Your Healthy Snake
According to Kasey, Zen Habitats Animal Care Manager and Certified Veterinary Technician, you can observe your snake’s behavior, body condition, activity level, skin and shedding, and bowel movement and urination to monitor its overall health.
Q: How do I tell the difference between a behavior and something that may be my snake’s personality?
Kasey: “Not a whole lot of research has been done in animal personalities, and even less in reptiles. There have been studies done in lizards that show they do have a spectrum of behaviors ranging from shy to bold. As humans we assign ‘personalities’ based on behaviors, but I believe that snakes do have personalities and can bond with their owners.”
Q: If my snake is doing something unusual, how long should I hold on before becoming too concerned?
Kasey: “There are many things that can change the behavior of a snake, such as illnesses, husbandry issues, seasonal changes, breeding, etc. Depending on the individual situation a vet visit may be needed right away or can wait. When in doubt, call your exotics veterinarian.”
Q: What behaviors are concerning and may indicate my snake may need to go to the vet?
Kasey: “Some stressful behaviors your snake may show can include refusing to eat, nose rubbing, regurgitation, hissing, and striking. Some of these behaviors may be caused by improper husbandry and can be remedied, others may need veterinarian intervention. There is generally going to be a cause for a behavior and if that cause is illness it will need to be addressed by a veterinarian.”
Q: What does an unhealthy snake look like?
Kasey: “The snake may have a respiratory illness with ocular or nasal discharge. Other things to look for include mouth rot, mites, unhealthy weight, bends in the body (osteosarcomas or metabolic bone disease) or dysecdysis (bad shed).”
Q: What are the respiratory illnesses a snake can have?
Kasey: “Respiratory Illness can present with ocular or nasal discharge, excessive salivation, open mouth breathing, and wheezing. Snakes cannot cough. There are a variety of respiratory illness your snake can get including infection, lung parasites, lung abscesses, and lung cancers.”
Q: What is mouth rot?
Kasey: Mouth Rot (ulcerative or infectious stomatitis) can be of bacterial, viral, or fungal origin. Other causes include trauma and cancer. It can present with redness, discharge, or disfigurement of the mouth or nose.”
Q: What happens when a snake has mites?
Kasey: “Definitely watch out for mites, also called ectoparasites. The most common is the snake mite. It sucks blood and can potentially lead to a life-threatening anemia if it goes untreated. These mites are very small and sometimes difficult to see. Some common places they like to attack on the body are around the eyes and under the chin.”
Q: How do I know if I my snake is a healthy weight?
Kasey: “When palpating a snake with a healthy weight you should be able to feel a layer of muscle over the spine and ribcage, but still able to feel the underlying structures. The abdomen should be soft with no firm masses felt. An underweight snake can have a visibly prominent skull, spine, and ribcage, sunken eyes, and loose folds of skin.
It can be caused by one of the issues we have already discussed or other things including husbandry deficiencies, trauma-related stress, and organ failure. An overweight snake will be more rotund. You may be able to see the soft tissue between the scales where the skin has stretched out, and there may be palpable fat deposits throughout the body that make the snake appear uneven. You may also see physical fat rolls, some people may think this is cute, but it is very unhealthy and potentially lethal.”
Q: What happens when a snake has bone cancer?
Kasey:“Bone cancer (osteosarcoma) can also occur in snakes. It can be one reason they may appear to have an irregular body shape. They can get pathological fractures or even fusions between vertebrae.”
Q: Is Metabolic Bone Disease common in snakes?
Kasey: “Metabolic bone disease is something we rarely see in snakes in comparison to other reptiles, but it is still something they can get, mainly insectivorous species or severely malnourished snakes. With MBD the snake’s spine can be swollen, twisted, or crooked. They also can have a soft or misaligned jaw, and stunted growth. In severe cases neurological signs can present in the form of seizures or even paralysis.”
Q: How can I tell if my snake is active enough?
Kasey: “This is really going to be individual and species specific. The best thing to do is research the typical activity level of your snake. Ball Pythons tend to be ‘lazier’, where smaller Corn Snakes can be a little more energetic and ‘squirmy’ when held.”
Q: Does the activity level fluctuate depending on the time of day and season of the year?
Kasey: “Yes, depending on the snake species, it may be nocturnal (active at night) or diurnal (active during the day). There will also be fluctuations as the weather changes, like other reptiles, snakes can go through brumation (hibernation-like state) when the weather cools down. During this time, your snake may take refuge in their hide or borrow, depending on the species. When a female snake is going to lay eggs, you may see her moving about the enclosure more frequently trying to regulate her temperature and she may also be off-feed. She should go back to her normal activity level after she has laid her eggs, if she does not pass all her eggs or any eggs at all, she could be egg bound and can appear stressed. This is definitely an indication for a vet visit.”
Q: What can I do to help my snake become more active?
Kasey: “Providing species appropriate enrichment is a great way to stimulate your pet and potentially increases their activity levels.”
