Veterinary Ethics: What About Venomoids?
Venomoid surgery is a painful and invasive cosmetic procedure that has no health benefits to the patient. It can ethically be compared to declawing or removing the canine teeth from wolves or big cats so that they may be kept as "harmless" household pets without secure housing or good safety protocols. Many veterinarians are unwilling to perform these kinds of procedures for ethical and liability reasons, and they are completely illegal in the UK. For more basic information on venomoids, read the Venomoid FAQ.
The unfortunate reality in the reptile pet market today is that most venomoid procedures are carried out by amateur profiteers who perform these operations without appropriate pain relieving drugs and in many cases without sterile surgical equipment. Makeshift "surgical" tools from hardware and craft stores are used by these unlicensed amateurs. These animals may be shipped off for immediate and profitable sale rather than being allowed to recover. Appropriate postoperative medication and treatment (eg, antibiotics and debriedment) is lacking. There is a high mortality rate, and in some cases the amateur attempt at gland removal may be incomplete, resulting in an animal that can still envenomate. In some cases, especially when ductectomy is performed or when some gland tissue is left behind in an adenectomy, full or partial regeneration may occur.
There are serious ethical concerns about this procedure even when it is done professionally. When it is performed by unlicensed amateurs for profit, the operation is both illegal and ethically unacceptable. The photo to the left shows severe stomatitis in a green mamba after a crude defanging attempt.
Some apologists have compared the procedure to spaying or neutering, but it is not comparable. Neutering can have significant health and longevity benefits to the mammalian patient as well as addressing humane concerns about the birth of more animals which may not recieve adequate care. No veterinarian will refuse to do a spay or a neuter, and some volunteer their time at humane shelters to do this good service for patients who do not have paying owners. Many veterinarians will refuse to perform cosmetic or owner-benefit only procedures such as declawing, debarking or decorative ear piercing. The ethics of the former procedure are well accepted; the ethics of the latter type of procedure are considered highly questionable in the veterinary profession.
Venomous snakes may be handled and housed safely by experienced keepers who have taken the time to acquire the appropriate tools and skills. Even the relatively unskilled zookeeper may use specially designed safety equipment and sedative drugs if necessary to handle venomous snakes with very little direct hands-on contact or risk. Chopping pieces off of the snakes as a quick shortcut substitute for learned skills and safety tools is both unethical and unnecessary to ensure human safety.
Oral surgery on a venomous snake is not likely to be a pain free situation even when a licensed veterinarian undertakes it using appropriate equipment and a proper schedule of pain medication. The oral cavity in snakes is very well innervated, just as it is in mammals. A snake that is in pain responds differently than a snake that isn't, sometimes in a clinically measurable way. There is no question that snakes do feel pain. They suffer during post-op recovery, even when medication is given to minimize their discomfort. If the pain is bad enough, there are observable clinical effects including differences in the way these animals respond to medication.
One mamba with a shattered and protruding jaw took more than ten times the standard dose of Diazepam without slowing down. Response to isoflurane induction was also delayed and caused potentially injurious struggle, so we induced with propofol. Other animals of the same species and heavier body weight are effectively sedated at less than a tenth of the dose she was given. After several weeks of healing and regular pain medication, this animal stopped showing behavioral signs of pain and was easily sedated for follow-up radiographs with a standard dose of the benzodiazepene. Pain relief does appear to contribute significantly to the recovery process. Patients resume normal behaviors such as voluntary feeding and basking much sooner postoperatively with appropriate pain relieving medications.
Consider the analogy of a human in a hospital after an operation - there is some pain, even with the best efforts of doctors to keep the patient as pain free as possible. Many veterinarians do not make a practice of giving pain medications to reptiles, though the recent trends in research are urging vets to add this humane protocol to their reptile practice.
The venomoid operation is a painful and invasive procedure with no health benefit to the patient. I do not see sufficient ethical justification in very many situations for subjecting an animal to this operation. It is the keeper's responsibility to care for the animal in a way that is appropriate and humane for the animal and safe for the keeper. If the skill or equipment to do this properly is lacking, the animal should not be kept.
Read the Venomoid