Whether you’re the owner of a ball python, corn snake, boa constrictor, or any other kind of snake, you obviously want them to have the best health possible. Therefore, you should be vigilant in preventing and treating health issues such as the infamous scale rot.
Scale rot is a blanket term used to describe various skin conditions that can effect the skin of snakes. While it is a very serious condition, there are many ways that you can treat it or avoid it altogether.
This post will extensively cover what scale rot is, how to identify scale rot, and what you as the owner can do to prevent or cure scale rot in your snakes. Keeping your snakes free of this condition is one of the best ways that you can keep them very happy and healthy for the entirety of their long life spans.
Table of Contents
What Is Snake Scale Rot?
Scale rot isn’t a singular condition that has one definition. Instead, scale rot is a broad term that’s used to describe different types of reptile dermatitis such as vesicular dermatitis, blister disease, and other serious conditions of the skin and scales. It’s also used as a way to describe conditions that occur after burns or skin abrasions.
Scale rot is a very common condition among captive snakes, namely ball pythons, boa constrictors, and corn snakes. There are many different causes for this condition, but it’s stated that the most common cause for dermatophies in reptiles is simply poor management by the owner. This largely entails keeping an unhealthy environment in terms of cleanliness, temperature, and humidity — all factors that are able to be controlled.
In fact, overly moist conditions are an overwhelming cause for scale rot. Some snakes are especially susceptible to this condition as a result of excess humidity, such as water snakes and garter snakes, because they can’t adequately dry themselves off in their environment.
As snakes spend days on moist bedding that’s contaminated with food, waste, and excess moisture, their skin quickly becomes infected. Over time, scales swell and start to become home to millions of harmful bacteria. When left untreated, this bacteria can spread to a snake’s bloodstream and cause septicemia, which is fatal.
Difference Between Scale & Mouth Rot
While scale rot and mouth rot are both bacterial infections, they are two different conditions.
Mouth rot, also known as infectious stomatitis, is another common condition in reptiles that occurs when a reptile is under serious physical or environmental stress.
Reptiles are like humans in the sense that stress can have seriously negative health effects. Stress weakens the immune system of a reptile, resulting in them having difficulty regulating the naturally-occurring bacteria in their mouth. When this happens, mouth rot can set in.
While scale rot occurs on the scales of a snake’s body, mouth rot is present in the oral tissue of a snake and results in reddened or dead tissue, the presence of thick pus, and drainage from the mouth and nose.
While both conditions are extremely serious, they are inherently different and require independent treatments from each other.
Causes Of Snake Scale Rot
There are many different potential causes for scale rot in snakes. However, most of the time it is a result of one or multiple of the four causes highlighted below:
- Excessively humid or moist conditions within a snake’s enclosure
- Dirty, non-sterilized surfaces
- Unaddressed spills or wet areas (pools of water)
- Deficiency of vitamins A or C
All of the aforementioned causes of scale rot are easily avoidable if you take a proactive approach to caring for your snake and their enclosure. Keep humidity levels in check, sterilize any surfaces that get dirty, wipe up spills, and make sure that your snake has access to plenty of nourishing food.
Being cautious of these few tasks will drastically reduce, if not eliminate the chances of your snake developing scale rot during their lifetime.
Is Scale Rot Contagious?
Yes, scale rot is contagious to other snakes. It is a bacterial infection that can spread from affected to healthy snakes relatively easily. Even if a snake is kept in a healthy environment, the opportunistic bacteria that’s present in scale rot can quickly degrade their health.
Because of this, if you diagnose one of your snakes with scale rot, it’s essential that you quarantine them until the condition is properly dealt with and eliminated. Affected snakes should be given their own sterile enclosure that’s far away from any other snakes.
Snakes that are experiencing scale rot should be handled with caution, and you should wash your hands and any equipment thoroughly after making contact with them.
Scale rot can be dealt with, but it does take a lot of time and care to do so. Therefore, you should do everything in your power to keep it from spreading to your healthy snakes.
Can Scale Rot Be Lethal For Snakes?
