Some snakes are rare, endangered and protected by law. These snakes may
only be kept by zoos and legitimate herpetologists with the appropriate
permits. This is also the case with venomous snakes, which should not
under any circumstances, be kept by the average hobbyist.
The most common snakes kept by enthusiasts are the many and varied
constrictor species (boas, pythons, rat and milk snakes. etc.), and the
racer, gopher and garter species. The husbandry and dietary
requirements for these types of snakes vary considerably. Further, some
of the same species (notably the boa constrictors and pythons) reach
very large sizes in captivity, and their considerable space
requirements must be anticipated.
Usually, an individual eager to own a snake already has a species
preference in mind because of some familiarity with it or because of an inexplicable
attraction to a species' physical appearance, size, activity or habits.
Before you acquire a snake, you should carefully consider the following
1.) Research the major
husbandry requirements of the snake and determine whether or not you
can successfully meet them now and in the future. Husbandry requirements
include dietary, environmental (living space, temperature, humidity,
lighting, etc.) and sanitation considerations.
2.) Research the temperament of the species. If you intend to enjoy your
snake primarily by observing it within its enclosure and rarely by
handling it, this becomes a less important consideration. If you intend
to regularly handle the snake, however, you must be able to do so with
minimal stress and injury to both the snake and yourself.
Snake temperaments vary among species and among individuals of the same
species. Certain snake species almost always retain a gentle, docile
nature when they are raised from infancy (boa constrictors). Other species (the larger pythons)
are unpredictable and tend to be quite pugnacious as they mature,
whether or not they are handled frequently. Wild-caught adults of all species generally make unsuitable pets
because they resist taming.
3.) Select a snake that can feed without
difficulty and one that is eating regularly. Select a snake that
appears healthy in all respects. Avoid choosing an unthrifty-looking
snake out of sympathy with the idea that you can nurse' the snake back
to health. Many of these snakes have suffered irreparable internal
damage and cannot be fully restored to health.
4.) Avoid selecting snake
belonging to a species that is notoriously difficult to keep in
captivity, requires difficult or elaborate environmental setups or
spends most of its time hiding or burrowed underground.
5.) Avoid selecting a poisonous or venomous species. Only the very
experienced herpetologist should attempt to keep these types of snakes
in captivity. State and local laws prohibit possession of venomous
snakes except by experienced individuals holding legitimate permits.
As a general rule, snakes require relatively little space because of
their limited and nonexertional activity. Generally speaking, the size
of the enclosure should allow inclusion of certain required items
(discussed below) and still allow the snake adequate space to stretch
out and move about. Snakes will use both the horizontal and vertical
space within their enclosure if provisions are made for this activity.
Aquaria or other similar glass or Plexiglas™-lined enclosures are
usually most suitable because they allow optimum visualization of and
safety for the occupant(s), and help to maintain desirable
environmental temperatures and generally high relative humidity levels.
Wire-lined enclosures may afford adequate visualization of the snake
but certainly cannot contribute to the maintenance of desirable
environmental temperature and humidity levels. Further, such enclosures
promote injuries to the rostrum (nose and surrounding tissues) as
snakes repeatedly attempt to "escape' through the wire mesh.
Any enclosure used must have a secure top and be escape-proof. All
hinges and locks should be secure. All snakes are potential "escape
artists'' and many can escape
from almost any apparently secure enclosure.
Unprinted newsprint, butcher paper, paper towels, terrycloth towels and indoor-outdoor carpeting (although
this requires constant and through cleaning) are the most suitable
materials for covering the bottom of a snake's enclosure. In fact, the
first materials mentioned can be cut to size and placed many layers
thick on to the floor of the enclosure. When the top layer(s) are
soiled, they can be easily removed, leaving clean, dry paper. This
makes cleaning of the enclosure very quick and efficient. If
indoor-outdoor carpeting is used, it is best to have 2-3 pieces cut to
the correct dimensions. This way, replacements can be used while the
soiled piece is cleaned and disinfected.
