It is common for Iguana’s to be brought to us for infections. Often times they are minor and easily treated. Sometimes the infections are deep seated, and can result in death even in spite of  treatment. To prevent infections in Iguana’s it is imperative that their husbandry is adequate.

Cause

Poor husbandry is at the root of many infections, therefore it is critical that proper humidity, temperature, and nutrition are optimum. Click here to learn more about adequate husbandry for iguana’s.

Iguana’s can get infections from trauma, especially to their delicate digits. The can also get infections from bite wounds and being in a dirty environment that exposes them to greater numbers of bacteria than is normal.

Housing too many of them in close confines increases their stress level to the point that their immune system can be compromised, and they can pick up an infection that normally they could fight off with no ill effects.

Symptoms

Most iguana’s with infections are not eating well or are not active. In some cases there is obvious swelling, especially around the jaw or the limbs and feet. Their skin might show discoloration, especially if we suspect Salmonella as the cause.

Iguana with a badly infected rostrum (nose)

This poor Iguana has been kept in a cage that is inadequate. As a result it has traumatized its rostrum and caused a chronic infection. This preventable problem is inexcusable since it is so obvious.

Iguana with a badly infected rostrum (nose) front view

Front view of the same iggie. Again, the problem is obvious, and should have been brought to our attention long before it got this large.

Iguana with an infected jaw causing an abscess

Here is one with a  jaw with a chronic infection leading to an abscess

The swelling on the forearm of this sick iguana could be a sign of an infection

Snake with severe mouth infection

Many reptiles get serious infections, again usually due to poor husbandry. Snakes sometimes get a severe infection in their mouths called stomatitis. This is usually associated with poor husbandry. This snake needs to be hospitalized to be treated. 

Diagnosis

In many cases the diagnosis is obvious based on the symptoms. In other cases we need to perform diagnostic tests to help us determine if there is an infection.

A common test to perform is a blood sample. It lets us assess the red and white blood cells along with important internal organs like the liver. When we suspect and infection we pay particular attention to the white blood cells. A normal blood sample on a sick iguana does not mean there is no infection or internal organ problem, since sick reptiles commonly have normal blood samples.

Avian CBC showing elevated white blood cells

This blood panel shows an elevated WBC count of 18,500 (up to 12,200 is normal for this lab). This elevation could be due to inflammation or an infection. The elevated heterophils tend to make us think there is an active infection going on. 

Radiographs

Radiographs are used to give us a better indication of what is occurring internally. They are especially helpful when we suspect a problem with the bones.

These are the radiographs from the iguana above with the swollen forearm.   The swollen spot does not necessarily mean there is an infection because other diseases and problems can appear this way radiographically.

X-ray of an iguana with a swollen forearm showing the swelling radiographically

The large arrow on the bottom points to the appearance of the swelling radiographically. The small arrow on the top points to a reaction that has been noted on the ulna bone.

X-ray of the femur of an iguana showing an infected area of bone

This radiograph is from a different iguana. Its femur has an infection. The bone is thin and there is inflammation in the tissue surrounding the bone. This is a serious problem that is difficult to treat.

Cytology

When we encounter an area that we suspect has an infection an important test to perform is analysis of the cells in the suspected area. In the swollen jaw above we can see the infection with our unaided eye, so the diagnosis is straightforward.

In many cases the diagnosis is not so obvious, and we need an exotic animal pathologist to analyze the cells to help us make a diagnosis. This expertise is especially important when we are trying to differentiate cancer from an infection.

Removing fluid from the iguana with the swollen forearm

A tiny needle with syringe is used to obtain samples for cytology. This sample is from the swollen forearm you saw above. The cells from this syringe will be put on a microscope slide for analysis by an exotic animal pathologist.

Cytology report from pathologist recommending a culture

This is the cytology report from this pet. The pathologist recommends a culture to determine what bacteria might be involved

Culture

In addition to cytology the same fluid that is removed is cultured for bacteria. Any bacteria that we grow and suspect as causing the infection is also analyzed to determine its sensitivity to different antibiotics.