There is good and bad news when it comes to snake scale rot. The good news is that scale rot, when caught early, can be entirely treated to return a snake back to their original healthy state. The bad news, though, is that scale rot can be fatal when left untreated. Bacteria from the infection can spread to a snake’s bloodstream and result in septicemia, a lethal disease.
Not all snakes are affected by scale rot equally, though. The journal of Veterinary Dermatology states that snakes that are smaller and snakes that have weakened immune systems are more vulnerable to this disease. These snakes get sicker more quickly and die in a shorter amount of time.
Small snakes and other small reptiles can die from septicemia within just a few days if immediate medical attention isn’t given. Larger snakes, on the other hand, can go for weeks or even months before succumbing to the disease. This doesn’t mean that that time isn’t extremely painful for the snakes, though.
Regardless of if you have a tiny corn snake or a massive ball python, you should get them immediately medical treatment as soon as symptoms start to show. This is not a condition that will resolve itself on its own, so it’s up to you as the owner to take matters into your hands.
Symptoms Of Scale Rot In Snakes
There are many different ways that scale rot can show itself in your snake — there isn’t a singular warning sign. Because of this, you need to always keep a watchful eye on your snake so that you can recognize any subtle changes in their appearance or personality.
Catching scale rot early will drastically increase the chances of your snake coming out of it unharmed and as healthy as ever.
One of the most common ways that this condition shows itself is through discolored scales on a snake’s stomach. These scales can either be slightly darker or lighter than normal, yellow, red, brown, or even black.
To check for these scales, turn your snake onto their back and scan their stomach for any discolored scales. If patches of their stomach are colored strangely (and it hasn’t always looked that way), there is a good chance that scale rot is beginning to set in.
Commonly, many owners confuse a snake’s shed with the red discoloration caused by scale rot. During both processes, the scales on a snake’s stomach start to turn red. Fortunately, scale rot can be further determined by also looking for the presence of scale erosion or large blisters on their underside.
This discoloration can occur all throughout a snake’s body — even towards the end of the tail. This is because it will set in wherever a snake is most frequently making contact with the damp substrate beneath them.
Blisters often go hand-in-hand with discolored scales and appear as small vesicles on a snake’s stomach that are about half an inch or smaller in diameter. These also appear where a snake frequently makes contact with their bedding.
Most of the time, blisters in their early stages are filled with a clear, slightly yellow fluid that doesn’t contain any bacteria. These are harmless at this stage, but can become dangerous when left untreated and bacteria from an unclean enclosure starts to set in.
There are several other ways that bacteria can enter these blisters and cause an infection. Snake mites can spread bacteria, and fungi from dirty substrate can even lead to dangerous fungal infections.
After infection sets in to these areas, a snake’s scales will typically appear reddened and discharge clear or reddish fluid, accompanied by swelling. Once the infection reaches dangerous stages, entire scales can start to flake or fall off.
Advanced stages of the infection can also result in abscesses forming at the site of the blister. If a shed occurs when these abscesses are present, ulcers can form that leak contagious pus from the region.
Over time, blisters can merge into large patches of infected skin. If an infection is treated at this point, it will take several sheds before a snake’s skin returns to its normal-looking appearance.
Raised scales are indicative of scale rot that’s advanced beyond its early stages. This is a result of blood pooling beneath the scales, lifting them up.
The occurrence of these raised scales is fairly serious, as it allows bacteria to get under the scales and cause infection quickly. Scales are like armor for snakes, so when this armor is breached, it opens the possibilities of many different problems occurring.
Scale Rot Treatment
If you notice any of the aforementioned symptoms of scale rot in your snake, the best thing that you can do is to remain calm. When caught early, scale rot is entirely treatable and doesn’t pose a serious threat to your snake.
The first step you should take when these symptoms are recognized is to quarantine your snake — get them away from any other snakes or sources of further infection. Next, begin the treatment steps highlighted below in a very timely manner.
1) Clean The Enclosure
Lack of hygiene is one of the most common causes for scale rot in snakes. This is great to hear, since proper hygiene is not very difficult to maintain within a snake enclosure.
