Unlike many other reptiles and lizards, respiratory infections are not common in blue-tongue skinks. However, when they do occur, they can be deadly if you aren’t on top of things. Here’s what you need to know. 

Among some of the illnesses and infections that blue-tongue skinks are susceptible to are respiratory infections.

The gist of these nasty infections is this: they aren’t common, are usually fairly easy to spot and when that happens, the best thing you can do is to increase the temperature of your vivarium and see if that helps for a day or two, and then finally, take your skink to the vet for antibiotics. 

Please note this disclaimer: I am not a licensed veterinarian. I’m simply a blue-tongue owner that has done quite a bit of research on this topic. This article is to simply be used as helpful advice, not professional medical advice.

I would strongly suggest that you use this ARAV tool to find a licensed reptile veterinarian nearby.

The Guide to Blue Tongue Skinks and Respiratory Infections

What is a Respiratory Infection? 

Respiratory infections are, like their name suggests, infections of the respiratory tract. They cause breathing problems. They are almost always caused by various bacteria, but not always. They can also be caused by parasites, viruses and fungi.

Respiratory infections, or RTI’s for short, almost always occur in tandem with poor vivarium or environmental conditions, such as:

  • too low of a temperature and/or humidity
  • too wet of an environment
  • having access only to a single temperature as opposed to a temperature gradient
  • stress
  • dirty, unclean vivariums
  • irregular diet and feedings

The vast majority of the time, a respiratory infection develops in a blue-tongue due to the vivarium temperature being too low. This often happens not because of the light that is used, but due to outside temperature changes (usually during the fall and winter) that affect the temperature inside your tank.

The good news is that blue-tongue skinks don’t often develop RTI’s, and when they do, they typically don’t last longer than a week.

The bad news is that without proper treatment, a skink’s health condition can potentially rapidly deteriorate. If the RTI isn’t treated or treated improperly, it can cause a condition called septicemia.

This happens when the bacterial infection moves from the lungs and enters the bloodstream. Septicemia is bad news, and can occur not only in humans and mammals, but snakes and skinks as well.

How to Tell if Your Blue-Tongue Has a Respiratory Infection

Here’s the thing about respiratory infections in blue-tongues:

If you know what to look for, they are relatively easy to spot.

It’s unfortunate because blue-tongues are generally immune to most RTI bacteria, however there are a few types that can really be quite nasty if they get a hold of skinks.

The most common tell-tale sign of an RTI in a blue-tongue is:

  • a wet wheezing sound coupled with difficulty breathing
  • gaped open mouth when breathing
  • mucus and/or bubbles appearing in and around the mouth
  • their head tilted upwards in order to help them breathe easier

There are also a few others which I will get to below.

First, I want to delve into the breathing aspect because it is really easy for someone who is unacquainted with blue-tongues to mistake a lot of the more common, natural breathing sounds with an RTI.

Sneezes are super common in blue-tongues. Typically, a sneeze is simply due to the skink clearing out its nostrils from dust and dirt particles. They are very easy to identify and do not signal an RTI.

Secondly, irregular breathing.

Irregular breathing patterns, like sneezing, are normal. Like humans, blue-tongues have a pair of lungs, but they don’t often breathe quite as often as humans. If you look at your blue-tongue closely, you might even have trouble identifying whether its breathing at all.

Thirdly, whistling.

Yes, believe it or not, blue-tongue skinks can and do whistle when they breathe. Like the sneezing, this is also completely normal, and is not evidence that a blue-tongue has an RTI or any type of breathing difficulty.

If you’d like to hear what a blue-tongue skink sounds like when whistling, start the video below around the 3:30 mark.

Third, the accumulation of mucus. Don’t mistake this with natural, normal small bubbles that appear from saliva that forms around the corner of your blue-tongue’s mouth.

Typically, these bubbles and bit of saliva will be very small, and it’s usually the result of your skink darting its tongue in and out, in and out, repeatedly.

Lastly, an occasional vomit here and there is also not evidence of an RTI. This is normal (if it’s occasional) and isn’t sign of any real illness. It usually simply means that your blue-tongue’s stomach didn’t handle the food all that well. Continued and repeated vomiting however, is usually a sign of illness.

