As stated earlier, nutritional deficiencies and diseases resulting from malnutrition are relatively rare among captive snakes because of their habit of consuming whole prey animals. However, exclusive use of whole, but immature prey animals such as “pinkies” (neonatal mice and rats), juvenile goldfish and invertebrates can create nutritional problems. Furthermore, certain snakes that receive a monotonous diet (no variety of prey items) are also susceptible to nutritional deficiencies. Owners must find ways to “supplement” the prey items in these cases before they are offered to the snake. One method involves injecting the prey items with vitamin and/or mineral preparations. Another involves implanting a gelatin capsule filled with a powdered vitamin/mineral/amino acid supplement into the prey animal.
Failure to Voluntarily Feed
Anorexia (lack of appetite) and failure to voluntarily feed is an extremely common problem among captive snakes. Despite the fact that snakes are uniquely suited to survive prolonged periods without feeding, it is imperative that owners 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 symptom of disease among snakes.
Regurgitation of food may result from handing a snake too soon after it has fed. When this occurs, the regurgitated food will be undigested and relatively odorless. Another common cause of regurgitation is inadequate and incomplete digestion secondary to relatively cool environmental temperatures. In these cases, the regurgitated food will appear digested and be 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 be consulted if the cause for regurgitation is not readily determined.
Snakes commonly sustain serious burns when they contact unprotected or malfunctioning heat lamps or other heat sources (including hot rocks). Interestingly, snakes tend not to move away from the heat source which inflicts the injury which can make the wounds considerably more serious. Medical treatment (including injectable antibiotics and periodic wound dressing) is required in these cases and surgery may be necessary to minimize the disfiguring effects of such injuries.
Prevention of these injuries is paramount importance because they are totally avoidable. Owners must routinely and periodically check all heat-supplying appliances to make certain that they are functioning properly and that they are “snake-proof.”
One of the unfortunate consequences of captivity is an injury to the captive animal resulting from repeated attempts to escape. Snakes tend to push and rub their noses against the walls of their enclosure as they repeatedly move about in search of a means to escape. This constant trauma initially results in damage to the scales and skin of the nose (rostrum). If the trauma is long-standing, deep ulceration of the rostrum with subsequent deformity may result. Rostral abrasions are equally likely with enclosures made of glass or wire mesh.
Prevention of this problem is difficult but the provision of adequate visual security (hiding places) and other additions to the enclosure (artificial plants, branches, etc.) do help minimize it. Furthermore, a visual barrier of dark paint or plastic film placed on or along with the lower 8 to 10 centimeters of the enclosure’s walls often inhibits pacing and rubbing.
Amoebiasis is one of the most clinically significant parasite problems of captive snakes. This highly contagious disease is caused by a microscopic, one-celled organism (protozoan) called an amoeba. Snakes are easily infected by ingesting 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 amoebiasis include listlessness, inappetence, and the passing of foul-smelling feces, containing mucus and blood.
A veterinarian may be able to diagnose this disease using the laboratory to examine specially prepared feces from a snake suspected of harboring the organism. Sometimes, the 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.
Researchers report that many snakes native to the American Southwest harbor these organisms but apparently do not suffer from the disease. Others report that crocodiles and certain turtles are similar “carriers.” Owners must, therefore, exercise caution when housing snakes with these species in order to avoid an outbreak of amoebiasis. Certain water snakes as well as boa constrictors and pythons are especially susceptible to this disease.
Amoebiasis is treatable, requiring the expertise of a veterinarian. Specific anti-protozoal medications and antibiotics are used. The enclosure used to house snakes should be steam cleaned and disinfected with 3% bleach solution.
One of the most commonly recognized parasites of snakes is another protozoan, Trichomonas. sp. This organism is often noted in the stools of snakes when routine direct examinations are undertaken. Infection with Trichomonas. sp. May result from ingestion of mice and rats both of which often harbor the parasite without showing signs of illness.
Infected snakes may exhibit no symptoms or those associated with gastrointestinal disease (inappetence, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.). Some infected snakes may suffer the complications of secondary bacterial disease as well.
Some experts remain unconvinced that this parasite, by itself, is capable of producing disease in snakes because infected snakes are often suffering from amoebiasis at the same time. We believe that the most prudent course of action is to treat all snakes harboring the parasite. A veterinarian should be consulted regarding diagnosis and treatment of this disease.