Enclosure and Space Requirements
As a general rule, snakes require relatively little ace 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 ace 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 plexiglass-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. Furthermore, 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 (especially the California King snakes) can escape from almost any apparently secure enclosure.
Floor Coverings and Enclosure Items
Unprinted newsprint, butcher paper, paper towels, terrycloth towels and indoor-outdoor
carpeting are the most suitable materials for covering the bottom of a snake's enclosure. In fact, the first 2 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
Tropical snakes kept in captivity (boa constrictors, pythons, etc) require relatively warm temperatures
and high relative humidity. Daytime temperatures should range between 80 and 85 F. Nighttime temperatures can fall between
70-75 F without creating problems for most snakes. Native American snakes do well when maintained at 70-80 F.
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 waterproofed 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. Check these appliances frequently for normal function 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
or possible. Thee next best solution is to use an artificial ultraviolet light source rather than fluorescent or incandescent
lightbulbs. One or more Vitalites (Duro-Lite Lamps, Duro-Test Corp, Lyndhurst, NJ 07071) should be used to illuminate the
enclosure during the light 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 winter months.
Water should be provided at all times. Most snakes drink infrequently but use a suitably sized container for immersing
themselves and soaking. Another advantage for including a relatively large water container is that water evaporation contributes
to the relatively humidity of the enclosure. This is especially true if the enclosure is glass or plexiglass lined. The water
container should be roomy enough to allow adequate soaking and heavy enough soit cannot be easily overturned.
Water containers must be thoroughly and regularly cleaned. Failure to do so encourages bacterial proliferation. Snakes
drinking of and soaking in this water soon become ill. Use Roccal-D (Winthrop Veterinary, NY, NY 10016) to disinfect the snake's
enclosure and furnishings at least once every 2 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 hobbyists. Snakes may be induced to eat thawed, frozen
prey animals by clipping hair from the coat of a live rat and rolling the proposed food in it just before feeding.
Though freezing, thawing and subsequent feeding of whole prey animals is a common practice among hobbyists and herpetologists,
some experts believe that such food sources should be "gutted" (eviscerated) before they are frozen. This greatly reduces
the possibility of generalized bacterial contamination of the carcass. To replace those nutrients within the viscera that
would otherwise be lost, the hobbyist can place a gelatin capsule filled with a vitamin/mineral/amino acid supplement (NektonRep:
Nekton Products, W. Germany) into the body cavity before feeding the thawed prey animal to the snake.
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 feeding.
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 the snake. Live rodents can be placed in a paper bag, which is then swiftly slammed down
on a counter top to stun the rodent inside. If such an incapacitated animal is offered to a snake that is generally accustomed
to receiving its food in this fashion and the snake refuses it, the prey animal can be killed and frozen, and offered at a
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 10-15 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 over zealous and hungry snake is very likely to strike
at a person immediately after the enclosure is opened and as the prey item is introduced. Large snakes can be especially treacherous
and dangerous at these times because of their ability to overcome and overpower their keepers. Hobbyists and even a few expert
herpetologists have been seriously injured or even killed at such times.
Great caution 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. If one snake attaches to the front of a mouse and another attacks at the tail
end of the same mouse, neither snake will surrender its hold. Both snakes will continue to feed and eventually one will consume
the other! 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.
Captive snakes, as a group, usually do not suffer from major nutritional deficiencies, unlike the majority of reptiles
kept in captivity. This is largely because pet snakes are allowed to feed as they do in the wild, on whoLe prey items. The
prey species fed to captive snakes are undoubtedly different from those present in the snake's natural environment. Furthermore,
the relatively narrow diversity of prey animals that can be fed to captive snakes due to practical and economic considerations
is in contrast to the wide variety of prey animals. potentially available to wild-living snakes. In spite of these mal or
differences, the incidence of malnutrition and malnutrition-related problems among captive snakes is quite low, markedly contrasting
the usual situation with most captive reptiles and their seemingly limitless malnutrition-related disease problems. The potential
for malnutrition and malnutrition-related disease tends to be greatest among juvenile snakes fed primarily very immature vertebrate
(rodents, birds, reptiles, amphibians, etc) and invertebrate prey species (insects primarily). These food items are not as
nutrient-rich as their more adult counterparts.
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 weeks. The number of prey animals offered
at each feeding is determined by the same factors discussed above with regard to the frequency of feeding.
Overfeeding must be avoided because of the risk of obesity. The 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.
Specific Dietary Recommendations
The variety of snakes kept in captivity is considerable and their food preferences are
quite variable. Following is a list of preferred prey animals for the snakes most commonly kept in captivity:
pythons, rat snakes, gopher or bull snakes:
- Warm-blooded prey is preferred, such as rodents and birds. Juveniles of these species prefer the very small warm-blooded
- They may also consume very small lizards and snakes. Some tree boas and pythons prefer lizards to mammals and birds.
snakes, ribbon snakes, water snakes, etc:
- Fish, frogs, salamanders, toads, earthworms, slugs and carrion are preferred.
