Bites from Reptile Prey

Filed Under: Reptiles, Diet & Nutrition, General Care

Bite wounds most commonly occur in reptiles when live rodents are left in cages with a reptile that does not want to eat the rodent, regardless of the reason. The rodent will then often gnaw on the reptile. Rodents may also bite in self-defense when they are seized by a reptile in any manner that fails to induce immediate death. Wounds made in self-defense tend to involve the head, mouth and face of the snake.

Wounds should be flushed with copious amounts of sterile saline. In all wounds, except those that are very minor, the reptile should be sedated and any necrotic (dead) tissue should be removed. The defect should be sutured whenever possible. Obviously infected or old wounds (wounds more than six to twelve hours old) should not be sutured until the infection is under control and the wound may be surgically debrided.

Snake skin adheres tightly to the underlying tissue, making skin grafts difficult at best and a suture line under tension should be avoided. Large wounds must heal by secondary intention (not sutured closed) through the promotion of healthy granulation tissue (a collection of capillaries, fibroblasts and inflammatory cells that act together to repair a wound).

To promote healthy granulation, an absorbent wound dressing or wet to dry bandage may be used. Absorbent wound dressings contain enzymes to clean and debride (removal of dead of devitalized tissue) the area while preventing the escape of moisture. They also contain substances having antiseptic properties to help control bacterial contamination. A wet to dry bandage is one that incorporates an antiseptic solution and cling or roll gauze to wrap the area. The antiseptic helps prevent bacterial contamination and changing of the dried gauze bandage helps remove necrotic tissue, thereby assisting in wound debridement and the formation of healthy granulation tissue. Bandage materials should be changed routinely at one to two day intervals. Bedding material that may stick to the wound should be avoided.

When a reptile is particularly adept at removing a bandage, towels soaked in an antiseptic solution may be used to line a waterproof container to temporarily house the reptile. Make sure the container has adequate ventilation for the pet in question. The towels should be changed daily.

Topical and systemic antibiotics are indicated for control of secondary bacterial infections. Silver sulfadiazine and Neosporin are both good choices for a topical antibiotic. Systemic antibiotics such as enrofloxacin, ceftazidine, metronidazole, chloramphenicol, clindamycin or amikacin should be given to treat localized infection and prevent septicemia in all but minor superficial wounds. The choice of antibiotic may best be determined through the use of bacterial culture on the wound itself.

Healing by secondary intention may take from as little as a few months to over a year. It may take as many as six to ten shedding cycles for a large defect to completely heal and massive scarring may still be the end result.

To prevent bite wounds from occurring, reptiles should be fed prekilled or stunned prey. Reptiles that refuse to eat prekilled prey may be trained to accept it by offering live prey followed by stunned prey. Gradually, the reptile should be moved to prekilled prey as the reptile becomes more accepting of the prey being offered. There are several companies marketing prekilled, frozen prey for convenience to owners.


Mader, Douglas, MS.,DVM and Stephen Barten. “Bites from Prey”. Reptile Medicine and Surgery. W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia. Pp. 353-355.

Lichtenberger, Marla DVM, Editor. Veterinary Clinics of North America, Exotic Animal Practice, Emergency and Critical Care. Volume 10. No. 2. May 2007. pp. 579-580.

Topics: prey, wounds

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