Veterinary Basics: When Your Venomous Snake Gets Sick

If you are a private collector and your venomous snake is sick or injured, you may not always have the option of immediate treatment by a veterinarian. Or the staff veterinarian at your professional facility may not fully understand the special needs and concerns of venomous reptile patients and might be reluctant to treat them. In any case, the chances are good that you will be the one actually performing many of the actual hands-on procedures as your veterinarian supervises.

It is important for the professional and private keeper to be able to perform simple veterinary procedures. At a minimum, you should be able to restrain a snake in a tube, open its mouth for examination, accurately weigh the animal to calculate drug dosages and give medications through oral gavage, intramuscular or subcutaneous injection. An avian speculum is an excellent tool for effectively opening a snake's mouth, but any clean, smooth instrument with no sharp or rough edges will do. A plastic butter knife with clear packing tape folded over its sharp edges is a good makeshift instrument.

You should have some basic equipment at hand to perform these procedures when necessary, such as syringes and feeding tubes. Click here to find out more about the basic tools you will want to have on hand and where you can purchase these supplies. Whether you are a layperson or a practicing veterinarian, you can learn a lot about reptile veterinary care by reading these recommended books - Klingenberg and Rossi for the layperson, Mader and Carpenter for veterinarians.

More advanced skills that keepers can learn to perform include simple diagnostics (eg, fecals, blood counts and cytology with a microscope), shallow biopsies and sample swabs, cloacal and tracheal washes, basic wound management with local anesthesia, intracoelomic injections and fluid support. Click here for an overview on the more advanced veterinary skills and equipment.

Procedures that generally cannot or should not be performed without a veterinarian's direct supervision and a clinic's special drugs and support equipment include long duration general anesthesia and invasive surgical procedures (eg, beyond simple debriedment of a subcutaneous abscess). Effective short duration general anesthesia can be induced in the field with a simple isoflourane box or with one of several injectable agents, but all of these drugs are controlled substances and require a veterinarian's supervision or special prescription.

Safe capture and restraint techniques are very important in conducting a basic exam that allows you to assess the patient's condition and consider your options for treatment. Refer to the main handling tutorial page for instruction on how to use the safety tools that will help minimize risks to you as well as the patient.

One way that you may be able to help convince a veterinarian to treat your venomous snake patient is to let them know that you can bring the animal already secured in a sealed anesthetic induction chamber, which will not be opened until after the snake is anesthetized. All the veterinarian needs to do in order to induce anesthesia is to inject a small amount of isoflurane into the container. Click here for detailed instructions on how to build and operate an isoflurane induction chamber for venomous snakes.

Read Melissa Kaplan's basic recommendations about medicating sick reptiles.
Learn to recognize signs of illness and injury in reptiles.
More helpful links to articles about basic snake care and health


Return to Veterinary Index