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Health Care

No matter how well you care for your snake, health problems will occur sometime throughout their lives. Knowing how to spot, diagnose, and treat these problems is key to keeping your snake healthy in the long run!

First thing's first, before you even went out and acquired your pet, you should have taken a look around your area and found a good herp vet. They may not be in all places, but it's important to know where you can go or who you can call in an emergency. If you bought your snake from a breeder, they can also provide valuable help when problems arise. Wildlife rehabilitators who are familiar with garter snakes, and local zoos can even offer help. Make sure you've got your options covered!

Second, you need to set up a hospital tank. This is an area where your garter can recover in a sanitary and stress-free environment. Line the bottom of a tank with an easily-changable substrate like paper towels or newspaper, and provide bare essentials such as water, heat, light, and cover. If your snake has been struck by a disease or parasites, take the opportunity to completely sanitize and clean its normal tank while it stays in the hospital one.

Below is a short list of problems that are common to garter snakes. This list is not all-inclusive and should not be used as a be-all and end-all for snake treatment. This listing is to help you become aware of what to look for in health problems, and how to provide first aid to injured snakes.

Burns/wounds: Burns can sometimes occur from broken heat rocks or exposed heat lamps. Wounds can be inflicted from a variety of sources, including falling on sharp objects in a tank, attack by a wild animal, or being run over by a car. In either case, immediate first aid should include washing the affliction with a non-stinging antibacterial solution, and then applying an ointment such as Neosporin to keep out germs. Gauze bandages can also be taped to the snake's body, but these must be changed often as they get dirty, wet, or torn off. Deep wounds and burns should be referred to a vet so that the wounds can be stitched up, and the snake can be treated with antibiotics to prevent infection.

Broken bones: Since snakes are almost all ribs, it is common for fractures to occur if the snake has experienced trauma such as an animal attack or being hit by a car. Broken ribs are often successfully completely healed with just a little TLC, and the snake lives as normal. Broken vertebrae are a more serious matter, and often occur with serious trauma. It is not uncommon to find snakes that have been rehabilitated from such injuries, and even though they have no use of some back part of their bodies, they can still live full and normal lives if their owners give them extra care. Because broken bones can sometimes bely greater internal injury, it is recommended that you get the injured snake to a vet.

Parasites (external): External parasites such as mites and ticks are found almost purely on wild-caught animals, although may also come on snakes from careless breeders. These can be cured quite easily as long as you're thorough. Large ticks can be carefully picked off with tweezers, while mites can be irradicated with the use of antiparasitic washes. Products useful for this purpose can be obtained from a good pet supply store, or a vet. When in a pinch, light dabbings with alcohol and then a good bath will help.

Parasites (internal): Much harder to spot and cure than their external cousins, these parasites are mostly worms that inhabit the snake's digestive tract. You may see symptoms of malnutrition and poor muscle tone in bad cases, but your first clue should be finding the worms or eggs in your snake's excrement. Medicines to treat worms are available through a vet's office. Internal parasites are often caused by what your snake eats. Make sure its food sources are from sanitary dealers.

Fungal infections: Can be both internal and external. External fungus is most often a direct result of an environment that is too humid. Clean the fungus off with an antiseptic solution, make sure that your snake's tank is dry except for its water dish, and keep a close watch on your animal. Internal fungus is most often caused by food rotting inside of the stomach. This often happens when your snake eats a fungus-infested prey item, or its digestive system shuts down due to brumation. Internal fungus is also very hard to spot, and symptoms will most likely be behavioral, such as decreased activity, poor muscle tone, clear or loose stools, or lack of appetite. In extreme cases, skin discoloration will occur in the stomach area, which means that the fungus is actually eating away at the tissue and is dissolving the digestive system. In this case, get your snake to a vet!

Mouthrot: This is a nasty fungal infection that targets the mouth. If you see swelling of the lip scales, white-colored ulcers, or your snake salivating a yellowish saliva, this is most likely the cause. Particulary troublesome to get rid of, these require treatment by swabbing with an antiseptic solution daily for two to three weeks. A vet can recommend a proper medication.

Respiratory infection: If your snake appears to be wheezing, has bubbles or froth coming from the nose or mouth, or otherwise has trouble breathing, these are signs of a respiratory infection. These are brought about by several factors, including fungus and humidity levels. Get your snake to a vet to find out the culprit.

Regurgitating food: Many snakes regurgitate food every once and a while. This becomes a real problem when it's chronic. A snake regurgitating its food after swallowing can be a sign of digestive system troubles, a dislike for the prey item, or a stress overload. This is why snakes should not be handled for a while after they are eaten. Try switching types of prey, and if the behavior continues, see a vet.

Impaction: This very dangerous situation occurs when a foreign object, most often a piece of substrate, is swallowed along with food and blocks the digestive tract, usually towards the anal end of things. Unable to eliminate its waste, the snake is killed by its body's own toxins. Some small impactions can be fixed by gently pushing the impacted object back up and out of the throat, but this should only be done immediately after the object has been swallowed. Veternary assistance is best in this case, as too much poking and prodding can seriously injure your snake. You also need to make sure that your snake's food will be free of substrate from then on.

Thiamine deficiency, loss of coordination, "death rolling": The 'death roll' is a phrase often used with crocodiles and alligators, describing how they will grip onto large prey and then spin their bodies in complete circles to rip off a chunk of flesh. Similar motions can occur in garters, but this is not associated with eating and actually a symptom of a major problem. It means that your snake is deficient in B vitamins, due to a diet too heavy in fish that contain thiaminase. It is recommended that you immediately administer reptile vitamins with a changed prey item such as pinkie mice. Prolonged thiamine deficiency is fatal.

Shedding troubles: Sometimes snakes, especially older ones, have trouble shedding their skin. Soaking them in water or letting them spend time in a tank with damp towels often solves the problem, as well as providing your snake with rough surfaces to rub the skin off on. Be sure and pay attention when your snake sheds, and make sure the eyecaps are shed as well. If they are not, the snake's vision can be impared until the next shed occurs.

This page was created to give advice, not serious medical treatment instructions. I'm not a veterinarian, nor do I guarantee that any of the tips above will work to cure your snake. When in doubt, go to a professional!

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