Constipation in Reptiles

Constipation in reptiles is not always a common problem but can happen from time to time. If not dealt with correctly it could lead to more serious health problems that will be much more difficult for your reptile to overcome.

Constipation is generally the condition in which faeces in the colon are difficult to pass. This can be brought about by a number of reasons. Diet is certainly an issue in many species and diet is one of the major causes in mammals. For example, when a snake is fed thawed frozen food, there is sometimes less water present in the food than in its natural state. Since snakes get most of their water intake from food in nature, the faeces are drier than usual and can cause a blockage. Also, if the temperature in the snake’s environment is lower than it should be for the species, the snake may take to conserving its heat deep within its body to enable it to function. This will ‘cook’ the faeces in the gut, again causing it to harden and be difficult to pass. Low environmental humidity will also have a similar effect. Most snakes will continue to eat when constipated until the gut is so full it quite literally won’t take any more. At this point the snake is very ill indeed, but hopefully the careful owner will have already spotted its distress and will have taken it to the vet. Snakes that do not move around much like Green Tree Pythons, Emerald Tree Boas and Rhino Vipers have been known to suffer from constipation due to lack of environmental stimulation and incorrect environmental requirements and over feeding. If this is not dealt with correctly it will lead to a prolapse.

In reptiles, one of the most common causes is dehydration. Water is absorbed by the colon and the lack of water causes the colon to absorb a large amount of water from the faeces. This results in a dry faecal mass that is difficult to pass through the rectum or cloaca. Mammals and reptiles suffer from this form of constipation. If an animal is producing dry faeces the first thing to do is to increase the availability of water. If this is unsuccessful in alleviating the problem, the diet must be looked at. In many reptiles, the diet is not an easy issue. Snakes are carnivores and strictly so. Therefore it would seem there is little that can be done to alter the diet, but this is not the case. In the case of snakes or similar animals that devour their prey whole or in its entirety, the diet can be altered by altering the diet of the prey. Fibre can be introduced by allowing the prey species to eat a high fibre diet before feeding it to the predator. The stomach and intestinal contents will be ingested by the snake and the fibre in the gut of the mouse will be incorporated into the faeces of the snake. Fibre acts like a sponge and increases the water retention of the faecal mass and allows easier passage. Bran can be given to the prey to accomplish this. Constipation is uncomfortable, but usually not life threatening if treated. If left untreated, the constipation can progress to the next stages. In summary, the following outlines are provided.

Top 10 causes of constipation in order of consideration:

  • Dehydration;
  • Lack of fibre in the diet and/or poor diet quality;
  • Enteric parasites;
  • Traumatic injury to the pelvic canal;
  • Enteric neoplasia;
  • Renal disease with enlargement from nephritis, urolithosis or neoplasia;
  • Presence of eggs;
  • Abscesses or granulomas;
  • Nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism leading to collapse of the pelvic canal;
  • Calcium deficiency leading to presumptive ineffective peristaltic motion in the gut or generalized muscle weakness.

Mild clinical signs of constipation:

  • Straining to defecate;
  • Lethargy;
  • Irritability – more snappy or more prone to bite;
  • Fresh stools are drier and/or harder than normal;
  • Stools are larger than normal.

Moderate clinical signs of constipation:

  • Appetite loss;
  • Increased lethargy;
  • Lack of consistent faecal deposition in the cage.

Treatment of constipation

The first thing to understand is that constipation is generally a symptom of a larger problem. The best treatment is good diet and regular veterinary care.

  • Gut load prey items with fibre containing foods or feed greens and Psyllium;
  • Make a dilute Psyllium solution and give with dropper;
  • Soak the snake for fifteen minutes in warm water. This will soften any faeces blocking the ‘exit’ and will hopefully allow it to pass. It will also relax the snake, making passing a painful stool easier. Stools can become so hard that they are called ‘fecoliths’ – faecal stones. Often treatment can be as simple as adjusting the environment; making it warmer and damper. Looking at the bedding is a good place to start. Some materials tend to soak up atmospheric water and make the air too dry. Handling the snake – where appropriate – may also help a semi-hard stool to pass.

These should be done to end the current bout of constipation, and fibre in the diet should be maintained from then on. Giving a light dusting of psyllium powder can work, but it is better to make a dilute psyllium solution and spray it on the food and allow to dry. This can be done long term and help keep your reptile regular.

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