Under no circumstances should pea gravel, kitty litter, crushed corncob
material or wood shavings be used. These are unquestionably more
visually aesthetic than most of the materials mentioned above: however,
they are unsuitable because they trap moisture and filth, provide
unlimited hiding places for external parasites, and make enclosures
very difficult to clean. Furthermore, these types of particulate matter
are easily and inadvertently eaten while the snake is feeding. This can
cause mechanical injury to or obstruction of the digestive tract.
Various objects should be included within a snake's enclosure that
occupy its vertical area. These include sturdy branches of various
hardwood trees or those fabricated from artificial materials,
driftwood, grapevine, hanging ropes, and shelves situated along the
sides of the enclosure.
It is very important to provide some privacy for a captive snake. Many
snakes will not feed without the privacy afforded by some degree of
visual security. This can be accomplished by providing a ''hide box"
into which the snake can retreat when it feeds or at other times when
privacy is desired. Visual security can also be provided by the use and
strategic placement of silk artificial plants (and trees if the
enclosure is large enough to accommodate them). Silk plants are
visually pleasing and easy to clean and disinfect. They require minimal
maintenance, help to augment the relative humidity level of the
enclosure if the foliage is frequently misted, and can complement a
snake's ability to camouflage itself, thereby providing visual security.
Tropical snakes kept in captivity (boa constrictors, pythons, etc)
require relatively warm temperatures and high relative humidity.
Daytime temperatures should range between 80°-85° F. Night time
temperatures can fall between 70°-75°F without creating problems for
most snakes. Native American snakes do well when maintained at 70° -
Relatively large enclosures can
be supplied with heat lamps or heaters equipped with thermostats,
whereas small enclosures may be adequately heated by placing a heating
pad directly underneath them.
Exposed heat sources must be shielded to
protect snakes from serious burns as they attempt to warm themselves by
coiling next to them.
Large and small
enclosures should also provide the snake a focal (spot) source of
warmth. Small snakes should be offered a hot rock. Large snakes can use
one or more well-protected and water-proofed heating pads. These
appliances allow the snake direct, but safe contact with the heat
source, which helps to raise their body temperature. This allows the
snake to be more active and increases their rate of digestion.
these appliances frequently for malfunction and periodically check the
snake for evidence of burns because snakes generally do not move away
from heat-generating appliances even if they are being severely burned.
Ideally it would be advantageous for all captive reptiles to be housed
in such a way that they could be exposed to and benefit from direct,
unfiltered sunlight during the daylight hours every day. This
represents the healthiest and most natural situation. Unfortunately,
this set of circumstances can rarely be fulfilled by hobbyists because
it is neither practical nor possible. The next best solution is to use
an artificial ultraviolet light source rather than fluorescent or
incandescent lightbulbs. One or more Vita-Lites™ should he used to
illuminate the enclosure during the daylight hours. To approximate a
natural photoperiod, it is best to supply 10-12 hours of daylight and
12-14 hours of darkness each day, with a gradual increase in the number
of hours of light in the spring and a gradual decrease in the fall and
Water should be provided at all times. Most snakes drink infrequently
but use suitably sized container for immersing themselves and soaking.
Another advantage for including a relatively large water container is
that water evaporation contributes to the relative humidity of the
enclosure. This is especially true if the enclosure is glass or
Plexiglas™-lined. The water container should be roomy enough to allow
adequate soaking and heavy enough so it cannot be easily overturned.
Water containers must be thoroughly and regularly cleaned. Failure to
do so encourages bacterial proliferation. Snakes drinking and soaking
in this water soon become ill. Use a mixture of l oz. of bleach to 1
gallon of water and rinse well to disinfect the snake's enclosure and
furnishings at least once every 2-4 weeks.
Before specific feeding recommendations are made, it is very important
to make several points and cautions regarding the feeding of captive
snakes. The most respected herpetologists and experienced snake
hobbyists all agree that captive snakes should be fed dead or
incapacitated prey whenever possible. This is because such prey cannot
injure the feeding snake. Providing killed prey that has been frozen is
convenient and economical for the hobbyist.
