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Common Diseases of Pet Snakes

What are some of the common diseases of pet snakes?

Common conditions of pet snakes include infectious stomatitis (mouth rot), parasites, respiratory disease, difficulty shedding, and septicemia.


What are the signs of these diseases?

Infectious Stomatitis (Mouth Rot) is seen as pinpoint hemorrhages on the gums or an excess amount of thick mucus, often like cottage cheese, in the mouth.  In severe cases, the snake will exhibit a severe swelling of the mouth and exhibit open-mouth breathing.


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


Most respiratory infections are caused by bacteria, and in snakes are often seen in conjunction with mouth rot.  Snakes with respiratory infections may have excess mucus in their oral cavities, nasal discharges, lethargy and loss of appetite, and possibly open-mouth breathing and wheezing.


Some snakes have difficulty shedding.  Often this is due to improper environmental temperature or humidity.  A special concern is the snake with retained spectacles (eye caps). The spectacles are normally shed during the shedding process.  When they are not shed but rather retained, your veterinarian should be consulted about removal. Improper removal can result in permanent eye damage and blindness.


Septicemia or toxemia is a condition where microbes such as bacteria or toxins 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 on 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 should be a cause for concern and 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.  Atropine (to reduce the thickness of the oral secretions) and vitamin C may also be needed.


Several 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.


Respiratory infections are most often caused by bacteria; other organisms, including parasites, can cause respiratory problems as well. Your veterinarian may want to do radiographs (X-rays), blood tests, and cultures to determine the cause of the infection.  Occasionally, allergies can cause nasal discharge as well.  Treatment for true infections involves antibiotics given orally or as injections, and possibly nose drops.  Sick snakes require intensive care, including fluid therapy and force feeding, in the hospital.


Shedding problems (retained skin and eye caps) can usually be treated by providing extra humidity to allow the snake to shed the retained skin.  Your veterinarian should be consulted about various ways to increase the humidity and aid in removal of the skin and eye caps so that no permanent damage is done to your pet snake.


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.  When seen, these signs indicate a guarded prognosis and the need for hospitalization and intensive care, which can include fluid therapy and force-feeding.

This client information sheet is based on material written by Rick Axelson, DVM & Shawn Messonnier, DVM

© Copyright 2005 Lifelearn Inc. Used with permission under license. January 17, 2014

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