Diseases & Infections Which Could Afflict Your Snake

Unfortunately, snakes can become ill just like you or I. Many of their illnesses can be avoided with good care and common sense. I have done a little digging on the internet and compiled the following list of snake diseases and infections. Please treat this page as a guide to give you some idea of the ailments which could possibly afflict your snake. There may be many more which I haven't listed here, if you believe your snake might be ill, I can only advise that you take your pet to see your veterinarian.

Mouth Rot (Infectious or Ulcerative Stomatitis)

Is a progressive bacterial infection involving the oral lining. It may begin with increased salivation, often saliva bubbles from the mouth. Close inspection of the oral lining reveals tiny pinpoint areas of bleeding. The oral lining becomes increasingly inflamed and pus begins to accumulate within the mouth, especially among the rows of teeth. As the disease progresses, the underlying bone becomes infected and the teeth fall out.

This infection must be recognized in the early stages to successfully reverse it. The hobbyist must seek veterinary help when mouth rot is first evident. The veterinarian may want to collect a saliva/pus specimen for bacterial culture and subsequent antibiotic sensitivity testing to determine the appropriate antibiotic(s) to use. A blood sample can also be collected to accurately assess the internal and overall status of the patient.

Mouth rot often is an external manifestation of more serious internal problems. Initial treatment involves injections of vitamins A, C and B complex, as well as a "best guess" antibiotic (one that the veterinarian believes has the best chance of fighting the infection until the results of antibiotic sensitivity tests are available).

Supportive care involves daily or twice-daily cleansing of the mouth, application of topical antibiotics, administration of fluids to combat dehydration and the possible detrimental effects of certain antibiotics, and periodic forced-feedings (using a stomach tube). Generally, snakes with heavy accumulations of pus and infected bones of the jaw are unlikely to be saved, even with aggressive veterinary efforts. You must be alert to the early stages of the disease and periodically inspect the mouth for signs of mouth rot.

Respiratory Infections

Are common in snakes. They may be associated with septicaemia (body-wide illness, viral infections and mouth rot. Some respiratory illness may be the consequence of stress from poor or inadequate husbandry. Signs include loud respiration, discharge and/or bubbling from the nostrils and/or mouth, coughing and open-mouth breathing. Treatment must be aggressive and at the direction of a veterinarian.

A bacterial culture of the windpipe and subsequent antibiotic sensitivity testing should be undertaken to identify the offending bacteria and the appropriate antibiotic(s) to use. The veterinarian may also recommend collecting a blood sample to determine the extent of the disease and to see if there has been serious compromise to internal organs. Antibiotic therapy should be by injection and may need to be long-term, especially in severe and long-standing cases. Inhalation therapy (vaporization or nebulization) is frequently employed as part of treatment.

Fungal Infections

A number of fungal organisms can cause superficial and deeper infections of snakes. Most of these infections involve the skin and respiratory system. Fungal infections of the eyes are most likely to occur in snakes housed in damp, contaminated environments. Ringworm fungi that usually infect people, pets and livestock have also caused skin infections of snakes. Snakes must be housed in scrupulously clean and dry enclosures.

The flooring must be easy to clean and should not be of a material that encourages fungal (mould) growth (see section on Housing on our care sheet page). A veterinarian must examine Snakes exhibiting problems with their skin and/or eyes as soon as possible. A microbial culture and a skin biopsy may be necessary to obtain a diagnosis. Treatment of fungal diseases involves use of topical and systemic (oral and/or injectable) antifungal agents. Prevention of fungal disease involves correcting underlying problems with husbandry.

Blister Disease

Is common in many captive reptiles. It is most often associated with the maintenance of these animals in damp, filthy environments. The first sign is usually a pink to red appearance of the bottom-most scales. Later, these scales become swollen and infected by bacteria and fungi. At the first suspicion of this disease, you must seek vets help. Treatment involves use of topical and inject-able antibiotics. Further, the underlying sanitation and hygiene problems must be corrected. Blister disease is preventable if you are aware of it and if the enclosure in which captive snakes are housed is kept dry and scrupulously clean.

Septicaemia

A wide variety of bacteria can cause generalized internal infections (septicaemia). These bacteria may invade the body by way of wounds and abscesses or as a consequence of serious illness originally localized in the respiratory, gastrointestinal and reproductive tracts. Signs may be subtle or obvious and may include lethargy, anorexia, dehydration, and regurgitation of incompletely digested food, redness to the skin and scales, or bleeding from the skin.

The help of an experienced veterinarian is essential n these cases. The outlook for these patients is always guarded to poor. The attending veterinarian may collect a specimen for bacterial culture and antibiotic sensitivity testing, as well as one or more blood samples to more accurately determine the extent of the disease, whether or not various internal organs are involved, and as a means of monitoring the patient's progress.

Treatment involves use of inject able antibiotics and appropriate supportive care (fluid therapy, force-feeding, inject able vitamins, etc.). Treatment must usually be relatively long-term and periodic monitoring of the patient's status is essential to a favourable outcome.