Rodents (rats and mice in particular) left unattended and unobserved within an enclosure with a supposedly
hungry snake sometimes turn on the "diner'' and inflict serious bite
wounds on it. These "dinner becomes the diner" incidents are most
likely to occur when a snake is ill or otherwise uninterested in
If snakes do not accept
freshly killed or well-thawed frozen prey, the live prey must be
stunned so that it is sufficiently incapacitated and unable to injure
If it is not possible
to offer anything other than live and fully conscious prey for a snake
to successfully feed, the encounter must be carefully supervised. If a
snake shows no interest in feeding within 10-l5 minutes after the prey
has been introduced, the prey should be removed and all of the possible
reasons for the snake's lack of interest in feeding should be
investigated. (See section on Failure to Voluntarily Feed). If other
similar attempts to feed the snake within the next 1-2 weeks are
equally unsuccessful, veterinary help should be sought at once.
Snakes acquire a large number of infectious agents from the foods they
consume, especially because of the snake's habit of feeding on whole
prey items. It is not practical or possible to ensure that all prey
animals are absolutely free of disease-causing agents. However, prey
animals that are to be fed to captive snakes should appear healthy and
come from a reliable source.
Extreme caution should be exercised when feeding snakes. This is
especially important if a given snake is expected to be hungry and if
human-snake interaction is limited to feeding times. An overzealous and
hungry snake is very likely to strike at a person immediately after the
enclosure is opened and as the prey item is introduced.
must also be exercised when feeding more than one snake within an
enclosure. Serious problems result when 2 snakes choose to prey on the
same food item. When 2 or more snakes are housed within the
same enclosure, they should be fed individually by holding the prey
animal in long forceps or tongs.
Feeding schedules for captive snakes vary with the age, species, size,
condition and specific requirements of the individual. Generally
speaking, pet snakes are usually fed once every 1-2 weeks. Juveniles
and adults for which a relatively rapid growth rate is desired can be
fed more frequently, providing that environmental temperatures are warm
enough to allow complete and thorough digestion. Older snakes are
usually fed less frequently, often once every 3-6 weeks. The number of
prey animals offered at each feeding is determined by the same factors
discussed above with regard to frequency of feeding.
Overfeeding must be avoided because of the risk of obesity. Too
frequent feedings and allowing a captive snake to consume multiple prey
animals at each feeding encourages rapid growth. It also leads to
obesity in older animals. The relative difficulties in procuring food
limits this phenomenon in the wild.
Shedding is the process by which snakes periodically discard the outer
portion of their skin. This activity is under hormonal control and
associated with growth. Most snakes shed their skin 4-8 times per year.
The frequency of shedding depends upon many factors, including
environmental temperature, frequency of feeding, amount fed at each
feeding and activity level. Young snakes shed more frequently than
older ones because growth is relatively rapid in the first few years of
Healthy snakes usually have
little or no difficulty with shedding and tend to shed their skins in
one entire piece. Exceptions to this include snakes with injuries to
the skin and/or scales resulting in scaring, and snakes housed in
enclosures with suboptimal temperature and/or relative humidity levels.
The stresses associated with shedding
can be substantial. Sick snakes, those suffering from malnutrition, or
those whose health has been directly or indirectly compromised by poor
husbandry experience delayed and incomplete sheds. These snakes tend to
shed their skins in pieces. In fact, many of the pieces remain adhered
to the underlying skin and eyes (retained eye caps).
The shedding process is preceded by a period of relative inactivity.
This period usually lasts 1-2 weeks, during which time the eyes begin
to exhibit a dull, bluish-white appearance. During this period, the
snake's vision is impaired, which causes them to be rather
unpredictable and sometimes aggressive. The skin during this period
tends to have an overall dull appearance. The underlying new skin is
soft and vulnerable to damage while the outer layers prepare to slough
away. The eyes again become transparent after 7-15 days and shedding
commences. A snake will make use of any rough objects or surfaces
within its enclosure to help shed the skin.
Shedding commences with the
skin of the head.
Once the snake has
loosened and dislodged the skin surrounding the mouth and overlying the
rostrum (nose), it then passes between rough objects that can trap the
loose skin and hold it as the snake glides out of the "old" skin.
Discarded skin appears dry and tube-like or moist and crumpled in a
solitary heap. Many snakes defecate after a successful shed, or consume
large quantities of water.
