Respiratory illness is common in snakes

Diseases of the respiratory tract are common in captive snakes. They can be triggered by factors like poor husbandry or lack of hygiene, and can become severe or even life-threatening.

Snakes mask ailments until they become so severe that they can’t be hidden. Loss of appetite, lethargy, weight loss, nasal discharge or audible breathing can indicate respiratory distress. A snake holding its head and upper body at a 45 degree angle or vertically, displaying open mouth breathing, or pale bluish gums is struggling for air.

Multiple factors can be responsible.

1. Non-contagious causes. Incorrect temperature, humidity and nutritional imbalances can predispose snakes for infections. Incomplete shedding, heart disease, foreign bodies, abscesses, tumours or other internal masses can also be responsible for symptoms.

2. Viruses. Paramyxovirus: Caught from infected snakes, it can affect all species and causes nasal and oral discharge, and sometimes neurological symptoms, like disorientation, abnormal curling, stargazing, head twists, or swaying. Inclusion body disease: Pythons and boas are mainly affected. It is not clear how they get infected, but snake mites may carry the virus and pass it on. Symptoms are regurgitation of food, weight loss, pneumonia or neurological symptoms. There is no treatment and vaccines are ineffective. Quarantine for at least three months and strict hygiene are strongly recommended before introducing a new snake into a collection.

3. Bacteria. A bacterial infection can appear secondary to an existing viral infection. It can cause nasal discharge, inflammation of the mouth or windpipe, or pneumonia.

4. Fungi. Fungal infections are rare, but can occur in individuals with an impaired immune system, or when they are overexposed to fungal spores. An incorrect temperature or humidity can predispose the animal to infections.

5. Parasites. Female lung worms produce eggs that leave the snake with faeces. They develop into larvae and re-infect the same individual or other snakes when ingested or by penetrating the skin. Some gastrointestinal worms leave the body in the same way. They cause lesions during their migration, which gives way for secondary bacterial infections. Treatment is effective. Quarantine for new snakes and good hygiene are crucial.

By Juliane Dreher, Vet