Whether you are a new snake owner, or an experienced keeper, the chances are you have heard of scale rot.
Scale rot in snakes is relatively common.
It is especially common in snakes owned by beginners who make husbandry mistakes. While it is a serious health condition, it can also be treated at home if caught early enough.
All snake owners should take the time to learn what scale rot is, causes, symptoms and what to do to prevent it. Keep reading for this information and more…
What Is Scale Rot?
Scale rot is a general term for several different kinds of bacterial skin disease that affect snakes and other reptiles.
The specific infection most commonly labeled as scale rot is blister disease or vesicular dermatitis. However any other type of scale dermatitis can be included under this term.
Scale rot on a snake is usually isolated to one or two areas, but it can spread if left untreated. It usually begins as an external infection near the tail, though severe cases can enter the bloodstream and lead to further complications or even death.
This disease is often caused by poor husbandry. Incorrect temperatures, high humidity, a dirty enclosure and soiled substrate can all be causes of scale rot.
It can also happen after an injury creates a cut or gash in the scales. This cut then allows bacteria to enter the skin and infect it. In pet snakes common injuries occur from sharp edges in the tank or bites from live prey.
All cases begin when bacteria attacks a snake’s scales. As a result it most often affects the underside of their body, especially near the cloaca and tail. This is because these areas spend the greatest amount of time in contact with the substrate.
Early infections appear as scale discoloration.
Affected scales will become brown, yellow, black or greenish. They may also feel crusty or become curled up at the edges 4 days after the infection has begun.
As the infection progresses small blisters form on the scales and rupture into open sores. These sores leave the snake vulnerable to a more serious infection and septicemia. Septicemia is blood poisoning where the bacteria on the scales enter the bloodstream and trigger organ failure.
If caught early mild scale rot can be treated at home with betadine and antibiotic ointment.
Severe cases need emergency vet care and high-strength antibiotics to cure. Even then, it may prove fatal to the affected snake.
After treatment the root cause of the infection must be isolated to prevent the disease from recurring.
Luckily, this disease can be proactively prevented by practicing excellent husbandry. A clean, safe enclosure and appropriate setup (e.g. not too dry, not too wet) will prevent it from happening in the first place.
Scale Rot Causes
Knowing the root causes of this disease is vital to both treatment and prevention.
Scale rot can be caused by several different factors, but is most often associated with poor hygiene and dirty tank conditions. Habitats and substrates that encourage the growth of bacteria increase your snake’s risk.
Keeping up good husbandry practices, routine spot and deep cleaning, and monitoring your snake’s health and behavior are the best preventative measures.
A dirty tank is the number one cause of scale rot.
Pet snakes are often in contact with the substrate in their tank. If that substrate is dirty then it is likely to spread bacteria to the snake’s scales which can lead to an infection.
A buildup of poop or leftover food, when combined with warm tank temperatures, creates a perfect environment for bacterial growth. Both solid substrates and loose substrates have the potential to grow bacteria if not cleaned regularly.
To keep bacterial levels to a minimum you should spot-clean the substrate every day to remove waste and uneaten food. Every three weeks the substrate should either be replaced entirely (for loose substrates) or thoroughly cleaned and disinfected (for tiles or carpet).
Too much humidity encourages bacteria to grow and makes it hard for your snake to shed.
Stuck or retained shed (dysecdysis) increases your snake’s risk of scale rot. This risk happens because retained shed causes open wounds by constricting the scales underneath. The risk is further increased when combined with high humidity or a dirty environment.
Each species has its own humidity needs. The humidity levels appropriate for one species may be harmful to another. Tropical species like the sunbeam snake require a very high ambient humidity when compared to arid or desert species like Mexican black kingsnakes.
To prevent high humidity levels avoid placing the tank in direct sunlight or near an air vent. Also use an accurate hygrometer to measure the tank’s ambient humidity throughout the day.
Injury to a snake’s scales can create a cut or gap in the epidermis through which bacteria can enter.
If you notice your snake has a minor injury then you should immediately treat it with a painkiller-free antibiotic ointment to prevent infections. Serious injuries such as bites will need veterinary care to properly heal.
Prevent your snake from injuring itself by checking the tank and its décor for any sharp or jagged edges that could cut them. We also recommend that you feed your snake pre-killed prey. Live prey can bite and cause serious injury.
