Snakes, even if you keep them in an enclosure on their own, are prone to getting ill. The usual cause is bad husbandry or direct/indirect contact with other snakes.
Health problems in snakes include stress, retained sheds, sepsis, anorexia/overweight, head wobble, internal/external parasites, respiratory problems, and inclusion body disease (IBD).
Left untreated, many of these snake health problems can be fatal. So, prevention of illness and disease in snakes is crucial. Let’s look at how to determine if your snake is sick.
What Are the Signs of Ill Health in Snakes?
Snakes can’t tell you that they’re sick, but it’s easy to spot when they’re not well. There are many signs to look out for that apply regardless of what’s wrong with them, in addition to the symptoms they will experience with each health problem.
Snake sickness symptoms will cause your snake will appear:
- Lazy and lethargic. Lethargy is where they’re not moving around as much as usual.
- Disinterested in food. When you feed them, it won’t trigger their usual feeding response.
- Thinner, as a result of being uninterested in food.
- Aggressive, as a result of the pain that they’re feeling.
Your snake may also bubble at the mouth, which is a sign of a few different conditions. A retained shed is also associated with many other health problems, as it is a sign of poor husbandry, which is a cause of illness.
As a symptom of lethargy, they may also stop sticking their tongue out to smell and investigate the world around them.
And it might sound silly, but the main sign of ill health in snakes is that you have a hunch that something is wrong. Your snake isn’t their usual self, either because they’re more aggressive than usual or they’ve lost interest in whatever usually interests them.
The most common health problem in snakes is most likely stress. It’s very easy to stress out a snake, especially if you’re not an experienced handler.
To be clear, we don’t mean where your snake is feeling a little stressed like when you’re rushing to work in the morning. We mean where your snake seems consistently on edge, whether it’s before you handle them, feed them, or bathe them—or even when they’re alone.
Stress occurs because your snake feels threatened and doesn’t have anywhere to hide. Poor husbandry can also cause stress, as can too-frequent handling. A stressed snake will be snappy and will rub their nose against their enclosure. Relieve stress by identifying the cause and rectifying it.
2) Dysecdysis (Retained Eyecap/Retained Shed)
If your snake’s enclosure isn’t humid enough, and they don’t have somewhere to bathe, your snake might experience problems trying to shed.
Instead of their shed coming off in one go, it will come off in patches. This is a problem because retained eyecaps mean they can’t see properly. If they retain the skin on their tail, this is even worse. Snakeskin problems can cut off circulation, cause necrosis and, eventually, death.
To prevent this from happening, spray their enclosure more often and provide them with a water bowl. If it still happens, bathe them manually, taking them out of their vivarium and putting them in the sink or bath for fifteen minutes. Pat them dry afterward. Their next shed should be fine.
3) Losing Weight
Anorexia isn’t an illness, but it is a common health issue in snakes. It’s 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 keeping them correctly, i.e., their heating or lighting is wrong, or their enclosure is too small
- A wild-caught snake has trouble adjusting to captivity
- A snake that doesn’t primarily eat rodents in the wild is having trouble adjusting to its diet
- The snake is stressed because of their enclosure, handling, or something else
- The snake has a severe parasite infestation
- Your snake is in pain when it eats
Again, identify the problem with reference to our care guides. Each snake species has particular requirements for their enclosure, diet, and handling. Check that you’re keeping them correctly, and if not, adjust their care until you are.
If you don’t have a heat mat that can help digestion, pick a trusted one like the Zoo Med Reptitherm heat mat. on Amazon with
4) Gaining Weight
On the other side of the spectrum, your snake can easily gain weight. Between hatching and one year old, your snake will get longer rather than fatter around the middle.
But if they’re adjusted to their captive diet, an adult snake will usually eat whatever they’re offered, whenever they’re offered it. It’s, therefore, possible to overfeed your snake. You will notice that their middle is wider than that of other snakes their length.
