how to keep a snake hydrated
Snake Health

How to Treat a Dehydrated Snake

If your snake fails to drink enough water, or doesn’t have enough access to water, it will become dehydrated. Snakes that live in areas of high humidity are less inclined to drink directly from a water source. Instead, they will get the majority of its water from their food, rain, or from moisture in the air. Captive-bred snakes maintain this instinct. Even if you provide a fresh water dish every day, you cannot force your snake to drink. 

Treating dehydration in snakes often depends on the severity of the case. Mild cases can be resolved by treating the snake to a 15-minute soak or increasing the humidity level. Left untreated, dehydration will eventually lead to other health issues, such as weight loss, extreme lethargy, or a stuck shed. Prolonged dehydration will result in death. Researchers have found that a snake needs to drink more water once it has eaten. This is because water is lost during digestion. A dehydrated snake will avoid eating food for this reason.

Snakes hail from a wide variety of climates all around the world. Some need high humidity, others low. What many people don’t know is that where a snake hails from can influence its drinking habits, and how it avoids dehydration. Reptiles excrete uric acid instead of urine, allowing them to lose the least amount of water possible while passing waste.

Signs of a Dehydrated Snake

  • Skin folds or wrinkles around the neck or along the sides
  • Sunken eyes
  • Dry inner-mouth and tongue
  • Refusing food
  • Dented or cracked eye caps
  • Muscle atrophy and loss; rapid weight loss can be a sign of fluid loss, according to Critical Care Nutrition and Fluid Therapy in Reptiles
  • Constipation
  • Patches of stuck shed around the nose, eyes, and tail

Dehydration can be symptomatic of underlying health issues, such as diarrhea or a respiratory infection.

Diet and Dehydration

A dehydrated snake may refuse to eat food. According to the Journal of Experimental Biology, the consumption and digestion of food use up water than it provides. They found that snakes drank more water shortly after they had been fed. They also found that when snakes went through extended periods without water that they wouldn’t eat as frequently.

When there is a lack of available water in a snake’s environment, eating frequently can cause dehydration.

Risks of Dehydration

Dehydration, if left unresolved, will cause death. No living creature can survive without water. It is essential to the wellbeing of your snake that you provide clean water. In snakes, dehydration can lead to:

  • Acidosis
  • Shock
  • Kidney failure
  • Heart failure

A dehydrated snake can also have issues eating, shedding, passing waste, and digesting food.

how to help a dehydrated snake

Treatments for Dehydration 

Mild dehydration can usually be treated safely without a vet’s input. Any form of dehydration beyond a mild case, though, needs veterinary help.

If your snake repeatedly becomes dehydrated in spite of treatments, a checkup from a reptile veterinarian is definitely in order. There could be an underlying health issue that needs to be addressed.

Soaking

A snake will usually drink a small amount of its water when it soaks. Mild dehydration can be treated by giving your snake a soak. Bathing is also good useful for treating impaction, snake mites, and stuck sheds. 

Ideally, use a tub with a lid that locks externally. This lid must have holes drilled in the top. Fill the tub with just enough water to cover the snake at its thickest point. This water temperature should be between 80-85° F, although this varies by species. Leave the snake to soak for 10-15 minutes.

Vet Care

In cases where the dehydration is not mild, a recurring event, or symptomatic of other issues, vet care is essential. 

The Veterinary Information Network outlines 3 main treatments for dehydration in reptiles, including snakes. Depending on the cause and severity of the dehydration, a vet may:

  • Confine a snake to a humidity chamber
  • Provide intravenous, intraosseous, or intracoelomic fluids
  • Bathe the snake. According to the University of Illinois, fluid therapy is used for immediate and short-term hydration

Vets may also create electrolyte baths using sports drink solutions. Electrolytes are the minerals in our body that regulate fluids, including water, blood, and urine. Every living creature has these minerals, and without them bodies cease to function. 

You can easily create electrolyte baths for your snake at home. However, we do not recommend doing this without first consulting a vet. 

Preventing Dehydration 

Here ways that you can prevent your snake from becoming dehydrated: 

Humidity

Ensuring that your enclosure has the correct humidity, or access to a humidity box, is vital. Managing humidity in an enclosure involves quite a bit of monitoring and maintenance.

Investing in a hygrometer is an excellent way to closely monitor the humidity levels in the enclosure or the room housing it. 

Misting

Misting your snake’s enclosure 1-2 a day can increase humidity levels and keep them somewhat consistent throughout the day. This can be done manually with a hand-held spray bottle or with an auto-misting system. 

Substrate

Putting the right substrate in your snake’s enclosure makes a huge difference. For example, cypress mulch will hold onto moisture far better than aspen shavings. If your snake requires high humidity, then cypress mulch will be the better option. 

It is common for owners to use carpet, astroturf, and newspaper as a substrate. This makes for a cheap substrate that can be cleaned easily. There is nothing wrong with this except they aren’t great for maintaining humidity.

Bioactive enclosures are good for tropical snakes, as the layers of soil and moss retain moisture. Be wary of retaining too much moisture in the soil, though. This can cause a bacterial infection on its belly scales.

Humidifier

Increasing the humidity of the room where the enclosure is kept can be useful. How well this method might work depends on the size of the room, but this can be done with a basic humidifier. 

Water Dishes

Ensuring that your snake has access to drinking water is the most important thing you can do. Every day you should clean and fill a snake’s water dish. Snakes do have a habit of pushing water dishes over, or defecating in them, as well.

Consider also where the water dish is located. It is near the warmer or the colder end of the enclosure? Water dishes in the warm end will evaporate faster. Shallow water dishes may also evaporate too quickly. This doesn’t mean you need to go out and buy a deep water dish.

