once a week. Keep a lookout for ticks, mites, and anything that looks out of the ordinary.
Since you will have to deep clean your snake’s enclosure once in a while, it’s good to have an extra tank. This will allow you to place your snake in another tank, while you deep clean its original one.
It’s also critical that you don’t wash your snake’s tank, or its accessories in sinks or tubs that you use for washing dishes or your body as doing so may cause cross-contamination.
You can use paper towels, toothpicks, toothbrushes, Q-tips, sponges, and razor blades to clean out tiny crevices and corners. Snakes carry salmonella and E. coli, which are harmful to humans and can cause serious illness.
Make sure you wear rubber gloves and goggles to protect your hands and eyes during the cleaning process. Never introduce any items from the snake’s enclosure to your washing or bathing areas.
Cleaning Cage Accessories
Any hides, rocks, head pads, etc. must be cleaned before reintroducing them to the enclosure.
Rocks should be cleaned and then boiled in water for 30 minutes. Branches need to be cleaned and then heated in an oven at 200 to 250 F for 30 minutes to completely sterilize them.
If you’re using your sand, which is not recommended for a snake, be sure to rinse it thoroughly in water and then heating it in the oven at 200-250 F for 30 minutes.
Reptiles are susceptible to skin and bacterial infections. Therefore, it is imperative that their enclosures are kept clean at all times. A snake’s fecal matter can carry harmful bacteria.
Captive reptiles require special care and routine cage maintenance to create a safe home for them and an odor-free and appealing display for your enjoyment.
How often you clean your snake’s enclosure will largely depend on its size and habits. Start by understanding the species-specific requirements of your snake and learning from close observation.
Typically, a cleaning routine for a snake’s cage will include:
- Daily cleaning to remove uneaten food, spills, urates, shed skin and feces and thoroughly washing food and water bowls with hot soapy water.
- Weekly cleaning and disinfecting the cage, decorations, and substrate.
While performing your daily cleaning, look for any signs that may indicate that your pet is sick. Check for any hazardous conditions in the enclosure and correct them immediately.
Pay attention to the following factors:
- Is your snake eating a healthy amount of food?
- Are the temperature and humidity in the enclosure within appropriate limits?
- Are there any signs of shedding? If so, does it look normal?
- Do your snake’s urates and feces look normal and are they the usual amount?
- Do any of the accessories appear damaged and need to be replaced?
- Is the enclosure in proper condition?
- Are there any signs of parasites?
2) Use a Sturdy Water Bowl
Be sure to place a water bowl that is heavy and sturdy enough to stay in place. A flimsy water bowl can easily be knocked over by a snake, causing the enclosure to get wet and contribute to scale rot.
The bowl should also be small enough so that the snake cannot soak in it. Allowing a snake with scale rot to soak will aggravate the scales even more.
Continue quarantining your snake this way until it sheds and its rotted scales are all gone, or until the condition is completely treated with antibiotics.
3) Soak in Betadine Solution Bath
Place your snake in a betadine solution bath for 20 minutes. Do this twice a day until the infection clears. If the infection doesn’t improve or shows signs of getting worse, stop the betadine baths and take your snake to a vet immediately. Remember, not all vets specialize in pet snakes.
To prepare a betadine bath, mix 10% betadine in lukewarm water. After soaking, rinse the snake and apply an antibiotic ointment such as Neosporin.
You can also use an antibiotic spray, such as Vetericyn Reptile Wound and Skin Care Plus, which is a non-toxic, non-irritating ointment for reptiles.
You can get it on Amazon if you click this link. Be sure to clean your snake’s enclosure and all its accessories before putting the snake back into its tank.
Note that this treatment is for mild scale rot only. If you notice signs of severe bacterial infection, chances are the above steps will not work. A bacterial infection can become potentially deadly if left untreated. Take your snake to a vet as soon as possible to receive appropriate treatment.
Your vet may administer antibiotic injections to treat the bacterial infection and control scale rot. In severe cases, the snake may also be placed under anesthesia to cut and clean the infected areas.
Checking for Parasites and Health Problems
If you suspect your snake or its enclosure may be infested with parasites, look out for the following:
- Mites. These appear as small red, brown or black spots around a snake’s eyes or between its scales. You may also see mites on your snake’s skin.
- Ticks. Snake ticks are slightly larger and are often black, brown or gray.
- Internal Parasites. This infestation is typically indicated via changes in a snake’s feces.
If you suspect that mites or ticks have infected your snake, remove your pet from the tank and place it in a tub filled with room temperature water.
Make sure the snake is wholly submerged but allow room for airflow. Following the bath, check the snakes head. If mites and ticks are still present, you should repeat until you don’t see them anymore.