Cleaning the enclosure involves thoroughly sterilizing and disinfecting every surface within it in addition to replacing soiled substrate with fresh, healthy substrate. Doing so will work to control symptoms that already exist and prevent new symptoms from developing.
Additionally, raising the temperature of the enclosure and utilizing UV lighting will work to kill off any pathogens that exist. This will be uncomfortable for the snake for a short while, but it will ultimately help them recover.
How To Clean A Snake Enclosure
The main step in cleaning a snake enclosure is staying on top of the cleaning — being proactive. Enclosures that go uncleaned for long periods of time force snakes to slither around their damp, stale substrate that’s full of waste, water, and food. These dirty conditions absolutely exacerbate illnesses and infections.
Every other week you should go into the enclosure and wipe down/disinfect the walls, substrate, hides, and decorations. The substrate only needs to be spot-cleaned during these regular cleanings, but it should be entirely replaced about every other month. In doing this routine cleaning, keep an eye out for anything of concern, especially mites or small bugs.
Don’t forget to focus on small crevices, cracks, and corners within the enclosure. Bacteria can build up in these areas if they aren’t properly cleaned. Utilize tools such as paper towels, toothpicks, Q-tips, and even razor blades to reach these corners and effectively clean them.
Since this cleaning isn’t extremely quick, it’s a good idea to have a separate tank to keep your snake in as you’re cleaning their enclosure. Not only does this keep them out of the way of your cleaning, but it also helps to reduce stress.
Throughout the entire cleaning process, make sure that you keep yourself safe, too. Snakes carry salmonella and E. coli, which have the potential to cause serious health problems. Wear rubber gloves and eye protection while disinfecting the enclosure, and wash your hands thoroughly after you’re done.
It’s also important to not wash your snake’s items in sinks or bathtubs — anywhere that could result in cross-contamination. This results in many owners opting to wash items in their backyard.
Necessary Cleaning Materials
- Holding tank – A space for your snake to stay while their enclosure is being cleaned.
- Rubber gloves & goggles – Protection for your hands and face during cleaning.
- Brushes – Medium-sized brushes to clean cracks and crevices in cage accessories.
- Sponges – Some sponges kept for wiping, others kept for disinfecting.
- Toothpicks, razors, Q-tips – Accessing small areas and corners for cleaning.
- Paper towels – Spot-cleaning the cage and cleaning up spills.
- Soap & dishwashing detergent – Cleaning the enclosure and accessories within it.
- Terrarium cleaner – A safe cleaner for dissolving hard substances within the enclosure.
You should have all of these accessories handy and ready to go in case your snake’s cage requires a thorough cleaning. All of these supplies should be stored together and away from any other household cleaning supplies in order to avoid cross-contamination.
You should also remember that dirty cleaning supplies may cause more harm than good. Sponges and brushes should be cleaned thoroughly after use and disposed of once they become too dirty.
Disinfecting your snake’s cage is a massive step in keeping their environment clean and preventing further development of their illness. The disinfectant that you choose to use is extremely important. This is because it should be strong enough to kill any harmful bacteria, fungi, and viruses, but it shouldn’t be so strong as to harm your snake’s health in any way. That’s just counter-intuitive!
This is the point when your holding tank comes in handy. Snakes are very sensitive to fumes like the ones given off by many disinfectants. Therefore, keeping them in a tank in another room is essential. They can be moved back into their normal enclosure once there are no more fumes within the room.
Disinfectants should be the last step in the cleaning process of your snake’s enclosure. Any traces of food scraps, snake waste, or other cleaning supplies should be entirely removed before a disinfectant is applied. The enclosure itself should be rinsed with hot soapy water and dried thoroughly prior to its disinfecting.
Apply the disinfectant over every surface within the enclosure and let it sit for around 10 to 15 minutes. After time is up, thoroughly rinse and dry every single surface that the solution touched. Make sure that every last trace is removed from the enclosure before re-introducing your snake.