*Adapted from Frye, FL: Preferred
foods of selected reptiles Ann Sci Seminar CVMA, 1974
- Many accept dead mice if they are covered with the external mucus of frogs or fish before they are offered.
snakes, king snakes, and many racers:
- Warm-blooded (mice, etc) and cold-blooded prey (other snakes, lizards, etc) are preferred.
- The indigo snake prefers frogs but may eat anything when hungry, including dog or cat food.
Ring-neck or Irawn
snakes and their relatives:
- Salamanders, earthworms, very small snakes and lizards are the foods of choice.
Racers, vine snakes, coachwhips:
- Lizards are preferred. Racers also eat mice and chicks of ground-nesting birds.
- The young of these snakes eat large inserts, such as crickets and grasshoppers.
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 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
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 scarring, 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
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 nurturing.
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. Male pythons and boa constrictors have a spur on each
side of the vent. Some females have spurs but they are usually smaller than those of males. These observations can be misleading
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) that 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.
Artificial Incubation of Snake Eggs
Artificial incubation of fertile snake eggs is quite easy. A small amount of water
is added to an empty styrofoam picnic chest Then, a thick layer of peat moss, sphagnum moss, vermiculite, shredded newspaper,
or paper towels is added. The eggs are carefully introduced into this medium. Slightly moistening the incubation material
also helps prevent the eggs' drying out Too much moisture, however, promotes formation of mold, which will destroy the eggs'
contents. The relative humidity required to incubate snake eggs falls within the range of 75-85%. The covered styrofoam chest
is then placed on a heating pad, which is set on its lowest heat setting. The ideal temperature range for most incubation
lies between 78 and 84 F. The average incubation period for most snakes ranges between 55 and 60 days.
Problems Requiring Veterinary Attention
As stated earlier, nutritional deficiencies and disease 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
The hobbyist 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. We prefer and recommend Nekton-Rep (Nekton-Products,
Failure to Voluntarily Feed
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 condition.
- Latter stages of pregnancy.
- Older, larger snakes feed less often than younger, smaller ones.
- Obese snakes occasionally engage in self-imposed fasts.
- Newborn or newly hatched snakes may not feed until after their first shed 10-14 days after birth.
- Hyperactivity associated with the breeding season or the imposition of captivity on newly acquired,
- High-strung species.
- Hibernation or attempts to hibernate.
If all of the above have been rejected as causes for anorexia, you must 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.
The next 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 a 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 discreetly monitored.
It is extremely important for you to understand the natural history of the anorectic snake being kept in captivity. Reluctance
or refusal to feed often is the result of some omission or mistake in husbandry. Burrowing species require sand or fine gravel
in which to bury themselves. The snake can often be induced to strike at prey by gently dragging the prey item across the
sand. Tree-dwelling species require branches within their enclosure. Some of these snakes may be encouraged to feed by hanging
the food in the fork of a branch rather than placing it on the floor of the enclosure. If these specific husbandry requirements
are not provided, certain snakes may not feed.
Offering incorrect prey items nearly always causes a captive snake to refuse to eat. One should offer the prey items that
the snake would feed on in the wild or a similar more "domestic" food that is more available.
Following 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.
- Try 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.
- Reduce handling 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.
- Offer live 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 successfully feed.
- 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 feed.
- 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 od 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 a feeding.
This can be easily learned if periodic at-home force-feedings are anticipated. Strained meat baby foods with added Nekton-Rep
or pureed dog food are recommended and easily pass though most stomach tubes. Larger snakes require relatively larger volumes
of food; pureed dog food is a more practical food in these situations. Low-fat dog food is preferable.
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 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 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 injuries.
These injuries 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 mesh.
Prevention of the problem is difficult, but adequate visual security (hiding places) and other additions to the enclosure
(artificial plants, branches, etc) help minimize it. Furthermore, a visual barrier of dark paint or plastic film placed on
or along the lower 3-4 inches of the enclosure's walls often inhibits pacing and rubbing.
Constipation is a common problem among captive snakes. Causes include sub optimal environmental temperature,
illness, dehydration, injuries, parasitism and cloacoliths.
Constipated snakes should be allowed to soak in very warm (not scalding) water for 20-30 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 long-standing) 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 experienced veterinarian.
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
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
An abnormal shed indicates a problem that demands immediate attention. In these cases, consider all 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 snugly in warm moist, heavy towels and allowing it to crawl out, leaving the stubborn skin fragments behind.
This procedure can be repeated if necessary.
Retained Eye Caps
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 eye ointment Next, an experienced veterinarian
should attempt to carefully remove the corneal remnants. This procedure should not be attempted by an inexperienced hobbyist.
