Of course, the most obvious thing a snake is its clean outline and so any lump will soon be noticed. Abscesses can be any size from tiny (these are sometimes mistaken for parasites) to disfiguringly big. An odd thing about abscesses in snakes is that the pus inside is firm and not runny; obviously this has an effect on the treatment as they usually need surgical removal of the large ones, as they cannot be aspirated or drained.
A word first about treatment
There are books and articles that give instructions on how to remove an abscess in a snake yourself without recourse to a vet. This is really not to be recommended unless you are extremely confident, as it will be distressing for the snake and if, on opening the abscess, you find yourself unable to continue – some abscesses are extremely foul smelling when opened – the snake then has an open wound and since it already has an infection which has caused the abscess, it will be far worse off than it was before. So the advice is – unless you are absolutely sure you can do it, take the snake to the vet.
What to look for
Abscesses are basically caused by external trauma (a bite or injury) or an internal issue (septicaemia, for example). Of the two, the latter is more worrying because if the blood poisoning is serious enough to manifest itself as abscesses under the skin or on internal organs, it is probably quite advanced. If the abscess has a scab on it, then it has been caused by an infection getting in to broken skin. Sometimes the abscess has been caused by a bite from either a prey animal or another snake and then teeth marks may be visible. It is not really ethically acceptable to feed snakes live mammalian prey from the point of view of either the snake or the prey and these bites, which can become seriously affected, are only one reason why it should not be done. When the skin is broken and an infection gets in, the body responds by sending white cells to the site and the contents of the abscess are these cells and the bacteria, both living and dead. If there is no broken skin, this is really quite serious and the animal should be taken to the vet as soon as possible.
Treatment of abscesses in snakes
The vet will clean out a large abscess, but may not bother with smaller ones. The advantage of opening up an abscess is that the contents can be cultured to find exactly what the causative organism is. Sometimes a fungus will opportunistically invade an abscess, although the original organism was a bacteria, and then the vet will prescribe an antibiotic and a fungicide. While the results come back from the lab – all cultures take a minimum of 24 hours, and if sensitivities are carried out, to discover the best antibiotic for the treatment it takes longer – the vet will put the snake on a wide-spectrum antibiotic, so as to waste no more time. From an external abscess, it is quite possible for generalised septicaemia to develop, and this should be avoided at all costs.
Prevention of abscesses in snakes
As always, prevention is the key to the wellbeing of the animal, and clean surroundings are essential. The snake should not be left with a wet floor to its environment, old, rotting food should not be left in with the snake and the snake should be examined daily, to make sure all is well. Some snakes do not tolerate handling, but an abscess will be very clear visually, so this should be no problem. If the snake is off-colour and clearly unwell and it is not shedding its skin, then the inspection should be more thorough as abscesses can become very invasive and difficult to treat if the infection becomes systemic. If there is more than one snake in the environment, then the affected snake should be removed, not just because it has an infection, but because it will probably be feeling quite unwell and may, depending on the site of the abscess, be in some pain, so it would be better for it if it were to be isolated until the treatment is at least underway. If the vet has surgically cleaned the site, it should be kept as clean as possible and this is easier when there is only one snake.
Septicaemia is serious, as by the time the abscesses appear under the skin, the infection has quite a grip on the animal, which has probably been showing signs of ill health for at least a short while before the lumps appear. Because the abscesses are in the body cavity, surgical intervention will be quite invasive and many vets would X-ray or ultrasound the snake before taking this step. One thing to be very aware of as an owner is that the causative organism of abscesses in snakes is often salmonella, which of course is as dangerous to humans and other animals as it is to snakes. Scrupulous care should be taken with hygiene if a snake is ill in this way to prevent cross infection not only to other snakes and pets, but also to the people caring for them. This is another reason that treating the snake yourself is not a good idea – scalpels, a wriggling snake and salmonella are not a happy combination.