Ball Python Scale Rot: How to understand and treat it.

Ball Python scale rot is a scary-sounding disease. Fortunately, both its causes and treatment are easy to tackle. Let’s take a look…

Scale Rot (also known as blister disease or necrotic dermatitis) is a bacterial or fungal infection of a snake’s scales. It occurs when poor hygiene, injury or long-term stress weakens the immune system and damages the outer layers of the skin. The result is a spreading infection that needs immediate attention.

Ball python scale rot early signs

The first sign or scale rot is generally a lifting, or blistering of the outer layers of some of your snake’s ventral (belly) scales. They can look slightly crinkled, or appear to have bubbles underneath.

Often, this earliest indication is incredibly hard to spot. After all, you’re probably not turning your snake over and inspecting its belly with a magnifying glass every day!

More often than not, the first symptom that you will notice is a little brown, orange or red area underneath a scale or on its edge.

Sometimes, this could be just a scab. But if appears to spread over time, then it is most likely scale rot.

If you suspect that this disease is just starting to affect your Ball Python, take a photo of the lesion so that you can see if it changes over the following week or so. If it spreads – it’s a problem.

Is there such a thing as mild scale rot?

In not all but some cases, scale rot can start in a relatively limited area. It could be one or two ventral scales that start to turn dark and become fluid-filled or “rusty”.

At this point, a lot of people call it “mild scale rot”. This isn’t a term I’m particularly fond of, however. Scale rot is a serious condition – so don’t ever think of it as mild.

It doesn’t matter if it’s one spot or a whole bunch, it needs to be treated just as seriously. This is because it will spread if the animal’s husbandry and conditions don’t improve. What was once mild will eventually become chronic, then acute.

Later on in this article I’ll tell you how to treat it, and fortunately it is something that is highly manageable, especially in its early stages. It just needs some attention.

How often should I clean my Ball Python's tank?
This Ball Python is in perfect health – but if some if its scales were to become raised, crusty or fluid-filled, this would be a sign of scale rot.

What does scale rot look like?

Scale rot starts off as very small spots or blisters that may be brown, red, or orange. These lesions may have pink edges and will quickly become fluid-filled or scabby if the infection is active.

In most cases, Ball Python scale rot starts on the ventral scales, and may not be present on the dorsal scales in the early stages.

Whether the cause is fungal or (more commonly) bacterial, the symptoms look identical. More to the point – they always spread!

The most common visual symptoms include:

  • Brown, red, or orange lesions
  • Unexplained pink areas near to the lesions
  • Blistering and flaking off of outer layers of scales
  • Lesions that spread to surrounding scales
  • Parts of scales that are missing after a shed

Scale rot vs burns

If you think your Ball Python might have scale rot, the first thing to do is make sure it is not a burn.It may be hard to distinguish between the two but there are differences!

At this point it’s important to say that both conditions need treatment, and a clean environment in order to heal well. But for this article, we’re focusing on scale rot.

The main differences between the two conditions are outlined in the table below:

Scale Rot:Burns:
Starts as small lesionsCover large areas (i.e. the whole belly)
Slowly spreads to more areasAppear quickly
Can appear dry or rusty, with some fluidBlisters contain a lot of fluid
Are usually darker red, brown, or orangeAre usually brighter red

Note: If you are concerned about the possibility of burns – remember to always use an appropriate thermostat!

  • For heat mats use an on/off or pulse-proportional.
  • With heat emitters use a pulse-proportional
  • Or, with heat lamps use a dimming

Other scale rot symptoms

Advanced scale rot looks exactly like it sounds: as though whole scales are rotting. They start to weep fluid or even fall off. Scabs form, and there is no mistaking the fact that something is very wrong with the animal.

In severe cases the lesions even leave open wounds. This is the kind of thing I used to see on imported animals as a kid. Fortunately, these days there is absolutely no reason for scale rot to ever get that bad!

In fact, there’s no reason for it at all, asides from the new trend in bioactive enclosures which has helped it to make a come-back.

When scale rot advances to an acute level, it transitions into a systemic disease. The bacteria or fungi enter the bloodstream and cause sepsis.

The best treatment for this severe stage is an appointment with an experienced exotics vet for antibiotics, ASAP!

