Merck Manual

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Emergencies of Reptiles


Roger J. Klingenberg


Last full review/revision Jul 2011 | Content last modified Nov 2016

Even though pet reptiles live in carefully controlled environments, injuries and accidents are possible.


Burns may occur in reptiles due to the careless use of incandescent lights or other heat sources. They are treated by cleansing the site, applying antibiotic ointment, and placing the reptile in a clean, dry environment. In uninfected burns, sterile skin protectants can be applied to the area to act as a “second skin.” These products allow the reptile to have access to the water and help keep contaminants out. In severe burn cases, fluids given through enemas or by injection may be needed to prevent dehydration, and whole system antibiotics may be required to prevent or treat bacterial infection. A veterinarian can advise you in providing supportive care, including pain management and assisted feeding techniques.

Crush Injuries

Crush injuries to turtles may result in fractures to the lower portion of the shell, the upper shell, or both. The turtle will need to be taken to a veterinarian who can remove the damaged or infected tissues and clean and bandage the injury. Whole system antibiotics will likely be prescribed. Once the turtle is stable, the wounds should be cleaned again, and the fractures can be surgically realigned and repaired, using various types of epoxy, resin, or cement. Healing is slow and may require more than a year.


Fractures due to trauma occur in all reptiles. Long bones may be repaired with splints or through surgery. A simple way of splinting the legs of lizards is to tape the injured leg to the body (front legs) or the tail (rear legs). These splints are tolerated well and protect the limb from further injury.

Injuries to the spinal column must be assessed individually, and x-rays are often needed to evaluate the extent of the injury. Spinal injuries of the tail may be tolerated, but injuries to the area between the skull and the tail often result in constipation and not being able to expel uric acid salts. Many green iguanas suffer spinal injuries just over the pelvis, leaving the lizard paralyzed in the rear. Changing the environment (such as providing low branches, a shallow water dish, and nonabrasive substrates) and learning how to empty the bowel content will allow the lizard to live a useful, comfortable life. Because these fractures often occur after metabolic bone disease, changes to the diet and vitamin/mineral supplements may be needed.

Rodent Bites

Rodent bites, which can be inflicted by uneaten prey, cause traumatic injuries. These injuries may then become infected and inflamed. When possible, rodents that have been freshly killed or frozen and thawed should be offered to prevent injury to the reptile (dead prey should be discarded after 24 hours if left uneaten). The feeding of live prey is illegal in many European countries. Fresh bite wounds may be treated by cleansing and treating with a mild disinfectant. An injection of antibiotics may be needed to treat certain types of infections. Untreated wounds that become infected are often seen as a soft or hard swelling. The pus-filled cavity should be removed surgically, and the wound closed with stitches. Infected tissue from open or draining sores should be surgically removed, disinfected, and injected antibiotics given.

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