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Regurgitation (Vomiting) in Snakes

By: Dr. Nancy Anderson

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Diagnosis

Diagnostic tests may include:

  • History. Unless your veterinarian finds an obvious cause for throwing up on physical examination, a detailed history will be extremely important. Questions will most likely focus on: cage temperatures; hide boxes; prey size; timing of handling the snake after feeding; exposure to other snakes; and timing of last fecal examination.

  • Abdominal palpation. An excellent abdominal palpation is an important part of the physical examination.

  • Examination of the vomitus. If a snake is vomiting, it can be difficult to distinguish vomitus from feces. If the vomitus is fresh (an hour or two old), your veterinarian can test the pH to determine if the material came through the stomach or the vent (snake's rectum). If it is vomitus, the pH of the material will be acidic because of stomach acids. If it is feces, it will be basic. After roughly 2 hours, even vomitus will become basic as bacteria digest the material and cause the pH to become more basic. Regurgitation of mucous alone is a grave sign and is often associated with death.

  • Fecal examination. Your veterinarian will almost always want to run a fecal examination to look for intestinal parasites. It is common for snakes that are experiencing chronic vomiting to have empty gastrointestinal tracts and so are not producing stools. In this case, your veterinarian may want to perform a colonic wash to obtain an adequate fecal sample. In addition to a routine fecal examination, your veterinarian may wish to submit special cytologies or cultures.

  • Stomach wash. If your veterinarian suspects a Cryptosporidia infection or a medical problem located in the stomach, he/she may suggest performing a stomach wash. The fluid retrieved from stomach washes is usually tested for nematode parasites. Additional tests are usually required to diagnose Cryptosporidia or bacterial infections.

  • X-rays. If your veterinarian palpates (feels) an abdominal mass, an X-ray or an abdominal ultrasound may be recommended.

  • Further tests. If your snake has been throwing up for over one to two months (depending on the size and age of the snake) or has lost significant body condition, further diagnostic tests are warranted. Tests commonly performed on vomiting or regurgitating snakes include: hematology (analysis of red and white blood cells); serum chemistries (evaluates organ function); X-rays; cytologies (microscopic examination of discharges or small samples of tissue); specialized fecal analysis; and bacterial or fungal cultures.

    Treatment

    Treatments may include:

    If your snake appears healthy on physical examination, treatment is aimed at improving husbandry and removing any intestinal parasites that may have been diagnosed on a fecal examination. In addition, your veterinarian may recommend the following:

  • Fluid therapy. Most snakes that are vomiting or regurgitating are dehydrated. Your veterinarian will most likely want to administer subcutaneous (under the skin) or intraperitoneal (into the abdominal cavity) fluids. The fluids cannot be administered orally, because the snake will vomit the fluids.

  • Fasting. Your veterinarian will probably recommend that your snake fast (not eat) for a few days while the medications are taking effect. After this, he/she may want to tube feed an easily digestible liquid meal before attempting to return your snake back to its regular diet.

  • Drug therapy. Treatment of nematode and amoebic infections requires antiparasite drugs (de-wormers) that are prescribed for the specific parasites. Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics.

  • Surgery. If your veterinarian diagnoses an abdominal mass or an intestinal obstruction, surgery or endoscopy might be needed to further diagnose and correct the problem.

    Home Care

    It is important that you administer fluids, food supplements and medications according to your veterinarian's instructions. If you notice vomiting or regurgitation, contact your veterinarian immediately, as this is a sign that the medications need to be updated. Schedule regular veterinary visits to monitor the condition.

    Observe the general activity level and interest of your pet. Note the character and frequency of stools. Pay attention to his environment:

  • Use a thermometer to measure the temperature gradient in the cage. Just feeling cage surfaces to feel if they are hot or cool is not precise enough. Adjust heating devices to maintain a temperature range recommended by your veterinarian.

  • Make sure that your snake has a selection of proper hide boxes.

  • Do not handle or disturb your snake for at least 48 hours after feeding. Imagine the result if if someone picked you up and sloshed you around after eating a Thanksgiving Day meal.

  • Make sure that the size of prey is appropriate for your size snake. A good rule of thumb is that the head of the prey animal should be no larger than ¾ the diameter of the snake's head. Prey that is too large will often stimulate regurgitation.

    Preventative Care

    Excellent husbandry will prevent most snakes from throwing up. The best prevention against your snake acquiring a medical problem that results in throwing up is to buy healthy captive bred snakes that have not been exposed to a variety of other snakes.

  • Do not feed your snake on substrates (such as pea gravel or wood chips) that can become adhered to the prey item. Do not leave rags or towels in snake's cages, especially around feeding time.

  • Avoid handling snakes for at least 48 hours after a meal.

  • Have your veterinarian test a stool sample from your snake for the most common parasites found in that species. Follow your veterinarian's instructions for administering de-wormers. In addition, make sure you clean and disinfect your snake's cage and cage furniture after all de-wormer doses. This will minimize your snake's chances of re-infecting itself from immature parasites or parasite eggs that may be in the cage.

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