Have you noticed your snake’s breathing isn’t normal? It’s common for a royal python to change the way it breathes in response to an external stimulus. There are many reasons why your ball python is taking deep breaths, so what is wrong with the respiratory health of your snake?
The most likely reason for deep breathing in ball pythons is a respiratory infection (RI). Your snake is struggling to breathe, so they use their mouth to breathe instead of their nose. Taking deep breaths due to stress is also a common cause. Inclusion body disease (IBD), a viral infection that affects the nervous system and other vital organs, is a far less common explanation.
It could also be nothing, which is the most likely reason if your ball python is healthy. You have to look for other symptoms to identify the cause. Respiratory infection, stress, and inclusion body disease all have various symptoms. We’ll then explain how each condition can be medically treated.
Ball Python Breathing Noises
Ball pythons can make various noises as they breathe. Sometimes that might be a sign that they’re ill, or it might not be anything at all. You might hear the following sounds:
- A faint whistling sound
- A raspy, crackly breathing sound
- A wheezy, labored breathing sound
- Just breathing in and out, but more forcefully than usual
- A sound that’s a little like a sigh
Whistling, sighing and forceful breathing isn’t necessarily a sign of illness. However, raspy or wheezy breathing is usually a sign of a respiratory infection.
You have to identify the other symptoms of conditions and try to identify those, alongside the wheezing or labored breathing.
Ball Python Breathing Heavy After Eating
Snakes don’t like being disturbed if they’ve just eaten, because they’re trying to digest their food, and they don’t want to move around, because it can make them sick.
If you were to disturb them while they’re digesting, they might appear nervous and breathe quite heavily—perhaps not loudly, but with their sides rising more visibly than usual.
Be sure to leave your snake alone for at least 48 hours after they eat, until they’re more active, before handling them again.
Your snake will also change the way that they breathe while they’re eating. They will move their glottis to one side so that they can still breathe while they have prey in their mouth.
The glottis is the top of their windpipe, which they can move to one side, so that they don’t choke.
Heavy Breathing in Snakes Due to Stress
Other things can cause stress in ball pythons, including:
- Incorrect conditions in their enclosure, e.g., it’s too warm, too cold, too dirty, or no water
- You’re handling them too frequently
- Your snake’s enclosure is too big which makes them feel insecure
- Your snake doesn’t have a hide for when they feel insecure
- Their enclosure is too bright which makes them feel insecure
- They’re housed with another snake, which almost no species of snake enjoys
Whatever the cause of their stress, as always, there are many symptoms. Heavy breathing is just one of them.
Your snake may have trouble shedding, and rub their nose against the glass of their enclosure to the point where their skin is raw and broken.
To prevent stress, you have to do is identify what’s causing it and reverse it.
Respiratory Infection in Ball Pythons
A respiratory infection has similar symptoms to a cold or flu, where the snake’s nose, throat and sometimes lungs (their respiratory system) becomes infected by bacteria or a virus.
Your snake will experience the following symptoms:
- Their nose will get blocked up with mucus, and might get runny
- You might see some mucus running from the corner of their mouth
- The snake will be breathing heavily because their nose is blocked
- Anorexia, i.e., refusal to eat, or eating less than before, leading to weight loss
- A general lethargy
When their nose is blocked, the snake will make a wheezing sound. They may also open their mouth to breathe, because their nostrils are blocked.
What Causes RI in Ball Pythons?
Bacteria or a virus cause respiratory infection. The most common cause is when you keep their enclosure too cool. This affects their ability to fight off bacterial respiratory infections.
Ball pythons enjoy basking temperatures of between 88 and 94 degrees. Lower than this and they can survive, of course, but they stand a higher chance of getting ill.
Not only that, but sub-par conditions make respiratory infections more likely. If the substrate of their enclosure is dirty and damp, the bacteria there can cause respiratory infections, scale rot, and mouth rot. Other problems, like parasites and a poor diet, can exacerbate a respiratory illness.
The key is that if your ball python gets an illness, you have to go back to basics: identify what it is about their care that’s not optimal, and fix it. Perhaps you don’t change the substrate frequently enough, or the temperature isn’t high enough.
How to Treat RI in Ball Pythons
To treat a respiratory infection, you’ll need antibiotics, which are best sourced from your vet. They can be given by mouth, by injection, or via inhalation.
Apply these antibiotics as directed by your vet. If there are also parasites involved, then a separate treatment will be necessary. This involves spraying their enclosure thoroughly, as well as getting at least some of the spray on the snake itself.
It’s vital that you use prescribed antibiotics. That’s because many different bacteria and viruses cause respiratory infection. One antibiotic will work whereas another will not.
The vet will take a sample and quickly find out what virus/bacteria is causing the infection, and then prescribe a specific antibiotic to counter it. A baby ball python respiratory infection is particularly dangerous, so make sure to treat a hatchling with RI as soon as possible.
Treating Respiratory Infections at Home
To reverse the effects of a respiratory infection, and to prevent one from happening again, it’s vital that you correct any problems you find in their environment. A ball python should have:
- A basking spot heated to between 88 and 94 degrees
- A cooler part of their enclosure, at about 80 degrees
- A hide on each side of their enclosure
- A substrate that they can burrow in, if they so choose
If your snake doesn’t currently enjoy these conditions, you must take steps to ensure that they do. Aside from the temperature of their enclosure, it’s also vital that you provide them with a proper substrate. Since ball pythons like to burrow, aspen shavings are a perfect choice.
Ball pythons are clean reptiles, so spot cleaning and deep cleans of your snake’s enclosure every two weeks will be more than enough to prevent the recurrence of RI in the future.
Can Ball Pythons Get Inclusion Body Disease?
Inclusion body disease is most commonly seen in boa constrictors, but it can affect ball pythons too. One of the symptoms of IBD is wheezing.
But according to Veterinary Record, many other unique symptoms should make it obvious if IBD is the cause:
- The snake will find it hard to balance themselves when they strike, often missing their target.
- The snake can get stuck ‘stargazing,’ where they’re facing upwards, but it’s not obvious that they’re looking at anything.
- Regurgitation of meals, or complete refusal to eat anything. This results in weight loss.
- Difficulty righting themselves if they’ve been turned over, along with general disorientation.
- Inability to shed because they can’t coordinate themselves enough to peel the skin away.
Is There a Cure for IBD?
Inclusion body disease is distressing and very painful for your snake. Unfortunately, there is no treatment for IBD that works at this time.
Scientists have been working on a cure every since it was first introduced to native snake populations, but as of yet, have not found a cure.
Avoid introducing your snake to any other snake, as IBD is highly contagious. It has wiped out entire collections of pythons and boas, although it doesn’t affect any other snake species.
It was first observed in the 1970s, and it’s not even known whether it occurs in the wild.
What to Do If Your Snake Has IBD
The best thing to do for a snake that has IBD, unfortunately, is to euthanize it. The condition is progressive and can only get worse.
There’s no set schedule as to how quickly it takes for IBD to kill a snake, but it’s possible for it to progress rapidly. But that means that your snake is either guaranteed a slow and painful death, or a quick and painful one. That’s why euthanasia is the recommended course of action.
Not all vets deal with reptiles, but you’ll need to talk to a vet over the phone to verify the symptoms and decide how to proceed.
It wouldn’t be wise to bring it in to see the vet without this consultation since IBD is so highly contagious. There’s a high chance that your snake could pass the virus on to other pets.