Q: What signs of activity level indicate my snake may need to go to the vet?
Kasey: “If your snake is lethargic (sluggish) and doesn’t partake in it’s normal day-to-day activities, a vet visit is probably a good idea to bring it to the vet.”
Skin and Shedding
Q: When should my snake shed?
Kasey: “Snakes can shed between 4-12 times a year, this will be dependent on the size, the age, the species and the environment it lives in.”
Q: How long should it take for them to shed?
Kasey: “The shedding process takes about 1-2 weeks depending on the age and size of the snake.”
Q: What does a healthy shed look like?
Kasey: “A healthy shed should come off in one inside-out, tubular piece, with eye caps intact. When your snake is ready to shed you may notice that their skin may have a blueish-grey tint and the eyes may look slightly clouded over. It is best not to handle your snake during this time as it can be stressful for the animal.”
Q: What does an unhealthy shed look like?
Kasey: “An unhealthy shed may come off your snake in multiple pieces and leaving retained shed present. Snakes lack eyelids and instead have spectacles (eye caps), if your snake is going through dysecdysis and the spectacles are retained it could eventually lead to blindness. I like to look over my snakes shed to confirm the eye caps have come off.”
Q: Is there anything I can do to help my snake shed?
Kasey: “The first thing to do is to understand the environmental needs of your snake species. If it is a species that comes from the rainforest, make sure they have appropriate humidity needs, or if it comes from the desert, etc. If I have a snake that isn’t producing a good shed, I will soak them every other day in enclosure temperature water for about 10 minutes.”
Q: Does any kind of shed indicate that I should bring my snake to the veterinarian?
Kasey: “For moderate to severe cases of retained shed veterinarian consultation may be indicated. Remaining shed can harbor parasites and/or bacteria leading to nasty infections. Intact segments can restrict blood flow and eventually lead to death if not treated. DO NOT pull their shed off yourself, this can damage the underlying tissues and especially the eyes.”
Bowel Movement and Urination
Q: How often should my pet have a bowel movement?
Kasey: “This will vary greatly on species and how frequently they eat. The more frequently or infrequently they eat, the more frequently or infrequently they will defecate. For example, Ball Pythons will typically defecate about a week after eating. Snakes will only poop after the entire meal has been digested, so the bigger the meal the longer it will take to go.”
Q: What does a healthy poop look like?
Kasey: “A healthy bowel movement is made up of different parts: a semi-formed brown or blackish “log”, a white chalky part called urate, sometimes a small bit of mucus, sometimes some liquid urine, and sometimes bits of fur, bones, etc.”
What does an unhealthy poop look like?
Kasey: “An unhealthy bowel movement will have a change in consistency, smell and/or color. A more liquid poop may indicate diarrhea or that your snake is not absorbing fluids appropriately. Contrarily, if your snake’s feces is very dried out that may be an indication of dehydration that can lead to impaction. If your snake is defecating multiple times between meals this may also be an indication that something may not be right.”
Q: How can I tell if my snake is urinating enough?
Kasey: “First, we need to understand how reptilian equivalent urine is different from mammals. In mammals you have kidneys that filter out the bad stuff, the urine then travels done the ureters to the urinary bladder for storage and then out the urethra. In snakes they do not have a urinary bladder, so urine is not stored and the ureters empty right into the cloaca (common cavity that serves as the only opening for the digestive, reproductive, and urinary tracts). The cloaca’s job in this case is resorption of fluids and electrolytes, because reptiles are so good at conserving fluids, they produce urates instead of liquid urine. Normal urates should be white (they can also be yellow, orange, or green), soft, chalky and rounded, if your snake’s urates are very dry and hard that is an indication that they are dehydrated and may become impacted.”
Q: Is there a change in smell that may indicate something?
Kasey: “Let’s be real for a second, poop smells, but if there is a sudden change in odor that may be an indication that something is wrong. The most common issues in your snake’s gastrointestinal tract are endoparasites, these can be worms, protozoa, etc. Your vet will be able to perform a fecal evaluation and prescribe an appropriate antiparasitic.”
Q: What can I do to help improve my snake’s pooping and urination?
Kasey: “In most cases, poor bowel movements are caused by improper husbandry. Things to take into consideration are appropriate humidity, providing more water, feeding smaller prey, soaking the prey, or soaking your snake. All of these can help with constipation. If it is a severe case seek veterinary care immediately because impaction is a medical emergency.”
Q: What can I do to help keep my snake healthy?
Kasey: “I like to schedule a visit with an exotic’s veterinarian within the first couple weeks of them coming home. This will help create a relationship in the event your animal is to ever fall ill. Your veterinarian will also be able to establish a baseline for your pet and check for endoparasites (inside) and ectoparasites (outside). Another tip I have is to purchase a kitchen scale, I like to weigh growing and ill snakes weekly and healthy adults monthly. This helps me keep track and potentially notice issues before they are physically visible.”
(This content is informational only and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your veterinary professional)