Venomoid FAQ

Q. What is a venomoid?
A. A venomoid is a formerly venomous snake whose venom glands or ducts have been removed or destroyed in order to make it a "harmless" pet. Despite claims that venomoid animals are used in education, the estimate given at the NAVC conference in 2002 was that 99% of these animals were actually going to the private sector as household pets. Zoos typically do not use or display venomoids.

Q. What happens if a venomoid snake bites me?
A. If you're lucky, nothing but a deep puncture wound from its fangs, half as gory as an injury seen in dragon games online. That can still be a nasty bite, and you may want to discuss it with your doctor. If you're not lucky, some degree of envenomation may occur. Not all snakes sold as venomoid are actually unable to envenomate, either because of outright fraud on the dealer's part, a badly performed amateur surgical procedure, or partial regeneration of the duct or remaining gland tissue. Buyer beware. One serious human envenomation by a venomoid cobra was documented by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and some people have reported that their "venomoids" can kill mice or that they have milked their "venomoid" and obtained venom. Remember that some venomous snakes with complete glands can deliver many times the human lethal dose in one bite. A snake with even a little bit of gland tissue left can still give a very bad bite, possibly enough to kill. Regeneration has been reported by veterinarians who have examined some of these snakes, especially when only the duct is severed.

Q. I don't believe you. Somebody on the Net said something different.
A.
Click here to find a reptile veterinarian near you who can help you research some of these things for yourself. We will be glad to talk to your veterinarian and to put him or her in direct contact with the other veterinarians and researchers who have helped us gather our information. We feel confident that your own veterinarian can help you understand the issues involved in venomoid surgery, especially after we put him or her in contact with other veterinarians who have clinical experience in this field. Some of the veterinarians and researchers who have provided this information for us are well known in the field of reptile medicine, and your vet should already be familiar with their published work. You do need to go through your own veterinarian however, as we cannot ask any veterinarian to talk to you without a client-patient relationship.

Q. Is the venomoid operation humane? Does it hurt the snake?
A. Yes, it hurts the snake a lot. A snake's mouth is filled with nerve endings, just like the mouth of any other animal. Oral surgery is painful, especially when they have to cut all the way into the head to remove two large glands. And unfortunately, most people who perform these procedures on snakes are not veterinarians. They are doing the operation illegally at home for profit, so they don't have any drugs to give the animals after the operation for pain relief. Instead of sterile surgical instruments, the amateurs may use makeshift cutting tools from craft stores and hardware stores as you can see in this article here. Many snakes undergoing this operation at the hands of amateurs will die, but the price they can charge for the animals that survive means that they can afford to let a lot of snakes die and still make a profit. Click here and here to read some threads on the Board of Inquiry that reveal a lot about how this shady business is conducted.

Q. Is the operation painless when it's done by a veterinarian?
A. No. Even assuming the vet uses pain relief medication, which not all vets know how to do yet for reptiles, it still hurts. Human patients will tell you the same thing after they have had major oral surgery - even with the best the doctors can do, recovery is still pretty painful! Pain management in reptiles is a relatively new scientific field. Veterinarians who went to school more than five years ago may be completely unaware of modern research which does confirm that snakes feel pain and that their pain needs to be managed with appropriate medication, just as you would expect for your pet dog or cat or bird. Here is some more information from the veterinary perspective.

Q. Is the venomoid operation ethical?
A. That's a question you will have to answer for yourself. Most veterinarians will say no and refuse to perform the procedure. It can be compared to declawing or removing the canine teeth of wolves or big cats in order to keep them as household pets. You can still find some veterinarians in some countries who will do these things, but these kinds of surgeries are illegal in the UK and considered very questionable in the USA. If you don't see anything wrong with declawing and removing the teeth of a lion so you can keep it in your house with the kids as a really cool pet, you might not see anything wrong with removing the venom glands from a snake either.

Q. Is the venomoid operation legal?
A. Not in Europe, where they have stricter laws about animal welfare. It is still legal in the US for a licensed veterinarian to do elective non patient benefit procedures like tooth and claw removal on wild animals, or venomoid surgery, though many veterinarians will refuse to do this to an animal. It is not legal for people who are not veterinarians to perform this surgery, especially for profit. Some states allow farmers to perform simple procedures on their own livestock if it is done humanely. Venomoiders who are making money performing these operations do not fall into this legal category and are breaking the law. They are practicing veterinary medicine without a license and the drugs they use are illegal for non veterinarians to possess. There are some amateur venomoiders who do not use any drugs, relying on keeping the snakes too cold to struggle when they start cutting. This is also illegal because doing surgery on a conscious, feeling patient is extreme animal cruelty. Contact your state regulatory authorities to find out what the exact laws are in your area, or ask your veterinarian.

