Watching a pet snake experience health issues that you don’t understand is traumatic. It’s even worse is when the condition causes muscle spasms, neurological problems, and seizures.
Snakes can have several kinds of seizures, but corkscrewing and stargazing are the most common. Seizures cause snakes to lose control of movement. Snakes may seize up before they die due to neurological problems (inclusion body disease) from breeding or disease.
Sometimes, such as in cases of inclusion body disease, nothing can be done to treat snake seizures. Other times, basic changes to a snake’s living conditions can result in considerable improvements. Read on to find out what your snake’s seizures mean, and how to make their life easier.
Why Is My Snake Twitching?
There are various causes of ‘seizures’ in snakes, and many kinds of ‘seizure’ that they can have. None of them are a good sign, but some are more severe than others. This applies to all pet snake species, including the ball python and corn snake.
Non-Serious Reasons Why Snakes Might Twitch
We explore the two most severe kinds of spasm, corkscrewing, and stargazing. These are specific movements where the snake curls their neck in a corkscrew motion (corkscrewing) or gets stuck looking upwards (stargazing). These issues are signs of a severe neurological problem.
What’s happening to your snake might not be this serious. Examples of non-serious reasons why your snake might appear to twitch include:
- They reacted to noise or movement—something that surprised them
- They’re moving restlessly because they’re hungry
- You misinterpreted normal movement for a twitch or a seizure
The crucial difference is control. If your snake appears in control of their movements, then there likely isn’t an issue. If they can’t help their twitch or spasm, then it may be serious.
Do Snakes Have Seizures Before They Die?
The most severe kind of seizure is one most similar to the seizures people have. The snake completely loses control of their body, begins twitching, and can’t move. They may also control of their bodily function, e.g., defecation.
This is not a sign of any particular illness. Instead, it is a sign that the snake is close to death. It means that the snake’s organs are failing. This can occur because of old age, sepsis, or illness.
Aside from that, there are three main kinds of twitches and spasms that snakes can experience:
- Head shaking/head wobble
Below, we explore these problems in more depth. But first, let’s see what causes them.
Snake Neurological Problems that Cause Seizures
Problems in the brain cause seizures. Take epilepsy as a common example. Snakes can’t have epilepsy, but they can have seizures caused by other conditions.
Interestingly, these issues don’t always start with the brain. They end up affecting the brain as the condition progresses. So, let’s take a look at what causes snake seizures.
Neurological Issues in Snake Morphs
Some snake morphs have problems in their genes that cause neurological issues. The spider morph, in particular, is susceptible to these issues. Any other morph that has spider genes, e.g., bumblebees, still have this problem. Their genes cause ‘head wobbling.’
This isn’t a spasm per se. It’s more similar to the shaking that people experience when they have Parkinson’s disease. Either way, this is the most common and well-known neurological issue that causes involuntary movement.
Snake Neurological Issues Caused by Trauma
This is unlikely to occur in pet snakes, but trauma can cause neurological issues too. The first that springs to mind would be trauma to the head. Snakes strike at predators to repel them, but this can backfire if they’re attacked back.
Poison or venom can also cause neurological issues. Some snakes are immune to their own venom, or the venom of other species. Most aren’t. It, therefore, can cause the same neurological effects, e.g., making the snake unable to move.
Trauma can make animals behave unexpectedly, which may appear spasmic. It can also physically damage the brain, which would cause the snake to lose coordination and control.
Does Inclusion Body Disease Cause Seizures in Snakes?
IBD isn’t a neurological condition, at least not to begin with. According to the Veterinary Journal, it’s a viral infection that affects boids and pythons. It’s lethal and has no cure.
If you’re thinking of seizures similar to those that people have, IBD can cause those. It generally causes involuntary spasms and loss of control. Speaking accurately, ‘spasms’ doesn’t only mean involuntary movements. It can mean involuntary contractions, too.
Snakes with IBD will also roll onto their back, as if they don’t know up from down. They can’t control themselves, or to right themselves when in this position. This is something that snakes with neurological problems do. They may also show signs of corkscrewing.
Only boas and pythons can get IBD. If you want to identify whether your snake has it, though, spasms aren’t the only symptom. Other symptoms of inclusion body disease include:
- Vomiting or regurgitating, followed by anorexia (not eating)
- Weight loss as a result of not keeping food down
- Abnormal shedding
- Clogged nostrils due to respiratory infection
- Stomatitis, i.e., mouth rot/ulcers
Can Diet Cause Seizures in Snakes?
Garter snakes are especially susceptible to seizures if their diet is wrong. Specifically, the enzyme thiaminase can cause them to have seizures. Thiaminase is common in some fish species, fish being the main diet of garter snakes.
The problem is that thiaminase breaks down thiamin (vitamin B1). If everything you eat has thiaminase in it, then you can’t absorb any B1, as it’s broken down. Thiaminase, therefore, causes vitamin deficiency.
