How To Prevent Scale Rot in Ball Pythons

Ball pythons rarely exhibit obvious signs of illness, so it is imperative that keepers monitor their pets closely for the subtlest signs of illness. But there are a few illnesses that do present easy-to-recognize signs, including scale rot – the topic we’ll be discussing today.

Vet checking ball python scales

It’s a good thing scale rot produces obvious symptoms, as it is a very serious illness. Without rapid care, most snakes that suffer from severe cases of the ailment are likely to die. And unfortunately, many will still succumb even with prompt care, so – like most other ailments that afflict snakes – prevention is key.

But on the positive side, with proper habitat hygiene and maintenance, it is usually a disease you can prevent your snake from getting in the first place.

What Does Scale Rot Look Like?

Called ulcerative or necrotic dermatitis by veterinarians, scale rot can vary in appearance from one snake to the next. And because it is a progressive condition, it can also vary in appearance over time. However, classic, full-blown scale rot is generally easy to recognize.

Once the disease has reached an advanced state, scale rot causes a number of open wounds or ulcers to form on your snake’s skin. These ulcers may affect any part of your snake’s body – they may even cover him from head to tail. However, scale rot typically develops on the ventral and lateral surfaces first.

The ulcers may ooze a bit of blood or fluid, and simply put, they’ll look pretty disgusting. Left untreated, the wounds will get worse and may grow in size. 

Ball Python scale rot on the bottom
Photo courtesy of Wild Education

Scale Rot Early Signs

While advanced scale rot usually causes large, open wounds to form, there are often subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs that precede the appearance of ulcers. And because scale rot is easiest to treat early, it is important that keepers learn to recognize the earliest signs of the condition.

Typically, the first thing observant keepers may notice is the appearance of small red spots in the scales. But shortly thereafter, a more obvious symptom will occur: Small, fluid-filled blisters will appear on the snake. These blisters are generally immediately apparent, and they’re usually found in fairly large numbers.

What Causes Scale Rot in Ball Pythons?

A variety of pathogens can cause scale rot, but it is generally some type of bacteria or fungi that triggers the ailment.

Poor enclosure hygiene, excessive habitat moisture or a filthy substrate can all allow these pathogens to proliferate (and they’ll also cause stress, which can dampen the snake’s immune response). This is part of the reason that it is so important to keep your pet’s habitat clean and remove feces, urates, or shed skin as often as possible. It is also imperative that you ensure adequate habitat ventilation and clean up any spilled water promptly

Pro Tip
Burns, abrasions and other wounds can also make a snake susceptible to scale rot, so always be sure your snake’s habitat is free of things that could cause injuries and carefully monitor all heating devices.

Once the ulcers have developed, a variety of secondary pathogens can colonize your snake. This will further weaken your snake and often result in septicemia (blood poisoning).

It bears mentioning that some snakes appear to develop scale rot even though they’re kept in pristine conditions. It isn’t clear why these animals develop the disease, but it may be due to stress or poor general health. 

How to Prevent Scale Rot

Because scale rot can be such a serious illness and it is not always easy to treat once it develops, prevention is vital. While it is true that a small number of snakes seem to develop the condition for inexplicable reasons, the majority of snakes who end up with scale rot have been forced to live in dirty, damp or unkempt enclosures.

Accordingly, it is important to clean your snake’s habitat frequently and ensure that it provides enough ventilation to avoid becoming damp. Minimally, this means cleaning the habitat walls, water dish, and hides each week, while also spot-cleaning the substrate. If possible, it would be even wiser to spot-clean the habitat every day.

Additionally, you’ll want to clean the habitat completely, in top-to-bottom fashion, once every four to six weeks. This includes completely emptying the habitat, washing all of the dishes and furniture, and discarding the old substrate. Sanitize the entire enclosure with a snake-safe disinfectant, and then allow it to dry (in the sun, if possible).

Pro Tip
At times like these, it is helpful to have two complete sets of water bowls and habitat furniture. This way, you can provide your snake with everything he needs, while you work on disinfecting the other set.

Then, you can add fresh substrate to the enclosure, add the furniture and water dish back, and then return your snake to his home. It is also wise to inspect your snake regularly and remain on the lookout for any potential signs of trouble.

How to Treat Scale Rot

Scale rot is not easy to treat, and there’s little the average snake keeper can do to treat it at home. It will almost always require veterinary assistance, although you will need to maintain incredibly strict enclosure hygiene while the snake is undergoing treatment.

Your vet will likely treat your pet by administering antibiotics. He or she may take samples from some of the ulcers and have them cultured to determine the bacteria or fungi causing the problem and guide the choice of antibiotics. However, other vets may just prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics and hope for the best.

Supportive care – including additional fluids, electrolytes or calorie replacement – may also be necessary. This is particularly true of animals battling severe cases of scale rot.

Take care!

Scale rot is certainly a very serious condition, but it is important to avoid panicking if you suspect your snake is suffering from the condition. Just go ahead and clean the habitat thoroughly, try to keep your snake’s stress level low, and ensure that the temperatures and humidity in the habitat are at ideal levels. Then, give your vet a call and heed the advice provided.

We hope that you’ve found this article helpful, and we’d appreciate you sharing with your snake-keeping friends if you think it’ll help them. Have you ever been faced with a ball python with scale rot before? How did you treat it? Did the treatment work? Let us know in the comments below!  

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Ben Team

Ben Team

Ben is a life-long environmental educator who writes about the natural world. He’s kept and bred a diverse array of reptiles and amphibians over the last three decades, but he’s always been particularly fond of snakes in the genus Morelia and monitor lizards. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his beautiful wife and spoiled-rotten Rottweiler.

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Ben Team
Ben Team
Ben is a life-long environmental educator who writes about the natural world. He’s kept and bred a diverse array of reptiles and amphibians over the last three decades, but he’s always been particularly fond of snakes in the genus Morelia and monitor lizards. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his beautiful wife and spoiled-rotten Rottweiler.