Septicemia in snakes is caused by a variety of bacteria and can also present in different ways. Sometimes, a snake is suffering from another condition which leaves a gateway for a bacterium to run a little riot with no intervention from the snake’s immune system, which is depleted by dealing with the first problem. In cases such as these the septicemia is hard to spot, because the snake is probably not behaving normally anyway. In other cases, the septicemia is ‘silent’, in other words there are not external signs and although the animal is clearly not on top form there are not obvious pointers. Sometimes death is the only clue that something is amiss, but abscesses under the skin with no obvious sign of injury will be a clue to the owner. Even with this early sign, it is sometimes too late to save the snake and the vet will recommend euthanasia.
Signs to look out for
Septicemia is often, but not always, caused by a bacteria which is routinely present on the snake’s skin or in its environment. What happens when septicemia takes hold is that the bacteria overwhelm the snake’s internal organs, causing nodules in the liver, haemorrhagic patches on the gut and often on the lining of the mouth and damage to kidneys and other organs. Signs of these small haemorrhages, correctly called petichiae, should alert the owner to take the snake to the vet immediately. There are no good reasons for these petechiae to form and they must be investigated urgently. They are small blood filled blisters, so small they are often described as ‘pin-pricks’ except of course that they have no broken skin, they are formed from under the mucous membrane from broken capillaries. If you miss this sign, the snake is almost certainly off its food, lethargic and showing signs of what in a warm-blooded animal would be a fever. Authorities can’t really agree whether a snake can have a fever, but there is certainly an equivalent, with the same sort of behaviour you would find in a mammal. Also, the skin of the underside often becomes red and swollen, with the whole body feeling tense and ‘full’. This is a late stage, following even the abscesses noted above and means that the snake is very sick indeed.
Treatment of septicemia in snakes
The vet, after examining the snake, may consider, if the snake is otherwise healthy, that treatment is worthwhile and in that case will prescribe large doses of antibiotic immediately, followed by a course of the drug which must be administered regularly and until after the snake appears to have regained its usual health. If on the other hand the septicemia is a result of an underlying condition such as mouth rot or scale rot and the animal is having to cope with the pain and discomfort of all of these problems, he may well advise that the snake should be put down and although this is distressing it is usually the kinder course of action. If there are lesions which the vet can open – abscesses cannot be drained on snakes as the contents are not liquid – and culture, it will be possible to discover exactly what bacterium is causing the septicemia and then the antibiotic can be chosen to target that particular bug and success will be more certain.
Prevention of septicemia
The steps the careful snake owner must take to prevent septicemia are the same as those necessary to prevent any disease; cleanliness and vigilance. Getting to know your snake is vital to its wellbeing and can be difficult if the snake is shy or even nocturnal but it is essential to persevere. Septicemia can kill quite literally overnight, so no owner should feel guilty for missing it, but if the signs are there this condition can be treated. Underlying conditions such as mouth rot can make the snake more susceptible to septicemia and so any snake with a condition which leaves it open to opportunistic infection should certainly be watched with a more than usual eagle eye.
Septicemia associated with shedding and other problems
Any snake which is having trouble shedding should also be watched very carefully and of course it goes without saying that the environment must be kept clean. If your snake is not a good feeder it is vital that any uneaten food must be taken out of the tank as soon as it becomes clear that the snake is not interested. A rotting mouse or rat is certainly not going to be conducive to a bacteria free environment. Sometimes the floor of a habitat looks clean on the surface but underneath it is wet and putrid; because there is often an underlying smell to a snake’s habitat it is not always easy to know what lies beneath. Checking and cleaning is the only way to be sure. As always it is important not to stress the snake by overhandling, but if it can become used to regular cleaning this will be all to the good.
Hygiene when handling snakes
Many cases of septicemia are caused by salmonella and other bacteria which are harmful to people. It should be regular normal practice anyway to wash your hands very carefully after handling any snake, either ill or well. There are many antibacterial handwashes on the market now which come in handy pump packs and leave your hands dry, so it would probably be a good idea to keep one by the habitat and use it before and after handling the snake. Some are even fragrance free and so will not distress the snake with a strong scent. When washing, use the hospital method of interlocking the fingers and making sure that the nails are attended to. If the snake wraps round you when you lift it up, make sure that you attend to forearms as well; it doesn’t take millions of bacteria to cause an overwhelming infection. The millions that kill your snake eventually could have started with just one! It’s not worth the risk.