Common Problems in Pet Snakes

General information

Snakes have several unique problems and understanding these problems will allow you to better care for your pet and minimize future health care problems.

 

Anorexia

Anorexia means lack of appetite or refusal to eat. Snakes commonly exhibit anorexia and some species are more prone to it than others. Anorexia can be a normal condition associated with reproduction (the breeding season), egg bearing (a pregnant snake), or shedding. Anorexia can also be a symptom of an underlying environmental problem such as an inappropriate light cycle, an incorrect diet, inappropriately sized food items, or, most commonly, the stress associated with a new or changed environment.

"Snakes commonly exhibit anorexia and some species are more prone to it than others."

Diseases or other problems that cause anorexia include infectious stomatitis (“mouth rot”), internal parasites, gastrointestinal blockage (impaction), intestinal infections, respiratory disease, kidney or liver failure, tumors, or gout. Your veterinarian will need to perform a thorough physical examination and run laboratory tests in order to determine the cause of a snake's anorexia. Encouraging an anorexic snake to resume eating may be challenging but is most successful when the underlying cause of anorexia can be identified and corrected.

 

Salmonella

While turtles are most commonly incriminated in spreading Salmonella bacteria to their owners, any reptile, including snakes, can carry these bacteria as part of their normal gastrointestinal bacterial flora. Salmonella can cause severe gastrointestinal disease or life-threatening septicemia (blood infection). Many animals and people carry these bacteria without showing any clinical signs, yet they shed the bacteria in their feces and serve as a source of infection for others.

The best way to minimize problems with this disease is through proper hygiene. Thoroughly clean and disinfect the snake’s cage whenever it becomes soiled. Disinfect the entire cage at least weekly, rinsing it well after using cleaning products. Most importantly, thoroughly wash and disinfect your hands after handling or feeding your snake or cleaning its cage.

"Thoroughly clean and disinfect the snake’s cage whenever it becomes soiled."

Since most snakes that carry Salmonella are not ill, they usually require no treatment.

 

Abnormal swellings and masses

Snakes commonly develop lumps and bumps either on their skin or within their bodies. Various conditions can cause these abnormal swellings and masses. External lumps may be caused by infection (typically referred to as abscesses), tumors, or parasites. Internal swellings can be caused by organ enlargement (such as with kidney disease or parasitic infections of the stomach), retained eggs in species of snakes that lay eggs, tumors, or even constipation. Sometimes, a lump is simply the food a snake has just eaten.

Your veterinarian may need to run certain tests (X-rays, aspirates, blood tests) to determine the cause of a specific swelling. Once the cause of the swelling is known, your veterinarian will determine whether medical or surgical therapy is the most appropriate treatment. Some lumps and bumps are benign and do not pose a life-threatening risk to your snake. Others can be signs of more serious disease. In these cases, the sooner your snake is examined, the better.

 

Difficulty shedding

A healthy, well-maintained snake will shed its skin (the process of ecdysis) in one piece, like an inverted sock. The frequency of shedding varies with the snake’s age, growth rate, and nutritional status. A young, healthy, well-fed snake will shed more often (perhaps every month). Shedding begins with a subtle dulling of the skin color all over the body, followed in several days by the eyes turning a cloudy, blue/grey color. Next, the skin color brightens, and the eyes clear and resume their normal appearance. During these stages, snakes should be handled very gently, as the skin is fragile and can be easily damaged. Finally, the snake seeks a rough surface to rub against, and the old skin sheds off from head to tail as it rubs. This entire process can take 7-14 days.

"Some snakes experience difficult or improper shedding (dysecdysis)."

Some snakes experience difficult or improper shedding (dysecdysis). Dysecdysis is considered a symptom of an underlying problem most often with husbandry and management, such as improper environmental temperatures or humidity levels and/or incomplete nutrition. Of special concern is the snake with retained spectacles (eye caps). The surfaces of the eyes should be shed at the same time the skin is shed. Always check the shed skin to ensure that the spectacles have come off with the rest of the skin. If they are not shed, your veterinarian should be consulted about how best to treat your snake. Over the long term, retained spectacles can result in permanent eye damage and blindness.

Shedding problems (retained skin and eye caps) can often be treated by increasing the humidity in the snake's environment to help the snake to shed the retained skin. Providing a sufficient number of rough surfaces, such as logs or rocks, on which the snake can rub to initiate the shed, is critical. Consult your veterinarian for advice about various ways, such as soaking or misting the snake, to increase the humidity and to aid in the shedding of retained skin and eye caps, so that your pet snake does not suffer permanent damage.

 

Burns

Burns occur all too often with pet snakes. They occur when the animal, naturally seeking a warm place to rest, either finds a place that is too hot or stays in that hot spot too long. This can happen if the snake has access to exposed heat lamps, light bulbs, or electric “hot rocks” or “sizzle stones” within the cage. It can also happen if your snake escapes and finds a radiator, baseboard heater, light bulb, or other exposed heat source on which to sit. Snakes, in general, often do not recognize that they are too hot when they contact hot surfaces, therefore they get burned frequently and some burns can be severe. With less severe burns, the snake's scales will become discolored, turning dark brown or black; in more serious cases, blisters or deep tissue damage will develop. These animals need immediate veterinary care.

 

Bites and wounds

Most snake owners are surprised to learn that even a small, frightened mouse offered as prey to a snake to eat can severely bite and cause life-threatening injury to the snake if the snake is not hungry. Wounds to reptiles inflicted by prey require immediate veterinary care. Sometimes, uneaten prey left in a cage with a well-fed snake will bite through the skin and muscles right down to the ribs and backbone, inflicting irreparable or life-threatening injuries. For this reason, as well as humane concerns for live prey, snakes should be offered only dead (freshly killed or frozen and thawed) prey. Offering live prey just presents too much risk for injury for the snake, so it should be avoided altogether. Most pet snakes can be trained to eat dead prey, especially if they are hungry, and the prey is freshly killed and still warm.

 

Injuries

Unfortunately, a snake in captivity may repeatedly try to escape by pushing its nose or the front of its face into cage lids, the glass of the aquarium, or wire on an enclosure, as it looks for a way out. Nasal or facial injuries can be as minor as superficial skin and scale damage or can progress to deep, full thickness ulceration that can lead to disfiguring deformities of the nose and front of the mouth interfering with breathing and/or eating. This problem is challenging to prevent. If your snake keeps attempting to escape, provide it with secure hiding places and lots of different structures on which to climb, and place a visual barrier, such as a coat of dark-colored paint, a strip of duct tape, or a decorative facade, on the outer surface of the tank walls or top of the enclosure to deter the snake from trying to push through.

 

 

Dystocia

Dystocia, or egg binding, occurs when the female snake is unable to pass eggs. Dystocia is a fairly common problem in reptiles and can be life-threatening. It is caused by a variety of factors including poor husbandry, such as improper environmental lighting or temperature, inadequate nest site, inappropriate diet (malnutrition), and dehydration.

"Dystocia, or egg binding, occurs when the female snake is unable to pass her eggs."

Other factors that may contribute to dystocia include older age, poor body condition, physical obstructions within the reproductive tract caused by deformed or oversized eggs or injuries, structural abnormalities with the reproductive tract or pelvis, infections, constipation, or abscesses. A healthy gravid (with eggs) snake may not eat but should still be bright, active, and alert. A gravid snake with dystocia will not eat and will also be lethargic, weak, or unresponsive. A veterinarian familiar with reptiles should examine snakes in this condition immediately. A physical examination, blood tests, and radiographs (X-rays) are often required for diagnosis. Medical and/or surgical procedures may be needed to treat these animals.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

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