4) Control Moisture Levels
Although controlling the moisture and humidity levels inside a snake’s tank may seem like a tedious job, it’s imperative that you maintain ideal living conditions to prevent scale rot. Captive snakes have a high susceptibility to scale rot due to unsatisfactory conditions inside its enclosure.
Controlling the humidity is even more necessary for snakes from subtropical or tropical regions. Reptiles are used to their natural habitats so, for them to thrive, it is critical that their captive conditions can mimic them.
One way to determine whether the humidity inside the tank is right for your snake is determining how well your snake sheds. Maintaining a humidity level inside your snake’s enclosure that is lower than what it is naturally used to will make it more difficult for it to shed its skin.
If the humidity is optimal, the snake will shed much easier. However, maintaining a humidity level that is too high can put your snake at risk of scale rot, so you need to strike the right balance.
Paying attention to the type of enclosure you choose is also crucial. The three most common types of tanks used by snake owners include plastic cages, glass tanks, and wooden cages.
A plastic enclosure is the easiest, and typically used by breeders, whereas hobby owners often use glass tanks. Wooden cages aren’t recommended because they aren’t as easy to keep clean.
How to Control Humidity Inside a Snake Enclosure
Humidity inside an enclosure occurs through heat and airflow. Controlling the two can help improve the humidity levels inside the enclosure, lowering your snake’s risk of getting scale rot.
The following are what you can do to control humidity levels inside your snake’s enclosure:
- Use heat lamps appropriately. Heat lamps can burn off excess moisture inside an enclosure. However, they can also turn the habitat of the snake dry, so use them cautiously.
- Cover 2/3 of the top screen using plastic wrap to control airflow and prevent evaporation.
- Use proper bedding to control humidity levels as needed.
Avoid putting the tank near direct sunlight or drafty areas as both can dry out the snake’s enclosure.
Different snakes prefer different levels of humidity. Moreover, snakes require higher humidity levels during shedding as it helps them take their old skin off.
Setting a humidity that is too high can increase the moisture levels inside your snake’s enclosure, making it susceptible to scale rot.
Best Type of Snake Bedding (Substrate)
Another way to help your snake recover from scale rot is to provide it with proper bedding, also called substrate. There are several different types of substrates to choose from.
Sand may appear as a good option, but it’s the coarsest. It’s also the least recommended type of substrate as it’s not healthy for the snake and it isn’t easy to clean.
Another option is Astro-turf, which is an inexpensive new idea many snake owners are now picking up. However, it soaks up odor and feces, so it’s not recommended for snakes with scale rot.
Newspapers and paper towels are absorbent and inexpensive. The only downside is that they aren’t aesthetically pleasing. However, they’re a breeze to work with because they’re easy to replace as soon as they get wet or soiled.
Cypress mulch is also a great choice because of its pleasant odor and ability to hold humidity well. Unlike paper, it looks better in a snake’s enclosure.
It’s also another inexpensive option that can be easily found in most pet stores. However, it can become infested with mites as these parasites enjoy thriving in cypress mulch.
What’s the Best Substrate for Your Snake?
While looking for a substrate, you’ll want to make sure that it’s comfortable for your snake and keeps microbes and infections at bay.
Look for a product that has all or at least most of the following qualities:
- Has great absorbing power
- Is comfortable for your snake
- Is mold-resistant
- It breaks down odor
- It holds humidity well
An excellent product to start with is the Reptichip Coconut Substrate, which is made from organic coconut chips. Coconut chips are entirely natural and pet-friendly. The product is one of the most top snake substrates on Amazon (click this link to buy it.)
Coconut chips are gentle on the snake, easy to clean up, mold-resistant so you can use them for a long time, plus they do a great job at retaining moisture and humidity. Snakes also like them because they can use them for hiding.
Coconut substrates are inexpensive, and they are good at breaking down the odor. They’re visually pleasing and are also beneficial to any living plants in your snake’s enclosure. Users are also impressed by how much the product expands.
Coconut substrates are eco-friendly. Once you’re done using the substrate and are ready to replace it, you can toss it in your compost or garden. Coconut chips can easily break down in nature. Furthermore, they’re compatible with plants because they’re not too acidic.
Can Scale Rot Kill a Snake?
Not treating scale rot can cause bacteria from the blisters to spread into the snake’s bloodstream, causing a lethal disease called septicemia.
The journal Veterinary Dermatology stated that smaller snakes or those with a weakened immune system are most vulnerable. This can be from environmental or psychological stresses, previous illness, malnutrition, and other infections. They get sick much faster or die rapidly from scale rot.
Small snakes and other reptiles can die from septicemia within days, if left untreated. Larger snakes can take anywhere from several weeks to many months to die. Regardless of the size of your pet, it is critical that you seek appropriate care as soon as you identify the initial signs and symptoms.
The initial blister can cause the skin to erode over time, leaving the snake’s body more prone to bacterial and fungal invasion along with thermal burns. The condition won’t clear up on its own.