Snakes are quite robust low maintenance pets when kept in the appropriate habitat, and need little day to day care other than feeding and cleaning out the cage as needed. If you choose a healthy snake and give it the correct care, there’s every chance your snake will never have any illness. But, like all animals, there is still a chance they may become sick or injured in spite of your best intentions to avoid it. While I have not studied veterinary medicine, in my research I have found the following to be the health problems most often encountered with captive snakes. But please if your pet is showing an sign of illness take it to a vet, preferably one with experience in reptiles.
A healthy snakes will be alert and active, will have a rounded full body from good nutrition. He/she will eat regularly without problems. Will have smooth, shiny undamaged skin, and their eyes, nose and mouth will be clear and free from any muck or discharge.
Symptoms of illness in snakes can be specific for some illnesses, like a cottage-cheese type discharge in the mouth of a snake with mouth rot, or non-specific, for instance a snake with lethargy and anorexia (lack of appetite), which can indicate many diseases. ANY departure from normal is a reason for concern and your snake needing immediate examination by your vet.
Regurgitation of food, lethargy, discharge from the eyes or nose, the body appearing to be thin and not full, and decreased appetite are all warning signs of ill health in your snake. Also check that the appearance of their urine and faeces has not changed, this can also be an indicator of a potential problem.
Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of the most common health problems with snakes:
Abscesses are usually caused by an earlier injury that is infected by bacteria. They normally develop a lump that protrudes from under the skin that at times spreads into the internal organs. Abscesses are often mistaken for tumors, un-laid eggs, or constipation. Let an experienced vet to diagnose if the lump is definitely an abscess. If it is, let the vet treat it, which most likely involves lancing and draining the abscess with a follow-up visit for cleaning and changing the dressing. Also, the vet might decide to treat the abscess with an antibiotic.
Blister disease is mostly found in snakes, and other reptiles kept in habitats that are too moist and/or too dirty. Most of the lesions are on the ventral or underside of the reptile making them easy to miss. You should inspect your pet snake frequently to find problems. Fluid filled blisters can become infected with bacteria, and if not promptly treated can lead to serious tissue damage, septicemia (blood poisoning caused by bacteria or their toxins) and death.
Septicemia or toxemia is a disorder where microbes like bacteria or the toxins they generate, infect the blood stream and other body organs. Snakes with septicemia are dangerously ill and often near death. They display lack of appetite, open-mouth breathing, lethargy, and often have a red discoloration to the scales of their bellies.
Blister Disease can be prevented with proper husbandry, so make sure that you are maintaining the right habitat for your snake. As noted, fluid-filled blisters will normally form on the belly of the snake when housed in dirty, moldy, and/or overly moist substrate. Don’t confuse these blisters with burn blisters; these blisters might start with a few at first but will rapidly increase and become life threatening particularly if they spread near the mouth, nose, or cloaca.
Prevention is the best cure. Maintain a clean and dry substrate. Be sure to remove feces and urates. Change the bedding often. One or two blisters can be treated at home by sterilizing a needle and piercing the blister; using a clean cotton swab or a bandage to soak up the fluid. Be sure to fluid the blisters twice daily with hydrogen peroxide or betadine and apply an antibiotic ointment. House the snake in a quarantine cage with paper towels until the blisters have healed.
If there are multiple blisters and/or blisters that are in sensitive areas, consult a reputable vet asap.
It might surprise you to know that snakes can suffer from constipation. The time it takes for your snake to digest and metabolise his/her food will vary depending on his age, size and weight, so you need to pay attention to your snake’s usual digestion cycle and be aware of any changes in it. If your snake has constipation, he might start to look bloated, and become lethargic and uncomfortable. Check the cage for uneaten food, which can be sign that your snake’s digestive system has temporarily halted.
It may just take longer for your snake to complete the digestion process, depending on the size of him/her and his/her metabolism rate, but if you see that his digestion schedule and defecation is way off, your snake might be constipated. You might observe that the snake seems bloated, lethargic, and/or have a decreased appetite, if this is the situation. Be sure to examine the enclosure completely to make sure that you haven’t missed anything. If there’s definitely no feces in the cage, you’ll need to soak the snake in tepid water for about 15 minutes a day. Normally, the warm water will encourage excretion; if not, and you see that your snake is swelling in the abdominal area you’ll need to visit a vet asap. If your snake has a sizeable accumulation of hard impacted faeces that he/she is can’t pass normally, then surgical intervention could be needed to remove this. Left untreated, acute constipation without relief can be fatal to your snake.
Accumulated feces can become so constipated that surgery could be the only option before the snake dies. The snake may have swallowed a foreign object which may be blocking him from defecating.
