Common Health Problems for Pet Snakes
Signs of a Healthy Snake
Snakes are pretty simple to keep as pets, which makes them very attractive to the reptile owner. They require minimal handling, feeding, and overall care, which is a plus in many people's books.
Pet snakes are also usually pretty robust and healthy, but like all animals, they are subject to several common health conditions, even if you keep them in optimal conditions.
Remember that depending on what species of snake you keep, the husbandry and overall care are going to vary, so make sure that you fully understand the husbandry of the particular snake species you have. Proper husbandry and care can be the biggest factor in preventing health concerns, although not eliminating them 100%.
First, you'll want to be aware of the signs of a healthy snake, which include:
- Clear eyes
- Clear nose and mouth
- Rounded and full body
- Alertness and activity
- Regular eating
- Healthy skin
Next, understand common signs of health issues:
- Wrinkled or rubbed skin
- Discharge in nose or mouth
- Abnormal feces or urine
- Decreased appetite
Here are the common illnesses of snakes, in alphabetical order.
Abscesses are generally caused by a previous injury that gets infected by bacteria. An abscess usually appears as a lump that protrudes from underneath the skin and sometimes extends into the internal organs. Abscesses are commonly confused with tumors, un-laid eggs, or constipation. Leave it to an experienced vet to determine whether the lump is truly an abscess. If it is, let the veterinarian treat it, which tends to involve lancing and draining the abscess, with at least one follow-up appointment for cleaning and changing the dressing. The vet may also opt to treat the abscess with an antibiotic.
Blister disease can be avoided with proper husbandry. Fluid-filled blisters will usually form on the underside of a snake housed in a dirty, moldy, or overly moist substrate. Blisters may be few at first, but then quickly grow in number and become life-threatening, especially if they spread near the mouth, nose, or cloaca.
The best treatment is to prevent blister disease from developing. Keep the substrate clean and dry. Make sure to remove feces and urates. Change the bedding frequently.
You can treat one or two blisters at home by sterilizing a needle and piercing the blister; use a clean cotton swab or a bandage to absorb the fluid. Make sure to swab the blisters twice a day with betadine or hydrogen peroxide, and apply an antibiotic ointment. House the snake in a quarantine tank on paper towels until the blisters have healed.
If there are multiple blisters, or the blisters are in sensitive areas, consult a reputable vet as soon as possible.
Depending on the size of your snake and his metabolism rate, it may take longer than you expect for him to complete the digestion process, but if you notice that his defecation schedule is way off, your snake may be constipated. A constipated snake may appear bloated and lethargic and have a decreased appetite. Make sure to check the cage thoroughly just to make sure that you didn't miss anything. If you are sure there are no feces in the enclosure, you'll want to soak the snake in warm water for about 15 minutes a day. Usually, the warm water will stimulate excretion; if not, and you notice that your snake is swelling in the abdominal area, you'll want to visit a vet as soon as possible.
Built-up feces can become so impacted that surgery may be the only option to keep the snake from dying. You snake may have ingested a foreign object which could be blocking him from defecating.
Cuts and Abrasions
Treat any type of cut on your snake just as you would on yourself. Keep it clean and put a small dab of antibiotic ointment once a day until the wound has healed. You can try to bandage the snake, although this may be nearly impossible; you may want to consider a waterproof band-aid. Not all cuts need a bandage. Set the snake up in a quarantine tank with paper towels so that nothing can irritate the wound.
Try to find out what cut the snake, so that you can prevent it from happening again. If it was a rostral abrasion, caused by the snake rubbing his face on the wire of the cage while trying to escape the enclosure, you want to either cover the screen or change the type of enclosure you're using. The other common cause of a cut or abrasion is rat bite, so switch to frozen feeders or pre-killed food.
Inclusion Body Disease
IBD is probably one of the most serious diseases of captive snakes. It is only found in the boid family, and most common in Burmese pythons and boa constrictors. Although the signs are varied, you'll want to look for neurological disturbances (such as not righting itself when on its back, "star-gazing," unresponsiveness, regurgitation, asymmetrical dilation of pupils, and paralysis) and for tumors and other illnesses. If you think that your snake has IBD, isolate it immediately and consult a reptile vet as soon as possible. Although there isn't any treatment for the disease, you need to quarantine the snake away from other snakes and either bleach or discard the enclosure so not to pass the disease to other snakes. This illness is just one of many reasons to quarantine new snakes for at least 90 days.
Usually, you'll encounter internal parasites among wild-caught individuals. A snake can pick up internal parasites from its prey or from contact with another infected reptile. This is another great reason to quarantine new individuals. Common signs of internal parasites include regurgitation, lack of appetite, and an overall unwell appearance. If you think that your snake has parasites, take a fecal sample to your vet. He may prescribe a treatment or refer you to an over-the-counter worm treatment for cats and dogs. But NEVER use these without the supervision of a reptile vet.
