Respiratory Infections (Pneumonia)
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Respiratory Infections (Pneumonia)

Edward M. Craft

Captive reptiles often experience respiratory infections and it is not uncommon for an owner to experience at least one respiratory infection during the life of their reptile. These infections are often the result of less than optimum temperatures and humidity and poor captive conditions. These infections are highly contagious and any animal that is suspected of having a respiratory infection should be isolated.

Respiratory infections can be very tricky to treat and require supportive care during treatment. This type of infection is usually very well progressed by the time it is noticed by an owner. This is a result of a reptile's ability to hide illnesses. If a reptile shows any symptoms of illness in the wild, it is very likely that this will be perceived as a weakness by a predator and the effected reptile will be place on the predator's lunch menu as a result. As a result of this ability to hide illnesses, a respirator infection may quickly compromise a reptile's immune system and lead to its demise. For this reason rapid diagnosis and aggressive treatment are required. THIS TYPE OF INFECTION SHOULD ALWAYS BE TREATED AS AND EMERGENCY. All too often owner take it for granted that this is a minor illness and that random use of antibiotics will resolve the problem. One of the major side effects of this type of random antibiotic therapy is that bacteria build up a resistance to antibiotic over a period of time and continual random use of an antibiotic over and over again may eventually render that antibiotic ineffective against a particular type of bacteria making treatment more difficult as the bacteria is spread.

Symptoms of a respiratory infection include lethargy, failure to feed, gaping of the mouth and the presence of a bubbling mucus appearing at the sides of the mouth. A nasal discharge may be present in some species, but this should not be confused with natural salt discharges that are found in some species like the green iguana. These animals secrete salt through sneezing as a result of the fact that they lack sweat glands that would normally perform this process.

Diagnosis involves clinical diagnostic testing to rule out the existence of parasites that present similar clinical signs. This testing should, at a minimum, include a radiograph. It is recommended that a trans-tracheal wash also be performed depending on the condition of the animal, since sedation will be required. In severe cases a tracheal wash may have to wait until the animal condition improves enough to undergo sedation.

Relying solely on symptoms is a very poor method of treating this illness. The best method for diagnosis is a radiograph to definitively determine the existence of a respiratory infection. The lungs should appear clear upon x-ray, but in the case of pneumonia the lung field will be evident by increased radiographic density. An x-ray should be taken whenever a reptile shows signs of an oral infection to rule out the existence of an underlying respiratory infection. Often times the bacteria involved in a respiratory infection may travel up the trachea to the mouth creating a secondary oral infection. The opposite is also true when the underlying condition is an oral infection the bacteria may travel down the trachea to the lungs creating a secondary respiratory infection. In the case of a primary oral infection it may be possible to detect a respiratory infection early and begin treatment before it becomes critical.

Treatment of a respiratory infection is critical. This is especially true in snakes, which have only one functional lung. Most snakes actually have two lungs, but the left lung is greatly reduced and non-functional. In some species the left lung is absent altogether. The upper portion of a snake's lung performs gas exchange while the lower portion of the lung serves as an air sac. Given the limited existence of a fully functional pair of lungs in snakes it is easy to understand why a respiratory infection may be so devastating in snakes.

Some authors have suggested that respiratory infections in chelonians may be cleared up, but that it is not possible to cure the infection and it will continue to re-occur from time to time. This is a mis-conception that is most likely based on the fact that the author of these statements made them based on their own experiences with this condition and their own efforts to cure the condition themselves without the aid of proper veterinary diagnostic techniques. This made it possible for the symptoms of the condition to subside without eliminating the infection itself and the symptoms then continued to return at a later date. Most respiratory infections in all reptiles are usually the result of gram negative bacteria and may be eliminated with proper treatment of a proper antibiotic. In the event that the cause of the infection is viral in nature it is most likely that the condition will not improve and the animal will eventually die without improving without the use of proper diagnostic techniques and treatment. A trans-tracheal wash, as stated in this section, is the best method for providing a sample for culture and antibiotic sensitivity testing that may be used to determine the best method for treating and eliminating the condition once and for all, even in chelonians.

Following proper diagnosis by an experienced reptile veterinarian, treatment should involve antibacterial agents. The use of medicated vaporization therapy, (nebulization) often aids in recovery. Supportive care by increasing temperature and humidity within the reptile's enclosure is essential to a successful treatment. If the underlying environmental conditions are not corrected all the treatment in the world will not do the reptile any good at all.

Preventing respiratory infections is best done by maintaining proper temperature and humidity levels for the specific species being kept. Keeping a temperature and humidity gauge within the enclosure will help to ensure that proper levels are maintained and are an essential basic requirement for all captive reptiles. Practicing proper cleaning is another way to prevent the growth and spread of infectious bacteria.

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All rights reserved by Edward M. Craft. Printed in the United States of America. Original Edition 1998.