Why do snakes get sick?Animals get ill both in nature and in captivity and in many cases captivity can offer a healthier environment. For snakes however, captivity is generally more risky in terms of illnesses.
In a natural habitat a snake can move around and adjust its living conditions and diet according to its needs, it can move to cooler, warmer, wetter, or drier areas according to its needs. In captivity a snake has to make do with the environment it is given by its owner. If this environment is incorrect, it can lead directly to physical problems, or indirectly to illness through stress. For most captive animals, stress is in fact the biggest cause of health problems, as it reduces an animals ability to defend against normal levels of disease causing agents.
Prevention is better than cureThe most important thing you can do to prevent snake illness is to provide the right environment. This means researching the needs of your particular species and creating the right environment using the right equipment to cater for those needs. Providing you start off with a healthy snake and give it a proper environment you should not need to worry about regular health problems with the exception of genetic issues or accidental physical damage.
Physical DamageCommon snake health issues stem from physical damage and typical causes include burns from heat lamps, bites from cage-mates, attacks from irresponsible feeding of live prey, crushing from decor items falling on the snake, and bad handling. Providing a safe environment is the best prevention but if physical damage should occur you can obtain dressings and treatments, and of course it is always best to get the advice of a snake experienced vet.
Skin problemsOften related to stress, incorrect humidity, damp substrates, or old water, skin problems are not uncommon and should be taken seriously. If your snake starts shedding a lot more frequently than normal it may be a sign of a skin problem. Blister disease, which appears as solid raised bumps, can often be fixed if caught early by a cage-clean and hygiene improvements. Mouth Rot is a common bacterial problem and can be seen as a white discharge or white patches around the mouth area. If treated quickly, the problem can be remedied, but if untreated can result in permanent disfigurement or death.
SheddingHealth problems are often associated with the shedding of skin, specifically when a snake has difficulty shedding due to a lack of humidity. A normal shedding will take place in a few hours or days depending on the size and species, and the skin is normally shed completely. If the environment is not humid enough the snakes skin will be shed in pieces and some will be left on the snake where it can cause fungal skin diseases or provide an ideal place for mites to reside. To prevent this, check the humidity is suitable for your species and provide a soaking dish of an appropriate size to aid the shedding process.
ParasitesEctoparasites are found on the outside of the body whilst endoparasites are internal parasites. External parasites include snake ticks and mites. Ticks can be easily seen on the body whilst mites are very small and may hide between scales. Ticks can be manually removed with vaseline and alcohol whilst mites can be treated with remedies from your reptile supplier or vet. As with any disease, but particularly with mites, a quick treatment is vital for a healthy recovery. Internal parasites are of course, not visible, and may only be diagnosed and treated by a vet. Symptoms of snake internal parasites can include resting in unusual positions (such as on its side), lack of appetite, and loose, bloody, or unusually smelling stools.
If you provide the right environment and nutrition you should have a healthy snake for the majority of its life. However, at some point, for some reason, you may have an ill snake and the best thing you can do is act quickly and responsibly by identifying the problem, using a suitable vet if required, and provide a suitable course of treatment.