Dealing with Iguana and Other Reptile Bites
By Melissa Kaplan
So there you are, dumbstruck look on your face, a reptile firmly attached to some part of your anatomy. What to do, what to do...
The following techniques work with iguanas and other large, tenacious lizards and snakes.
Wave a rubbing alcohol soaked tissue or cloth in front of their nose, or use an alcohol (sold in drug stores, usually with the diabetic supplies).
Ammonia may do the same thing - its fumes irritating enough to cause the reptile to open its jaws to release you to get away from you. Ammonia pads in foil packets can be found through medical supply catalogs and possibly medical supply houses. They are kept by paramedics and at blood drawing stations in labs and doctors offices, used in place of the old fashioned type of "smelling salts." If you have any of these on hand, they may be waved in front of the nose, not applied to the nose, mouth, or gums. If there is someone else present who can remain calm, a little household ammonia or ammonia-containing cleaning product can be poured on a sponge or rag and held in front of the reptile's nose, not applied to the skin or gums.
Pour some drinking alcohol (rum, brandy, scotch, etc.) into their mouth. In case their glottis (the valve opening at the back of their tongue leading to their lungs) is open at the time, try to aim the reptile's head down to the floor or at least sideways so the liquor doesn't flow into the lungs.
Snakes have recurved teeth. They cannot be pulled off or pried off. Hitting and punching them will not make them loosen their hold. Trying to wedge your fingers into the corners of their mouth (as one would to a cat or dog to get them to open) will only result in the responder getting pricked with the rearmost teeth. If anything, such actions will result in the snakes clenching their jaws yet more tightly while intensifying their hold on the person.
Cutting their heads off is senseless. Reptiles can be easily encouraged to release their bite by pouring a small amount of alcohol into their mouths. To ensure the safety of the snake, responder, and the person being bitten, the snake's head should be pointed downwards. This will ensure that the liquid does not spill into their open glottis (airway) and so get aspirated into their lung(s). If this were to happen, an immediate effect may be renewed panic or thrashing on the part of the snake; a late effect would be a respiratory infection.
Ideally, alcohol made for drinking (liquor) should be used rather than isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. Rubbing alcohol is toxic. Vinegar has worked in some instances and can be tried first if no liquor is handy. It does not take much alcohol to effect the release. Generally speaking, the snake will noticeably pause in all movement for a few moments after the alcohol is poured onto the tissues inside the mouth (pouring it on the head or body does not work). It will then move to disengage its teeth (most snakes have two nested rows of teeth in the upper jaw) by working its jaws, retracting its head from the bite zone once it is free. If you don't have any form of liquid alcohol handy, try ammonia, either liquid or in the little ammonia-soaked pads wrapped packets for use when people feel faint.
To easily unwrap a snake from any person or object, you must start working from the tail end, unwrapping or uncoiling the body, working your way up towards the head. If you start at the head and try to work towards the tail, the snake will easily be able to resist. Even a large, strong python who is not thrilled with all the commotion and multiple hands on it can be unwound when you start from the tail.
Iguanas and other lizards with gular (throat) folds of skin under the neck can be held upside down while you pull on the dewlap or skin. The disorientation seems to disorient them a bit and gets them to relax.
Cover the animal's head with a cloth or towel or article of clothing. Once their eyes and head are in the dark, they may feel more secure and so will let go.
Once an iguana has been detached, put him in his area with strong verbal admonitions. He won't understand your words, but he will understand your tone and lack of gentleness (you do NOT need to smack him or throw him - treating him peremptorily, without the gentleness with which you usually handle him, does not mean hurting him - as much as you may wish to at the moment!). Other reptiles will probably not care. If your bite was a (censored) human feeding error when feeding your snake, he most certainly won't care, though he may be a bit confused as to why that strange smelling meal was pulled away from him.
Treating the Bite
Flush well with warm water. Soap it to remove any debris. If the bite is deep, it should be power flushed. Ideally, several 30-60cc syringes of sterile saline (sodium chloride) should be pumped into deep or jagged bites to flush out bits of skin, muscle and bacteria.
Swab the wound with Betadine (povidone-iodine, or Hibiclens [chlorhexidine gluconate] or Bactine if you are allergic to iodine products), then top with an antibacterial ointment or cream. I prefer to keep bad bites bandaged 24 hours/day for the first 2 or 3 days, then leave it unbandaged during the day, bandaged at night. After this time, I apply Bag Balm during the days to the wound (this is an antibacterial ointment used in the farm industry for many years, and is available at feed stores, country product mail order catalogs, and, increasingly, pharmacies and the first aid sections of grocery stores / supermarkets).