Snakes produce offspring in 2 basic ways. The first involves
development of the fertilized eggs within the body of the female. When
the embryos are fully developed, the offspring are born, appearing like
miniature adults. Boa constrictors, water and garter snakes, and
rattlesnakes are live-bearing species and are considered ovoviviparous.
The second method involves deposition
of oblong, leathery-shelled eggs within the environment, where the eggs
incubate. At the completion of embryonic development, the eggs hatch,
producing miniature adults. Pythons and rat and milk snakes are egg
layers and are considered oviparous. In either case, the newborn or
newly hatched can fend for themselves and receive no parental
Many snake species readily
mate in captivity. One mating may result in up to 3 clutches of eggs or
3 ''litters" of live young. This is because sperm can be stored within
the reproductive tract of the female after insemination.
The proper pairing of snakes according to age and sex is essential if
reproduction in captivity is to be successful. Sexing of snakes can be
difficult because males generally resemble females. Snakes under 18 inches long can usually be sexed by exerting pressure
on the tissues surrounding the vent. Male snakes have paired hemipenes
(elongated, spurred structures used during copulation) than can be
extruded with this maneuver. The widely accepted method for sexing most
snakes over 18 inches in length requires specialized sexing probes.
These elongated, blunt-tipped instruments are gently inserted into the
vent and directed toward the tail. The probe penetrates only a short
distance in females and a much longer distance in males. This procedure
should only be attempted by experienced handlers.
Anorexia (lack of appetite) and failure to voluntarily feed are common
problems among captive snakes. Despite the fact that snakes are
uniquely suited to survive prolonged periods without feeding, the
hobbyist must make every attempt to discover the reason(s) for the
snake's failure to feed. This search must include the possibility of
illness, since anorexia is a universal sign of disease in snakes. First
consider the circumstances and situations during which snakes normally
will not feed:
Recent acquisition of a snake
Snake in pre-shed
Latter stages of pregnancy
Older, larger snakes feed less
often than younger, smaller ones
Obese snakes occasionally engage in
Newborn or newly hatched snakes may not feed until
after their first shed 10-14 days after birth
with the breeding season or the imposition of captivity of a newly
acquired, highstrung species
Hibernation or attempts to hibernate
If all of the above have been rejected as causes for anorexia,
next consider problems with husbandry. The most common cause for
failure of a snake to voluntarily feed is inadequate environmental
temperatures. Tropical snakes require temperatures between 75° and 85°F
for normal activity and optimum digestive capacity. Subnormal
temperatures lead to sluggishness and incomplete digestion. The food
literally spoils inside the snake, producing serious illness, an early
sign of which is vomiting.
most common cause for captive snakes' refusing to feed is lack of
adequate visual security. Many snakes require privacy while they feed.
A hiding box or natural bark or rock retreat may be necessary.
Sometimes placing the reluctant snake in a roomy burlap bag along with
a dead or incapacitated prey item provides the security the snake
requires to feed. Strategic placement of silk artificial plants may
also help provide additional visual security. There may be one
particular area of the enclosure in which the snake
feels more secure. The food should be consistently placed there to
encourage feeding. It is important to note that the presence of
spectators often discourages nervous snakes from feeding. The enclosure
should be covered in these cases and the snake's activity discretely
is a list of additional suggestions to consider when you are challenged
with a snake that refuses to feed:
Try feeding at different times of
the day. Nocturnal (night-active)
species cannot be expected to feed on prey items placed within the
enclosure during the daytime.
feeding nervous snakes that share an enclosure with other snakes in an
environment separate from them. Often, the movement of other snakes in
the same enclosure induces anorexia in nervous snakes.
Moving a snake
to a new or different enclosure may stimulate feeding.
of especially nervous or newly acquired snakes to encourage feeding.
Rubbing the food item over the sensitive areas of the snake's head (the
nostrils and the areas surrounding the mouth) or gently hitting the
snake with the prey may antagonize it to strike at the food.
prey to snakes that have been consistently offered dead or
incapacitated prey (with close supervision). Certain aggressive snakes
and snakes with an impaired sense of smell may require live prey to
For snakes that
ordinarily eat live prey, try feeding dead or incapacitated live prey
items. Often the erratic motions of a rodent running around an
enclosure can cause a snake to refuse to feed.