Mouth Rot (Infectious Or Ulcerative Stomatitis)
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 first evident.
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. Mouth rot often is an external manifestation of more serious internal problems.
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 are 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 us 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
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 the 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 body cavity.
Snakes rarely produce liquid pus. Instead, their pus is generally cheesy in consistency. 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 work-up 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. Furthermore, the underlying sanitation and hygiene problems must be corrected. Blister disease is preventable
if you are aware it and if the enclosure in which captive snakes are housed is kept dry and scrupulously clean.
A wide variety of bacteria can cause generalized internal infections (septicemia). These bacteria may invade
the body by way of wounds and abscesses or as a consequence of serious illness originally localized in the respiratory1 gastrointestinal
and reproductive tracts.
Signs may be subtle or obvious and may include lethargy, anorexia,
of incompletely digested food, redness to the skin and scales, or bleeding from the skin.
The help of an experienced veterinarian is essential in these cases. The outlook for these patients is always guarded to
poor. The attending veterinarian may collect a specimen for bacterial culture and antibiotic sensitivity testing, as well
as one or more blood samples to more accurately determine the extent of the disease, whether or not various internal organs
are involved, and as a means of monitoring the patient's progress.
Treatment involves use of injectable antibiotics and appropriate supportive care (fluid therapy, force-feeding, injectable
vitamins, etc). Treatment must usually be relatively long-term and periodic monitoring of the patient's status is essential
to a favorable outcome.
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
Signs include 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
Captive snakes occasionally suffer eye infections. Infections may be superficial or more extensive,
involving the entire eye. Superficial infections may result from mild injury
to the eye. Superficial infections may also become established below a retained eye cap
. Infections of this type must be recognized promptly and treated aggressively to prevent involvement of the entire eye. The
retained eye cap must first be removed if at all possible. Infections involving the entire eye may result from trauma to the
eye or from septicemia
(body-wide infection). In the latter case, the bacteria can enter the eye by way of the bloodstream.
Veterinary help is essential with these cases. Treatment involves use of topical and/or injectable antibiotics. Sometimes,
drugs that help to exercise the iris (the colored portion inside the eye) are used to help prevent adhesions inside the eye.
Viral infections in snakes, as a whole, are generally poorly understood. This is because viruses are
extremely difficult to detect and identify. They are equally difficult or impossible to treat.
Viral infections result in tumorous skin growths in many native snake species. Other viruses can cause digestive, respiratory
and nervous system disease among snakes. An example is a recently recognized viral encephalitis affecting pythons and boa
constrictors. Afflicted constrictor species exhibit a very gradual deterioration of the brain and eventually die.
Most viruses are highly contagious. Hobbyists must be aware of this and quarantine all newly acquired snakes for at least
6-8 weeks. this involves complete isolation of new snakes and careful scrutiny of them during this period for any signs of
All newly acquired snakes should be thoroughly examined and evaluated by a veterinarian experienced with snakes. Blood
tests may offer clues as to viral infections.
A number of fungal organisms can cause superficial and deeper infections of snakes. Most of these infections
involve the skin and respiratory system. Fungal infections of the eyes are most likely to occur in snakes housed in damp,
contaminated environments. Ringworm fungi that usually infect people, pets and livestock have also caused skin infections
Snakes must be housed in scrupulously clean and dry enclosures. The flooring must be easy to clean and should not be of
a material that encourages fungal (mold) growth (see section on Housing).
Snakes exhibiting problems with their skin and/or eyes must be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible. A microbial
culture and a skin biopsy may be necessary to obtain a diagnosis. Treatment of fungal diseases involves use of topical and
systemic (oral and/or injectable) antifungal agents. Prevention of fungal diseases involves correcting underlying problems
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.
Signs of parasitism depend on the parasite and body tissue involved. External 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 and 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 should be treated, if possible. No snake should be introduced
into a collection until it has been examined by a veterinarian and until it has been quarantined for a minimum of 8 weeks
and remains healthy during this period.
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: Amebiasis is one of the most significant parasite problems of captive snakes. This highly contagious
disease is caused by a microscopic, one-celled organism (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.
A veterinarian maybe 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 he 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.
Many snakes native to the American Southwest harbor these organisms but apparently do not suffer rom the disease. Crocodiles
and certain turtles are similar "carriers." Hobbyists must, therefore, exercise caution when housing snakes with these species
to void an outbreak of amebiasis. Certain water snakes, as well as boa constrictors and pythons, are especially susceptible
to this disease.
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.
Trichomoniasis: One of the most commonly recogized parasites of snakes is another protozoan, Trichomonas. This
organism is often noted in the stools of snakes when routine direct examinations are ndertaken. Infection with Trichomonas
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 signs or those as)ciated with gstrointestinal disease (inappetence, vomiting, diarrhea).
