Reptile-Related Diseases and Health Issues

Reptiles and amphibians can carry germs that make people sick. Stressors such as overcrowding, inappropriate temperatures and humidity, improper handling, poor nutrition and parasites allow bacterial overgrowth and infection.


Reptiles can develop infections in their gastrointestinal tract and skin. Other symptoms include gout (a buildup of uric acid in organs and joints), and metabolic bone disease (requires monitoring with radiographs and blood tests). Tumors also occur.

Metabolic Bone Disorder

The bone diseases that are classified as metabolic bone disorders develop due to an abnormal imbalance of calcium and phosphorus, minerals essential to strong bones. This can be caused by hereditary defects in the skeletal structure, nutritional deficiencies or parathyroid disease (overactive parathyroid gland). Symptoms of these conditions include aching bones and frequent fractures in older adults or slow bone growth in children.

Most of these diseases result in brittle, fragile bones with a low bone density. This makes them more susceptible to fractures, particularly in the hips, wrists and spine. Osteoporotic fractures can also lead to a hunched or curved back (kyphoscoliosis) and a general feeling of weakness.

Reptiles can be affected by this problem if their diet is rich in phosphate, poor in calcium or inadequate in UVB light, as well as other health problems such as kidney disease. It is often difficult to diagnose because it presents with a variety of symptoms ranging from weight loss through soft, bent or broken bones. If left untreated, the condition can be fatal. With less severe cases, dietary improvements and adequate supplementation of calcium and vitamin D, along with greater access to full-spectrum UV light, usually resolve the problem. In more advanced cases, fluid therapy and calcitonin injections may be required. If the condition cannot be resolved, euthanasia may be necessary.


Several types of mites have been associated with disease in reptiles. They may be causing skin lesions (including ulcerative dermatitis and scale rot), gastrointestinal disease, and/or respiratory problems. Mites may also cause a serious allergic reaction in people and can be spread through contact with contaminated surfaces or feces.

A number of reptiles have been found to be long-term carriers of atypical Mycobacterium species, including M. marinum and M. fortuitum. These bacteria may be absorbed through the skin, causing cutaneous mycobacteriosis. Symptoms vary depending on the bacterial strain involved and include pus-filled sores called abscesses, gastrointestinal disease, or lymphadenitis and pulmonary disease in immunosuppressed persons.

Pneumonia is frequently seen in reptiles kept under unfavorable conditions. Stressors such as overcrowding, improper environmental temperatures and humidity, inappropriate bedding, parasites, and transportation can lead to bacterial overgrowth. Various opportunistic gram negative bacteria such as Aeromonas, Pseudomonas, and others may be implicated in reptile pneumonia.

Reptilian botulism is a potentially fatal illness caused by the release of bacteria-derived toxins. Symptoms of this disease vary and include weight loss, weakness, lethargy, and death. Diagnosis is based on history, radiography, and blood tests. Treatment consists of supportive care and antibiotics. A veterinarian should be consulted for appropriate antibiotic therapy.

Fungal Infections

Fungi, which include yeasts and molds, are organisms that live in the soil and water as well as on plants. They reproduce by spreading microscopic spores that can be picked up and inhaled. Most fungi are harmless, but some can cause serious infections in people with weakened immune systems. Fungal infections can be on the surface of your skin or nails (superficial) or under the skin (subcutaneous).

Fungus that causes ringworm infects the skin, hair and nails, while other fungi can invade the lungs and spread to other organs like the brain and heart (deep infection). Almost anyone can get a fungal nail or skin infection, but these conditions usually aren’t dangerous if they’re treated with over-the-counter or prescription medication. Infections that can’t be treated easily, however, put you at a greater risk for sepsis.

Those who are at higher risk for getting a fungal infection include those who have a weakened immune system, such as from chemotherapy or medications used to prevent rejection after an organ transplant; inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s; or AIDS. Other factors that can weaken your immune system are stress, a poor diet, nutrient deficiencies, some types of surgery, and long stays in hospitals where you spend many days in one room.

Symptoms of a fungal infection include red, swollen or bumpy skin; discolored, thickened and cracked nails; and yeast infections, such as the ones that occur on the tongue and lining of the mouth called thrush. Your doctor can diagnose these infections with a physical exam and may take a sample of your skin, nails or hair for testing at a laboratory.


A number of viruses have been identified in sick reptiles. Viruses are very small particles that contain genetic information and replicate themselves within cells. Several viruses in reptiles have been linked to specific diseases, and others appear to play a role in multifactorial disease processes influenced by host factors.

Iridovirus infections have been associated with skin lesions in crocodiles and with progressive anemia in Hermann’s tortoises. These viruses have been closely related to ranaviruses described in amphibians, and phylogenetic analyses suggest that there may be recent host shifts for these viruses.

Cloacal prolapses (an accumulation of urine and feces) occur in a variety of reptiles. These can be caused by breeding trauma, kidney stones, mineral deposits from improper diets (eg, excess phosphorus) or infections of the reproductive tract or urinary bladder. Your veterinarian can remove the accumulation and treat the underlying cause.

Infections of the digestive tract can be serious in reptiles. Symptoms include bloody diarrhea, weakness and weight loss, and abdominal swelling. Often, the infection is in the intestines but can also be in the stomach or reproductive tract. Treatment is typically with fluids and antibiotics. Reptiles can develop septicemia, which is life threatening and usually causes severe, sudden symptoms. Signs of septicemia include difficulty breathing, a lack of energy and a purplish coloration on the belly skin in snakes or reddened plastrons in chelonians. Septicemia can be prevented by proper enclosure maintenance and good sanitation practices.