Mites and Ticks
Mites will appear as tiny, fast-moving dots on the outside of your snake and within his enclosure, and can be either red, black, or white. Getting rid of mites is a bit complicated. Soak the snake in a warm bath for a few hours, or until you are sure that all the mites have fallen off and drowned. While you wait, completely disinfect the enclosure and everything that you had inside it. You may have to do this a few times before you are able to successfully get rid of the mites.
Ticks are larger, and usually fewer in number; they tend to remain attached to the snake's body, usually buried between the scales. The safest way of removing ticks is to smear petroleum jelly thickly over the entire tick, especially the head, as this will suffocate it enough to make it let go of the snake. Don't remove a tick with tweezers because you could 1) damage the snake's skin or 2) leave the head still attached, which leaves the snake open to infection.
Regurgitation is commonly caused by stress, handling too soon after a meal, improper husbandry, or an undiagnosed illness. Wait at least two days after feeding your snake before you try to handle it; moving it from a feeding cage to its permanent cage is fine, but do nothing else. Make sure that your snake has a nice warm spot to lie in after eating, to aid digestion; low temperatures can cause regurgitation. Food that is too large is also commonly regurgitated, so make sure not to feed prey items that are larger than the girth of the snake.
If you think that your snake may have some other illness, take him to a vet. You shouldn't take regurgitation lightly, especially if your snake has regurgitated his meals on multiple occasions, as this can lead to a psychological problem that causes the snake to avoid that particular type of food.
For the most part, respiratory illnesses can be prevented as long as you follow proper husbandry requirements and provide a clean, warm, stress-free environment. But, if you notice signs of coughing, wheezing, open-mouth breathing, runny nose, clicking noises when breathing, and lethargy, a respiratory illness may be the cause. In this case, immediately raise the temperature in the enclosure to stimulate the proper immune responses, move the snake to a quiet room (if it's in a busy area of the house) away from other snakes or reptiles, setting it up in a quarantine enclosure with paper towels. If it's a minor infection or illness, the snake may overcome it on its own; otherwise, if the condition worsens, consult your vet as soon as possible.
Shedding Problems (Retained Eyecaps or Tail)
When there are shedding concerns, usually hydration is the problem. If the snake is not properly hydrated he may suffer retained skin on his eyecaps or tail. Make sure that you raise the humidity at the first sign that your snake is going to shed. When you notice that your snake's eyes are turning a blue shade, either 1) mist the enclosure twice daily, 2) put a larger water bowl in the enclosure, or 3) begin soaking the snake in warm water once a day.
Some snakes will always have shedding problems, because they require a dry environment or because of an old injury. When these snakes shed, check the skin to make sure that it all came off in one piece. If the tip of the tail is not shed, it can restrict blood flow and the tail may need to be amputated. So if the tip of the tail is still stuck after a few sheds, you need to remove it. You also need to make sure that the eyecaps were properly shed, as retained eyecaps can cause infection. Usually, if the snake retains his eyecaps during one shed, they will come off on the next shed, but that is not always the case.
To remove an eyecap, you can take a piece of tape and remove most of its stickiness by pressing it onto a clean surface and removing it over and over again. Then, lightly touch the tape to the snake's eye and gently try to remove the eyecap. You may want to moisten the eyecap with a dab of water or mineral oil first. If you have any problems, or you're nervous about removing the eyecap yourself, consult your vet.
Stomatitis, more commonly referred to as mouth rot, is pretty common among captive reptiles. It's caused by bacteria in the mouth that get into an open wound, causing infection within the lining of the gums and mouth, and potentially the entire digestive tract. Signs of mouth rot include swelling or color change in your snake's mouth and gums, gaps in the snake's mouth when it is closed, or frequent rubbing or opening its mouth.
You want to keep the bacteria in the enclosure to a minimum so to prevent infection, so make sure to clean the entire enclosure regularly, provide fresh water, and eliminate any source of injury to the mouth or the surrounding area.
Put the snake in a quarantine enclosure with paper towels and clean the mouth with a cotton swab dipped in 1% Betadine solution. Make sure that the snake doesn't swallow any of the Betadine or any infectious material by keeping his head downwards while flushing out his mouth. If the condition doesn't improve within one week, consult a vet.
Disclaimer: Please be aware that the advice in this article should in no way replace that of a licensed veterinarian. The methods outlined above may or may not work for your pet. If you have any concerns, you should consult a specialized reptile veterinarian.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.