Some infected snakes may also have bacterial disease at the same time.
Some experts remain unconvinced that this parasite, by itself, can produce disease in snakes because infected snakes are
often suffering from amebiasis at the same time. The most prudent course of action is treat all snakes harboring the parasite.
Fortunately, the treatment for trichomoniasis is usually effective in eliminating the organism that causes amebiasis. A veterinarian
should be consulted regarding diagnosis and treatment of this parasitic disease.
Snake Mite Infestation: Snakes mites are tiny spider-like organisms that reside on and between the scales 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 (corn-cob material, pebbles, etc) are not recommended. These
substrates provide too many hiding places for the mites 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 and corrected. Furthermore, the recommended
treatment can often be injurious, especially to snakes suffering from debility and/or disease. 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 for mites.
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. One expert recommends a "dosage" of 0.2 inches of commercial strip per
10 cubic feet of enclosure. 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 for 2-5 days. These products should be used cautiously, however.
They can be especially toxic to severely ill and debilitated snakes.
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 procedure should be repeated about 10 days later. During treatment, any particulate floor covering (gravel,
crushed corncob, wood shavings, etc) within the enclosure must be replaced by paper or towels. All water containers should
also be removed. The enclosure itself should be thoroughly cleaned and fumigated with 1O-l5% 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 mite-related disease.
Snake Tick Infestation: 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 mouthparts 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.
Cancer occurs in snakes, but the number of reports is quite limited. Some of the tumors have been diagnosed
on living snakes, but most were diagnosed at the time of autopsy. As with mammals, tumors of snakes can be benign or malignant
and originate from any organ or tissue of the body, including blood.
Boa constrictors seem to be more often affected by cancer than other snakes commonly kept in captivity. This observation,
however, may be the result of the disproportionately large number of boa constrictors kept by hobbyists because of their tremendous
popularity. It is interesting to note, however, that most life-threatening malignancies that we have diagnosed in snakes have
involved boa constrictors. Snake owners must be vigilant and seek prompt veterinary help when a growth or lump is detected
on their snake(s) (especially if a boa constrictor is involved). "Mole-like" growths have been especially troublesome in our
experience. Wounds that fail to heal despite treatment should make you equally suspicious.
Failure of vital organ function may be the result of advancing age or cancer but is usually a consequence
of chronic and unchecked disease among captive snakes. Disease that has gone undetected and/or untreated can have devastating
and sometimes, fatal consequences. Under theses circumstances, organ function is greatly compromised and the snake's usually
smooth-running metabolism is threatened. Dehydration and uric acid build-up within the kidneys and possibly other vital organs
further complicates the picture.
The key to optimum health and longevity of captive snakes is the pursuit of sound husbandry
and feeding practices. Equally important is the hobbyist's awareness of the potential health problems that can afflict captive
snakes and the vital role of the experienced veterinarian in diagnosing and treating them.
Snake enthusiasts must make educated and informed decisions when selecting a pet or additions to their collections. Remember
that newly acquired snakes often have one or more health problems. A thorough veterinary evaluation (physical examination,
fecal exam, blood and microbiologic work-ups) of the new acquisition is always recommended. Such an assessment determines
the true (rather than the perceived) health status of the snake. A veterinary evaluation of this type should be undertaken
once yearly as the basis for a preventive medicine program.
The importance of periodic, routine veterinary examinations for disease prevention cannot be overemphasized. When disease
is suspected or obvious, veterinary assistance is mandatory to thoroughly evaluate the patient, arrive at a diagnosis as quickly
as possible, and promptly institute appropriate treatment so that diseases are not allowed to progress unchecked.
The veterinarian will need answers to a number of routine but very important questions when you present your snake for
a routine health check or because of a suspected medical problem. This list includes the following questions and instructions:
- How long have you owned the snake?
- From what source was the snake acquired? (pet shop, private party, etc)
- Do you have any knowledge about previous owner(s) of the snakes?
- Do you have other snakes? If so, how many, and of which species?
- What are the housing arrangements for the snakes? Any recent acquisitions?
- Do you routinely quarantine new acquisitions?
- Describe the dimensions of the enclosure in which this snake is housed.
- Of what materials is the enclosure constructed?
- What floor coverings are used in the enclosure?
- What other items are used in the enclosure?
- Describe the heat sources used in the enclosure.
- What is the environmental temperature within the enclosure?
- Is an artificial UV light source used?
- Describe the water container/soak pit used.
- Are hiding places provided for the snake?
- What is the snake fed?
- Is the snake fed live, stunned, freshly killed, or thawed frozen prey?
- How often is the snake fed?
- Has the snake regurgitated recently?
- When did the snake last defecate?
- When did the snake last shed?
- Was the shed complete (in one piece) or in pieces?