Vitamin deficiencies can weaken a snake’s immune system and leave them vulnerable to scale rot.
While vitamin deficiencies are a less common cause, they are still thought to have an influence because of their overall importance to snake health. Vitamins directly contribute to the health of a snake’s skin and scales. Any deficiencies can increase the risk of infection.
Make sure your snake gets a full range of necessary vitamins by feeding it gut-loaded whole prey such as mice or rats. Making sure the feeder animal is high-quality, gut-loaded and healthy is critical.
What Does Scale Rot Look Like?
Scale rot has four main symptoms. The infection starts with discolored scales and crusty scales before progressing to raised scales and behavioral changes.
In the beginning it is hardly noticeable and can be as simple as scale discoloration.
Depending on which part of the snake is infected, the size of the snake, and the bacteria responsible this disease can appear in many different ways. Because of this it is very important to learn what it looks like in its early, mild and severe stages.
The longer a snake goes without treatment the worse this infection will become. The earlier this disease is detected the easier the treatment and recovery process will be.
Examine your snake regularly for any subtle changes in appearance or behavior that could signal an infection. The ventral (belly) scales are the most likely to develop this infection because they are in frequent contact with the substrate.
When handling your snake simply look at its scales for any spots, sores or red areas. If your snake is not comfortable with being held, place it in a clear plastic bin for examination.
Here are the most common symptoms of scale rot:
Early scale rot appears as a slight discoloration of the scales.
Scales will look brown, yellowish green, black or red. This discoloration is often accompanied by changes in scale texture or appearance. Typically smooth and glossy scales will become rough or dry. You should pay careful attention to the areas near your snake’s tail and cloaca to catch any new changes in scale color.
Discoloration can appear within the span of 3 or 4 days and is a positive sign.
Some owners may confuse this disease with shedding.
During shedding snakes lose the top layer of scale, called the epidermis. Scale rot affects the entire scale and the surrounding skin, not just the epidermis. Stuck shed looks and feels like a papery layer on top of the scale, whereas scale rot makes the entire scale feel rough or dry.
Blisters are a sign that the scale rot has progressed past a mild case.
Moderate cases often start as blisters on your snake’s ventral scales. Blisters look like raised bumps on or between the scales which are filled with yellowish or clear fluid. After bursting they often leave behind small, red, open sores that can easily become a secondary infection.
Blisters are a sign that the infection has progressed past the surface of the scale and into the underlying skin. Snakes will then develop raised scales from blood pooling and are at a higher risk of septicemia.
A sudden change in behavior can be a sign of a number of health problems, including scale rot.
Behaviors to watch out for include:
- Refusing to eat
- Rubbing against surfaces in the tank
If you notice your snake is not acting normally then thoroughly check them for signs of infection. Certain types of bacteria that are responsible for scale rot can simultaneously cause other conditions like pneumonia.
Snakes with mild scale rot will have patches of scales that feel dry and crumbly.
These dry and crumbly scales can be easily detected by gently running your hand down the length of your snake’s body and feeling for any irregularities. The infected scales will not have the normal smooth, glossy feel of healthy scales.
As the infection progresses the scales become raised and inflamed.
Raised scales are a sign that the disease has advanced past its early stage. Bacteria in the skin causes blood to pool underneath the scales which pushes them up out of place. The gaps created by these raised scales allow more bacteria to enter the skin which makes the infection worse.
How To Treat Scale Rot
Mild cases can be treated successfully at home if caught and addressed early.
You should see your snake’s scales begin to improve after two to three weeks of treatment. If the infection fails to get better or starts to look worse, then take your snake to a local vet as soon as possible.
Sometimes the best way to treat scale rot is to take your snake to a reptile vet. In moderate and severe cases prescription antibiotics or surgical intervention may be necessary. Veterinary costs for treating severe cases range from $200 to $650 depending on the progression.
As soon as you find any symptoms then follow the steps below to start treatment:
Start by moving your snake to a quarantine tank away from other animals. Make sure this tank has a paper towel substrate and clean hides that have not been used in another enclosure.
Soak your snake’s scales in a lukewarm (~85°F) 1:10 betadine to water solution for 30 minutes. Make sure that the entire snake remains submerged. After soaking gently pat your snake with paper towels until they are dry.