Typical snake health problems come from physical injury. Frequent sources include burns from heat lamps, bites from cage-mates, attacks from reckless feeding of live prey, crushing from decorative items falling on the snake, and mishandling. Furnishing a safe habitat is the best prevention but if physical injury should happen you can get dressings and medication, and it is always wise to get the advice of a snake experienced vet. –
Treat any type of cut on your snake, as you would yourself. Keep it clean and put a small dab of antibiotic ointment daily until the wound has healed. You could try to bandage the snake, but that might be near impossible; you might consider a waterproof band-aid, but not all cuts need a dressing. Put the snake in a quarantine enclosure with paper towels so that nothing can irritate the wound.
Investigate what cut the snake, so that you can stop it from recurring. If it was a rostral abrasion, caused by the snake rubbing his face on the wire of the cage while attempting to escape the enclosure, you need to either cover the screen or switch the type of enclosure you’re using. The other regular cut or abrasion is rat bite, so to change to frozen or pre-killed feeders.
IBD is one of the most dangerous illnesses of captive snakes. It is found only in the boid family, and most often in Burmese pythons and boa constrictors. While, the symptoms are diverse, you’ll need to look for neurological disturbances (like not righting itself when on its back, “star-gazing,” inactivity, regurgitation, uneven dilation of pupils, and paralysis), tumors, and other illnesses. IBD is highly contagious so, if you suspect that your snake has IBD, isolate it at once and consult a reptile vet asap. While, there is no treatment for the disease, you have to quarantine the snake from other snakes and either discard or bleach the cage so as to not pass the disease to other snakes. This is just one of many health concerns that are good reason to quarantine new snakes for at least 90 days.
There is no treatment for the disease, but you should consult your vet for a definite diagnosis and advice on how to ease any pain.
Normally, you’ll find internal parasites in wild-caught specimens, but, internal parasites can be passed from prey or from contact with another infected reptile. Yet another great reason to quarantine new specimens. Usual signs of internal parasites are regurgitation, loss of appetite, and an overall ill appearance. If you believe your snake has parasites, take a fecal sample to your vet. He might prescribe medication or refer you to an over the counter worm treatment for cats and dogs. But, NEVER use these without the advice of a reptile vet.
Internal parasites (various worms and coccidia) and external parasites (ticks and mites) are both common in pet snakes. Often they cause no symptoms and are only identified by a physical examination and fecal tests. They can, however, cause diarrhea, breathing difficulties, regurgitation, swelling of internal organs, itching, irritation, skin infections, anemia, mouth rot (mites can transmit the bacteria that cause mouth rot,) or weight loss.
Mites appear as tiny, fast-moving dots on the outside of your snake and within his enclosure, and can be either red, black, or white. To eliminate mites, you’re in for a bit of a chore. Soak the snake in a tepid bath for a few hours, until you make sure that all the mites are off and drowned. While you wait, disinfect the entire enclosure and everything that was inside it. You will probably have to do this a few times before you successfully get rid of all the mites.
Ticks are larger, and usually less in number; they like to stay attached to the snake’s body, normally buried between the scales. The safest way to remove ticks is to smear petroleum jelly, thickly, over the tick, particularly the head, this will suffocate it enough to let go of the snake. If you try to remove a tick with tweezers you can either damage the snake’s skin or you leave the head still attached, which leaves the snake open for infection.
I have found, in the past, the aerosol used as an insect repellent in aircraft cabins, Top Of Descent, is effective against mites and doesn’t seem to harm the snake, if used sparingly.
Regurgitation is often caused by stress, handling too soon after a meal, poor husbandry, or an undiagnosed illness. Leave at least two days before you try to handle your snake after feeding it, moving from a feeding cage to its permanent enclosure is OK, but nothing else. Ensure that your snake has a nice warm spot to bask after eating to help digestion; low temperatures can cause regurgitation. Food that is too big is also regurgitated, make sure you don’t feed prey that is larger than the girth of the snake.
If you suspect that your snake may have another illness, take him to a vet. You can’t take regurgitation lightly, particularly if your snake has regurgitated his prey on more than one occasion, because this can lead to a psychological problem that makes the snake avoid that type of food.
If your snake is sick regularly or for a prolonged period of time, or for no apparent reason, seek veterinary advice.
Respiratory illnesses can mostly be treated and prevented as long as you maintain proper husbandry needs. A clean, stress-free habitat with warm temperatures are all that you need to prevent respiratory illnesses. If you observe signs of coughing, wheezing, open mouth breathing, runny nose, clicking noises when breathing, and lethargy, you might deduce a respiratory illness as the cause. You should promptly increase the temperatures in the enclosure to stimulate the proper immune responses, if it’s in a busy area of the house, put the enclosure in a quiet room and, make sure that you separate the snake from any other snakes or reptiles, moving it to a quarantine enclosure with paper towels. If it’s a minor infection or illness, the snake could overcome it on its own, if the condition worsens, consult your vet asap.