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 they’re overweight, cut down on the amount that you feed them, or the frequency with which you feed them.
Refer to a care guide for your snake species to see how much you should give them. You should click this link (you’ll be taken to Amazon.com) to buy a frozen bulk pack of food by UGRodents, which you can freeze and keep ready for when they need them.
5) Losing Skin and Scales
After trauma, it’s possible for your snake to have a ‘bald patch.’ This is where they used to have scales in a particular area, but scar tissue has caused them to die and fall away. The scar will sometimes even remain after each shed.
This is like the kind of scars that we can get, where the skin heals, but the scar remains. It’s usually caused by a rodent bite, but can be caused by a scrape or scratch either in their enclosure or while they’re being handled.
If you notice an open scar of this kind, consult a veterinarian and use antibiotics to prevent infection.
6) Scale Rot
Scale rot in snakes, like other kinds of rot (e.g., mouth rot), is caused by a bacterial infection. It affects all captive reptiles, including snakes. Scale rot and other kinds of rot are caused by improper husbandry. They are signs that your snake is in an environment that’s too humid/damp.
The humidity allows bacteria to breed, especially if you don’t clean their tank well enough after they go to the toilet. Scale rot causes red and brown blisters on your snake’s underbelly. Correct their improper conditions and use appropriate antibiotics to kill the infection.
7) Mites and Ticks (Acariasis)
Can snakes get sick from humans? They definitely can. If you don’t wash your hands after handling a snake, you can pass on ticks and mites. And according to a study in the IJoP, they can cause dermatitis in people, too.
The external parasites such as mites and ticks that affect snakes are similar to those that affect other pets. They 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 a little bigger. They give your snake raised scales when they burrow underneath to get to your snake’s skin. In the worst-case scenario, a large load of external parasites can cause anemia (lack of iron in the blood) due to feeding so much.
To get rid of them, spray your snake with an anti-parasite spray like the DeFlea Reptile Mite range. You can click this link to buy it at a great price on Amazon.
You should also completely clear out their 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 both parasites and eggs before putting your snake back in.
8) Internal Parasites
Snakes can also get internal parasites like worms. These can be caught either from other affected snakes or wild-caught prey. You can identify parasites from a fecal sample, where you can see them. Internal parasites don’t cause serious health problems.
That being said, it is possible to purchase a worming treatment. The same worming treatments that people use for reptiles can be used for snakes. Alternatively, you can take them to the vet, and they can perform the service for you.
9) 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 anyway, but unsanitary living conditions can cause them to get worse, and an open wound in the mouth gives them something to infect.
This infection, once inside the open wound, can spread around the body. You can identify mouth rot because your snake’s mouth becomes red and inflamed.
Antibiotics will counter the infection, but you have to address the mouth wound too and make sure that their living conditions are improved.
Sepsis or septicemia is a general 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 something else. Most of the signs are internal because septicemia affects your snake’s organs like their liver and gut. You may also notice small spots on their underbelly, as well as reddening.
Sepsis is severe and can cause death if left untreated. Take your pet to a vet immediately so that they can treat them. They will administer antibiotics, which are highly effective at treating a bacterial infection.
However, if sepsis is too far advanced, the vet may suggest putting your snake to sleep. This may be the least cruel thing that they can do.
11) Respiratory Infection
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 their mouth open, as they’re having trouble breathing through their nose
- In the worst-case scenario, their breath will be wheezy
What causes a snake respiratory infection? Your snake may have lung mites or lungworms, which can damage lung tissue and exacerbate pneumonia/respiratory infections.
It’s also made worse if your snake’s environment is too wet and too cold. So, first things first, 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.
12) Eye Problems
There are a few eye problems that your snake can have. It could be a retained eye cap. Aside from that, though, your snake could have mites that specifically target 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 respectively.
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 called the blue phase.
This is where a small amount of fluid collects between their old and new eye caps. It will clear up before their next shed, and won’t cause them any harm.
