Chapter 39 Diseases of the Digestive System
Infectious stomatitis, commonly called “mouth rot,” is a frequently seen problem in captive snakes (Fig. 39-1). This is not a primary disease, but rather is usually secondary to stress, trauma, or husbandry problems such as overcrowding, low environmental temperatures, and poor nutrition. Suppression of the immune system in snakes kept in inappropriate conditions allows for opportunistic pathogens to infect the oral tissues.
(From Mader DR: Reptile medicine and surgery, ed 2, St Louis, 2006, Saunders, by permission.)
Vomiting is defined as the forceful expulsion of food from the stomach or anterior intestine, whereas regurgitation involves bringing up food immediately after eating. It is often difficult to distinguish these conditions in the reptile patient. Regurgitation is frequently the result of handling just after eating and represents no threat to the animal unless it is frequent or aspiration pneumonia develops. Vomiting, in contrast, is frequently related to gastrointestinal (GI) disease and should be investigated.
Diarrhea may be a result of many disease states and is usually not a primary disease entity. As in the avian patient, it must first be determined whether diarrhea actually exists. Vomitus, urine, or respiratory secretions often appear similar to loose feces and are often not observed by the owner until cage cleaning. Loose stools must also be evaluated by what is normal for that species because some snakes (boas and pythons) have firm stools, whereas indigo snakes and cobras have soft stools. Normal stool of the snake will contain feces, whitish urates, and some urine as in birds.
Almost every snake will harbor some type of internal parasite when purchased. These parasites typically have very involved life cycles that the technician should review. Captive snakes are, by nature of their habitat, exposed to a greater parasite load than snakes in the wild, creating a greater problem. These animals have higher stress levels that result in immunosuppression, again predisposing them to parasite infestation. Some of the most frequently found intestinal parasites of snakes are listed in Box 39-1. As shown in Box 39-1, parasitic infection in snakes can involve multiple organisms. Parasitized animals are unthrifty, have shorter life spans, and may act as a reservoir for human infestation.
One of the most common problems reported to the veterinarian is failure to feed. Most of the time this is not a snake problem, but rather an owner problem. The new reptile owner may not know the proper diet for the snake, the proper feeding interval, the proper feeding technique, or the correct amount to feed the snake. The environmental temperature or the temperature of the food, or both, may be too low to initiate the feeding response. Snakes, like other animals, are not all alike; some prefer live prey, others dead prey. Some like to be hand-fed, and others like to be fed using tongs. Owners must get to know their snakes’ preferences before determining whether a problem exists.
Snakes should not be handled for several days after feeding. Meal size varies with the species; smaller snakes require smaller prey. The timing of feedings also varies with the individual snake; certain species will eat at any time, whereas others eat only in daylight or darkness. Some eat often (usually small snakes), whereas larger animals may eat once every 2 to 3 weeks. Several species can fast for months without harm.