Try feeding a smaller
prey item. A snake that has been recently injured
by a particularly large and aggressive prey animal may be reluctant to
Cater as much as possible to
the individual preferences of an anorectic snake. If a snake refuses
mice, try small rats, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits or even chicks. Some
snakes can be very finicky.
If all of the above have been considered
and attempted without success.
take your snake to a veterinarian experienced with snakes. The
veterinarian will collect a detailed history and conduct a thorough
physical examination. It may be necessary to collect a blood sample to
more thoroughly evaluate the patient. Take along a fecal (stool) sample
from the snake so the veterinarian can also check for intestinal
parasites. A veterinarian may pass a
flexible tube into the stomach and force- feed the anorectic snake at
this time. This provides some nutrients while the medical evaluation is
in progress. Some anorectic snakes begin to voluntarily feed after such
Regurgitation of food may result from handling a snake too soon after
it has fed. Regurgitated food is undigested and relatively odorless.
Another common cause of regurgitation is inadequate and incomplete
digestion caused by relatively cool environmental temperatures. In
these cases, the regurgitated food appears digested and is malodorous.
If it is not possible to raise the temperature of the enclosure, a
focal source of heat (hot rock, heating pad or pads) on which the snake
can rest is a necessity to ensure adequate and complete digestion.
Other causes of regurgitation include stress in easily excitable
species, parasitism, intestinal obstruction and serious internal
disease An experienced veterinarian should he consulted if the cause
for regurgitation is not readily determined.
Snakes commonly sustain serious burns when the contact unprotected or
malfunctioning heat lamps or other heat sources (including hot rocks).
Interestingly, snakes tend not to move away from the heat source
inflicting the injury. This makes the wound considerably more serious.
Medical treatment (including injectable antibiotics and periodic wound
dressings) is required in these cases. Surgery may be necessary to
minimize the disfiguring effects of such injures. These inures are
easily avoidable. Periodically check all heating appliances to make
certain they are functioning properly and that they are "snake proof".
Rat/Mouse Attack: Sometimes
a live mouse or rat turns the tables on a snake and injures the snake
while fighting for its life (the dinner becomes the diner). Veterinary
attention should be sought for serious bite wounds.
Rostral Abrasions: One
of the unfortunate consequences of captivity is injury to the captive
animal from repeated attempts to escape. Snakes tend to push and rub
their noses against the walls of their enclosure as they move about in
search of a means to escape. This constant trauma initially damages the
scales and skin of the nose (rostrum). If the trauma continues, deep
ulceration of the rostrum with subsequent deformity may result. Rostral
abrasions are equally likely with enclosures made of glass or wire
Prevention of this problem is
difficult, but adequate visual security (hiding places) and other
additions to the enclosure (artificial plants, branches, etc) help
minimize it. Further, a visual barrier of dark paint or plastic film
placed on or along the lower 3- inches of the enclosures walls often
inhibits pacing and rubbing.
Constipation is a common problem among captive snakes. Causes include
suboptimal environmental temperature, illness, dehydration, injuries,
parasitism and cloacoliths (see below).
Constipated snakes should be allowed to soak in very warm (not scalding
hot) water for 0-30 minutes daily for 1-2 days. This often results in
defecation and/or urination. If this conservative measure is not
successful, veterinary help should be sought at once.
Dehydration of captive snakes (especially if longstanding) may result
in drying out of urinary excretions. When this occurs, uric acid
"stones' tend to form within the cloaca ("cloacoliths''). Their
presence in this location prevents expulsion of urinary waste and feces
(constipation), which creates serious illness. Dehydration is a sign of
disease and not a disease in itself, so it becomes the veterinarian's
task to determine the underlying problem that caused the dehydration.
Cloacoliths can usually be manually expelled with patience and the help
of mineral oil enemas. This procedure should only be attempted by an
A prolapse occurs when an organ inverts itself inside out and protrudes
through the usual external opening of that organ. Prolapses of the
cloaca and reproductive organs are not uncommon among captive snakes.
