STAR GAZERS DISEASE (Notes from the 10th Annual JCVMA Continuing Education Seminar) August 21-23, 1998
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STAR GAZERS DISEASE (Notes from the 10th Annual JCVMA Continuing Education Seminar) August 21-23, 1998

Douglas R. Mader MS, DVM, ABVP


"Star Gazer's Disease" is a lay term used to describe any disease in a snake where the affected individual displays a typical posture with its head arched back, the spine usually coiled, and having a blank stare off to nowhere This is notoriously associated with a fatal nervous system disease, but exactly what causes the disease is never specified

In fact, this "Star gazing,"' is a sign that can be associated with several diseases. Currently, perhaps the most common disease fitting this description seen in the herp community is the Inclusion Body Disease Virus of boid snakes (IBDV). Although the cause is still not know for sure, research being conducted by Dr Elliott Jacobson and colleagues at the University of Florida suggests that the IBDV is caused by a Retrovirus Unfortunately, Retroviruses, like so many viruses, are not treatable, and, in this case, can be highly contagious to other animals in the same colony.

Red tailed boas are the species typically associated with the disease, and, it is believed that the RTB's may be the natural carriers of the virus. Affected animals usually start out showing signs of regurgitation, but, as the disease progresses, develop neurological disease including head tremors, disorientation (star gazing) and paralysis Pythons don't regurgitate, but will show neurological signs as mentioned for boas, but, the signs seem to be more pronounced. Regardless of the species, the ultimate outcome is death.

Another reptilian disease commonly associated with neurological signs is paramyxovirus. Although more often associated with respiratory disease, head tremors, disorientation and failure to right itself may also be observed in affected snakes. Paramyxovirus has been reported in many species of snakes, although, the vipers appear to be the most commonly affected.

In addition to the mentioned infectious causes of star gazing, there are other, non-infectious causes of these signs that must be considered. Toxic reactions to certain poisons, such as No-pest strips or organophosphates, commonly used for treatment of mites, are a good example.

Antemortem diagnosis, especially in the Pythoninae, is elusive. The clinical signs of regurgitation, anorexia, dysecdysis, pneumonia, stomatitis and CNS involvement are not specific to any one disease, and can in fact result from numerous causes such as CNS neoplasia, bacterial, protozoal and fungal encephalitis/myelitis toxicity's, metabolic disturbances and vestibular disorders, to name a few. Although the prognosis for these conditions is guarded in most cases, it is not in all, and some conditions are treatable.

It is imperative that the owners of snakes affected with IBDV, or any sort of Stargazing, are thoroughly educated regarding the seriousness of the possible causes. This is especially relevant to those owners with more than one animal, or more importantly, with large collections, as the introduction of such a pathogen to a colony can be devastating.

However, to the owner interested in "trying everything," supportive care, including IV catheters, appropriate antibiotics, balanced electrolytes and nutritional support should be attempted. A grave prognosis should be given, preferable in writing, and above all, the animal must remain in the strictest of quarantine during attempts at therapy. I have seen two pythons with histories and clinical signs suggestive of IBDV recover after 30 and 45 days of such treatment, and remain well after a one year follow up. There is no way of knowing whether these animals were affected by the IBDV, and most likely were not, but, if they were euthanatized based solely on presumptive diagnosis, they would not be around to wonder about, either.

All rights reserved by Douglas R. Mader. Printed in the United States of America. Original Edition 1998.

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All rights reserved by Edward M. Craft. Printed in the United States of America. Original Edition 1997