Snakes are popular pets that require minimal care and effort, but improper care or ignoring signs of illness can cause serious problems.
Most signs of illness will be visible on the snake’s skin, so it is important to check often. Scales are fundamental to reptiles’ every movement, so it’s understandable that skin problems can occur. Some are preventable, and others require veterinary assistance.
A clean and safe habitat should be available to your pet at all times. Having the correct temperature, substrate and humidity levels will ensure the environment is safe and healthy. Different species of snakes may require different or specific care than others, so be sure to research and understand your individual pet’s needs.
Signs of a healthy snake are similar to those of other animals: clear eyes, nose, mouth, regular activity levels, eating, emitting waste and healthy skin.
Habitats should use substrate such as gravel, cat litter or newspaper. Avoid using wired-bottom or wall panels; over time they can irritate and possibly tear the skin. The humidity levels are important to the snake’s overall health and shedding success. You can check humidity levels with a hygrometer.
In addition to a proper habitat, early detection and treatment is best to control skin issues. Laziness, indifference or ignoring the problem will harm your pet and increase trips to your veterinarian. There are several skin problems associated with snakes, and some of these ailments can be indicators of larger, internal issues.
Here are 12 snake problems to watch for:
Abscesses are often confused for other afflictions, such as constipation or tumors. They are usually caused by an infected cut or injury. Since it could be something more serious, get the area assessed by your veterinarian. The vet may treat the wound site or administer antibiotics.
2. Blister Disease
Blisters are usually found on the underside and are prevalent in dirty, moldy or overly moist environments. These exterior spots contain fluid and can spread to the point of becoming life-threatening. Blisters can be drained with sterilized equipment and should be done daily until fully healed. Hydrogen peroxide can be used to flush the area and followed by a topical antibiotic. Keep the snake separate from others until healed, and clean the main habitat thoroughly. If the blisters multiply, worsen or spread, bring the snake to your vet for further assessment.
Bloating can be a sign of constipation and appear as swelling in the abdomen area. If a warm water soak does not encourage it to pass, you may need to see the vet. Extreme cases of constipation may require surgery.
Parasites can be transmitted from other reptiles and are typically recognized by an overall ill appearance. Take the snake to the vet or ask if you can bring in a fecal (stool) sample for testing so the appropriate treatment can be determined.
Mites appear as red, white or black tiny dots visible from the outside and may appear to move quickly. You can drown the mites by soaking your snake in warm water. Thoroughly clean the habitat before returning the snake; mites can survive in small areas and within items in the habitat.
Ticks won’t normally appear in large quantities like mites and are larger in size. Just as with removing a tick on other animals, do not attempt to remove them with tweezers. Use a thick layer of petroleum jelly over the location of the tick. This will suffocate the tick and encourage it to exit the snake’s skin. If the tick remains, gets broken or does not release, consult your vet for additional treatment.
7. Respiratory Illness
RI can be visible on the outside the snake. A runny nose is an indicator, and usually moving the snake to a quiet and warmer enclosure can stimulate its immune system to beat the bug. If symptoms persist, it’s time for a vet trip.
The most common skin problem in snakes occurs with shedding. Snakes are close to shedding when their eyes appear cloudy or blue, they start rubbing on rough surfaces to loosen the skin, hide, refuse to eat, or the skin becomes dull or translucent. Shedding problems usually involve retained skin on the tail or eyecaps.
If you notice the snake will shed soon, try to add more water and keep it full, increase the humidity or spray water into the habitat. You can also place the snake in a warm water bath to soak daily until shedding.
Most shedding problems are a result of dryness but can also be caused by old injuries. Most retained skin will come off on the next shedding. If you find an area of skin that remains after a second or third shedding, you can try to remove it or bring the snake to your vet. Do not ignore the remaining skin; areas such as the tail can suffer from blood flow restrictions and in some cases require amputation.
This infection is spread through the blood and can appear on the skin in different areas. Redness, site inflammation or lesions can appear as symptoms. Consult your vet for the proper treatment, which may take a few weeks to cure the infection. This condition can also occur when surface bacteria or infection on the scales gets absorbed into the bloodstream.
10. Prey Bites
Snakes do not have to have live prey to eat. Live animals can bite or scratch the snake, causing infections or death. Ensure the prey you offer to your snake does not pose a risk to its health or is no longer alive.
11. Heat Injuries
Heat-related injuries are common with improper use of hot rocks or heating pads set too high. Discoloration or burn marks may be visible on the underside as well as other areas of the skin. Correct the heating problem by using another heat source or lowering the heating pad setting, and consult your vet to determine if treatment for the wounds is necessary. If you are using a heat bulb, make sure it has a guard and is located at a safe distance to avoid skin contact.
12. Scale Rot
Scale rot can be caused by unhygienic conditions, excessive moisture or a vitamin deficiency. Symptoms may include scale discoloration, softening of the skin surface, blisters or bruising. Consult your vet for treatment.
Bathing Your Snake
Bathing helps encourage bowel movements, drown mites or increase hydration to assist with shedding.
There are some precautions that should be taken into consideration; even a bath can harm your snake.
Don’t bathe the snake too often, because necessary natural chemicals can exit the snake’s body in too high a quantity. Water temperature should be at or just above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and never chlorinated.
Never leave your bathing beauty unattended! Snakes can move quickly and vertically, and their escape attempt may cause injury. Dry your snake thoroughly before returning it to its habitat.
If you have an extra habitat or ventilated container, you can use this to house the snake for a few minutes in case it needs to expel waste. This way, the waste isn’t released into the main habitat and reduces cleaning.
The video below shows two snakes being extracted and brought into a bathtub:
Photos: mcwetboy (top), Jaymis (middle) and terriem/Flickr
This pet health content was reviewed for accuracy by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed and updated Feb. 4, 2019.