The easiest way to identify an RTI in a blue-tongue are the above-mentioned signs:

  • a wet wheezing sound coupled with difficulty breathing
  • gaped open mouth when breathing
  • mucus and/or bubbles appearing in and around the mouth
  • their head tilted upwards in order to help them breathe easier

as well as

  • lethargy and less activity
  • decreased appetite
  • bloating
  • noticeably difficult breathing

If you notice multiple signs from both of those bullet-point lists, your animal most likely has an RTI of some sort.

If you do see signs such as those, you might want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did the seasons change or temperature fall recently? This may have affected your vivarium temperature.
  • Did you unintentionally or mistakenly place your blue-tongue from a hot to cold environment? Blue-tongues, like all lizards, are cold-blooded and are unable to quickly adapt to fast changes in temperature. These can lead to respiratory infections.
  • Is your heating equipment still working properly? One of the reasons you need to do regular temperature checks is because equipment sometimes breaks without you knowing. Your vivarium may have dropped in temperature unbeknownst to you.
  • Is your vivarium clean or has it started to become a lot less hygienic? A poorly kept tank can lead to conditions that promote bacterial infections in skinks.

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you’ve likely got a blue-tongue skink respiratory infection on your hands.

Here’s what your next step should entail.

Blue Tongue Skink Respiratory Treatment

Here’s the thing about respiratory infections:

If it’s not too serious and if you correct your vivarium’s environment to give your bluey a little extra “boost” you can sometimes see improvement within a day or two.

If you believe that your blue-tongue has a respiratory infection, here is what you’ll need to do immediately:

  1. Check the temperature inside the tank. Are your lights broken or dimmed? If so, immediately replace them and raise the temperature to slightly higher than where it should be based on your species needs.
  2. If you have multiple blue-tongues living together, you’ll want to separate them, as RTI’s can be contagious.
  3. Ensure that your blue-tongue’s living space is clean and free of any possible contagions.
  4. Diligently monitor your blue-tongue for improvement or decline.
  5. Take your animal to the vet.

As I noted above, the most common cause for a blue-tongue getting an RTI is because the temperature dropped a bit too much.

Check this first.

This will largely depend on your species, but here are a few guidelines to follow:

  • Eastern and Northern Blue-Tongues: A temperature gradient of 75F – 79F on the cool end to 96F – 98F on the hot end, with a direct basking spot temperature of 100F – 102F.
  • Indonesian Blue-Tongues: A temperature gradient of 75F to 82F on the cool end to 96F – 100F on the hot end, with a direct basking spot temperature of 100F – 104F.

If you have NO temperature gradient at all, or the cool end is too low, or the hot end isn’t hot enough, this may be the culprit.

In order to combat your blue-tongue’s RTI, the first thing you’ll want to do would be to bump up the temperature on the cool end, to around 80F. You can keep the hot end and the direct under basking light temperature the same. 

The purpose of this is to raise your blue-tongue’s internal body temperature, boost its metabolism and help fight off the RTI. 

Secondly, you’ll want to keep these temperatures constant, at least for a day. That means not only throughout the day, but throughout the night as well.

The thing is, you don’t want to run your lights on throughout the night, as this stresses out blue-tongues and causes psychological discomfort, one of the last things you want your blue-tongue to experience when trying to fight off an RTI.

The best way to achieve this I have found is through a ceramic heat emitter, or CHE. This is a device that gives off heat, but without any light.

They are perfect to keep your skinks’ vivarium running at the above temperatures throughout the night.

In order to set one up, you’ll need a second light fixture, and you’ll need to only run them at night. I would also advise you to get a CHE with an in-built thermometer to keep the temperature from getting too hot or too cold.

What About the Humidity?

Thus far, I have only said to either get the temperature up to baseline, or turn it up slightly on the cold end. I haven’t said anything regarding the humidity.

In my opinion, you’ll want to keep the humidity at where it normally is.

Now, I want to mention that I have read a lot of conflicting information on this. 

Some resources suggest to increase the temperature and lower the humidity in order to clear up your blue-tongue’s nasal and air pathways.

Other resources suggest to increase the temperature and keep the humidity high, in order to stimulate their metabolism as much as possible.

As I’m not a veterinarian, I don’t want to give incorrect advice, and so I’ll simply say to play it safe and keep the humidity at where it normally is for your species.

Humidity guidelines for the following species are as follows:

  • Northern Blue-Tongues: 30-50% relative humidity.
  • Indonesian Blue-Tongues: 60-90% relative humidity.

