Reptile-Related Diseases and Health Issues

Reptiles and amphibians can carry bacteria that pose a zoonotic risk to people. These germs can cause skin sores, lung disease or septic arthritis.


Metabolic Bone Disorder (MBD) – a condition seen in tortoises and lizards that don’t receive enough calcium from their diet or adequate UVB light. Symptoms include soft bones, weight loss and anorexia.

1. Campylobacteriosis

Campylobacter (kamp-e-lo-bact-er) is a gram negative, microaerophilic bacteria that cause diarrhea. The organisms live in the intestinal tracts of cats, dogs, chickens, sheep, cattle, pigs and rodents, nonhuman primates and some people. The bacteria are transmitted to humans through contact with feces or contaminated water and food. The bacteria are one of the most common causes of human diarrhea in the United States. Symptoms of infection include diarrhea, fever and abdominal pain.

Treatment focuses on preventing dehydration. Drink plenty of liquids, especially water or a rehydration drink such as Pedialyte. Avoid beverages with added sugar, as these can make diarrhea worse.

Most Campylobacter infections can be prevented by careful hand washing and avoiding raw or undercooked meat, poultry and eggs. Thoroughly cooking foods kills Campylobacter. If you have symptoms of Campylobacter infection, do not handle or prepare food or care for children until your symptoms clear up. Wash your hands frequently with soap to prevent spreading the bacteria to others. If your symptoms are severe, consult a physician. Antibiotics are not recommended for most cases of Campylobacter infection, but may be needed in invasive infections or those in people with weakened immune systems.

2. Botulism

Botulism is a serious neurologic illness caused by the toxin (poison) produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria. This anaerobic bacterium produces spores that can survive in the environment for long periods of time and are able to germinate under certain conditions to produce the botulinum toxin, one of the strongest natural toxins known.

Botullism can cause paralysis in the legs and arms, with symptoms progressing to respiratory (breathing) failure and death. Botulism is treated with antitoxin and supportive care in a hospital.

Infant botulism occurs mainly in infants under 6 months of age, who ingest C botulinum spores that germinate and produce the botulinum toxin in their intestinal tract. This form of botulism can be prevented by using safe food handling techniques, including cooking home-canned foods and commercially preserved foods for recommended minimum temperatures and pressures.

Wound botulism is a rare form of the disease that develops when bacteria grow in a wound. It is often misdiagnosed as Guillain-Barre syndrome or myasthenia gravis and can be prevented by properly disposing of wounds and following standard infection control practices, including avoiding contaminated soil.

3. Fungal Infections

NIAID-supported researchers are determining the basic biology of fungi to better understand how they cause disease. They also are developing vaccines and better methods to diagnose and treat these infections.

Fungal infections can be caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi. They can affect the skin and mucous membranes, joints, the respiratory tract and the gastrointestinal tract. They can occur in both wild and captive reptiles.

Fungus-related infections are often caused by a weakened immune system due to nutrient deficiencies, immunodeficiency disorders and certain types of medications (antibiotics). Antifungal drugs are usually required for treatment.

Fungal infections of the toes and tails of turtles can lead to a dry gangrene which causes limbs to darken, turn black and break off. It is typically associated with poor sanitation and malnutrition. The intestine of aquatic reptiles can be infected with thorny-headed worms called acanthocephalans. Infection with these worms is common in frogs, toads and aquatic turtles. Signs of acanthocephalan infection include blood or mucus in the stools and weight loss. Septicemia can develop in severe or protracted cases.

4. Mouth Rot

Reptiles with mouth rot usually have difficulty closing all or part of their mouth, so they tend to drool. They may also refuse to eat and drink. This condition is very serious, not to mention painful. It is generally caused by infection that starts in the soft tissue, but can eventually involve the bone. A bacterial infection is most often the cause of mouth rot. Other causes include poor nutrition, environmental conditions that are too warm or cold, or lack of proper enclosure maintenance.

Infectious stomatitis (mouth rot) is a bacterial infection that affects the gums and the inside of the mouth. It can be seen as pinpoint hemorrhages on the gums or excess thick mucus that resembles cottage cheese in the mouth and around the gum line. The gums and the jawbone may swell up.

This disease is most commonly seen in iguanas and snakes, but all reptiles are at risk. The best way to prevent this condition is to ensure that the habitat and diet meet all of a reptile’s specific needs. This includes the correct environmental temperature, humidity levels, UV light supplementation as appropriate by species, adequate space and a healthy diet.

5. Iridovirus

Iridovirus is a group of viruses found in reptiles and amphibians. This genus is divided into four clades. Three of these clades contain genomes with high sequence identity. One of the clades contains genomes with less than 90% identity, indicating that there has been significant divergence between the genera.

The iridoviruses cause disease in many reptiles, including aquatic chelonians and terrestrial tortoises. The symptoms include erythema or reddening of the skin due to vascular congestion beneath. Petechiae are pin-point sub-epithelial haemorrhages seen in the mouth of tortoises with mouth rot or on other parts of the body in snakes, suggesting septicaemia.

Infectious spleen and kidney necrosis virus (ISKNV) is an iridovirus associated with recurrent high mortality in pallid sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii). It has been shown to be transmitted by feeding fish that have ingested ISKNV oocysts or by ticks (Amblyomma ricinum or Ixodes hexagonous) that have bitten contaminated feeding fish.

Iridoviruses are also implicated in the disease known as scale rot of reptile skin that occurs in aquatic chelonians. This condition is characterized by severe infections that produce ulcers and loosening of the skin and, in many cases, death.