By Laurie Hess, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian Practice)
Reptiles do everything slowly – they move slowly, eat slowly, digest slowly and even get sick slowly. And when they do get sick, they often take a long time, weeks to even months, to show signs of illness. Therefore, it can be very difficult for snake owners to realize that their pets are ill until the disease is advanced.
How can pet snake owners tell their animals are sick? Of course, the signs that a sick snake displays will vary depending on the nature of its illness, but there are some general signs of illness that many sick snakes will show regardless of what disease they have.
General Signs of Illness in Snakes
Sick snakes will often be lethargic, less active and will hide or bury themselves. Most ill snakes will not eat and have little to no interest in food, regardless of what prey item is offered or whether prey is fed dead or alive. Snakes that haven’t eaten for a prolonged period of time (weeks to months) will appear dehydrated, with sunken eyes, retained pieces of skin from incomplete shedding and dry, sticky saliva in their mouths. They will lose weight, as seen by muscle wasting along their upper body surface, making the bony spines of their vertebrae more prominent.
Snakes with sepsis (a bacterial infection in the bloodstream) will often have a pink or reddish hue to the skin along the underside of their bodies. While a healthy snake repeatedly sticks its tongue out to sample components in its environment, a sick snake may be too weak to perform this behavior at all. In addition, while a healthy snake will usually contract its body as it tries to move away from you and even coil up tightly, a sick, weak snake may just lie limp.
All of the signs described thus far are general signs of illness in snakes. However, there are more specific symptoms pet snakes may exhibit that indicate particular common illnesses. For example, a snake with bacterial or viral pneumonia will commonly blow bubbles from its mouth and nose and may breathe with an open mouth. A snake showing these signs should be examined by a veterinarian right away.
Signs of Skin Problems in Snakes
Another problem pet parents commonly encounter with their snakes are shedding issues – typically referred to as dysecdysis. A snake with this issue will not only have retained patches of dry, peeling skin over its body, but also stringy saliva in its mouth and a hazy, opaque color to the surface of one or both eyes which indicates retained spectacles (the eye cap or clear scale that covers and protects the cornea since snakes do not have eyelids). The spectacle is normally shed with the rest of a snake’s skin, but when a snake lives in too dry an environment and becomes dehydrated, both skin and spectacles may be retained. Snakes with retained skin and spectacles should be soaked in warm water and misted often to encourage further shedding and rehydration. Sometimes, retained spectacles can become secondarily infected with bacteria and will not shed easily. Snakes with persistent retained spectacles should be examined by a veterinarian and may need treatment with lubricating, medicated eye drops. Under no circumstances should retained spectacles be peeled off at home, or the underlying cornea may be damaged.
One more commonly encountered conditions in snakes is skin infection with mites. Mites look like little red or black specks (depending on the mite species) around a snake’s eyes, mouth and lower jaw where they suck blood, eventually weakening the snake and making it anemic. Snakes infested with mites may soak more often and frequently the tiny parasites can be seen floating in water bowls. They can also crawl under skin scales, resulting in raised bumps, and can appear on a caretaker’s hands after handling the snake. Infested snakes may have reduced appetites and be irritable from discomfort. Mites are generally indicative of poor sanitation and can transmit bacterial, viral and other parasite infections. Weak, infested snakes should be treated with anti-parasitic medication by a snake-savvy vet and the snake’s enclosure should be thoroughly disinfected, eliminating all porous elements (like wood) that cannot be completely cleaned.
Additional Symptoms and How to Help a Sick Snake
Pet snakes can also have stomatitis, or mouth inflammation/infection. Poor humidity can contribute to this condition, as can living in unsanitary enclosures. Snakes with stomatitis will frequently not eat and will have visible redness and swelling of their gums. In advanced cases, infection progresses to the underlying jaw bones that may appear irregular, bumpy and swollen. Snakes with these signs also should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible for antibiotic treatment and potential surgery to remove infected or dead bone, if necessary.
Finally, another condition seen often in snakes is egg binding (where a female snake is unable to pass an egg that has formed in her reproductive system). Snakes with this condition will frequently stop eating and develop one or more swellings along the lower half to third of their bodies. They may be lethargic and spend time hiding. Snakes with these signs also must be examined by a veterinarian who can determine whether treatment is needed.
The best way to deal with illness in your snake is to prevent it by having the snake examined when you first get it and then annually by a knowledgeable reptile veterinarian and by ensuring that your snakes care and nutrition is ideal. Preventative medicine is key to having a healthy, happy pet snake.
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