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Health Problems of Snakes

Abscesses are generally caused by a previous injury becoming infected with bacteria during the healing process. They appear as a lump protruding from under the skin, and may extend deep into the internal organs. It is possible to confuse an abscess with a tumor, un-laid eggs, or constipation. Only an experienced veterinarian should treat suspected abscesses, as they can determine the proper diagnosis and if it involves any major internal organs. Treatment of abscesses involves lancing and completely draining the abscess, with follow-up treatment of cleansing, dressing, and possibly an antibiotic treatment.

Blister Disease
Generally seen only in captive snakes, this is an illness that can most certainly be avoided through proper enclosure maintenance. When kept on dirty, moldy, and/or overly moist substrate, fluid-filled blisters may form on the underside of the snake. These are different than burn blisters, and should be correctly identified before treatment. At first only one or two may appear, but they will grow in number and can become life-threatening if it spreads to the mouth, nose, or cloaca. The best treatment is prevention: keep the substrate clean and dry, spot clean feces and urates as soon as you see them, and do thorough substrate changes regularly. One or two blisters can be treated safely at home. Sterilize a very sharp needle and gently pierce the blister. Using a clean cotton swap or bandage, absorb as much of the fluid from the blister as possible. Then, twice daily you should flush the blister and surrounding skin with hydrogen peroxide or Betadine and apply antibiotic ointment. Keep the snake in a hospital tank until healed. If there are more than a few blisters, or they extended to a delicate part of the body, an experienced herp veterinarian should be consulted for treatment

The main causes of regurgitation are stress or handling too soon after eating, improper environmental conditions, and undiagnosed illness. Wait two days after feeding your snake before handling it (moving it from one enclosure to another or to clean is fine as long as it isn't too stressful). Also, allow your snake to have a warmer spot to move to after eating to aid digestion. You'll probably notice that your snake naturally retreats to this area for a day or two of warm privacy after feeding. Temperatures that are too cold will also cause regurgitation of meals, and should be corrected to the proper range right away. Always make sure food is unspoiled and of appropriate size. If your snake regurgitates on more than one occasion, and both stress and improper conditions have been eliminated, then suspect an underlying illness. Regurgitation should not be taken lightly. While it may occur on only one occasion with no apparent reason, repeat occurrences could lead to psychological problems in which the snake avoids the type of food that it can't seem to keep down.

Respiratory Illness
Many respiratory illnesses can be treated and prevented by maintaining correct husbandry. A clean, stress-free home with warm temperatures will do much to keep your snake happy and healthy. If your snake does acquire a respiratory illness, the signs will be very noticeable: coughing, wheezing, open mouth breathing, runny nose, clicking noises when it breathes, and lethargy. If you suspect a respiratory infection, immediately raise the enclosure's temperature to 85 degrees F to help stimulate immune response. If it isn't already, move the enclosure to a quiet room, and away from any other healthy reptiles. Many times, this is all that is needed to battle minor RI's. If after two days you don't see any signs of improvement, or sooner if condition worsens, make an appointment with a reptile vet. They may prescribe antibiotic injections and/or vitamin supplements.

Shedding problems (retained eyecaps, tail)
Hydration is key in preventing shed problems. From the day your snake's eye go blue, I recommend misting the inside of the enclosure twice daily to increase humidity. A water dish should be left in the enclosure, as well, so your snake may bathe as it feels necessary.

Some snakes will always have problems shedding, due to specifically dry environmental preferences, or perhaps an old injury. Always check the shed skin, which has hopefully come off in one full piece, to make sure the eyecaps and tail tip have been shed. These are common problems in many captive snakes. If the bit of skin covering the tail was not shed completely, it can build up and cause constriction of blood flow to the end of the tail. I've seen too many snakes with stubby, amputated tails because of this happening, so please check each shed cycle.

Also check the head of the shed skin. In the holes where the eyes were, there should be a thin, clear layer of skin. If there's an open hole, then the eyecap is probably still on the snake, and will need to be removed to prevent infection and possible loss of sight if the eyecaps build up. To remove an eyecap (also called a brille), remove most of the stickiness from a piece of tape by pressing and removing it from a clean surface. Then lightly touch the snake's eye with the tape, trying to grab the brille cap and remove it. Moistening the eyecap with water or mineral oil first may help. If you still have difficulty removing the brille, or if there are multiple eyecaps on top of each other, see a veterinarian for treatment.

Constipationribbon snake
Depending upon a snake's size and metabolism, it may take longer than you expect for complete digestion to take place. But if your snake's normal "schedule" is way off, and it is experiencing bloating, lethargy, or a lack of appetite, it may be constipated. Check carefully first to make sure you didn't just miss the excretion or a regurgitation (covered by plants or under substrate). An at-home treatment simply requires a warm bath, for about 15 minutes a day. This should stimulate excretion fairly quickly. If not, or if your snake continues to swell in the abdominal region, see a vet as soon as possible. Over time, built-up feces can become so compacted that surgery is required to prevent death. It is also possible that your snake has become impacted by some foreign object that cannot be passed normally. This also requires veterinary attention immediately. 

Cuts & Abrasions (Rostral abrasions)
Any type of cut should be treated much in the same way that we would treat a human injury. The wound should kept clean, and dabbed with a healing/antibiotic ointment (such as Neosporin) daily until healed. As I'm sure you can imagine, bandaging a snake is near impossible. A very small, waterproof band-aid may work if the cut is bad enough to require a dressing. Obviously, in the case of an injury to the head, it should not be covered with a bandage. In this case, a hospital tank should be used to keep the wound clean during healing.

The cause of the injury should be addressed, as well. If it was a one-time incident, for example, a run-in with the family cat, take measures to prevent future escapes. Rostral abrasions often occur if an animal has been rubbing its face on the wire of a cage in attempts to escape. In this case, the wire should be covered or the enclosure type changed. Self-inflicted bites can't be avoided, but bites from another animal indicate separation is necessary (at least during feeding). Prey mammals should only be offered pre-killed to avoid self-defense attacks on your snake

Inclusion Body Disease
IBD is one of the most serious diseases found in captive snakes. It occurs only in the boid family, particularly in Burmese pythons and boa constrictors. The signs vary in different species and individuals, but typically involve neurological disturbances and possibly tumors and other illnesses. Classic signs of neurological damage include not righting itself when the snake is turned onto its back, "star-gazing," unresponsiveness or asymmetrical dilation of pupils, regurgitation and paralysis. If you suspect IBD in your snake, isolate it immediately and seek veterinary help. There is no treatment for IBD, and euthanasia is indicated. Proper quarantine (90-180 days) is recommended for all new snakes, and mites (possible transmitters) should be controlled. Cages from infected snakes should be bleached or discarded.

Internal Parasites
Wild-caught animals are most often afflicted with internal parasites, however they can also be passed on from prey or contact with other infected individuals. Internal parasites may be difficult to detect. Symptoms may include regurgitation, lack of appetite, weight loss, and a generally ill appearance. To diagnose a parasitic infection, take a fresh fecal sample to a vet or vet tech to be examined under a microscope. They will be able to identify the type of parasite, if any, and prescribe a treatment. Over the counter worm treatments for cats and dogs should NOT be used except under advisement by an experienced herp vet.

Mites & Ticks
Mites will appear as tiny, fast-moving dots on the skin of your snake. They may be red, black, or white. Ticks are larger, and usually fewer in number, remaining attached to one part of the snake (usually buried as much as possible between scales). The safest method for removing ticks is to take a smear of petroleum jelly and thickly cover the entire body of the tick (particularly the head). The idea is to suffocate the bug until it is forced to let go of the snake's skin and tries to get away. Then you should remove the tick and destroy it. Removing a tick with tweezers isn't recommended unless you're absolutely sure you can do it gently and completely. There is the risk of grabbing too much, and tearing your snake's skin in the process. And if the head of the tick should remain attached to the snake, infection almost always ensues. In this case, you must see a veterinarian immediately.

With mites, the safe method is a long, warm, bath. Place your snake in a separate tank of only a few inches of warm water for several hours until you see that the mites have fallen off and drowned in the water. During this time, COMPLETELY disinfect the entire main enclosure and everything inside of it. This should be done with all your snakes/enclosures at the same time to prevent the mites from migrating back. If you suspect the source of the mites is your substrate or a newly acquired piece of natural wood, remove them from the room and dispose of them right away.
Signs of a Healthy Pet:  

  • Clear eyes (except when shedding)
  • Clear nose and mouth
  • Body is rounded and full
  • Active and alert
  • Eats regularly
  • Healthy skin

Common Health Issues and Red Flags:

  • Wrinkled or rubbed skin
  • Vomiting
  • Discharge in nose or mouth
  • Lethargy
  • Abnormal feces or urine
  • Decreased appetite

Also known as mouth rot, this is a fairly common illness in captive snakes. When bacteria enter the mouth, it can cause infection within the lining of the mouth, gums, and potentially the rest of the digestive system. Signs of mouth rot include swelling or color change of the mouth or gums, the mouth not closing completely, or the snake frequently rubbing or opening its mouth. Keeping bacteria in the enclosure to a minimum is important in preventing this infection, including regular cleaning, fresh water supplies, and eliminating any source of injury to the mouth or surrounding area. Isolate any infected animal, and clean the mouth with a cotton swab dipped in a 1% Betadine (povodine-iodine) solution. Make sure the snake does not swallow any of the solution or infectious material; keep the snake's head pointed downwards while flushing. If the condition does not improve with a week, find veterinary treatment as soon as possible.

Ribbon snakes are all members of the North American genus Thamnophis. They are found as far north as Southeast Alaska and as far south as Mexico. The US and Canadian species and subspecies are commonly found in the pet trade. The ribbon snake is similar in appearance to the garter snake but with a much longer tail. Tail length for the ribbon snake generally accounts for one third or more of total body length. Their heads have no distinct join to the neck or body, and three (usually) longitudinal stripes, one along the back and one along each side. They are normally found near water. However, there are so many species with a variation of colors that it can be confusing to the non-expert to try to identify exactly which snake is which.

They are great snakes for beginners, but two points must be borne in mind. Firstly, although in nature they live near water, they do not like to live in wet conditions. In the wild they will indeed enter the water, but afterwards more often than not they will seek to dry off and raise their temperature by basking. Therefore an enclosure for garter snakes should be dry, with a bowl for the snake(s) - yes you can keep more than 1 in a tank - to soak in if that particular species is known to prefer this. Secondly, most garters and ribbons do not usually prey on rodents in the wild. They prefer fish and earthworms (what I feed to ribbon snakes) and also insects (although I have never had a ribbon snake that ate insects for me) should be offered. They also take frogs and newts.

Inclusion Body Disease - a fatal disease that affects boa constrictors and pythons.

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Page Last Updated: Wednesday, September 27, 2006 20:37 EST
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