Burns in reptiles and amphibians (Proceedings)


Burns in reptiles and amphibians (Proceedings)

Oct 01, 2008

Treatment Options for the Different Types of Burn

Reptiles are amazing animals. They have a penchant for healing far greater than any mammal. Some of the wounds that I have seen in reptiles would have spelled doom for most other animals. Incredibly, I have also seen scars on wild reptiles that bore the legacy of previous severe wounds. Wounds that healed without the benefit of veterinary intervention. That does not mean that we should ignore wounds in captivity, that they will heal without help, but, it does give us hope when we see a bad wound, knowing that with proper care and time, it may actually be able to heal.

Minor burns will often do well with first aid. However, severe burns will require medical attention and possible hospitalization in order to provide pain relief, infection control and treatment for shock.

In general, first degree burns, unless affecting extensive portions of the body, can be treated at home. If the burn is recent, apply cold water rinses/soaks or cold compresses (not ice!) for no more than twenty minutes. This helps reduce swelling and pain to the affected area. Applying ice to the tissue can cause frost bite, actually causing freeze damage to the tissue.

If blisters are present, they should NOT be broken. Doing so damages down the body's natural barrier against infection. Let the blisters either resolve or break on their own.

Infection is a common, and potentially serious complication of burns. When the skin is compromised, as with broken blisters, always pay careful attention to contamination, keeping the affected area as clean as possible. A non-irritating antibacterial soap, such as Nolvasan, or even a gentle hand soap, such as Ivory or Dove, will work well.

If there is damaged skin, then application of a topical burn dressing, after gentle wound cleansing, is appropriate. The burn should then be dressed, or covered, with a sterile non-stick bandage. This can be tricky, especially when the burn is on the underside of a snake.

In animals where there are extensive burns, I recommend keeping them in a glass or Plexiglas enclosure without substrate. Even though this is not a natural way to house a reptile, these cages are easy to clean and disinfect, thus minimizing the risk of infection. Their benefits outweigh the disadvantages of the temporary housing.

Second degree burns, because of the extensive tissue damage, need veterinary attention. If for no other reason, pain is a hallmark of second degree burns, and the veterinarian can provide medications for pain relief.

If the animal is in shock, therapy must be initiated to counter the effects. Wounds must be cleaned and debrided. Topical burn creams, such as Silvadene, are applied, and the patient is started on antibiotics to prevent infection at the burn site. Injectable cephazolin or oral cephalexin (20 mg/kg/day) are my first drugs of choice.

Fluids, either intravenous, oral or otherwise, must be administered to counter the effects of shock and fluid loss from the burn. Daily cleansing of the wound and sterile bandage changes are needed to effect rapid healing. These may take several weeks to months to fully heal.

Third degree, or full thickness burns may require intensive care at the outset. For human patients, there are entire burn centers dedicated to the care of burn victims.

Depending on the extent of the burn, the owner of the reptile should be appraised of the potentially grave prognosis. Treatment involves all the care involved for the second degree burn, plus more. As the tissue starts to heal, the pain can be intense. The pain from the daily cleanings and debridements can also intensify as the patient recovers feeling to the burn area.

Antibiotic therapy may be protracted, often lasting for several months. Wound care can get expensive, considering that the bandages may need to be changed daily for many months. As a veterinarian, it is important to consider all the costs of return visits, bandage materials, follow-up laboratory sampling and other miscellaneous costs when quoting estimates to the clients. Even in the face of such odds, many people do elect to treat their pets that are suffering from burns.

Even some of the fourth degree burns, where not only the skin is destroyed, but also the underlying tissue, have the potential to heal if cared for properly.

Although not discussed, many patients exposed to heat may not actually be burned, but, may suffer from smoke or other toxic fume inhalation. Many melted glues and plastics produce noxious fumes, as well as smoke that can damage delicate lung tissue. Although initially these patients may appear to be uninjured, they may develop a fatal fluid build-up within their lungs, and could potentially die if not treated properly in a timely fashion.

In conclusion, understanding the reason why reptiles are so prone to burn injury remains somewhat of a mystery. But, understanding the causes of burns and the mechanics of tissue injury will help us to prevent such occurrences, and in the unfortunate event that they do happen, to better manage their care. The most important point is when dealing with burns in reptile patients, be diligent, be clean and, above all, be patient!


Mader, D.R. (1998). Understanding Thermal Burns in Reptile Patients. Proc. 5th ARAV Conference, Kansas City, Mo. p. 143 – 149.