Porous items such as wood need to soak for much longer in order to thoroughly disinfect them. Water and food bowls are able to be thoroughly cleaned with hot soapy water about 2-3 times a week, but they should be disinfected once or twice a month.
Establishing A Cleaning Schedule
The cleaning schedule for your specific snake’s cage depends on a lot of different factors. Those factors are the size and type of your snake, in addition to the size and complexity of their enclosure. However, the typical snake enclosure cleaning schedule looks similar to:
- Daily – Spot-cleaning the cage to remove any waste, spills, sheds, or uneaten food. Food and water dishes should be cleaned about every other day.
- Weekly – Cleaning of the enclosure, its accessories, and the substrate.
- Monthly – Full disinfection of the enclosure and all of its accessories. Substrate should be entirely replaced.
Those timely cleanings are a big portion of the overall healthcare of your snake, but they’re certainly not everything. There are many other factors that you should closely monitor and consider when it comes to your snake’s health. Below are a few points that you should make a daily mental note of to ensure the well-being of your snake.
- Is the enclosure clean, safe, and structurally sound?
- Are any accessories damaged, dirty, or needing replacement?
- Are the enclosure’s temperature and humidity levels appropriate?
- Does the snake’s waste look healthy and normal?
- Are there any signs of shedding?
- Is the snake eating an appropriate amount of food?
- Are there signs of parasites, mites, or other harmful creatures?
2) Betadine Bath Soaks
Betadine solution soaks are used to eliminate harmful bacteria that are present in the wounds caused by scale rot. Betadine is a topical antiseptic that’s used to kill a wide variety of different germs, so it works perfectly for neutralizing germs involved with scale rot.
It’s fairly easy to prepare a Betadine bath for your snake. You’ll want to combine 1 part Betadine to 9 parts lukewarm water in a tub or container that’s large enough to contain your snake. Keep your snake soaking in this bath for 20 minutes, then remove the snake, dry it, and apply an ointment like Neosporin on the wound.
You’ll want to do this twice a day until the infection entirely clears. If the scale rot appears to not be getting any better or even getting worse over the next week or two, stop the baths and immediately take your snake to a specialized vet.
Note that these soaks only work for mild scale rot that’s caught early. Fortunately this is a majority of cases, so it’s likely to work for you. However, if a severe bacterial infection has taken place, then the steps highlighted above likely won’t work. In this case, the snake should be immediately taken to a specialized for proper care.
A veterinarian may apply direct antibiotic injections to properly treat the wound. Anesthesia may also be administered in order for the vet to cut out the infected areas.
Mites, Ticks, And Parasites
While the soak described above will likely kill off any mites, ticks, and parasites, we figured that these ailments deserved their own information blurb. It’s important that you keep your eyes peeled for the following critters:
- Mites – These creatures look like very small red, brown, or black spots around a snake’s eyes or between their scales.
- Ticks – Slightly larger than mites and are colored gray, brown, or black.
- Parasites – You can see traces of internal parasites through changes in a snake’s poop.
If you suspect that your snake has mites, ticks, or parasites, remove them from their tank and place them in a large container of room temperature water. Keep the snake’s body submerged for a decent period of time, then remove them from the water and check for signs of them still being there.
Repeat until you can no longer see any small creatures on your snake.
3) Control Enclosure Moisture
Keeping the moisture levels consistent and healthy within your snake’s enclosure is another very important step in keeping your snake healthy. Captive-held snakes are very susceptible to scale rot through enclosures that are simply too moist for them.
Snakes have excellently evolved to thrive in the environments that they’re native to. Because of this, it’s imperative that your snake’s enclosure closely matches the environmental conditions of their natural habitat. Enclosures that are too moist or too dry can have serious negative health effects on their scales.
One way to gauge if you’re keeping the enclosure at an optimal humidity level is by looking at your snake’s shed. If the shed is difficult and comes off in many different pieces, then the enclosure is likely too dry. A perfectly-humid enclosure should see excellent sheds with no negative side effects. Overly-moist enclosures will result in good sheds, but they will also start to bring about the symptoms of scale rot.
