Even captive (pet) snakes can become ill. The most common causes of sickness are bad husbandry and direct/indirect contact with other snakes. Left untreated, many of these health problems can become fatal.
Health problems in snakes include stress, retained sheds, sepsis, anorexia/overweight, head wobble, internal/external parasites, respiratory problems, and inclusion body disease (IBD).
The easiest way to tell if a snake is sick is that it isn’t acting the way it does normally. Your snake doesn’t seem like its normal self, either because it’s more aggressive than usual or it’s lost interest in everything. It’s this ‘hunch’ that often leads you to look into things more deeply.
Table of Contents:
- 1 Snake Health Issues
- 1.1 Stress
- 1.2 Dysecdysis (Retained Shed)
- 1.3 Losing Weight
- 1.4 Gaining Weight
- 1.5 Losing Skin and Scales
- 1.6 Scale Rot
- 1.7 Mites and Ticks (Acariasis)
- 1.8 Internal Parasites
- 1.9 Mouth Rot (Infectious Stomatitis)
- 1.10 Septicemia
- 1.11 Respiratory Infection
- 1.12 Eye Problems
- 1.13 Abscesses
- 1.14 Injuries from Prey
- 1.15 Burns
- 1.16 Vomiting or Regurgitation
- 1.17 Inclusion Body Disease
Snake Health Issues
Let’s explore the most common health problems that your snake might be experiencing. With some notable exceptions, such as Inclusion Body Disease (IBD), these can apply equally to corn snakes, ball pythons, boa constrictors, milk snakes, garter snakes, etc.
The most common health problem in snakes is stress. It’s very easy to stress out a snake, especially if you’re not an experienced handler. Your snake seems consistently on edge, whether it’s before you handle or feed it.
Stress occurs because your snake feels threatened and doesn’t have somewhere to hide. Poor husbandry can also cause stress, as can overly-frequent handling.
A stressed snake will be snappy and will rub its nose against the enclosure. You can relieve stress in snakes by identifying and resolving the cause.
Dysecdysis (Retained Shed)
If your snake’s enclosure isn’t sufficiently humid, your snake may experience shedding problems. Instead of its shed coming off in one go, it will come off in patches. This is a problem for the following reasons:
- Retained eye caps mean that the snake can’t see properly
- Retained skin on the tail can cut off circulation, necrosis and, death
To prevent this from happening, spray its enclosure regularly and provide a water bowl. Alternatively, get a humidifier as a set-and-forget solution.
Anorexia is a symptom of something else being wrong, rather than a problem in and of itself. It can occur for any number of reasons:
- You aren’t caring for your snake correctly. Perhaps the heat setting is set too low, the enclosure is too small, or there are no hides
- A wild-caught snake is unable to adjust to captivity.
- A snake that doesn’t primarily eat rodents in the wild is having trouble adjusting to its diet. For example, perhaps you have a grass snake that is being forced to eat pinkies rather than frogs/toads.
- The snake doesn’t like being handled too much, or at all
- The snake has a severe parasite infestation
- Your snake is in pain and discomfort when it eats
Each snake species has specific requirements regarding its enclosure, diet, and handling. Adjust your snake’s care until it starts eating again.
It’s possible to overfeed your snake. If so, you will notice that its middle is wider than that of other snakes of its species and age.
You may also see a symptom called ‘scale spreading,’ where your snake’s scales move apart, and you can see the skin underneath.
If you notice that your pet snake is overweight, cut down on the amount that you feed it and/or the frequency that you offer meals.
Losing Skin and Scales
After trauma, it’s possible for your snake to have a ‘bald patch.’
This is where the snake used to have scales, but it’s now scare tissue. The scars will sometimes remain after the shed has been completed.
It’s usually caused by a rodent bite, but can be caused by a scrape or scratch in its enclosure or while it was being handled.
Scale rot in snakes is caused by a bacterial infection. Your snake’s tank is too damp or wet. After resting on its bedding for several weeks, you’ll start to notice red and brown blisters on your snake’s underbelly.
The humidity allows bacteria to breed, especially if you don’t clean the tank and change its substrate after the snake has gone to the toilet.
Correct the conditions in the enclosure and use appropriate antibiotics to kill the infection. Your snake will soon make a full recovery.
Mites and Ticks (Acariasis)
If you don’t wash your hands after handling a snake, you can pass on ticks and mites to other snakes that you own.
External parasites, such as mites and ticks, feed on your snake’s blood to survive and pass from snake to snake. However, they don’t live on the snake itself, but in its enclosure.
Mites are small brown pinhead dots, whereas ticks are bigger. They give your snake raised scales when they burrow underneath to get to your snake’s skin. Bad cases can cause anemia (lack of iron in the blood) because they’ve been feeding on the snake so much.
Completely clear out the enclosure, cleaning everything that you can, and throwing away anything you can’t. Use the anti-parasite spray on everything that you can, and perform a visual inspection for parasites and eggs before putting your snake back inside.
Snakes can also get internal parasites, such as worms. These can be caught from other infected snakes or wild-caught prey.
You can identify parasites from a fecal sample, where you can easily see them. Internal parasites don’t cause serious health problems, but a worming treatment is still recommended.
Mouth Rot (Infectious Stomatitis)
Mouth rot is another problem caused by unsanitary living conditions. It’s a bacterial infection of the mouth.
These bacteria are normally present in the mouth, but unsanitary living conditions can exacerbate the problem. An open wound in a snake’s mouth gives the bacteria an area to infect.
This infection, once inside an open wound, can spread around the body. You can identify mouth rot because your snake’s mouth is red and inflamed.
Antibiotics will counter the infection, but you have to address the mouth wound too and make sure that the living conditions are improved.
Sepsis or septicemia is a nasty bacterial infection of the bloodstream. This can be a secondary condition of mouth rot, which allows bacteria to enter your snake’s system.
The problem is made worse because your snake’s immune system is already weakened by another health problem. Most of the signs are internal because septicemia affects your snake’s organs, like its liver and gut. You may also notice small spots and reddening on its underbelly.
Sepsis is severe and can result in death if left untreated. Take your pet to a vet immediately so that it can be treated. The vet will administer antibiotics, which are effective in treating bacterial infections. However, if sepsis is too far advanced, the vet may suggest putting your snake to sleep.
Respiratory infections are where your snake can’t breathe properly. There are many symptoms to look out for:
- Your snake will have a runny nose and will sneeze because of it
- Your snake will breathe with its mouth open, as it’s having trouble breathing through its nose
- Its breath will be wheezy
What causes a snake respiratory infection? Your snake may have lung mites or lungworms, which can damage the lung tissue and exacerbate pneumonia and respiratory infections.
It’s made worse if your snake’s environment is too wet and cold. So, make sure you’re keeping your snake at the right temperature. Next, take your snake to a vet for antibiotics and, if necessary, fluid replacement.
There are a few eye problems that your snake could have. It could be a retained eye cap. Aside from that, your snake could have mites that are specifically targeting the area around the eye.
You can see them as small, dark lumps lining the edge of their eye. Either this or a retained eye cap may cause inflammation, and should be rectified with bathing or antibiotics.
However, if you notice that your snake has cloudy eyes, or your snake has blue eyes, this isn’t anything to worry about. This is a part of the shedding process known as the ‘blue phase.’
This is where a small amount of fluid collects between the old and new eye caps. It will clear up before their next shed, and won’t cause any harm.
Abscesses are small open wounds that any animal can get. They’re lumps that are filled with pus, which is a mixture of white blood cells and bacteria.
They’re a sign that the body is trying to fight off a bacterial infection that’s attacking your body through an open wound. They are often a symptom of sepsis or external trauma. Abscesses may be attacked by fungal infections.
To treat abscesses, you have to make sure that you treat the underlying cause with antibiotics. Take your snake to the vet both for antibiotics, and so that they can drain the abscess directly.
Your vet may need to analyze the contents of the abscess to identify what is causing them before issuing the correct medication necessary to treat it.
Injuries from Prey
Live prey items can hurt your snake. While they’re much smaller than your snake, they still have claws and teeth. And when a rat or mouse is fighting for its life, it can cause injury to a snake.
That’s one of the reasons why snakes in the wild have much shorter lifespans. Injuries include scratches and scrapes, as well as deep bites. These most commonly affect the head area and the eyes, since the snake has to try and bite its prey.
The easiest way to avoid injuries from live food is to feed your snake pre-killed prey. If your snake has injuries, treat them with antibiotics.
Snakes don’t have a sensitive nervous system like humans, which means that they can get burnt without realizing it. This happens if you have a heat rock that’s malfunctioning, for example.
You can tell if your snake is burnt because its underside will be pink or red. You may also notice blisters and open wounds that you can’t explain. If your snake has got burns, you should apply a topical antibiotic.
Vomiting or Regurgitation
Vomiting is where an animal brings up food that has been partially digested in the stomach, and even the small intestine. Regurgitation is where the animal brings up food that hasn’t reached its stomach yet.
Vomiting is a more serious issue. If your snake is vomiting, it could be because of parasitic, viral or bacterial infections. It may be a symptom of less common problems such as liver or kidney failure, or tumors.
Inclusion Body Disease
IBD is a fatal disease that affects snakes. It has many symptoms:
- Stargazing, where the snake gets stuck in an upward pose, looking up
- Tail twisting, where the snake seems to move into a corkscrew shape, uncontrollably
- Unsteady movement and muscular disfigurement
- Yawning and breathing through the mouth
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- General weakness and lethargy, causing an inability to constrict
According to Science Daily, the virus that causes IBD only affects boa constrictors and other boas. Curiously, no cases have ever been found in the wild. It seems to be spread through the blood, which means that parasitic mites are the primary source of infection.
IBD leads to death either from starvation due to the inability to feed, or pneumonia caused by a compromised immune system.
Most of the problems listed above are primary bacterial infections. So you can use common antibiotics to clear up these health problems in snakes. The best vet- and owner-approved antibiotic for snakes is probably Ceftazidime, which is effective against a broad range of infections. For a list of antibiotics used in treating reptiles, see the MSD Vet Manual.