Reptile-Related Diseases and Health Issues

Reptiles can be infected with a variety of diseases. Salmonellosis (food poisoning) spread from reptile faeces can affect humans particularly children and the elderly, causing diarrhoea, abdominal cramps and fever.


Metabolic bone disease develops in lizards, tortoises and turtles due to poor diet with the wrong calcium-to-phosphorous ratio and lack of vitamin D3 or improper husbandry. It can lead to swollen bones and fractures.

Paramyxovirus Infection

The paramyxoviruses are an important group of viruses. They are responsible for a range of symptoms from mumps to respiratory disease in humans, including croup, bronchiolitis and pneumonia. Vaccination against these diseases is available.

Mumps is a systemic febrile infection of the salivary glands, with complications involving the nervous system (e.g. meningitis) and pancreatitis or oophoritis. It may also cause a swelling of the testis, which can lead to orchitis. The virus is spread by droplets and infects ciliated epithelial cells in the upper and lower respiratory tract. The virus replicates within the cell and produces progeny viruses that are deposited extracellularly as secretions. Shedding is greatest immediately before and during symptom onset. Local and serum antibodies develop after the initial infection.

The human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common cause of disease in infants and young children. It causes a range of symptoms from a mild and febrile common cold to life-threatening croup, bronchiolitis or pneumonia. It is endemic worldwide, and epidemics occur each winter in urban areas with a large nonimmunized population. The virus is transmitted by direct contact and, less commonly, by airborne droplets.

Cloaca Infection

The cloaca, or vent, is the opening at the end of the digestive tract in reptiles, amphibians and monotremes. Infection of this area is known as cloacitis and is marked by swelling. Treatment with a broad-spectrum antibiotic will help clear the infection.

Reptiles can carry salmonella bacteria in their feces and shed them on their skin, leading to salmonellosis in humans. This poses a particular risk to infants, young children and adults with weakened immune systems.

Small flukes called trematodes are common in the mouth and lungs of frogs, newts and tadpoles. Infection is usually minimal. Diagnosis is made by finding the characteristic brownish operculated eggs in a fecal sample or oral mucosa.

Cestodes can be found in the intestines of some reptiles, particularly turtles and lizards. Symptoms include blood or mucus in the stool and weight loss. Typically there is no pathology with the thorny-headed worms (acanthocephalans), although they can lead to intestinal perforation and inflammation in some cases.

Skin Maggots

Flies may lay their eggs in living tissue, leading to maggot infestation (myiasis). This is more common in people who live or travel to endemic areas. It also occurs in those with open wounds or degenerative necrotic conditions of the skin and mucosa. Flies that are the most likely to cause myiasis include blowflies of the family Calliphoridae and houseflies of the family Muscidae.

Symptoms of myiasis are boil-like nodules that enlarge over time and associated itching and pain. There are several variations of myiasis including furuncular, migratory, and wound myiasis. Furuncular myiasis is caused by Dermatobia hominis and is characterized by painful, itchy nodules that enlarge over time. Migratory myiasis is caused by Gasterophilus intestinalis and Hypoderma spp and is characterized by linear lesions that migrate 2 to 30 cm per day.

Doctors use maggot therapy to clean wounds and remove dead tissue. The maggots are sealed within a dressing to prevent them from damaging healthy tissues. The dressing is made of a finely woven net and foam that aids maggot growth and manages exudate. Patients should avoid bathing, immersing or soaking the wound as this can disrupt the process and dry out the maggots.


Ticks are a problem in many parts of the country. They hang out in wooded areas and grassy fields with lots of brush, weeds, tall grass and leaf litter — places where animals and people might walk by. The ticks wait there for an animal or person to pass by, then they latch on and start sucking blood. Some kinds of ticks carry pathogens that cause illness.

One example is Lyme disease, which is caused by bacteria that attack white blood cells that fight infection in the body. Symptoms of this disease include flulike symptoms, such as fever, headache, muscle aches and stomach pain, plus an expanding red rash with a clear area in the center (called a bull’s-eye rash). It’s treated with antibiotics like doxycycline.

If you find a tick on your body, use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp it as close to the skin’s surface as possible and pull straight up, with steady pressure. Don’t jerk or twist the tick because it might release more saliva into your bloodstream. Also, don’t try to remove the tick with petroleum jelly, heat or burning, because those methods can make it harder for you to get it off.


The sight of a leech slithering across a patient’s body might make some people queasy, but the spineless bloodsuckers can save fingers and lives. The ancient physician’s art of using the worms for medical purposes has made a remarkable modern comeback, helping physicians do everything from reattach severed fingers to treating potentially fatal circulation disorders.

Leeches, from the Annelida phylum, have a suction cup on each end of their segmented bodies and breathe through the skin. They are hermaphrodites, with both male and female sex organs, and mate by intertwining their heads and depositing sperm in the clitellum, an area of thickened skin on their posteriors.

The most common reptile-associated disease of leeches is dry gangrene, which develops as a nodule or swelling on the tip of the toes, tail or limbs and gradually extends towards the body. This is usually associated with malnutrition and poor husbandry, and can be very serious if not treated. Another possible cause of this condition is Salmonella, which can spread from a reptile to a human through the mouth or ingestion of contaminated food.