Often the cause cannot be determined. Prolapses can be precipitated by
straining during egg-laying or straining related to uric acid stones.
Parasitic infections or other intestinal disease may also result in
prolapses. Veterinary assistance is essential in these cases to treat
the prolapse and determine the underlying cause, if possible.
Abnormal shedding occurs when the normal sequence of events of the
shedding process is somehow interrupted. This usually results in a
piece-meal shed and/or retained eye caps. Causes include serious
internal disease, inadequate relative humidity, previous injury
(including surgery) to the skin and scales, external parasitism, lack
of adequate objects against which to rub at the beginning of the shed
and thyroid gland problems.
abnormal shed indicates a problem that demands immediate attention in
these cases, consider ail of the aforementioned causes, most of which
demand veterinary assistance.
Treatment of a snake with retained skin from an abnormal shed involves
first soaking the snake in warm water for several hours. A damp towel
can then be used to gently peel off stubborn skin fragments. An
alternative to this manual method involves rolling the snake snuggly in
warm moist, heavy towels and allowing it to crawl out, leaving the
stubborn skin fragments behind. This procedure can be repeated if
Retained eye caps are often a manifestation of an abnormal shed. The
eye caps represent the outermost cellular layers of the corneas (the
transparent portions of the eyes), which are supposed to be shed each
time the outermost layers of the skin are shed.
The retained caps must first be softened by repeated application of a
suitable eve ointment. Next, an experienced veterinarian should attempt
to carefully remove the corneal remnants. This should never be
attempted by an inexperienced hobbyist.
Mouth rot is a progressive bacterial infection involving the oral
lining. It may begin with increased salivation. Often saliva bubbles
from the mouth. Close inspection of the oral lining reveals tiny
pinpoint areas of bleeding. The oral lining becomes increasingly
inflamed and pus begins to accumulate within the mouth, especially
among the rows of teeth. As the disease progresses, the underlying bone
becomes infected and the teeth fall out.
This infection must be recognized in the early stages to successfully
reverse it. The hobbyist must seek veterinary help when mouth rot is
The veterinarian may
want to collect a saliva/pus specimen for bacterial culture and
subsequent antibiotic sensitivity testing to determine the appropriate
antibiotic(s) to use. A blood sample can also be collected to
accurately assess the internal and overall status of the patient.
rot often is an external manifestation of more serious internal
Initial treatment involves
injections of vitamins A, C and B complex, as well as a "best guess"
antibiotic (one that the veterinarian believes has the best chance of
fighting the infection until the results of antibiotic sensitivity
tests are available). Supportive care involves daily or twice-daily
cleansing of the mouth, application of topical antibiotics,
administration of fluids to combat dehydration and the possible
detrimental effects of certain antibiotics, and periodic
forced-feedings (using a stomach tube).
Generally, snakes with heavy accumulations of pus and infected bones of
the jaw are unlikely to be saved, even with aggressive veterinary
efforts. You must be alert to the early stages of the disease and
periodically inspect the mouth for signs of mouth rot.
Abscesses are a common form of bacterial infection in snakes. They can
be external and/or internal in location. External abscesses most often
result from bite wounds (usually inflicted by live prey animals) and
other injuries (especially puncture wounds) to the skin. Internal
abscesses may be located within one or more organs and/or within the
Snakes rarely produce
liquid pus. Instead, their pus is generally cheesy in consistence. This
makes treatment with antibiotics difficult because these drugs cannot
penetrate this relatively solid material External abscesses can be
surgically opened and flushed by a veterinarian. A specimen of pus can
be submitted to a laboratory for bacterial culture and antibiotic
sensitivity testing. The snake can be treated with the appropriate
antibiotic by injection, and the abscess cavity treated with topical
Abscesses within the body
are not equally accessible for treatment. A blood workup and/or
radiographs (x-rays) may be necessary to confirm their presence. Though
surgery may be necessary under certain circumstances, long- term
antibiotic therapy by injection and appropriate supportive care are the
treatment most likely to be employed by the veterinarian.