If your garter snake’s diet is solely or almost solely fish, they may face this issue. You could accidentally be feeding them only fish with thiaminase in it.
The vet can fix this problem through a vitamin B1 injection for garter snakes. But to avoid the issue recurring, you have to change their diet to include foods with no thiamin. Feed them a variety of fish to achieve this. Ask the vet for more information on which fisoh to feed them.
Other snakes may be susceptible to seizures too if their diet is incorrect. But the reasons why aren’t precisely understood.
Does Overheating Cause Neurological Problems in Snakes?
Overheating is a significant issue for snakes. Keeping them at a suitable temperature is vital to their general health. The idea is to replicate their natural environment in captivity, and the wrong temperature can be fatal.
If the snake is kept in conditions that are too hot, it can cause burns, encourage bacterial growth, and alter the snake’s metabolism. But, in isolated cases, it has also been documented to cause neurological issues.
This primarily occurs after severe temperature stress, and over a long period of time. This leaves the snake with burns and neurological damage. They may then show signs of both corkscrewing and wobbling.
What Is Head Wobble or Head Shaking in Snakes?
The head wobble is a neurological problem most common in certain ball python morphs. It involves the snake’s head moving backward and forwards shakily. There is no way to prevent the wobble—no cure that a vet can offer.
In severe cases, the snake will find it challenging to move around. When they try and strike at food, they will miss. This is part of a general loss of coordination that co-occurs with the wobble.
These neurological issues can be severe enough that newly hatched snakes don’t survive. But in typical cases, the head wobble isn’t severe enough to cause problems. The snake will eat, move around and mate as well as other snakes.
What Causes Head Shaking in Snakes?
Head shaking is a neurological condition. There is a problem with the brain and nervous system that means the snake lacks coordination. This can have one of several causes. The usual reason is the spider ball python morph gene.
This gene gives the spider its unique color and pattern combination. But it has the side effect of causing the wobble. Other morphs like bumblebee ball pythons, which are bred from spiders, have the wobble too.
Overheating can also cause head shaking among other neurological problems.
What Is Corkscrewing in Snakes?
One of the most common kinds of seizure is corkscrewing. This is where the snake loses control of their body. They move their neck in a corkscrew shape, round and round, instead of forward. This is associated with neurological disorders in snakes.
In bad cases, the snake can hardly move. It’s as if the snake can’t tell up from down. They seem to lose all sense of direction and perspective.
This can occur in isolated episodes brought on by stress, e.g., feeding. It can also be constant.
What Causes Corkscrewing in Snakes?
Corkscrewing is associated with neurological disorders, but they can acquire these disorders in several ways. The most well-known cause of corkscrewing is IBD, inclusion body disease.
Corkscrewing has also been seen after overheating. A malfunction in a snake’s heat source can make them far too hot. This can cause neurological issues. Both wobbling and corkscrewing have been documented.
What Is Stargazing in Snakes?
To be clear, spasms are involuntary muscle contractions. A spasm doesn’t necessarily involve quick movement. One example of this kind of spasm is stargazing. This is where the snake gets stuck looking upwards, often for extended periods of time. They can’t seem to stop.
This is technically a spasm because their muscles are involuntarily contracted. But it doesn’t look like what you imagine a ‘spasm’ to be. The snake moves slowly into their upright position.
What Causes Stargazing in Snakes?
Stargazing is caused by inclusion body disease(IBD). IBD is a viral condition that affects the brain. In the way that degenerative diseases damage the brain in people, they do the same in snakes.
In particular, IBD damages the snake’s ability to perceive direction and distance. Stargazing is related to this deficit.
What to Do If Your Snake Has Seizures
If your snake has seizures, the first thing you should do is consult a vet. There are also things you can do to either alleviate or reverse the symptoms.
Can a Vet Help Snakes That Have Seizures?
A visit to the vet is advised if your snake is in poor health. Most health problems in snakes can be dealt with by adjusting and correcting your snake’s living conditions. But seizures aren’t one of them. They’re serious and require medical attention.
Find a vet that specializes in reptiles or snakes. Reptiles are biologically different from regular pets, so regular vets don’t have much experience with them. There are reptile vets around the country.
They may not be able to do anything for your snake. IBD is incurable, for example, as are the neurological issues associated with spider ball pythons. They may suggest putting your snake to sleep. This may be the best course of action.
Guidelines for Helping Snakes with Seizures
Aside from that, your vet will suggest specific things that you can do. These are basic fixes that prevent viruses from spreading, or your snake’s condition getting worse.
- Isolate your snake. If your snake usually lives with other snakes, isolate them immediately. If IBD is the problem, isolation can stop it from spreading.
- Check whether your snake is experiencing other issues. If they have trouble shedding, an infection or a wound, this could be exacerbating their neurological problems.
- Avoid stressing the snake. Neurological issues sometimes get worse in response to stress and activity.
Depending on the cause of your snake’s condition, there may be no long-term problem. They can live their life as any other snake would.