Symptoms include:

  • Extreme lethargy
  • Refusing to eat or drink
  • No longer reacting to your presence (not hiding their head or trying to get away etc.)
  • White snakes will become pink and blotchy all over. More on this in this scale rot forum post.

What causes scale rot in Ball Pythons?

1. The main cause of scale rot is without a doubt poor hygiene. If you neglect an animal’s hygiene long enough, it will get sick. For reptiles, this usually ends up being one of three common diseases: respiratory infections, mouth rot, or scale rot.

2. Perhaps the second most common cause is excessive humidity. A damp substrate, coupled with poor ventilation lets bacterial growth spiral out of control. After a while, it’s too much for your pet’s immune system to handle.

Don’t spray your Ball Python every day, or let its humidity get higher than 65% (unless it’s shedding).

3. Injuries caused by sharp objects or even rodent bites can occasionally cause scale rot. In general, however, I find that injuries are more likely to cause abscesses, unless, as I mentioned above, the hygiene or humidity is poor.

4. Finally, the most recent (and disappointing) cause of scale rot is bioactive enclosures. This enclosure type is simply not hygienic for large snakes, that make large messes. I know they’ve been well-marketed by people with a lot more business acumen than me.

I also know that they look great and that there’s generalised bullying now to give your snakes larger, more elaborate enclosures – whether they like it or not.

The truth, though, is that bioactive enclosures have no mechanism for removing germs. The isopods and springtails can eat snake poop, but they can’t get rid of the germs left behind.

(And yes, I’m ready for the pro-bioactive, anti-breeder, anti-tub hate mail. It’s makes for enjoyable reading, and the varied insults always give me a chuckle!)

Can scale rot kill a snake?

Scale rot often starts out small, but once established it can definitely kill a snake. If the animal’s conditions aren’t improved, scale rot will spread continuously, until it reaches an acute level. At that stage, it’s only a matter of time before it cause sepsis and death of the snake.

Ball Python scale rot treatment (3 steps)

The first thing you need to know about treating scale rot is that reptile scales do not visually recover from it until the animal sheds.

So, while treating the condition, you won’t see a big visual improvement until the next shed. However, the treatment will be working! What you will notice is that it has stopped spreading – this is your sign that it’s working.

Let’s look at each step on the road to recovery:

1. betadine, also known as povidone-iodine

Obviously, anytime an animal is sick you need to make their environment as germ-free as possible. So before starting this step – clean out your snake’s enclosure. Give it newspaper as substrate and a simple hide box.

Then, start the betadine/iodine baths. My advice is to follow the instructions in the video above and do a bath once a week until the next shed. Always make sure the baths are tepid – not too warm or too cold!

Whilst many people advise using Neosporin at the same time, I would say be very cautious with it! If betadine alone works then just use this option. Also, if you do feel the need to use Neosporin make sure it is the kind without added painkillers, as these could be highly toxic to your snake.

2. do a full husbandry review

Figure out what went wrong! Your snake might have gotten sick because their enclosure needs modifying. Was their substrate left in there too long or too damp? Were the decorations rough, and causing minor wounds on its belly?

Another common issue is excess humidity. In a warm enclosure, this can quickly lead to the massive growth of bacteria and microscopic fungi. The best remedy is to switch to a drier substrate or add more ventilation to the setup.

Finally, is their enclosure warm enough? It should be around 89f on the warm side, and if it stays much cooler than this for too long your snake can get sick because its immune system needs warmth to function correctly.

3. monitor until the next shed

Following the betadine baths, your snake will show visual improvement after its next shed. Sometimes the difference can be staggering.

In the meanwhile, you need to monitor the scale rot to make sure it’s stopped spreading to new areas – that’s how you know the treatment is working. I strongly recommend keeping a video diary, taking new photos every few days.

The bottom line

Scale rot always has a cause! Generally speaking, it boils down to poor hygiene, excessive humidity, or another husbandry issue.

Though the treatment we’ve outlined here is both simple and effective, it’s critically important that you investigate and change whatever caused the infection in the first place!

Do a full husbandry review, and get in touch with experienced keepers via online forums and websites like this one. Compare how they keep their snakes with how you do.

If your snake has scale rot, a full recovery is usually possible – start treatment today!

Also on this topic:

For more on Ball Python health in general:

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