Snakes, like all other animals, do get sick. Regurgitation is the casting up of undigested food and is most frequently associated with husbandry. Regurgitation must be differentiated from vomiting, which is the forceful ejection of the contents of the stomach and small intestine. True vomiting is always a sign of significant disease that requires medical treatment by your veterinarian.
Regurgitation is the more common form and is the only form associated with husbandry problems. Regurgitation is more passive and occurs soon after a snake has attempted to or has swallowed a meal. Therefore, the food item has not had time to be thoroughly digested and can be recognized as a prey animal. In regurgitation, mild waves of contraction move backwards up the body of the snake.
Vomiting usually occurs after the snake has partially digested its meal. Many times since the snake is bringing up intestinal contents from further back in the gastrointestinal tract, the snake seems to be more distressed by vomiting. The material produced by vomiting often looks like a stool with no urates (white chalky material seen with feces).
The most common diseases associated with throwing up are: intestinal parasite infections (amoebiasis, cryptosporidiosis, nematodes), bacterial infections and intestinal obstructions. Vomiting is less commonly associated with liver failure, kidney failure, cancer and viral infections.
The most common husbandry problems associated with regurgitation are
- Excessive handling. To avoid regurgitation, snakes should not be handled for 48 hours after a meal. After any kind of transport, your snake should not be fed for at least seven days to allow rest and reorientation. Water should also be provided during this time. Excessive handling can also injure the distended intestines.
- Cage temperature. In regurgitation problems the temperature is usually too low to allow prompt digestion of a prey item.
- Overfeeding. Most species should be fed every 1-2 weeks, and some larger snakes can go up to 4 weeks between feedings. Prey size should be proportional to snake size and should not be larger in diameter than the snake’s head.
- Lack of a quiet hide place in which the snake can rest and digest its meal.
- Stress due to excessive handling. After eating , snakes should not be handled for at least 24 hours . Handling them at such a time cannot only cause vomiting. Extreme temperatures may also cause vomiting
If vomiting occurs , allow the snake to rest several days before trying to feed it again. If using pre-killed food, make it is warm to the touch and fresh . Finally, give the animal plenty of privacy and time.
If your snake is throwing up, it is not getting the proper amount of nutrients from its food. As a result, if your snake continues to vomit, it will starve to death. The chances for recovery are much higher for vomiting or regurgitating snakes if they are treated prior to losing a significant amount of body weight.
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.
Treatments may include: