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Three Common Illnesses of Pet Snakes

Three Common Illnesses of Pet Snakes

               Many species of snakes can be kept as pets and are relatively healthy creatures.  However, snakes can get sick and may require veterinary care.  Many illnesses result from improper housing or poor husbandry.  There is no one size fits all for keeping snakes—requirements vary by species—and it is important to research the care and needs of the particular species of snake you intend to keep as a pet.  There are some common health conditions that occur in many species of snakes.

               Infectious stomatitis or “mouth rot” is a painful infection of the mouth.  Usually caused by a variety of different bacteria and occasionally fungi, stomatitis typically occurs in snakes with a weakened immune system.  Improper housing such as keeping snakes at the wrong temperature or humidity, improper nutrition, overcrowding, failure to clean the snake’s enclosure, and bites from prey or other snakes can all lead to stress and a poor immune system. Opportunistic bacteria invade the soft tissues of the mouth causing swelling, pain, odor, whitish pus or discharge around the mouth, poor appetite, and weight loss.  Untreated, the condition can become very serious, especially if bacteria invade the underlying bone.  Diagnosis involves physical examination of the mouth and possibly collection of samples of discharge to examine under the microscope or for culture.  Treatment of mild cases usually involves flushing the mouth with antiseptic solutions, injections of systemic antibiotics and supportive care.  Severe cases may require surgery to clean up and remove dead tissue. Treatment of early or mild disease is usually successful. Severe cases of mouth rot may be fatal.

Respiratory illnesses are also quite common in pet snakes.  With the exception of boas and pythons, many species of snakes only have one functional lung.  This makes respiratory infection and pneumonia caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites common in snakes.  Symptoms of respiratory infection include excess mucus in their mouths, nasal discharge, lethargy, loss of appetite, wheezing, and “gurgling” or open mouth breathing.  The same husbandry issues described above for infectious stomatitis can lead to stress, a poor immune system and respiratory infection in snakes.  Diagnosis may involve x-rays and culture of any secretions. Treatments may involve systemic antibiotics or anti-fungal drugs, treatment for parasites, nebulization, keeping the snake’s environment on the warmer side of their temperature range and improved nutrition and housing. Recovery may take weeks or even months.

Parasites are another common problem among pet snakes. External parasites like mites or ticks can cause anemia and secondary skin irritation and infection. Intestinal parasites do not always cause obvious symptoms but they may lead to diarrhea, breathing difficulties, regurgitation, excess gas in the intestines, anemia, and weight loss.  Skin parasites are usually visible on the skin with the naked eye.  Intestinal parasites are diagnosed by examination of fresh feces under the microscope or by lab analysis of fecal material.  Treatments may involve topical permethrins or other safe pesticides to remove external parasites or oral drugs to treat intestinal parasites.  Seek veterinary care and recommendations for proper drugs and dosing. Parasite treatment is not necessarily a one size fits all.  Cages and enclosures should be properly cleaned and treated if mites or ticks are present.

Snakes can make wonderful pets, but proper care is needed to prevent stress and illness.  Seek veterinary care for your snake if he or she is not eating normally, is losing weight, is having difficulty breathing or if anything seems out of the ordinary.

This blog brought to you by the Patton Veterinary Hospital serving Red Lion, York and the surrounding communities.