Except for boas and pythons, who have two, most snakes have only one functional, simple lung (usually the right lung; the left one is reduced in size or completely absent). Snakes don’t have a diaphragm; they use the muscles of the ribs and body wall to pump air in and out of the lungs. The lung can take up much of the snake’s body between the heart and the hind end. The lung of most snakes is separated into 2 portions with the front 1/3 – 1/2 being a functional reptile lung and the remainder being more of an air sac.
Many respiratory infections are caused by bacteria and in snakes are regularly seen in combination with mouth rot. Viruses, fungus and parasites also cause respiratory disease. Snakes with respiratory illnesses may have excess mucus in their oral cavities, excessive nasal discharges, lethargy and loss of appetite, might wheeze, or make “gurgling” sounds or may have open-mouth breathing.
A clean, stress free habitat for your snake can go a long way to avoiding general ill health and stopping any respiratory problems from happening, good husbandry is necessary at all times.
Usually you can call hydration the problem with any shedding problems,. If the snake is not correctly hydrated he might retain skin on his eyecaps or tail. Ensure that you increase the humidity at first indication that your snake is going to shed. As soon as you see that your snake’s eyes are turning a blue shade, either mist the enclosure twice daily, put a larger water bowl in the enclosure, or start soaking the snake in warm water once a day.
Some snakes will always have shedding problems caused by dry husbandry needs or an old injury, in this case, make sure that you check the skin to ensure that it all came off in one piece. As to the tip of the tail, it can restrict blood flow if the tip of the tail is still stuck after a few sheds, you need to remove it to stop the tail having to be amputated. With the eyecaps, you need to ensure that they were completely shed, as retained eyecaps can cause infection. Normally, if the snake keeps his eyecaps on one shed, they will come off on the next shed, but not always.
To remove an eyecap, youl can get a piece of tape, and eliminate most of the stickiness by pressing it on a clean surface and removing it over and over. Then, softly touch the tape to the snake’s eye and attempt to gently remove the eyecap. You might want to moisten the eyecap with a dab of water or mineral oil first. If you have any difficulty, or you’re nervous about removing the eyecap yourself, consult your vet.
Stomatitis, more commonly called mouth rot, is quite common among captive reptiles. It’s caused by bacteria in the mouth that gets into an open wound, causing infection in the lining of the gums, mouth, and possibly the whole digestive tract. Signs of mouth rot include swelling or color change in your snake’s mouth and gums, gaps in the snake’s mouth when closing, or frequent rubbing or opening its mouth.
You have to keep the bacteria in the enclosure to a minimum to prevent infection, so be sure to regularly clean the whole enclosure, supply fresh water, and remove any source of injury to the mouth or the surrounding area.
Place the snake in a quarantine enclosure with paper towels and clean the mouth with a cotton swab dipped in 1% Betadine solution. Ensure that the snake doesn’t ingest any of the Betadine or any infectious material by tilting his head downwards while flushing out his mouth. If the condition doesn’t improve within 1 week, consult a vet.
This is unfortunately a relatively common illness found in pet snakes.
In its natural environment a snake can move around and adjust its living conditions and diet corresponding to its needs, it can move to cooler, warmer, wetter, or drier areas as it needs. In captivity a snake has to endure the habitat it is given by its keeper. If this habitat is wrong, it can lead unmistakably to physical difficulties, or to illness through stress. For most captive animals, stress is the biggest cause of health problems, as it decreases an animals ability to defend against normal levels of disease.
Stress can be brought on by incorrect environment, too hot, to cold, too humid, not humid enough, not enough hiding places, any major change to its environment, a new cage mate. Being in a busy area of the house can cause it. Besides having the incorrect habitat, too much handling is probably the most common cause of stress in pet snakes. To a snake you are a giant predator and every time you handle it, it is scared, even if it seems and is used to being handled the fear is still there. After being handled it should be allowed to settle down again in its enclosure and not handled again for a few days. It’s probably best to only handle it once a week.
Infectious Stomatitis (Mouth Rot), normally needs injectable antibiotics, as well as rinsing the mouth with antibiotic solutions.
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.
Blister disease can be well managed with proper environment and hygiene. Antibiotics are needed if this disease advances. Topical treatment is used as well.
Snakes with inclusion body disease are euthanized as there is NO cure. Strict quarantine of new animals is a must and some people suggest housing boas and pythons separately.
Respiratory infections are most often caused by bacteria other organisms, including parasites, fungus and viruses can also cause respiratory problems. Occasionally, allergies or respiratory irritants can cause nasal discharge as well. Your veterinarian may recommend radiographs (X-rays), blood tests, and cultures to determine the cause of the infection. Treatment for infectious respiratory disease involves antibiotics, which may be given orally, as injections, or possibly as nose drops. Sick snakes require intensive care, including fluid therapy and force feeding, in the hospital.
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. Seek immediate veterinary care if your pet snake shows any deviation from normal.