Eye Infections

Captive snakes occasionally suffer eye infections. Infections may be superficial or more extensive, involving the entire eye. Superficial infections may result from mild injury to the eye. Superficial infections may also become established below a retained eye cap. Infections of this type must be recognized promptly and treated aggressively to prevent involvement of the entire eye.

The retained eye cap must first be removed if at all possible. Infections involving the entire eye may result from trauma to the eye or from septicaemia (body-wide) infection. In the latter case, the bacteria enter the eye by way of the bloodstream. Veterinary help is essential with these cases. Treatment involves use of topical and/or injectable antibiotics. Sometimes, drugs that help to exercises the iris (the coloured portion inside the eye) are used to help prevent adhesions inside the eye.

Viral Infections

in snakes, as a whole, are generally poorly understood. This is because viruses are extremely difficult to detect and identify. They are equally difficult or impossible to treat. Viral infections result in tumours skin growths in many native snake species. Other viruses can cause digestive, respiratory and nervous system disease among snakes.

An example is a recently recognized viral encephalitis affecting pythons and boa constrictors. Afflicted constrictor species exhibit a very gradual deterioration of the brain and eventually die. Most viruses are highly contagious. Hobbyists must be aware of this and quarantine all newly acquired snakes for at least 6-8 weeks. This involves complete isolation of new snakes and careful scrutiny of them during this period for any signs of illness. All newly acquired snakes should be thoroughly examined and evaluated by a veterinarian experienced with snakes.

Constipation

Is a common problem among captive snakes. Causes include suboptimal environmental temperature, illness, dehydration, injuries, parasitism, and cloacoliths (see below). Constipated snakes should be allowed to soak in very warm (not scalding hot) water for 20-30 minutes daily for 1-2 days. This often results in defecation and/or urination. It this conservative measure is not successful, veterinary help should be sought at once.

Cloacoliths

Dehydration of captive snakes (especially if long standing) may result in drying out of urinary excretions. When this occurs, uric acid "stones" tend to form within the cloaca ('cloacoloths'). Their presence in this location prevents expulsion of urinary waste and faeces (constipation), which creates serious illness.

Dehydration is a sign of disease and not a disease in itself, so it becomes the veterinarian's task to determine the underlying problem that caused the dehydration. Cloacoliths can usually be manually expelled with patience and the help of mineral oil enemas. Only an experienced veterinarian should attempt this procedure.

Prolapses

A prolapse occurs when an organ inverts itself inside out and protrudes through the usual external opening of that organ. Prolapses of the cloaca and reproductive organs are not uncommon among captive snakes. Often the cause cannot be determined. Straining during egg laying can precipitate prolapses or straining related to uric acid stones. Parasitic infections or other intestinal disease may also result in prolepses. Veterinary assistance is essential in these cases to treat the prolapse and determine the underlying cause, if possible.

Abnormal Shedding

Occurs when the normal sequence of events of the shedding process is somehow interrupted. This usually results in a piece-meal shed and/or retained eye caps. Causes include serious internal disease, inadequate relative humidity, and previous injury (including surgery) to the skin and scales, external parasitism, lack of adequate objects against which to rub at the beginning of the shed, and thyroid gland problems.

An abnormal shed indicates a problem that demands immediate attention. In these cases, consider all of the aforementioned causes, most of which demand veterinary assistance. Treatment of a snake with retained skin from an abnormal shed involves first soaking the snake in warm water for several hours. A damp towel can then be used to gently peel off stubborn skin fragments. An alternative to this manual method involves rolling the snake snugly in warm moist, heavy towels and allowing it to crawl out, leaving the stubborn skin fragments behind. This procedure can be repeated if necessary.

Retained Eye Caps

Are often a manifestation of an abnormal shed. The eye caps represent the outermost cellular layers of the corneas (the transparent portions of the eyes), which are supposed to be shed each time the outermost layers of the skin are shed. The retained caps must first be softened by repeated application of a suitable eye ointment. Next, an experienced veterinarian should attempt to carefully remove the corneal remnants. An inexperienced hobbyist should never attempt this.

Cancer

Occurs in snakes, but the number of reports is very limited. Some tumours have been diagnosed on living snakes, but most were diagnosed at the time of autopsy. As with mammals, tumours of snakes can be benign or malignant and originate from any organ or tissue of the body, including blood. Boa constrictors seem to be more often affected by cancer than other snakes commonly kept in captivity.

This observation, however, may be the result of the disproportionately large number of boas kept by hobbyists because of their tremendous popularity. It is interesting to note, however, that most life-threatening malignancies that we have diagnosed in snakes have involved boa constrictors. Snake owners must be vigilant and seek prompt veterinary help when a growth or lump is detected on their snake(s) (especially if a boa constrictor is involved). "Mole-like" growths have been especially troublesome in our experience. Wounds that fail to heal despite treatment should make you equally suspicious.

Organ Failure

Failure of vital organ function may be the result of advancing age or cancer but is usually a consequence of chronic and unchecked disease among captive snakes. Disease that has gone undetected and/or untreated can have devastating and sometimes, fatal consequences. Under these circumstances, organ function is greatly compromised and the snake's usually smooth-running metabolism is threatened. Dehydration and uric acid build-up within the kidneys and possibly other vital organs further complicates the picture.