Pet snakes don’t carry many diseases, but they can transmit infections to other pet snakes and to the people who care for them.
In this article, we will discuss the infections your pet snake can give to other snakes and infections that your snake can pass on to you.
What Kinds of Infections Can Snakes Give Each Other?
Common contagious conditions of pet snakes include:
- Inclusion body disease
- Infectious stomatitis (also known as mouth rot)
- Parasites (including cryptosporidiosis)
- Respiratory infections
- Septicemia, and
- Skin infections
How Can I Tell Whether My Pet Snake Has an Infection?
Symptoms of disease in snakes may be specific to that disease.
For instance, infectious stomatitis causes a discharge that looks something like cottage cheese to ooze out of the snake’s mouth.
Some symptoms, however, are more general.
Many infections cause snakes to become lethargic, staying in their hiding places even when the calendar says they should be interested in feeding.
Let’s take a look at the infections snakes can give each other one by one.
Inclusion Body Disease
Inclusion body disease, which you may see referred to as IBD, is a serious, potentially deadly viral infection of boas and pythons.
Boas can carry and spread the virus that causes IBD for as long as a year without any signs of infection, while pythons quickly come down with symptoms about as soon as they are infected.
IBD in snakes is usually associated with the nervous system, although it can also affect the snake’s lung or digestive tract.
A snake with IBD might not be able to roll over if it is placed on its back. It may appear to be “star gazing.”
It may become paralyzed.
IBD spreads from snake to snake and is almost always fatal.
You should not allow any snake that shows possible symptoms of IBD to share an enclosure with any other snake, and you should not reuse an enclosure in which a snake died from IBD without thorough disinfection.
Veterinarians usually recommend euthanasia when the diagnosis is IBD.
Infectious Stomatitis (mouth rot)
Infectious stomatitis is an infection that starts as pinprick-sized on the gums and a large amount of mucus in the rest of the snake’s mouth.
This mucus can contain blood or pus. Pus can give the mucus that comes from the snake’s mouth the appearance of cottage cheese.
Mucus can accumulate inside the snake’s mouth at the front of its mouth.
In severe cases, the snake will have to breathe through its mouth, and may stop eating.
The immediate cause of mouth rot in snakes is infection with bacteria or viruses, but snakes aren’t likely to come down with the disease unless they are kept under crowded conditions, their enclosures are too humid (condensation on glass walls of the enclosure is a strong indicator it is too humid inside), or the snake is inadequately nourished.
Snakes can have internal and external parasites.
Internal parasites include coccidia and worms that attack the snake’s bowel. External parasites include mites and ticks.
Parasitic infections may not cause obvious symptoms.
You may not know your snake has parasites until you take it to the vet for its annual physical and the vet detects parasites from a fecal smear.
However, severe parasitic infestations can cause itching, skin irritation, anemia, breathing difficulties, regurgitation, swelling of internal organs, weight loss, and mouth rot. (Mites can carry the bacteria that cause infectious stomatitis.)
One of the most harmful parasites in pet snakes is a single-celled protozoan that causes a condition known as cryptosporidiosis.
Snakes can develop severe symptoms from respiratory infections.
That is because they usually have one functional lung, the right lung, with the left lung much smaller or entirely absent.
Boas and pythons are an exception to this rule; they have two functioning lungs.
Snakes don’t have diaphragm muscles between their chest cavity and abdominal cavity to force air in and out of their lungs.
They use the muscles associated with their ribs and their body wall to inhale and exhale.
Although a snake usually has only one functioning lung, it may run along most of the snake’s body from the heart to its hind end.
Respiratory infections in snakes are usually of bacterial origin.
The same bacteria that can give them conjunctivitis (excessive mucus and inflammation of their eyes) or stomatitis (mouth rot) can get into their lungs.
However, snakes can also get respiratory infections from viruses, parasites, and fungi.
A snake that has a respiratory infection may make gurgling sounds as it breathes. It may breathe through its mouth.
Snakes with respiratory infections can sneeze and wheeze. They often show excessive mucus production, nasal discharge, loss of appetite, and lethargy.