Lastly, using a waterfall dish can be a way to encourage your snake to drink more. Standing water can be a deterrent for many animals. Waterfall dishes function as mini-waterfalls.

How Do Snakes Drink Water?

Snakes don’t drink in the same way as humans or animals. A snake’s lower jaw is full of small, sponge-like grooves. These grooves absorb water and muscle it down the snake’s throat. Essentially, make their mouths airtight and siphon water into their gut.

Feeding

Feeding frozen-thawed animals to your snake is a way to introduce extra moisture into their diet. Thawing the rodent, as an example, in water wets the animal’s fur. As snakes swallow their prey whole, fur and all, they will also ingest this moisture.  Although not an ideal solution, it can be a way to increase your snake’s fluid intake. 

Enclosure Ventilation and External Factors

External factors contribute to how difficult it is to maintain ideal humidity levels in an enclosure. This means both where the enclosure is located and the general temperature and humidity levels where you live. This also applies to seasonal changes. 

For example, if you live in Ohio, the ease at which you can maintain humidity levels will change drastically between winter and summer. Anyone that lives in a dry or cool climate may also struggle for this reason.

Asides from moving or buying a snake local to your area, investing in auto-misters, humidifiers, and a hygrometer is a way to limit how much location impacts the enclosure. If your enclosure is a glass terrarium with a screen lid, covering half of the lid can be another means of limiting how much moisture escapes too. 

Humidity Box

A humidity box is a necessity for almost all pet snake enclosures. These boxes can be useful for anyone that struggles to maintain humidity levels. Or, has had issues with scale rot from too much moisture in the substrate of an enclosure. The snake can enter and leave the box as needed. 

A humidity box is a container filled with damp sphagnum moss, and is just large enough for the snake to curl up in. This box should be enclosed with a hole cut into the lid for the snake to travel though. Placing the box at the warm end of the enclosure will ensure that the box remains humid.

dehydrated snake signs

This box helps snakes remain hydrated. They are also extremely good for helping snakes in shed. 

How effective a humidity box will also depend on what kind of snake you have as well. Arboreal snakes, like green tree pythons, will rarely use a humidity box. Whereas Hognose snakes will love to burrow inside.

Why Do Snakes Need Specific Humidity Ranges? 

Snakes have evolved to master their environment. A snake from the tropics of Southeast Asia will thrive in high humidity, as it has adapted to living in moist, humid environments. A snake adapted to life in the arid climate of the Sahara has evolved special mechanisms for surviving in a place with little to no water. This is called adaptive evolution.

If you were to take a snake from each of these environments and swap them around, there is little chance that either would survive. For example, a desert horned viper and a Burmese python swapping locations.

Both of these animals would soon develop respiratory infections due to their lungs being ill-equipped to handle the sudden lack or abundance of moisture in the air. The viper would likely grow scale rot from too much moisture. The python would succumb to dehydration and heatstroke. This is why owners must mimic a snake’s natural environment.

Snakes That Need High Humidity 

Snakes that require high humidity are often not recommended for anyone other than experienced owers. The level of care that they need can sometimes exceed the knowledge, skillset, or time availability of beginners. Any snake from a tropical climate will require constant enclosure maintenance or an investment into auto-misters and hygrometers. This can quickly become an expensive enterprise.

Snake Species Temperature GradientHumidity Range
Burmese Python85-93° F50-60%
Reticulated Python80-92° F50-60%
Ball Python70-95° F55-60%
Boa Constrictor80-95° F60%
Brazilian Rainbow Boa75-85° F75-90%

Snakes That Need Low Humidity

There are many species of snake that have adapted for living in arid and temperate climates. In the event that you cannot maintain high humidity levels in an enclosure, perhaps consider a corn snake, kingsnake, or hognose snake. These snakes can still hugely benefit from a humidity box.

Snake Species Temperature GradientHumidity Range
Corn snake75-85° F40-50%
Kingsnake70-88° F50-75%
Garter snake72-88° F35-60%
Hognose snake74-88° F30-50%
Bull snake71-85° F40-60%

How Do Snakes Survive In Hot Climates?

Snakes can be found alive and well in some of the harshest environments known. This includes deserts, places where water is scarce and temperatures soar to deadly heights. Adaptive evolution has provided snakes with a unique skill set for living in such places.

In desserts or during droughts, snakes escape the heat by burrowing into the sand or soil, which insulates against the heat. Some species are also nocturnal and thermoregulate using residual heat. This allows them to be active during cooler temperatures.

In periods of drought, snakes can also aestivate. This is similar to hibernation. Aestivation allows snakes to avoid excessive water loss. Reptiles, not just snakes, also handle waste differently. Unlike mammals, snakes excrete uric acid. This allows snakes to pass waste while losing as little water as possible. Snakes will also only excrete after they have fully digested a meal, allowing them to preserve fluids. A dehydrated snake will pass firmer stool. A hydrated snake will pass softer stools.

Is Too Much Humidity Bad for a Snake?

A too-humid enclosure can be unhealthy for a snake. An over-abundance of humidity can cause bacteria to build up, respiratory issues, fungal issues, and scale or stomach rot. 

Every individual species of snake has evolved to thrive in and endure particular climates. To keep your snake in peak condition, make sure that the enclosure replicates its environment.

Dehydration is one of the first side effects that will occur if the enclosure is not set to the right parameters, or if your snake does not have access to enough water. Treating dehydration in snakes often involves allowing the snake to soak, monitoring humidity levels, and adjusting its water source.