Bacterial culture showing a Staph infection

This culture shows a Staph infection. This is a common organism to cause a skin infection on pets that have allergic dermatitis.

Sensitivity to determine the best antibiotic to be used on this Staph infection

The culture told us that every antibiotic that was tested would kill this Staph bacteria.  This is indicated by the S, meaning that Staph bacteria grown on this culture is sensitive to that antibiotic, and it would be an  appropriate one to use.

Having all of these S results is rare, usually there are several antibiotics that would not work, and they would be labeled as R. This means the Staph bacteria is resistant to that specific antibiotic, and it would not be appropriate to use it. Not only would it probably not work, it would also aid in developing resistant organisms.

Biopsy

In most cases the above tests give us our diagnosis. Sometimes more sophisticated tests are needed. We reserve these tests when we still do not have a diagnosis after we utilize the above tests, or the pet is not getting better in spite of our treatment.
The iggie with the swollen forearm did not respond adequately to initial treatment. We biopsied the tissue and muscle in the area of swelling to give us more information.

Making an incision in the scales with a scalpel blade

After it was anesthetized an incision was made in the scales directly over the swollen spot in the forearm

Inserting a biopsy punch through the incision on the scales

A special biopsy instrument was used to obtain a sample of the muscle and tissue in the area

Suturing the skin incision

We sutured the small hole in the skin to aid in the healing process. Diseased tissue heals poorly so we want to make every effort to minimize traumatizing the area.

This is the report we received from the muscle biopsy

The biopsy report yielded and marked necrotizing myositis- severe infection of the muscle

It turns out this Iguana had an area of dead tissue deep within its muscles.The original source of this problem was probably an infection. The infection might have been transferred to this point in the body through the bloodstream, maybe from an external wound.

Treatment

We have many treatment modalities depending on the cause of the problem and the extent of the infection. Antibiotics are used in most cases. They are especially beneficial when we have a culture report telling us the type of bacteria causing the problem and the appropriate antibiotic to use.

It is very common for well intentioned owners to use antibiotics on their pet before bringing it to us. This is fraught with several potential hazards, not the least of which it can be the wrong antibiotic to use. This will delay the healing and it might even decrease bacteria that are normal inhabitants and advantageous to the healing process. In some diseases like Salmonella we do not treat because all we end up doing is breeding Salmonella organisms that are resistant to antibiotics.

People commonly use the incorrect dose of antibiotic, causing one of 2 problems depending on the dose. If they underdose their pet they increase the chance of the bacteria developing resistance. If they overdose they run the risk of making their pet ill from the antibiotic.

Antibiotics are also misused when there is no infection present to treat at all because of ignorance or misdiagnosis. Again, all that is being accomplished is a delay in the proper diagnosis and treatment, and the potential to develop resistant organisms, making the antibiotic less useful when it is really needed at a later date.

Reptile infections behave differently from infections we are used to treating in mammals. Reptile white blood cells fight off infections differently, resulting in abscess material that is more like cottage cheese in consistency. This thick type of pus necessitates minor surgery to remove abscess material that normally in mammals would drain out of the body because it is more fluid in nature.

In the more involved cases we sometimes have to amputate an infected limb or body part to prevent further spread of an infection that is not under control. Click here to see such a surgery in a Gecko with an infected tail.

Reptiles can get infections that are hazardous to humans, the most notable of these is Salmonella. Any time you treat a reptile with an infection you should assume it has a bacteria that can be spread to people. Keep children and adults that might have ongoing diseases away at all times because their immune systems are most susceptible. Always use disposable gloves and wash your hands after every encounter with your infected reptile, and never put anything in your mouth that has possibly been contaminated.

Prevention

Too many animals housed together increase the stress level to the point that the immune system can be compromised, making them more susceptible to all types of infections. Keeping your reptile in the proper enclosure and utilizing correct husbandry practices go a long way to making them less susceptible to infections.

Since reptiles are so dependent on their environment it is critical that you learn about their specific needs in order to house them in an environment that is optimum for their health. This particularly true in Iguanas because they are vegetarians and because their environmental requirements are so specific.

Other reptiles commonly get infections, most notably snakes. Click here for more information on skin infections in snakes.

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