Snakes - Problems
Snakes have several unique problems and understanding these problems will allow you to better care for your pet and minimize future health care problems.
Anorexia means lack of appetite or refusal to feed. Snakes commonly exhibit anorexia and some species are more prone to it than others. Anorexia can be a "normal" condition associated with reproduction (the breeding season), egg-bearing (a pregnant or gravid snake), or shedding. Anorexia can also be a symptom of an environmental problem such as an inappropriate light cycle, an incorrect diet, inappropriately-sized food items, or, most commonly, the stress associated with a new or changed environment.
"Snakes commonly exhibit anorexia and some species are more prone to it than others."
Diseases or other problems that cause anorexia include infectious stomatitis (mouth rot), internal parasites, intestinal blockage (impaction), intestinal infections, respiratory disease, kidney or liver failure, tumors or gout. Your veterinarian will need to perform a thorough physical examination and run laboratory tests in order to determine whether snake's anorexia is caused by a specific disease. Encouraging the snake that suffers from "normal" anorexia to resume eating may be challenging, but is usually successful with time and patience.
While turtles are most commonly incriminated in spreading Salmonella bacteria to their owners, any reptile, including snakes, can carry these bacteria as part of their normal flora. Salmonella can cause severe gastrointestinal disease or septicemia (blood poisoning). Many animals and people carry the bacteria without showing any clinical signs (remember Typhoid Mary?), yet shed the bacteria in their feces, and serve as a source of infection for others.
The best way to minimize problems with this disease is through proper hygienic practices. Thoroughly clean and disinfect the cage whenever it becomes soiled. Disinfect the entire cage at least weekly, rinsing it well after using any cleaning products. Most importantly, thoroughly wash and disinfect your hands after handling or feeding your snake or cleaning its cage.
"Thoroughly wash and disinfect your hands after handling or feeding your snake or cleaning its cage."
Since most snakes that carry Salmonella are not ill, they usually require no treatment (treatment often fails to kill the bacteria anyway).
Abnormal swellings and masses
Snakes commonly develop lumps and bumps either on or within their bodies. Various conditions can cause these abnormal swellings and masses. External lumps may be caused by infections (as is the case with abscesses), tumors, or parasites. Internal swellings can be caused by various organ problems (such as kidney disease, parasitic infections of the stomach), retained eggs in some species of snakes, tumors, even constipation. Sometimes, a lump is "normal", and is simply the food a snake has just eaten!
Your veterinarian may need to run certain tests (x-rays, aspirates, blood tests) to determine the cause of a specific swelling. Once the cause of the swelling is known, the veterinarian will decide whether medical or surgical therapy is the most appropriate treatment. Many lumps and bumps are benign and do not pose a life-threatening risk to your snake. Others can be signs of more serious disease. In these cases, the sooner your snake is examined, the better.
A healthy, well-maintained snake will shed its skin (ecdysis) in one piece like an inverted tube. The frequency of shedding varies with the age, growth rate and nutritional status. A young, healthy, well-fed snake will shed more often (perhaps every month). Shedding begins with a subtle dulling of the skin all over the body followed in several days by the eyes turning a cloudy, blue/grey color. Next, the skin clears and the eyes clear and resume their normal appearance. During these stages, handle your snake very gently as the skin can be easily damaged. Finally, the snake seeks a rough surface to rub against and the old skin sheds off from head to tail. This entire process can take 7-14 days.
Some snakes experience difficult or improper shedding (dysecdysis). This is considered a symptom of an underlying problem. Most often this is due to husbandry and management problems such as improper environmental temperature or humidity and/or improper nutrition. Of special concern is the snake with retained spectacles (eye caps). Always check the shed skin to ensure that the spectacles have come off with the rest of the skin. If they are not shed, your veterinarian should be consulted about removal. Improper removal can result in permanent eye damage and blindness.
"Some snakes experience difficult or improper shedding (dysecdysis)."
Shedding problems (retained skin and eye caps) can often be treated by increasing the humidity in the snake's environment, which should help the snake to shed the retained skin. Provide sufficient rubbing surfaces such as logs or rocks on which the snake can rub to initiate the shed. Consult your veterinarian for advice about various ways to increase the humidity and otherwise aid the snake in removal of the skin and eye caps, so that no permanent damage is done to your pet snake.
Burns occur all too often with pet snakes. They occur when the animal, naturally seeking a warm place to rest, finds a place that is too hot or it stays in that hot spot too long. This can happen if the snake has access to exposed heat lamps, light bulbs or electric hot rocks or sizzle stones within the cage. It can also happen if your snake escapes and finds a radiator, baseboard heater, light bulb or other exposed heat source. It seems that the snake does not recognize that it is too hot. With less severe burns, the snake's scales will become discolored, turning dark brown or black; in more serious cases, blisters or deep tissue damage will develop. These animals need immediate veterinary care.
Bites and wounds
Most snake owners are surprised to learn that even a small, frightened mouse can severely bite and injure their pet snake; it can even kill the snake if the snake isn't hungry! These wounds require immediate veterinary care. Sometimes prey will bite through the skin and muscles right down to the ribs and backbone, inflicting irreparable or life threatening injuries in some cases. For this reason, as well as humane concerns for live prey, it is strongly suggested that you train your snake to eat dead prey. The only time you should even consider feeding your snake live prey would be if you know that your snake is hungry and will immediately kill and eat the prey, and you will watch the snake do this safely. Do not leave live prey with your snake at any time. Ensure the snake has killed its prey before you leave.
Unfortunately, a snake in captivity may repeatedly try to escape by pushing its nose or front of its face into cage lids, the glass of the aquarium or wire enclosures as it looks for a way out. Nasal or facial injuries can be as minor as superficial skin and scale damage or can progress to deep, full thickness ulceration that can lead to disfiguring deformities of the nose and front of the mouth. This problem is challenging to prevent. If your snake keeps attempting to escape, provide it with secure hiding places and lots of different climbing structures, and perhaps try providing a visual barrier such as a coat of paint or a decorative façade on the outer surface of the walls or top of the enclosure.
Dystocia or egg binding happens when the female snake is unable to pass her eggs. It is a reasonably common problem in reptiles and can be life threatening. It is caused by a variety of factors. Most commonly it is associated with poor husbandry including improper environmental lighting or temperature, inadequate nest site, improper diet (malnutrition) and dehydration.
"Dystocia or egg binding happens when the female snake is unable to pass her eggs."
Other factors include the age and condition of the animal, or injuries or physical obstructions caused by deformed or oversized eggs, physical abnormalities with the reproductive tract or pelvis, infections, constipation, abscesses or masses. A healthy gravid (with eggs) snake may not eat, but she will still be bright, active and alert. A gravid snake with dystocia is anorexic and rapidly becomes sick, lethargic or unresponsive. A veterinarian familiar with reptiles must examine this animal immediately. A physical examination, blood tests and X-rays are used to facilitate diagnosis. Medical and/or surgical procedures may be needed to help these animals.