A large snake wraps itself around someones forearms

Lumps and Bumps in Snakes

The healthy snake is a sleek, symmetrical, well-muscled animal, covered in smooth scales from the nose to the tail tip. Even the eyes are covered by clear scales, called spectacles. Internally, the snake’s organs line up, one after the other to accommodate the long thin body. This anatomy is unique to the snake, but the location of the organs is predictable. As part of your pet’s routine annual check-up, your reptile veterinarian will examine your pet externally and — with the practiced skill of palpation — will use his hands to feel the internal organs. Knowledge of the anatomy of a snake, the location of the organs and the normal variations of those organs allows your veterinarian to make a preliminary assessment of your pet’s health.

The loss of the normal svelte physique and smooth lines often points to health concerns. Pet snakes should be observed daily for changes in their physical appearance or behavior. In addition, most should be handled regularly, and should have their eyes, mouths, skin and vents inspected. When you hold your snake, pay attention to the texture of his skin and to his muscle tone. As they slither through your hands, take note of any segments of his body which stiffen or do not move normally. A swelling inside your snake will be felt before it can be seen and unusual masses or lumps within or under the skin, or within the body should be investigated with the help of a reptile veterinarian.

External Lumps in Snakes

An external lump could be any of the following:

Based on your snake’s history, your reptile veterinarian may begin to narrow the field of possible diagnoses. Your snake’s vent should be clean and smooth. Swellings in front of the vent area can be due to a mass in the cloaca, in the reproductive tract or in the colon. Masses include retained eggs, fetuses or very firm stool. Cloacaliths, stone like formations of urate (the white, semi-solid portion of the urine) can also form in the cloaca. All of these may act as a blockage, preventing the passage of waste, and in some cases, the remainder of the clutch of eggs or fetuses. Swellings around the vent, or within the tail may indicate infected scent glands or hemipenes. Protrusions from the vent are usually prolapsed internal organs. These may include reproductive structures (oviduct, hemipene), part of the colon, or the cloaca, and should be dealt with by a veterinarian immediately.

Skeletal Lumps in Snakes

Deviations or lumps in the spine can be due to congenital defects or malformed vertebrae. They are also seen in cases of severe malnutrition and as a result of trauma. Bone infection or osteomyelitis can occur where a bone has been broken or otherwise damaged, perhaps by a fall or other blunt trauma. In the case of a snake, the spine or ribs may be affected.

Other metabolic and possibly viral conditions exist in snakes which can cause spinal deformity. This includes Osteitis Deformans, a disease much like Paget’s disease, seen in humans. Bone swellings can be detected in the ribs or more likely along the spine. There may be a single area of firm swelling, or an area of spinal deviation, either a sideways “kink” or a protruding lump. The area might be painful to the snake, and they might be reluctant to move or have difficulty moving. An examination by your reptile veterinarian, the snake’s history and radiographs (X-rays) are the first steps in determining the nature of a bone swelling. Further tests might be relevant and are discussed below.

Internal Lumps or Swelling in Snakes

It is common to feel the prey within the digestive tract, particularly in lean, fit, recently fed snakes. The snake’s stomach is located approximately midway between the head and the vent. After this point, the prey is sufficiently digested that it should not be easily felt. That said, it is recommended that snakes not be handled for at least 48 hours after they have fed, to minimize the risk of regurgitation.

Swellings or lumps associated with the gastrointestinal tract can be abnormal. Undigested prey can cause a swelling in the stomach (mid-body) region of a snake whose housing conditions (particularly temperature) are not adequate. Food may be physically prevented from passing through the digestive tract by an obstruction. Such obstructions can be created by parasites, foreign bodies, previously undigested meals, tumors, abscesses, granulomas (bacterial or fungal masses), force feeding or the feeding of too large a meal.

Viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic conditions can thicken the lining of the digestive tract and affect its ability to digest and propel food, causing a functional, if not physical obstruction. Snakes suffering from serious or systemic disease such as kidney or liver failure may not have normal intestinal motility. Snakes kept in conditions which are not warm enough will be unable to move food through the gastrointestinal tract at a normal pace.

Ingested material can become lodged at any point along the digestive tract. Snakes whose prey is too dry, who do not have access to water or whose environment is insufficiently humid may suffer from chronic dehydration and will easily become constipated. It is possible to see snakes who have not had a bowel movement in some time and have several fecal masses palpable in the colon. Lumps adjacent to the digestive tract can put pressure on intestinal contents, preventing their passage.

Virtually all the internal organs can be affected by disease, some more commonly than others. Internal abscesses, granulomas and cysts are seen in snakes and if large enough will be detected directly by owners or veterinarians. Entire organs or tissues may also enlarge enough to be physically detected as an internal mass. Enlargement may be due to bacterial, viral or metabolic conditions. Tumors or cancer are also not unusual in snakes. These have been recognized in the skin, muscles, liver, kidney, reproductive tract, bone and eye, among many other sites.

Diagnosing Lumps in Snakes

In most instances, when presented with a snake with a lump, your veterinarian will follow a sequence of steps, which should allow them to arrive at a diagnosis. These may include:

In Summary

It is not unusual to find a lump on a pet snake. Changes in your pet’s body, which manifest as lumps, either on the skin or within the body are seldom normal. Regular inspection and careful handling of your pet snake will allow you to detect these changes as early as possible. The causes of masses or lumps are many and varied but are always worth being examined by a reptile veterinarian, because a number of conditions, some serious and some not, can appear the same at first glance.

In most cases, a detailed history and a thorough physical examination will be sufficient to narrow down the possible diagnoses. At this point your veterinarian may have a good idea as to the extent and general nature of the problem. Your reptile veterinarian should be able to explain to you why they recommend a given test or tests, and should be able to help you to choose an approach that meets your budget and also addresses the needs of your snake. This may be as simple as a few husbandry changes or basic, inexpensive tests.

In the event of a more complicated or more serious condition, a reptile veterinarian will be able to outline a stepwise investigation, designed to lead to a definite diagnosis, a prognosis and a treatment plan. It is almost always worth trying to reach a definite diagnosis; once we know what to call the problem, we can address it logically.

Reptile medicine has made huge advancements in recent years, and tests and treatments are improving along with our knowledge of reptile disease. Many disease conditions remain to be understood, and no doubt many are yet to be discovered. Reptiles never fail to surprise those of us who work with and care for them; a step-by-step, scientific approach, will inevitably lead to improved medical care for all snakes, as well as to the best treatment options for your pet.