Diseases and Disorders
Milk snakes thrive in almost all "snake acceptable" habitats there are in the wild. That should give you a clue as to their adaptability as a species. If you meet their basic needs they will live a long healthy life. However, as with most life forms, there are certain problems to watch for.
Shedding problems: Milk snakes seem to have comparatively thin skins. Shedding problems are very common and need to be monitored. These problems are covered in the "Shedding" section.
External Parasites: The most common external parasites are snake mites. They are tiny speck-sized blood sucking invertebrates or arachnids. The next most common external parasites in wild-caught animals are ticks. In many books there are detailed instructions on how to clean and sterilize the cage and its contents to eliminate mites. Some areas have mites on their wild populations of reptiles, and no matter how careful and clean you are, mites will find their way in.
The obvious first step in preventing mite infestations is prevention by quarantining any new snake in a separate room from where a collection is kept. During the quarantine period (3-4 weeks minimum is recommended) you will be able to assess the health status of your new snake including the presence of mites. If mites are present he simplest treatment is to place in the equivalent of a ten or twenty gallon enclosure a 1/2 in. x 2 in. section of a No Pest® or similar type of insecticidal strip containing Vapona®. Place the No Pest® section in a container such as a deli container with holes. Partially cover the top or side openings of the enclosure leaving only a small opening for airflow. Leave for 12 hours. The snake enclosure should then be thoroughly wiped and disinfected with a 5% bleach solution as should any cage furnishings. Repeat the process in 2 weeks. If you have a widespread mite problem in your snake room, then buy a Vapona® pest strip and hang it in the center of the room. (Some states don't allow the sale of insecticidal strips. However, they can be ordered by mail from specialty stores.) Close off or reduce any air circulation (close door of room and windows and any air conditioning or exhaust systems) for a few days and all the mites should die. Remove the strip in a few days once you have assessed that all the mites appear dead. Repeat the treatment two or three weeks later. Do not leave the strip in the room on a year-round basis. Remember that when treating mites, if you miss a few eggs or one gravid mite, the problem will eventually return.
WARNING: The use of Vapona® impregnated strips can kill cricket and mealworm colonies and may adversely affect some lizards. If the snakes can't be isolated, experiment with small pieces of insecticidal strip in each snake cage. Some literature suggests that this application of Vapona® vapor can kill lung worms also. Follow the label on the package concerning use around human and food areas for safety.
Most ticks will be killed by using the same treatment as used for mites. The easiest way to contend with ticks, however, is to apply rubbing alcohol on the tick body using a cotton swab. After 5 to 10 minutes, the tick can easily be pulled off using round-nosed tweezers.
Wild milk snakes can harbor a multitude of internal parasites including worms and protozoa, some of which haven't been identified. Captive- hatched animals are usually clean (a lot depends on the husbandry of your breeder/supplier), but sometimes can be infested with worms.
A common parasite is the flagellate protozoan Trichomonas (those things you see crazily swimming around in random patterns when you are looking for the serpentine swimming motion of sperm). Trichomonas are easy to eliminate. Metronidazol (Flagyl-Searle Labs) can be safely administered orally at a dosage of 50 mg/kg (2.2 lbs.) to eliminate them. A fresh stool sample should be taken to a vet for analysis for new snakes or ones you suspect have internal parasites. Caution: Milk snakes can react negatively to higher doses of Metronidazol than can be tolerated by other snake and reptile species.
Treatment for worms includes the use of Panacur® (Fenbendazole) given orally at a dose of 100 mg/kg.
Other Internal Parasites: Herpetoculturally we live in exciting times. Our animals are a valuable commodity which the veterinary community has recognized. They have been, and are currently doing research into veterinary reptile care. In the "old days" we tried to treat our reptiles by ourselves. Failing to find a cure, we desperately took our almost dead snake to a veterinarian. If they would even look at it, he or she would disappear into the back room, pull a reference book off the shelf, thumb to the reptile chapter, and try to match the problem with one of the cures given. Usually we returned home with a dead snake and a vet bill that exceeded the value of the snake when it was healthy. Not so anymore!!
If you suspect internal parasites but can't identify them, you will need the help of a veterinarian, so let him or her suggest the latest and best treatment. If you are advanced enough to identify the problem, you will probably be informed on the latest treatment. An important reference book with regards to reptile parasites and diseases is Reptile Care by Frederic Frye (1991, T.F.H.). Understanding Reptile Parasites by Roger Kilingberg is an inexpensive, user-friendly book which will be available from Advanced Vivarium Systems in December of 1992.