3. Apply Antibiotics
After each betadine bath apply a thin layer of topical antibiotic cream to the infected scales. A triple antibiotic like Neosporin works best. Never use an antibiotic that contains painkillers as these are toxic to snakes.
Repeat steps two and three once each day for 2 weeks.
4. Disinfect The Tank
Fully clean and disinfect the original tank while your snake is in quarantine. Clean all décor, hides and the tank with a 10% bleach solution. Fully rinse and dry everything after using the bleach solution. Loose substrates should be changed, while substrates like reptile carpet should be washed.
5. Address The Cause
Tanks that are not cleaned regularly, are too warm, humid or unsafe are far more likely to cause scale rot. You should review your tank setup and husbandry practices to narrow down the root cause before reintroducing your healthy snake.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can Scale Rot Kill A Snake?
Untreated scale rot can be fatal. If left to progress for more than a week the bacteria that causes this disease will enter the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream the infection causes symptoms such as lethargy and weight loss and blood poisoning called septicemia. Untreated septicemia can spread to a snake’s vital internal organs leading to death via septic shock.
How Do You Know If A Snake Has Scale Rot?
The first sign is scale discoloration. The scales will look brown, gray, greenish-yellow or red. Dry and crusty scales are another symptom that follow within a few days of discoloration. If not treated quickly, blisters form under the scales and will create a raised surface. These swollen scales can be easily felt by running your hand down the length of the snake.
How Long Does It Take To Develop?
Progress depends on the severity of the infection and the snake’s size and health. Smaller snakes and ones with weakened immune systems can succumb to scale rot within days. Generally it takes 3 to 4 weeks to become established in healthy snakes. If multiple factors are present such as a dirty enclosure and high humidity the infection can appear within 2 weeks.
Can It Form On A Snake’s Head?
Scale rot can form on the large scales on the top of a snake’s head and on the small scales of its chin and neck. However, there is another condition that affects the scales surrounding the mouth and nose which is known as mouth rot (infectious stomatitis). Mouth rot is a different bacterial infection caused by dirty conditions or injury. Mouth rot affects the tissues and mucus membranes around a snake’s mouth, whereas scale rot is isolated to the scales of a snake’s body.
Ball Python Scale Rot
Scale rot in ball pythons most often happens to pythons who are kept in small tanks under 35-gallons. This is because it is difficult to maintain a 50-60% humidity in a small enclosure, especially one without adequate ventilation.
Ball pythons with limited space to climb who do not have room to lift their bodies above the substrate are especially at risk. It is important to provide décor for climbing and an overhead basking lamp for this species.
The morph of your ball python can sometimes make spotting this infection difficult.
Infections are easier to see on morphs with pale scales like blue-eyed leucistics as the scale discoloration stands out clearly. It is more difficult to spot on darker morphs or those with more complex patterns.
Ball pythons will need more betadine solution and antibiotic to treat scale rot than other species due to their larger size. When soaking one make sure there is enough betadine solution to fully contact all affected scales.
Corn Snake Scale Rot
Corn snakes are active snakes who will often burrow into their substrate while moving around the tank. This burrowing behavior means they expose every part of their body to bacteria growing in the substrate. For this reason it is especially important to keep their tanks spotless and change the substrate regularly.
These snakes also have small scales which can make it hard to spot an infection that starts on one or two scales. Luckily, they tend to enjoy handling so you should give your corn snake a careful check-up every few days.
Look for any changes in color, texture or differences in the scales.
Corn snake scale rot treatment is the same as any other snake. However, this species can be fidgety so bathing them in the betadine solution for 30 minutes can be tricky.
Scale rot is the result of a bacterial infection of the scales and skin. It is caused by several different bacteria that thrive in humid, dirty conditions. This is why a dirty tank is the number one cause of scale rot.
High humidity, injury or vitamin deficiencies can also cause this disease.
Scale rot is a blanket term used to describe a variety of different bacterial skin diseases that can be deadly. This disease is common in pet snakes despite most owners’ best efforts.
To catch this infection early examine your snake several times each week for discolored scales or blisters.
If you notice anything out of the ordinary isolate your snake and start treatment immediately. This disease is treatable at-home in its early and mild stages. More severe cases require veterinary care and prescription antibiotics.
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