With one important exception that may be coming up for some kinds of pet snakes in the near future, pet snakes do not require vaccinations.
They do need established veterinary care, however, and some basic precautions to keep them healthy.
In this article, we will tell you how to keep your pet snake in good health and also about vaccines under development for IBD (Inclusion Body Disease).
Snakes Don’t Get Infectious Diseases Like Parvo and Rabies
There is a very simple reason your snake won’t ever catch some contagious infections that plague other pets like rabies and parvovirus:
Most pet snakes spend their lives in isolation.
They never come in contact with other animals, except to eat them.
If you avoid feeding your snake live mice that could fight back, there is essentially no way your snake will have any kind of encounter that passes infection.
And if you buy your snake’s food from a pet supply store (that is, you don’t go out and catch it), chances are very low that there will be any microorganisms in its food to harm it.
That doesn’t mean, however, that your pet snake can’t ever fall ill and need veterinary attention. Here are some examples of health issues of snakes.
Frequent Health Concerns of Pet Snakes
Snakes that were caught in the wild to be sold as pets often have parasites. A snake slithering through tall grass can pick up mites and ticks.
Snakes that eat tadpoles, frogs, earthworms, and mice in the wild can contract infections with tapeworms, roundworms, and protozoans.
These problems can also occur in captive-bred snakes that are fed worms, insects, amphibians, and rodents that you caught in your backyard or a nearby woods or park.
Pet snakes can develop a condition known as infectious stomatitis, more commonly called mouth rot.
This infection can be caused by a fungus called Aspergillus, or by bacteria such as Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
This infection is very painful to your snake, which may stop eating.
You can recognize it by symptoms such as a swollen mouth, breathing through the mouth (snakes ordinarily breathe through their nostrils), bleeding or mucus around the mouth, foul-smelling breath, failure to feed, and weight loss. Left untreated, mouth rot can kill your snake.
Snakes in captivity can experience injuries. They might retain their eye caps when they shed.
Or they might be bitten by a live rodent offered them by an owner who did not know better.
Snakes constantly trying to escape their enclosures can develop abrasions around their mouths (rostral abrasions), and there are cases of burns from heat lamps, lacerations from broken glass, and intestinal prolapse (the intestines turning inside out) from excessive constipation or dehydration.
And both constipation (usually caused by keeping your snake at the wrong temperature, so it is unable to digest its food) and dehydration can become serious health issues for your snake.
First Aid Kit for Your Snake
Over the five, ten, twenty, or even twenty-five years you will have your snake, it is inevitable that some urgent snake health issue will arise.
If you keep a snake, you need to have a first aid kit for your snake.
Every first aid kit for snakes should contain a gentle, antibacterial soap. That isn’t for your snake. It’s for you to wash your hands every time you handle your snake.
For your snake, the first aid kit should include a soft spatula for opening your snake’s mouth for inspection, and tweezers from removing mites and ticks.
It should include an antiseptic, long cotton swab (Q-tips), antibiotic gel, and medical tape.
You may want a grappling hook for handling an upset or escaped snake. These items can come in handy whether you are treating your snake at home or stabilizing it for a trip to the vet.
Don’t put all of these items together in your snake’s first aid kit and then stash the kit where you can’t find it.
Keep the first aid kit near your snake’s enclosure for ready use when needed.
Find a Vet for Your Snake Before You Need One
It is always a good idea to establish care with a veterinarian who treats snakes before you need to take your snake to the vet for emergency care.
A baseline visit with the veterinarian can give your vet something to compare when your snake seems sick, and your vet can make sure you know who to call in a veterinary emergency.
There are certain kinds of health concerns of snakes that always require veterinary care.
Mouth rot, egg binding, respiratory infections, burns, sores, lacerations, prolonged constipation, anorexia, and unusual skin conditions like bumps and sores need professional attention.
The best time to establish a relationship with your vet is before you bring your snake home.
This way, you can bring your snake in for a physical as soon as you get it, and you will have someone to call for prompt attention if your snake gets seriously ill.
Preventative Measures for Your Snake
A lot of avoiding serious illnesses in snakes is just understanding the ways what your snake needs are different from what your other pets need.
For instance, many new snake owners don’t realize that snakes need an external source of warmth (not necessarily a hot lamp, however) to digest their food.
The enzymes in a snake’s digestive tract won’t work if a snake’s body isn’t warm enough.
Snakes depend on external heat sources to maintain their body temperature.
If the heat goes out, or you make a mistake with the thermostat in your snake’s enclosure, or if you feed your snake too soon before it goes into brumation (the snake’s equivalent of hibernation), the whole prey your snake eats can literally rot in its digestive tract.
Another issue for many kinds of snakes comes up when new owners don’t know how to feed them.
There are snakes that have a gene for beautiful color that is linked with a gene for really unfortunate feeding behavior—they may try to swallow their own tails at feeding time.
There are snakes that are excessively enthusiastic about their first-ever meal, and try to eat other hatchlings, or their owner’s fingers.
Many problems can be avoided by knowing how to feed your snake.
Problems also arise from poor hygiene. Snake poop isn’t sanitary.
Any bacteria or parasites that were inside the prey animal when your snake ate it are likely to make the trip all the way through your snake’s digestive tract.
They can reinfect your snake—or just stick to your snake’s scales so they can infect you—if feces isn’t removed from your snake’s enclosure promptly.
Just keeping your snake’s enclosure warm but not hot, appropriately clean, and avoiding stressful situations goes a long way toward keeping your snake healthy.
And if you have certain kinds of snakes, you need to be on the lookout for the announcement of an important vaccine that is not yet available.
What Snake Owners Need to Know About Inclusion Body Disease (IBD)
Inclusion Body Disease, also known as IBD, is an infection that is threatening snakes around the world.
IBD is a condition that affects green anacondas, Burmese pythons, boa constrictors, Haitian boas, ball pythons, reticulated pythons, Indian pythons, and Australian carpet and diamond pythons.
IBD is a viral disease spread from snake to snake by mites. Snakes that give live birth can also pass it from mother to hatchling.
The first sign of the disease is loss of appetite. In boas, there will be vomiting after eating.
Some snakes infected with IBD will show head tremors. They lose weight, develop clogged nostrils, and may come down with mouth rot.
The snake, especially if it is a Burmese python, may develop complex neurological problems such as “star gazing” (staring upward), contorting its head and neck into a corkscrew shape, or rolling on its back.
Affected snakes develop “inclusion bodies” in the brain and liver, and are susceptible to cancer of the connective tissue (sarcoma) and leukemia.
IBD tends to strike all the snakes in a group that has been raised together.
It’s possible to slow down the spread of the disease by spraying for mites, but once a snake has IBD, it will die.
In Florida, owners who get rid of IBD-infected snakes by releasing them into the wild are responsible for the disease’s spread to snakes living in the wild, which in turn feed the mites that can spread the disease back to other pet snakes.
For now, every owner of a green anaconda, Burmese python, boa constrictor, Haitian boa, ball python, reticulated python, Indian python, or Australian carpet or diamond python should keep it in quarantine for six months before attempting to breed it or placing it in an enclosure with another snake.
If a snake develops IBD, unfortunately, the only thing that can relieve its misery is to euthanize it.
However, when a vaccine for IBD finally becomes available, it will be essential to get your snake vaccinated to stop the spread of this devastating disease.
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