Also try to ensure that your blue-tongue’s vivarium is free from any wind drafts or gusts, and that it is well ventilated.

Antibiotics

If your blue-tongue skink’s condition has worsened or has not improved within a day or two at the maximum, YOU MUST TAKE THE ANIMAL TO THE VET.

The thing is, a blue-tongue can suffer from an RTI and seem “mostly” OK for a while, and then seemingly out of nowhere it will DRASTICALLY WORSEN.

If you don’t see any visible, noticeable signs of improvement after a day or two of correcting your blue-tongue’s temperature gradient as well as cleaning it of any potential pathogens, it’s time to take the animal to the vet.

The reason for this is that your blue-tongue WILL need prescription antibiotics to fight off the RTI.

Your vet will typically give at least one of the below treatments.

The most common antibiotic treatment given to blue-tongue skinks in these circumstances is Enrofloxacin (Baytril). Baytril is a broad-spectrum, fast-acting general antibiotic given to cats, dogs and reptiles. It is usually administered with a needle, but can also be given orally in a syrup-form. Treatments can range from one week to multiple times daily, depending on the severity of the RTI.

Ceftazidime and metronidazole (Flagyl) are common broad-spectrum general antibiotics that can be given to blue-tongues for RTI’s as well as in order to combat pneumonia and sepsis.

For less severe RTI’s, your vet may administer something with a disinfectant such as F10. This is a solution that works by breaking up congestion.

Please remember to never attempt to administer these drugs on your own, and instead to seek the advice and counsel of licensed veterinarians. 

Tracheal Washes

Sometimes, a blue-tongue skink with a particularly nasty RTI or something else altogether won’t respond to common antiobiotic treatments such as Baytril or Ceftazidime.

In cases like this, your vet may perform something called a tracheal wash.

The purpose of this is two-fold:

  • to extract a culture for further testing
  • to remove mucus and congestion in the airways and lungs

Firstly, the vet will take a choanal swab, which is basically a fancy way of saying taking a culture, and testing it further to really drill down what type of infection the animal has, and what antibiotic treatment will work best.

For the wash, the skink will be sedated and have a feeding tube inserted down into its trachea. A small amount of sterile saline, as well as antibiotics are then dropped into the animals pathways in order to remove mucus, as well as improve the chances of killing the bacteria.

This procedure is typically only done in severe cases, and only when the animal is not responsive to normal antibiotics.

How to Prevent Respiratory Infections

If I have learned anything, anything at all in all my years of trying to be a responsible pet owner, it is this:

Most pet owners do not like taking their animals to see the vet. 

I get it. Taking your animal to the vet can be expensive. No one likes to spend money, especially on animals and especially when they think they can fix it themselves.

But please, if you have learned anything, anything at all from this article, I would implore you to take your animal to the vet if you believe it has an RTI. Your animal WILL likely need antibiotics, and you should never attempt to administer them yourself. 

It’s simply the most responsible thing to do.

That being said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The best way to cure an RTI is to prevent it from getting one.

The single best thing you can do to mitigate the chances of your skink contracting an RTI is:

  • to stay on top of your temperatures and humidity levels in your blue-tongue’s vivarium 

Other things that will improve your skink’s chances:

  • ensuring that your vivarium has good substrate, that allows your skink to burrow
  • ensure that your vivarium has at least one good hideaway, to promote healthy psychology and well-being
  • ensure that your vivarium has a UV-B light
  • ensure that you are feeding your blue-tongue the right foods
  • ensure that your vivarium is clean and hygienic

To sum everything up:

  • respiratory infections are not common in blue-tongues
  • the single biggest cause of an RTI is a temperature that is too low or an incorrect temperature gradient
  • the most common signs for an RTI in a blue-tongue are difficulty breathing, mouth gaping, mucus around the mouth, and a wet wheezing sound, in conjunction with lethargy, lack of appetite and bloating
  • whistling, sneezing and even vomiting are NOT signs of an RTI
  • if you suspect an RTI in your blue-tongue, you should first check to ensure your temperature gradient is where it should be, and if not, correct it and consider raising the cool end slightly
  • monitor your blue-tongue to see if it’s condition improves within a day or two
  • if not, you will need to take your blue-tongue to the vet for antibiotic treatment

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