At night, I clean the wound with warm water, then apply an antibacterial ointment before covering with a bandage. This process promotes rapid healing as both the anaerobic and aerobic bacteria are dealt with, and the Bag Balm promotes rapid healing from the outside in. This reduces the risk of wound contamination from other bacterial and fungal sources during the healing process. Note that when used on very deep wounds, the healing tissues under the healed up skin may continue to be tender, even painful, for a while as those tissues heal.
Seeking Medical Treatment
If your bite is deep enough to be a potential problem (rather than a nice neat row of tooth punctures, or minor laceration because you jerked your hand/arm/leg away), then you should seek medical attention.
There is a difference of opinion as to whether animal bites should be stitched or not. Stitched animal bites seem to run a higher risk of infection. (Note: If it does need stitches, they must be done within 6 hours of the incident.) Part of the problem may be the medical community's lack of knowledge as to what type of organisms typically inhabit the biter's mouth, or perhaps because the wound wasn't flushed out well enough, leaving debris and a tooth or two (or more) in there to start festering along with any bacterial organisms ground in during the act of biting itself.
If you work with animals, especially untamed ones or wild or exotic ones, it makes sense to keep your tetanus boosters up to date. Here, too, are two schools of thought - those who feel that the titers in your blood remain viable enough to fend off infection for 7 to 10 years, and those who feel that you need to get your boosters every 5 years.
Why Did You Get Bitten?
Bites don't just "happen." Something triggers them - it's rare when an animal does not let you know that it is going to try to bite. They may not give you a lot of warning, but if you are alert and sensitive to their body posture, movements, and even the look in their eye (head slightly cocked, eyelid lowered slightly, mouth very slightly agape, hatched body on slightly crouched legs, tail raised, twitching slightly from side to side like a cat's, a stiffening of the body, coiling while moving away from you, a slight shift of weight from the front to the back), you know it's going to happen.
During breeding season, humans may unwittingly trigger iguana attacks through the colors they wear, bobbing wrong, messing with an iguana's diurnal schedule, not providing suitable outlets for aggression and lust (who knew that caring for an iguana meant also providing outlets for the mating drive of lusty males!). Watch carefully, be observant of subtle changes in behavior and posture, be careful to not present any triggers, and be prepared, and you will greatly reduce your risk of being bitten.
That's not to say that you won't be bitten - you may react too slowly, or not have enough time to react, or you may just get (censored) and let yourself get distracted for a second .
Snake keepers most often get bitten because they are (censored). No matter how tame a snake is, when it is hungry and it senses something nice and warm moving around in front of it, especially when it can also smell what it considers to be its usual food (rodents, rabbits, birds), it will strike. The snake is not going to stop to and think, "my prey doesn't wear blue jeans and a tee-shirt." The snake is not going to stop and think at all: it is just going to grab, as quickly as possible, what it thinks is probably food. The lesson is: If you smell like prey (and you will smell like prey if you handled prey within the previous 15 minutes or so), or if the room smells like prey, or if you are with someone who smells like prey, to a snake's brain, you are prey.
Finally, when you keep animals and interact with them, you will, at some point, get bitten. The chances of being bitten increase significantly when the animals with whom you are interacting with are not domesticated animals - species who have been bred for docility and reduces that would lead to owner injury (biting, scratching). Aside from some farm animals, the only other animals who truly qualify for these abnormal (from the standpoint of undomesticated animals) traits are dogs, house cats, some parrots and some small song birds, and corn snakes. All other animals, whether you are talking about iguanas, sugar gliders, hedgehogs, ferrets and other pets du jour who are not derived from domestic stock, always remain, at some level, wild animals with the reflexes and responses of wild animals. And, as with most injuries to humans inflicted by animals, when a human gets bitten, it can generally be traced to something the owner did, or didn't do.
Thus, the more you learn, the more observant and thoughtful you are, and the more you will reduce the risk of being bitten. When you do get bitten, keep in mind that the animal isn't being necessarily being malicious or nasty or biting because it enjoys biting. It bit you for a reason. It is up to you to figure out why it bit you so that it doesn't happen again. It is also up to you to deal with the animal appropriately after the bite. Hitting it, throwing it against the wall - any physical act of retribution or punishment - is meaningless. If it is a highly socialized animal, knowing that you are mad (through your tone of voice and deprivation of physical or proximity contact for a short time, such as several hours) is generally enough to get the point across. This may not stop raging hormones and reflexive responses from taking its toll again in the future, but getting deeply mad and resentful at such an animal is like getting mad at an earthquake or a flood. Like a force of nature, you do what you can to prevent damage, mitigate its effects once you see that you may not escape unscathed, but once it happens, you regroup and get on with your life.