Septicemia is a condition in which the toxins bacteria make accumulate in the bloodstream.
As these toxins are concentrated in the snake’s internal organs, their tissues die and release still more byproducts from the breakdown of protein that has to be cleared by the snake’s overworked kidneys.
Septicemia can result in death in just a few hours to a few days.
Snakes that have septicemia often have a red color in the scales on their bellies.
They may gasp for air, breathe through their mouths, and have no interest in food or water.
Skin infections are mostly a problem of snakes that are kept in environments that are too dirty or too moist.
Infections of the skin cause small, red blisters on the belly that are easy to miss.
These fluid-filled blisters may become abraded, and admit bacteria growing in the substrate at the bottom of the snake’s enclosure.
If they are not treated promptly, the resulting superinfection can cause severe skin damage.
If the infection spreads to the snake’s bloodstream, septicemia may result.
How Do Veterinarians Treat the Infections That Snakes Can Give Each Other?
Some of the infections snakes get from other snakes aren’t especially difficult to treat.
Infectious stomatitis, also known as mouth rot, is extremely painful for the snake but not extremely difficult to treat.
Your veterinarian and treat it with antibiotic injections and antiseptic mouth-washes.
Do not attempt to treat mouth rot in your pet snake with a mouthwash made for human use.
The sudsing agent sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate, which is included in most brands of mouthwash made for people, is extremely irritating to the gums and mouths of snakes, and would make infectious stomatitis worse.
The key to managing dermatitis is making sure the snake has a suitable environment. It needs the right humidity levels and a clean substrate.
The veterinarian may also prescribe injectable and oral antibiotics, as well as salves for your snake’s scales.
Some parasitic infections can be treated with dewormers, most of which force the snake to remove the parasite through immediate defecation.
This is another kind of treatment you should not attempt on your own, particularly if your snake has only recently (in the last week) eaten.
Some parasites, like the protozoan that causes cryptosporidiosis, are very hard to treat.
An essential step that is easy to overlook in treating respiratory infections of snakes is making sure that there isn’t something in the snake’s environment that is causing lung irritation.
Cleansers and disinfectant residue can make respiratory infections worse and sometimes cause them on their own.
To make sure your snake gets the antibiotic or antifungal it needs, the veterinarian may do blood tests or mucus swabs to identify the causative organism.
Once the et knows what is causing the infection, your snake may be treated with injectable antibiotics, oral antibiotics, and/or eye drops and nose drops.
Severe respiratory infections may require hospitalization, intravenous fluids, and force-feeding to save the life of the snake.
Veterinarians can sometimes treat septicemia in the animal hospital.
But there is no treatment for IBD.
Can Snakes Tramit Disease to Humans?
Snakes transmit infections to people in two main ways, through snakebites, and through snake poop.
Any snake bite can transmit the bacteria in the snake’s mouth through breaks in the skin.
Snakes eat their prey whole, swallowing all the fecal contents and bacteria that were in their prey’s digestive tract.
Food animals take a day to several days to break down in the snake’s stomach, giving these bacteria many opportunities to multiply and to be regurgitated up the snake’s throat.
Getting bitten by a snake is, in terms of infection, a little like smearing snake poop on an open wound.
This isn’t the snake’s fault. Snakes bite to defend themselves, and they don’t have any way of avoiding germ-laden mouths.
But it is absolutely essential to place antibiotics on any snake bite and it is usually a good idea to see a doctor for further evaluation.
The other main way snakes pass infections on to people is through their poop. Once again, the most common infectious microorganism is E. coli.
Exposure to E. coli may not cause the human handling the fecal matter of a snake any problems at all, but there can be serious problems in people who are on chemotherapy, who have weakened immunity, or who are in recovery from serious illnesses.
Don’t underestimate the transfer of germs from a snake’s waste to a snake’s skin.
There have been incidents in which an owner handled a gentle snake, allowing it to drape itself around their shoulders, and then made an infant or pet sick by holding them without changing clothes first.
It’s OK to love your snake, but take precautions to avoid their germs.
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