Common Diseases of Pet Snakes

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Medical Conditions, Parasites, Pet Services

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What are some of the common diseases of pet snakes?

Common conditions of pet snakes include infectious stomatitis (mouth rot), parasites (including cryptosporidiosis), skin infections, inclusion body disease, respiratory disease, and septicemia.

What are the signs of these diseases?

Infectious stomatitis ('mouth rot') is an infection of the mouth that appears as pinpoint hemorrhages on the gums or an excessive amount of thick mucus, possibly containing blood, or pus (resembling cottage cheese), in the mouth and at the inside edge of the front of the mouth. In severe cases, the snake has a severely swollen mouth, is open mouth breathing, and is not eating. This problem may not be a primary disease but may be secondary to an injury to the mouth or to husbandry issues such as poor nutrition, improper environmental temperature or humidity, or overcrowding.

Both internal parasites (various worms and coccidia) and external parasites (ticks and mites) are common in pet snakes. They often do not cause obvious signs but are detected on an annual physical examination and fecal tests. They may however, cause diarrhea, breathing difficulties, regurgitation, swelling of internal organs, itching, skin irritation, anemia, mouth infection (mites can transmit the bacteria that cause infection), and weight loss. Cryptosporidiosis is a protozoal parasite that can infect snakes and cause thickening of the stomach muscles (that, from outside the snake, appears as a round, mid-body swelling ), impaired digestion, vomiting, and weight loss. Some snakes are infected but show no signs and shed this contagious parasite in their stool, exposing other susceptible snakes to infection.

Skin infection (dermatitis) is often seen in snakes (and other reptiles) kept in environments that are too moist and/or dirty. Snakes may have red, inflamed skin with numerous small, blister-like lesions that may be on the underside of the snake making them easy to miss. These fluid-filled blisters may become infected with bacteria and if not treated promptly may progress to severe skin damage, septicemia (a bacterial infection in the blood), and death. Snakes kept in too dry conditions, without adequate humidity, may retain skin when they shed and develop bacterial infections of the skin from debris building up under the retained skin pieces.

Inclusion body disease (IBD) is a very serious viral disease of pythons and boas. While pythons commonly show signs of infection, boas may carry this virus for more than a year without showing obvious signs of infection. The signs vary a lot; although this disease may affect the respiratory or digestive tract, it is generally associated with the nervous system. Affected snakes cannot right themselves when placed on their backs, may appear to be ’star gazing’, and may be paralyzed. IBD is contagious from snake to snake and is typically fatal.

Snakes have a unique respiratory tract. Most snakes have only one functional, simple lung (usually the right lung; the left one is reduced in size or completely absent). Boas and pythons are the exception to this, with two lungs. Snakes do not have a diaphragm muscle separating their chest cavity from their abdominal cavity; they use the muscles associated with their ribs and body wall to pump air in and out of the lungs. The lung can occupy much of the snake's body between the heart and the hind end.

Most respiratory infections in snakes are caused by bacteria and may occur in conjunction with stomatitis. Viruses, fungi, and parasites can also cause respiratory disease. Snakes with respiratory infections may have excess mucus in their mouths, nasal discharge, lethargy, loss of appetite, wheezing, and may make 'gurgling' sounds or open mouth breathe.

"Most respiratory infections in snakes are caused by bacteria and may occur in conjunction with mouth rot."

Septicemia is a condition in which bacteria and the toxins they produce proliferate in the blood stream and other body organs. Snakes with septicemia are critically ill and are often near death. They exhibit lethargy, lack of appetite, open-mouth breathing, and often have a red discoloration to the scales of their bellies.

How can I tell if my snake is sick?

Signs of disease in snakes may be specific for a certain disease, such as a cottage-cheese type discharge in the mouth of a snake with stomatitis, or non-specific, such as lack of appetite and lethargy, which can be seen with many diseases. Any deviation from normal is a cause for concern and should be evaluated by your veterinarian as soon as possible.

How are snake diseases treated?

Infectious stomatitis usually requires treatment with injectable antibiotics and rinsing the mouth with antibiotic solutions.

snakes-diseases-2For parasitic infections, deworming medications are administered to the snake either orally or through injection. The type of parasite identified determines which drug is needed. Some parasite problems, such as cryptosporidiosis, may be difficult, if not impossible, to treat.

Dermatitis can be managed with proper environment and hygiene. Oral and injectable antibiotics, as well as topical therapy, are needed if this disease is advanced.

Snakes with inclusion body disease are typically euthanized, as there is no cure. Strict quarantine of new animals is a must, and boas and pythons should be housed separately so as not to allow seemingly normal boas that may be carrying this potentially fatal infection to spread it to more susceptible pythons.

Respiratory infections in snakes are most often caused by bacteria but also may be due to other organisms, including parasites, fungi, and viruses. Occasionally, environmental irritants can cause nasal discharge in snakes as well. Your veterinarian may recommend X-rays, blood tests, and cultures of nasal or oral discharge to determine the cause of infection. Treatment of respiratory disease involves oral or injectable antibiotics and occasionally nose or eye drops. Severely ill snakes require intensive care, including fluid therapy and force feeding in the hospital.

Septicemia is a true emergency that requires aggressive treatment in the hospital. Antibiotics, fluid therapy, and force- feeding are needed in an attempt to save the snake.

Any of these diseases can be severe enough to cause a loss of appetite and lethargy. Seek immediate veterinary care if your pet snake shows any deviation from normal.

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