Burns in Reptiles

Filed Under: Reptiles, General Care

The most common type of burns seen in captive reptiles are thermal and are usually attributed to an abnormally hot heat source, one from which the animal cannot escape. Captive reptiles should always be provided a basking spot, but the enclosure should be large enough that the reptile may retreat to cooler areas if and when the radiating heat becomes too intense. In the wild, thermal burns may be encountered when the reptile has survived a grass or forest fire. Chemical burns may also occur, typically from cleaning solutions used to sanitize the enclosure of a captive reptile.

Regardless of the source of injury, the area should be profusely irrigated with sterile saline. Cold-water rinses or cold compresses may be used to further limit the tissue destruction. Ice should never be used as a compress because the ice may cause further damage to the involved tissues.

Silver Sulfadiazine or Silvadene® cream is an ointment extensively used in burn patients. The cream is both a broad spectrum antibiotic and an antifungal agent with cooling affects on the skin. The cream is inexpensive and relatively non-toxic. Systemic (oral or injectable) antibiotics are not effective in preventing wound infection and are only used in cases of sepsis.

Placement of a transparent adhesive drape or an absorbent wound dressing over the wound will protect the area and discourage the invasion of the site by secondary bacterial contamination.

Burns should not be closed surgically and in fact will rarely hold sutures. Since reptile skin is so closely adhered, skin grafting is not a viable option. Most burns 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). Skin repair from burns is slow and may result in severe scarring.

By their nature burns are quite painful and analgesia should be given as necessary. The injured area will also result in plasma loss and fluid therapy may be necessary, especially in severe cases.


Lichtenberger, Marla DVM. Veterinary Clinics of North America, Exotic Animal Practice. Vol. 10. No.2. May 2007. Pp. 579-580.

Kahn, Cynthia, Editor. The Merck Veterinary Manual. 9th Ed. 2005. P.1614.

Muller, George . Robert Kirk. Small Animal Dermatology. 5th Ed. Pp. 869-871.

Mader, Douglas, and John Cooper. “Dermatology”. Reptile Medicine and Surgery. 2nd Edition. W.B. Saunders Co. Pp. 203-204.

Topics: basking, burns

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