Blister disease is common in many captive reptiles. It is most often
associated with the maintenance of these animals in damp, filthy
environments. The first sign is usually a pink to red appearance of the
bottom-most scales. Later, these scales become swollen and infected by
bacteria and fungi.
At the first
suspicion of this disease you must seek veterinary help. Treatment
involves use of topical and injectable antibiotics. Further, the
underlying sanitation and hygiene problems must be corrected. Blister
disease is preventable if you are aware of it and if the enclosure in
which captive snakes are housed is kept dry and scrupulously clean.
Respiratory infections are common in snakes. They may be associated
with septicemic (body- wide) illness, viral infections and mouth rot.
Some respiratory illness may be the consequence of stress from poor or
loud respirations, discharge and/or bubbling from the nostrils and/or
mouth, coughing and open-mouth breathing. Treatment must be aggressive
and at the direction of a veterinarian. A bacterial culture of the
windpipe and subsequent antibiotic sensitivity testing should be
undertaken to identify the offending bacteria and the appropriate
antibiotic(s) to use. The veterinarian may also recommend collecting a
blood sample to determine the extent of the disease and to see if there
has been serious compromise to internal organs. Antibiotic therapy
should be by injection and may need to be long-term, especially in
severe and long-standing cases. Inhalation therapy (vaporization or
nebulization) is frequently employed as part of treatment.
Snakes can be hosts to a large number of parasites, representing a
bewildering variety of organisms that can cause many problems. A large
number of one-celled organisms (protozoa) can cause serious diseases of
the digestive, respiratory, reproductive and vascular (blood and
bloodstream) systems of snakes. Flukes cause illness in the respiratory
and urinary systems. Tapeworms parasitize the digestive system.
Roundworms and related parasites inhabit the digestive tract, but their
juvenile stages can cause disease to other organs (especially the
lungs) during the course of their migrations. Large numbers of mites
and ticks parasitize the skin and scales of snakes, and create disease
by feeding on the host's blood.
of parasitism depend on the parasite and body tissue involved.
parasites are usually easy to diagnose, though immature stages of mites
may lie dormant under scales or just inside the eye cavity. Visual
inspection of the skin and scales, with or without a magnifying lens,
is usually all that is necessary.
Internal parasite problems require
examination of various specimens, most often blood, feces, urinary
tract products and washings from the windpipe and lungs. Special
laboratory procedures are necessary to process these specimens.
Microscopic examination is usually necessary.
Most parasites of pet snakes kept in zoological collections are carried
with them into captivity. These snakes were either parasitized before
being collected in the wild or became parasitized while being held in
the generally crowded wholesale and retail channels. Pet snakes living
singly in homes are very unlikely to develop parasite problems in these
relatively isolated environments. Exceptions to this generalization
include pet snakes exposed to parasitized snakes and their excretions,
or to the specific organisms (called “vectors”) necessary for parasites
to complete their life cycles. In most cases, the vector must bite the
uninfected snake for the snake to become parasitized.
It is also
possible for a captive snake to become parasitized by eating certain
prey species that harbor the larval stage of a given parasite.
Newly acquired snakes should be thoroughly examined and evaluated by a
veterinarian for external and internal parasites as soon as possible
after acquisition. All detected parasitisms are generally treated, if
possible. No snake should be introduced into a collection until it has
been quarantined for a minimum of 5 weeks and remains healthy during
Strict attention to
hygiene and sanitation and a proper diet usually contribute to optimum
health, even in the face of mild to moderate parasitism. Because the
subject of parasitism is so extensive, only several of the more common
parasite problems of captive snakes will be specifically mentioned.
Amebiasis is one of the most significant parasite problems of captive
snakes. This highly contagious disease is caused by a microscopic,
one-celled organisms (protozoan) called an ameba. Snakes are easily
infected by eating contaminated food and water containing the infective
stage of this parasite. The organisms cause extensive damage to the
intestinal lining and liver. Secondary bacterial infections are very
common and contribute significantly to the severity of the disease.
