Stargazing describes an unusual body position that is seen in some reptiles, especially snakes, which suffer from a disease or injury that inhibits the normal function of the central nervous system (i.e., the brain and spinal cord). This, in turn, causes the affected reptiles to twist their heads and necks and look upwards towards the sky. Stargazing is not a disease in and of itself, but is a symptom of other disorders, the most important of which is a viral infection of boa constrictors and pythons called inclusion body disease.
Symptoms and Types
A stargazer’s bizarre posture is certainly its most noticeable symptom, but depending on the underlying cause, other problems may also be evident, including:
- Difficulty moving
- Inability to roll off their backs and into a normal position
Boas with inclusion body disease often have a history of vomiting, disinterest in food, weight loss and skin problems. Meanwhile, pythons develop severe neurologic problems so rapidly, that other symptoms are generally not noted.
Stargazing behavior can be seen with any disease or condition that adversely affects a reptile’s central nervous system. Some of the most common include:
- Traumatic injuries
- Excessively high or low body temperatures
- Exposure to toxic substances
- Infections with bacteria, parasites, viruses or other microorganisms
Stargazing is identified by simply observing the reptile’s body position and behavior. Diagnosing the underlying cause, however, may require blood tests, X-rays, or tissue biopsies.
Appropriate treatment for stargazing syndrome depends on its underlying cause. If a bacterial infection is to blame, a veterinarian will prescribe a course of antibiotics. Medications such as corticosteroids can also decrease swelling an inflammation and help under certain circumstances.
Unfortunately, no effective treatment is available for inclusion body disease, a disorder causing stargazing syndrome, but with supportive care, some infected boas will live for months before succumbing to the virus.
Living and Management
Some cases of stargazing resolve with time and treatment. Nutritional support and fluid therapy is often necessary while a reptile is recovering from an episode of stargazing. However, if a reptile’s condition fails to improve despite appropriate therapy, or if its quality of life is poor, euthanasia is the best option.