Snakes - Diseases

By Rick Axelson, DVM

Medical Conditions, Parasites, Pet Services

What are some of the common diseases of pet snakes?

snakes-diseases-1Common conditions of pet snakes include infectious stomatitis (mouth rot), parasites, blister disease, inclusion body disease, respiratory disease, and septicemia.

What are the signs of these diseases?

Infectious Stomatitis (Mouth Rot) is an infection of the oral cavity; it is seen 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 "lips". In severe cases, the snake will have a severely swollen mouth and will exhibit open-mouth breathing. Affected snakes are often anorexic (off food). This problem is often not a primary disease but is usually secondary to an injury to the mouth or husbandry issues such as poor nutrition, improper environmental temperatures, or overcrowding.

Both internal parasites (various worms and coccidia) and external parasites (ticks and mites) are common in pet snakes. They often cause no clinical signs and are detected on an annual physical examination and fecal tests. They may, however, cause diarrhea, breathing difficulties, regurgitation, swelling of internal organs, itching, irritation, skin infections, anemia, mouth rot (mites can transmit the bacteria that cause mouth rot,) or weight loss.

Blister disease is often seen in snakes (and other reptiles) kept in environments that are too moist and/or too dirty. Most of the lesions are on the ventral or underside of the animal which is why it is easy to miss. You must examine your pet snake regularly in order to catch problems. These fluid filled blisters may become infected with aggressive opportunistic bacteria, and if not treated promptly may lead to severe tissue (skin) damage, septicemia (blood poisoning caused by bacteria or their toxins) and death.

"Blister disease is often seen in snakes (and other reptiles) kept in environments that are too moist and/or too dirty."

Inclusion body disease (IBD) is a very serious viral disease of pythons and boas. 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.

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; they use the muscles of the 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. The lung of most snakes is divided into 2 portions with the front 1/3 - 1/2 being a functional reptile lung and the remainder being more of an air sac.

Most respiratory infections are caused by bacteria and in snakes are often seen in conjunction with mouth rot. Viruses, fungus and parasites can also cause respiratory disease. Snakes with respiratory infections may have excess mucus in their oral cavities, excessive nasal discharges, lethargy and loss of appetite, may wheeze, may make "gurgling" sounds or may have open-mouth breathing.

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

Septicemia or toxemia is a condition where microbes such as bacteria or the toxins they produce, invade 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 mouth rot, or non-specific, such as a snake with anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy, which can be seen with many diseases. ANY deviation from normal is a cause for concern and your snake requires immediate evaluation by your veterinarian.

"ANY deviation from normal is a cause for concern and your snake requires immediate evaluation by your veterinarian."

How are snake diseases treated?

Infectious Stomatitis (Mouth Rot), usually requires injectable antibiotics, as well as rinsing the mouth with antibiotic solutions.

snakes-diseases-2Several deworming medications are available either as an oral or injectable drug. The type of parasite identified on the microscopic fecal examination will determine which drug is needed. Some parasite problems such as cryptosporidiosis may be difficult if not impossible to treat.

Blister disease can be well managed with proper environment and hygiene. Antibiotics are needed if this disease advances. Topical treatment is used as well.

Snakes with inclusion body disease are euthanized as there is NO cure. Strict quarantine of new animals is a must and some people suggest housing boas and pythons separately.

Respiratory infections are most often caused by bacteria other organisms, including parasites, fungus and viruses can also cause respiratory problems. Occasionally, allergies or respiratory irritants can cause nasal discharge as well. Your veterinarian may recommend radiographs (X-rays), blood tests, and cultures to determine the cause of the infection. Treatment for infectious respiratory disease involves antibiotics, which may be given orally, as injections, or possibly as nose drops. Sick 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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