Keeping Healthy Humidity Levels
The humidity inside of your snake’s enclosure is a direct result of combining moisture with heat. Keeping heat and moisture levels at a consistent balance is key to providing an optimal environment for your snake and avoiding scale rot.
Below are several actionable things that you can do to ensure that humidity levels are optimal within the enclosure:
- Effectively utilize heat lamps. While they can be used to keep an enclosure warm and humid, they can also make it too humid or even too dry. This requires you to be vigilant with how heating affects moisture.
- Ensure that the enclosure has proper ventilation to allow an optimal amount of humidity to escape from the enclosure.
- Use the appropriate bedding to effectively control moisture levels.
- Supply the enclosure with just enough water. Misting the substrate too much will result in an overly-damp environment with the potential for mold growth.
- Avoid placing the enclosure near a window to avoid the sunlight from influencing temperatures within the enclosure.
Snake Substrate For Avoiding Scale Rot
Another way that you can actively avoid scale rot is by supplying the right bedding or substrate in the enclosure. There are many different kinds of substrate that you can choose from, but there are only a few optimal choices.
While sand may seem like a great, cheap option, it’s actually one of the worst. This substrate is coarse, unhealthy, and very difficult to effectively clean.
Astro-turf is a newer option that’s gaining some traction in the snake community. However, this substrate soaks up snake waste, so it would contribute towards scale rot more than other substrate options.
For a budget-friendly option, consider using paper towels or newspaper. These substrates are very inexpensive and are nicely absorbent. While they aren’t aesthetically pleasing by any means, they’re effective enough to warrant their usage.
Coconut fiber and aspen bedding are some of the most popular and effective choices. Not only are these relatively cost-efficient, but they’re extremely effective at containing waste and the odors that are associated with it. They also hold moisture in a way that help the regulation of humidity.
What Defines The Best Snake Substrate?
Not all snake substrate is created equal. When looking for the optimal substrate, you’ll want to find one that meets a snake’s specific requirements. The characteristics highlighted below define a truly effective and safe snake substrate:
- Appearance – While the appearance of a snake’s substrate isn’t important for effectiveness, it may be important for you as the owner. A natural-looking substrate drastically transforms and enhances the visual appearance of a snake’s enclosure.
- Odor control – Snakes can be smelly creatures, especially if their substrate isn’t good at controlling odors. You should find a substrate that’s able to absorb waste and lock in odors to provide a much cleaner and safer environment.
- Price – The price of a substrate is another very important factor. To maintain a clean enclosure, you’ll need to diligently remove any waste from your snake’s substrate and entirely replace it about once a month. If a substrate is too expensive, these scheduled cleanings may hurt your wallet a little too much. This could result in you cleaning out the substrate less. Find a good balance between value and quality.
- Fiber size – The fiber size of a bedding, as well as its dust level, is a characteristic that should be considered. Fibers need to be small enough to not cause harm if ingested, or large enough to not be ingested in the first place. Snakes don’t purposefully eat their substrate, but the worst case scenario should still be considered. The substrate should also be free of dust so that it doesn’t cause any respiratory issues.
- Moisture retention – The humidity of your snake’s enclosure is extremely important, so the substrate needs to contribute to that factor. The optimal substrate retains moisture enough to keep a consistent level of humidity, and it also stays fresh for a long time and doesn’t feel too damp. If a substrate has this trait, scale rot likely won’t be a problem for your snake.
Our recommendation for a substrate that meets all of the requirements above is coconut fiber substrate. Specifically Zoo Med’s Eco Earth Loose Coconut Fiber Substrate. Coconut fiber substrates are extremely safe and effective for snake enclosures, which is why owners recommend it so highly.
This substrate is gentle on the underside of a snake, easy to spot clean, great at retaining moisture without molding, and effective at odor control. It also looks very natural and is surprisingly affordable for how well it functions.
An additional factor that makes this substrate so great is that it’s environmentally-friendly. Any substrate that’s cleaned out of your snake’s enclosure can simply be tossed in your garden or compost bin — it’s 100% organic. So, not only are you helping to prevent scale rot, but you’re also helping the environment.