Q. What drugs are used in venomoid surgery?
A. The drugs used in venomoid surgeries are legally controlled. Amateur venomoiders are breaking the law by possessing them. All the drugs required to do a really professional and humane job of the surgery are expensive and difficult to obtain, so the amateurs are skimping and using only the bare minimum they need to make sure the snake stays still when they start cutting. Sometimes only the refrigerator or an ice bath is used to make a snake too cold to move, even though it can still feel pain. Dissociative drugs that can temporarily paralyze a snake, like Ketamine, can be bought fairly easily on the illicit "drug scene" because they are popular with human drug users. These kinds of drugs do not provide any pain relief. The snake will be unable to move but will still feel everything that is done to it. Other drugs like the gas inhalant described in this article are illegal to use at home but are not that difficult to obtain. They render the animal unconscious during the actual operation, but they do not provide any pain relief after the operation. As soon as the snake wakes up, it hurts. The kinds of drugs that provide pain relief after the operation are the hardest of all to get if you are not a licensed veterinarian, such as the morphine derivatives buprenorphine and butorphanol. They are also the most expensive. Amateur venomoiders don't want to cut into their profits to buy painkilling drugs, and they often cannot obtain them legally because they are not working with a veterinarian, so their victims don't get any pain relief.

Q. Isn't the venomoid operation just like spaying or neutering?
A. No. Spaying and neutering has actual health benefits to many animals, and it also addresses humane concerns about unwanted offspring being born that cannot be cared for. No veterinarian will refuse to perform this kind of operation, and some even volunteer their time to do this service at animal shelters. There are no ethical questions in the veterinary profession about spaying and neutering because it helps the animals. Also, not very many people are operating on dogs in their own garage with a razor blade after making sure they are too cold to struggle. That really is happening to snakes, and unfortunately nobody seems to care. It is much harder to get animal cruelty laws enforced when the victim is a reptile and not a cute furry animal. Dog breeders who are doing similar things to the animals they sell have gotten into a lot of trouble with the law.

Q. Does the venomoid operation affect an animal's health after it is fully recovered?
A. Assuming it survives the original severe trauma, probably not. Some venomous snakes use their venom to help digest their food more rapidly, but keeping the animal warm has a similar effect. Most venomous snakes in captivity are eating prekilled prey and are not injecting any venom into their food. They do not appear to suffer any ill effects from not using their venom in digestion.

Q. Don't you need to practice on a venomoid before you can handle the real thing?
A. Not really. Many nonvenomous snakes act a lot like similarly sized and shaped venomous snakes. A blood python makes a fine stand-in Gaboon, a feisty Nerodia water snake is a good cottonmouth, a racer or coachwhip is similar in handling to a mamba and Asian rat snakes do an excellent boomslang imitation. Professional staff training courses for zookeepers and veterinarians such as the workshops at ARAV use nonvenomous act-alike snakes, not venomoids.

Q. Isn't keeping reptiles in a cage morally the same thing as making them venomoid?
A. That depends on how well the snake is being taken care of. If the cage is small and dirty and the animal is not fed very well, that would probably qualify as abuse or at least bad husbandry especially if the animal showed signs of sickness or stress. If the animal is well taken care of, properly housed and fed and given good veterinary care, that is not abuse. Many snakes appear to be "fat and happy" in captivity when they are properly cared for. They are in good health and do not show any signs of stress or discomfort. There is a big difference between giving good responsible care and cutting pieces off of an animal so that you can have more fun with it.

Q. What about safety issues? I give education programs and I don't want kids to get bitten.
A. Consider sending the right safety message by handling only nonvenomous snakes in front of the kids and displaying the venomous species in securely locked cages. There have already been injuries to children who were playing with venomous snakes because they saw them being handled on a popular television show. You should probably not be reinforcing the message that venomous snakes are okay to touch and hold.

Q. What about safety issues? I want to keep venomous snakes at home but I have a family.
A. It isn't a good idea to keep dangerous wild animals at home unless you are fully prepared to house and handle them safely. A second building that is separate from the house and securely locked is a good idea. Keeping a venomoid in the house can send the wrong message to your kids if you are handling this animal, and it can also put the kids at risk of a bite - remember that a venomoid snake might not be, or it might not stay that way. If you aren't 100% prepared to care for an animal properly, it might be a better idea to leave it in the zoo where you and your kids can enjoy it together.

Q. I don't know how to handle a cobra without getting bitten but I want one really bad, right now! Why can't I just get a venomoid?
A. You can, if you think that your instant gratification is worth the price the animal will pay in blood and pain. Make sure that the venomoid you buy was operated on by a veterinarian and not an illegal backyard butcher, for the animal's sake and for your own protection. Remember that the skills and tools of the real venomous keeper are actually not all that hard to acquire if you are willing to work for them. You will lose a lot of people's respect if you insist on taking shortcuts that hurt the snakes because you don't want to do the work to gain the real skills. There are many easy to learn handling techniques and safety tools that take most of the risk out of keeping venomous snakes. Start reading here and you'll see how easy it is to become a real venomous snake keeper.

Q. Venomoids suck. They shouldn't even be allowed to live. They aren't real snakes any more.
A. Blaming them for the abuse they suffered is a lot like calling a rape victim a whore. It's really not their fault, and these snakes deserve compassion and care. Some of them may need a veterinarian's help to survive the abuse they have been through. Click here to learn what you should do if you come across a venomoid snake.

 

Useful Links

Please consider signing the Venomoid Petition to help prevent this kind of animal cruelty.
Read more about the veterinary ethics of venomoid surgery.
Read what Hank Molt has to say about a venomoid atrocity at Hamburg.
How should we view and treat venomoids?
Find a qualified herp vet near you to discuss these issues with.
Perception of pain in reptiles
Bibliography of Pain and Analgesia in Herps
Reptile and Amphibian Pain and Analgesia
Anesthesia, Chemical Restraint and Pain Management in Venomous Snakes

 


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