This disease is not common in milk snakes. The earliest symptoms are small reddish spots along the gum line often accompanied with some excess mucus. In time, particularly if the snake is stressed, these symptoms may develop into full fledged mouth rot with the accompanying accumulations of whitish "cheesy" matter along the gum and teeth line. Without opening the mouth, one sign of this disease is when a snake's mouth just doesn't close right, leaving a small, barely visible asymmetrical gap between the two jaws. Untreated this infection will ultimately affect the bone and kill the snake. Fortunately it is easily treated when recognized early on. Daily applications of hydrogen peroxide, Lystering®, or Neosporin® with a cotton swab will clear the infection within a week or two. If severe, with the teeth line extensively affected, a veterinarian should be consulted to administer antibiotics in addition to the topical therapy. Snakes infected with mouth rot should be isolated from other specimens until they are healed.
In general, milk snakes are very resistant to respiratory infections. However, if they are stressed they may sometimes come down with symptoms of a respiratory infection including "blowing bubbles", inactivity, refusing to feed, gaping, forced exhalations and/or excess mucus in the mouth. Examples of stress-causing situations are not enough nutrition (depletion) after egg laying, excessive fluctuations in temperature, too cool temperatures, and/or poor sanitary conditions. With time, these stresses can lead to mouth-rot (infectious stomatitis) or pneumonia. If noticed early and if the associated environmental or maintenance factors are corrected you may reverse the course of the infection by simply raising the temperature in the cage to 88°F-90°F until the snake's health improves. When snakes are sick they often seek heat. The immune system of the snake will also function better at higher temperatures, and it may allow it to "cure" itself.
If, after a few days at higher temperatures, you don't notice an improvement, or if the disease has progressed to pneumonia (gaping and forced exhalation are indicative symptoms), you will probably need a veterinarian to administer antibiotics to save your snake. Sometimes respiratory problems can be caused by parasitic worms burrowing through the lungs (primarily in wild-caught animals). Respiratory diseases can also result from allergic reactions to a substrate of if a cage is not properly maintained, to ammonia gas released by moist waste. Veterinarians spend years in school to learn this stuff, and read and study constantly (the ones I want you to go to do). If you provide proper husbandry for the milk snake and one of your snakes develops a problem you can't easily recognize and fix---SEE A VETERINARIAN!!
Egg Impaction: Sometimes milk snakes, particularly those laying large clutches of eggs, will not be able to pass the last few eggs. Various theories suggest calcium deficiencies and inactivity leading to muscle weakness (the snake is so tired and weak it can't find the strength to lay the last couple of eggs). It seems this muscle weakness is a major problem because when many of the "stuck" eggs are removed they are no larger than those already passed. However, lets face it, our snakes are lazy! They don't do nearly the work in our cages that they do in the wild, so it's easy to see how their muscles would become weak. But what can we do? Run our snakes around the house or yard daily? Take them to one of Gary Larson's snake gyms? The problem is being researched, and hopefully an answer will be forthcoming, but if you find out first, please let me know. We don't have the answer yet.
However, when eggs become impacted there are several things that can be done. If there is an egg near the vent it can be gently palpated out. If the egg is too large, exert some pressure and when the tail lifes, and you see the end of the egg or find the entry to the oviduct (up against the backbone), you can puncture and drain the egg using a large syringe and needle. If there are more eggs "up high," give them a few days to work their way down to the vent. If they fail to "come down", insert a blunt well-lubricated instrument up into the oviduct and try to work the end first to, then past the next egg. Apply gentle pressure on the egg and, leaving the instrument in position as a guide, try to palpate the egg along the instrument down to the vent where it can be forced out or removed by puncturing the shell and pulling it out. The instrument keeps the oviduct from turning. If the oviduct is allowed to turn it can be "prolapsed" and be forced out with the egg, tearing it loose and severely damaging the snake. Another technique is to try to drain the contents from the egg through the outer body wall, using a large gauge needle passed between the ribs. With the reduced size, the eggs may pass. This procedure could contaminate the oviduct with "spilled" egg contents and lead to infection, but it has worked for many, and the patient has gone on to successfully breed the next season. Sometimes, just handling the snake and making it move around may help dislodge the "stuck" eggs. In other cases, veterinary surgery may be required. As should be apparent from the above techniques, it is highly recommended that anyone inexperienced with procedures relating to egg impaction should consult an experienced herpetological veterinarian. This could make the difference between life and death.
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