Abscesses are small open wounds which 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 something like sepsis or external trauma. Abscesses may also be attacked by fungal infections.
To treat abscesses, first, 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 exactly is causing them before issuing the precise, correct medication necessary to treat it.
14) Injuries from Prey
Live prey items can hurt your snake. While they’re much smaller than your snake, they still have claws, and they still have teeth. And when a rat or mouse is fighting for their life, they can give a snake some real injuries.
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.
Even worse, live prey that’s left alone with a snake for a long period of time can cause severe damage. If the snake doesn’t want to eat the prey for whatever reason, the rat or mouse will sit there for a while. But bear in mind that rats and mice need to eat too.
If they’re hungry, they’ll attack your snake and try to eat it. This, of course, can result in severe injury. The easiest way to avoid injuries from prey is to feed your snake pre-killed prey. If they do have injuries, treat them with antibiotics.
Snakes can experience burns. They don’t have a sensitive nervous system like we do, which means that they can get burnt without realizing. This happens if you have a heat mat or heat rock that’s either set too high or is malfunctioning.
You can tell if your snake is burnt because their underside will be pink or red. You may also notice blisters and open wounds that you can’t explain. If your snake has burns, you should either apply a topical antibiotic or take them to the vet for treatment.
If the burn is caused by a malfunctioning heat mat, replace it with a new one. Make sure that the heat mat you buy is underneath the enclosure itself, not just underneath the snake’s substrate.
Also, you should buy one with a thermostat, and which has good reviews. Otherwise, you’ll be setting your snake up for more burns.
As a side note, don’t buy heat rocks. They aren’t suitable for snakes and are the leading cause of burns, normally due to cheap and shoddy manufacture.
16) Vomiting or Regurgitation
Vomiting and regurgitation are two different things. 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.
If you notice your snake regurgitating, this isn’t too severe a problem. Regurgitation is normally the result of handling too soon after feeding. Remember, snakes aren’t domesticated, and can’t build a bond with you like other pets.
As such, handling—especially if they’re not used to you—can trigger a fight or flight response.
In snakes, this can cause them to get rid of any food in their stomach so that they can get away faster. This stress response can also be triggered by anything else that causes stress.
Vomiting, however, is serious. It’s a sign of serious illness in snakes. If your snake is vomiting, it could be because of parasitic, viral or bacterial infections.
It may also be a symptom of more rare problems such as liver or kidney failure, or even tumors. It’s, therefore, best to take your pet to the vet so that you can find out what’s going on.
17) Inclusion Body Disease
You have to look out for inclusion body disease, or IBD. This is an invariably fatal disease that affects snakes.
It has many symptoms, including:
- 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/breathing through the mouth
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- General weakness and lethargy, causing an inability to constrict
According to Science Daily, the exact virus that causes IBD was only identified in 2012. It 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 parasitical mites are the primary source of infection.
However, it seems to strike almost without warning, which is all the more heart-breaking considering that there’s no cure. IBD leads to death either from starvation due to the inability to feed, or pneumonia caused by a compromised immune system.
How do I know if my snake is dying because of IBD? Well, even though they can’t communicate, your snake can still ‘tell’ you certain things with their behavior.
Signs and symptoms come on slowly, and can’t be stopped. If you think you can see the signs, talk to a specialist reptile vet and ask for their advice.
Topical Antibiotics for Snakes
Most of the problems listed above are primary bacterial infections. As such, you can use common antibiotics to help your snake get better.
However, it’s crucial that you don’t just pick anything you like out of the medicine cupboard because those medicines are designed for humans.
Some, for example, can be combined with painkillers which can come in unsafe doses for a snake. The best vet- and owner-approved antibiotic for snakes is probably Ceftazidime, which is effective against a broad range of infections.
It’s a good choice if your vet hasn’t yet identified the precise infection. For a complete list of antibiotics used in treating reptiles, see the MSD Vet Manual.