Signs of amebiasis include listlessness, inappetence, and foul-smelling
feces containing mucus and blood.
veterinarian may be able to diagnose this disease by having the
laboratory examine specially prepared samples of feces. Sometimes
examination of tissue sections of the intestine or scrapings from the
lining of the intestine of a deceased snake is the only way the
diagnosis can be confirmed. This underscores the importance of
performing autopsies on snakes that have died, especially when there
are other snakes in the collection whose lives may be threatened.
Amebiasis is treatable, requiring the expertise of a veterinarian.
Specific antiprotozoal medications and antibiotics are used. Enclosures
used to house infected snakes should be steam cleaned and disinfected
with a 3% bleach solution.
Snake mites are tiny spider-like organisms that reside on and between
the scales of snakes and tend to also congregate around their eyes.
They are relatively easy to see with the unaided eye but a magnifying
lens aids in their identification. Mites are the most common and most
dangerous of the external parasites of captive snakes. These mites feed
on the blood of their hosts, causing anemia (often severe with heavy
infestations). Blood feeding can also transmit viruses, at least one
very serious disease-causing bacterium, and blood parasites.
The snake mite completes its life cycle on its host. The females,
however, lay up to 80 eggs off the snake within the immediate
environment. This is one reason why particulate floor coverings
(corncob material, pebbles, etc) are not recommended. These substrates
provide too many hiding places for the rnites and their eggs.
Snakes that are most likely to be seriously compromised by this
external parasite are those that have been recently imported and those
housed under crowded, unhygienic conditions. Heavily parasitized snakes
are also likely to be adversely affected when they are suffering from
malnutrition and/or other diseases at the same time.
Veterinarians must be consulted when these various circumstances arise.
These snakes must be carefully examined and thoroughly evaluated so
that underlying disease and problems with husbandry can be identified
The veterinarian must perform a thorough physical examination and may
recommend a blood analysis to fully evaluate the patient, the
advisability of treatment, and the least harmful method of treatment
Several treatments are
available for snake mites. One popular method involves suspending a No-
Pest Strip™ (Shell) above or adjacent to the snake's enclosure for 2-5
days. This needs to be put in a closed container with small holes
punched in it so the mite can get in and it won't harm the snake. An
alternative is to place a 1 inch section of a No-Pest Strip™ within a
35-mm film container with multiple perforations and suspend it inside
the enclosure for2-5 days. These products should be used cautiously,
however. They can be especially toxic to severely ill and debilitated
Flea sprays formulated for use
on dogs and cats can be applied to a small towel and the chemical can
be wiped onto the skin and scales. This should be repeated about 10
During treatment, any particulate floor covering (gravel,
crushed corncob wood shavings. etc) within the enclosure must be
replaced by paper or towels.
containers should also be removed. The enclosure itself should be
thoroughly cleaned and fumigated with 10-15% solution of formalin and
hot water After a thorough rinsing, the enclosure should be allowed to
completely dry before it is reinhabited Treated snakes should be
closely monitored for several months for signs of re- infestation and
Ticks resemble oversized mites and occupy many of the same sites on the
skin and scales of snakes as mites. They are often found just inside
the mouth, nostrils or vent. Even under conditions of captivity, ticks
rarely reach the burdensome numbers reached by mites. Recently imported
snakes are usually the most heavily parasitized.
Like mites, ticks feed on blood of the host snake and can cause severe,
life-threatening anemia. Their blood-feeding habit enables them to
transmit certain blood-borne diseases to snakes.
Manual removal of each individual tick is the most expedient treatment
for tick infestations. The hobbyist must exercise great care in
performing this task. Simply pulling off the tick leaves the tick's
mouth parts embedded in the skin. A small amount of alcohol applied to
the exposed parts of the tick causes it to relax and facilitates
removal. The treatment methods recommended for mites are also
effective. Parasitized snakes usually require a minimum of 4 days'
exposure to No-Pest Strips™ to kill ticks. Enlist the services of an
experienced veterinarian for a thorough pretreatment evaluation of the
snake, especially if the use of a No-Pest Strip™ is anticipated.
Please call the Merrick Veterinary Group at 516-379-6200 to schedule your snake for an examination with Dr. Marder or Dr. May today.