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Ask a Veterinarian

By BRUCE KAPLAN, D.V.M.

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2001


Pet snakes require special care

Question: I had a lot of trouble caring for a pet python. It vomited every time I picked it up, then it seemed to get plugged up and had no bowel movements. After a while it died.

I was upset because I am fascinated with snakes and want to get another one. What do you think I did wrong? How should I handle my next snake if I decide to get one?

Answer: Vomiting is a common problem in snakes kept in captivity. Most causes of vomiting stem from either problems with husbandry, which include improper caging, ambient room temperature and humidity, diet and handling, or disease processes from viruses, bacteria, parasites and tumors.

First, let's talk about husbandry. In nature, after eating a snake will seek out a hiding place where it can remain warm and undisturbed for several days to several weeks, depending upon its size. If a person handles a pet snake soon after it has eaten, its instinct will be to vomit the meal because, in nature, it would need to rid itself of this bulk in order to escape.

The bottom line is that a snake should not be handled after eating until the "meal" is no longer visible in the intestines.

Most captive snakes, such as your python, eat rodents, rabbits or birds. These food sources possess thick layers of fur or feathers, which take time to digest. Efficient digestion is based on the temperature at which the snake is maintained.

The digestive enzymes necessary for proper absorption of food do not work well unless the ambient room temperature (the temperature of the air and surfaces where the snake is housed) is optimal. If your house is air-conditioned, and you simply add a basking light above the snake's cage, it is likely that the atmospheric temperature will not be high enough for the food to be properly digested, which can result in the food becoming rancid within the snake's intestines and causing it to vomit.

In order to properly monitor the temperature of your snake's enclosure, you need to purchase a thermometer for placement inside the cage. Temperature strips applied to the glass of the cage actually measure the temperature between the inside and the outside of the aquarium; they are not accurate temperature measurements of the snake's environment.

Diseases -- two in particular -- are also common causes of vomiting in snakes. One is caused by a protozoan parasite in the stomach called Cryptosporidia. Another is a viral disease that newly purchased pythons are especially susceptible to.

Both these diseases, and many others, may be diagnosed and successfully treated by your veterinarian if they are detected early.

Constipation in snakes is usually the result of insufficient exercise or dehydration. If your snake tries to defecate, and you notice swelling in the lower portion of the body, it is probably constipated. You should take your snake to your veterinarian for treatment as soon as possible to avoid a buildup of toxins in the intestines and possible death.

I hope you will be able to ensure appropriate caging, lighting, atmospheric room temperature and humidity before selecting a new pet snake. Having your snake examined by your veterinarian and having appropriate blood and stool (feces) tests done can be of great value in assuring that you have purchased a healthy pet. -- Teresa L. Lightfoot, D.V.M., diplomate, American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (avian specialty), Avian & Animal Hospital of Bardmoor, Largo

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Dr. Bruce Kaplan is a veterinarian editor/writer. Please send questions to Ask a Veterinarian, Pinellas Animal Foundation, P.O. Box 47771, St. Petersburg, FL 33743-7771. Because of the volume of mail, personal replies are not possible. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column.

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