Regurgitation and Vomiting in Snakes

A horrible looking, bad smelling half-digested rodent in your snake’s enclosure can be a distressing thing to see and even more distressing is when you see your snake moving its body in a reverse “S” shape in order to regurgitate or vomit its recently eaten prey item. Snakes eat much less often than other pets and us, so 2 or 3 regurgitated meals could lead to severe weight-loss and health problems. If your snake can’t keep its food down, there are a few important factors we need to look at which we will discuss in this article.

If your snake has thrown-up its food, first check whether it has regurgitated or vomited. Regurgitation is often a sign of poor husbandry whereas vomiting could possible indicate an underlying physical illness with your snake.

When a snake expels its meal immediately after ingestion, but before the food makes its way to its stomach, it’s called regurgitation. However, if a snake regurgitates food that’s partially digested in his stomach, it’s referred to as vomiting. In the reptile hobby both regurgitation and vomiting are referred to has regurgitation.

My snake regurgitated/vomited, what now?
Once you have discovered the bad smelling regurgitated or vomited prey item, the first thing you need to do is remove the snake from the enclosure. Once that is done clean out the cage and disinfect everything (we use F10 disinfectant for this). Reset the cage with new substrate and clean drinking water and then you can place the snake back in the enclosure. Once this is done the most important thing needs to be done and that is you need to mark the date of the regurgitation as you must not feed the snake again for another 14 days. We will talk more about this later. Now once that is done it is time to have a look at the possible causes of the regurgitation.

Common Cause of Regurgitation

Husbandry techniques have a significant impact on the digestive health in snakes and temperature is the key factor when it comes to your snake being able to digest its food correctly. Basically, if your temperature is too cold your snake will not be able to carry out the many processes involved in normal digestion. If the food item remains in the snake’s stomach, it will rot and then act as a medium for bacterial growth. The snake’s body protects it against this by vomiting up the food when the environmental temperature drops below a certain level.

Then on the other extreme it can be too hot. When you have a spike in temperature which can happen if you have a very hot day and you do not have a temperature controller to control the heat of you heat pad or heat bulb it can get too hot in your snake’s enclosure which can then cause your snake to stress and regurgitate their meal.

Remember sudden fluctuation in temperature can also cause regurgitation so make sure to also check that you don’t have any sudden changes in temperature in your snake’s enclosure.

So the first thing you need to do is check your snakes temperature and make sure it is correct for the species you are keeping. Make sure to use an accurate thermometer or infra-temperature gun to check the temperatures and if they are not correct do what is necessary to correct them. Keep in mind that a temperature gradient is also important for your snake. You need to make sure your snake has a hot spot and a cool area in its enclosure.

Handling snakes too soon after eating is the second major cause of regurgitation. After a snake eats in the wild, its normal pattern of behavior includes finding a secluded spot to stay for a few days, where it can rest and digest its meal. During this time, it will display very little activity.

If the animal gets stressed of startled, such as by a potential predator, a full stomach makes fight or flight difficult. It then regurgitates its food item, thus evacuating its stomach, which makes activity much easier.

The solution is equally as simple. Leave the snake alone, that is, do not handle it, for a few days after feeding. Some snake species like to soak in water for a few days after a meal, so be sure to provide a water container large enough for the animal to coil up within.

Too much food or a meal that is too large.
If your snake is fed multiple prey items or if your snake is fed a meal that is too large for him to handle, this could result in your snake regurgitating. Their stomach may not be able to handle the size of the prey item and to prevent any risk of the food decaying they then vomit it all out. Some species of snake can handle larger prey items than others and some can handle two meals at a time. It is important to check with other snake keepers to properly understand how much and how big a meal you must be feeding your snake. Generally, snakes should be fed prey that is no larger than 1 1/2 times the size of the snake’s body diameter.

I would say that these three causes account for approximately 90 percent of the vomiting/regurgitation problems seen in snakes. These are easily diagnosed. A thorough examination of your husbandry and management practices should reveal the problem areas. If you have questions, have an expert review your situation.

After marking the date of the regurgitation, it is very important to now wait 14 days before you try and feed again. Go through all the factors described in this article make sure everything is correct and then after 14 days you can feed again. This two-week period allows your snake to rebuild its digestive enzymes and good stomach bacteria so that it can once again digest its prey item without any issues. If you feed again too soon after a regurgitation it will then just result in another regurgitation and your snake will start to deteriorate and lose weight. During this 14 day period you can also provide your snake with a probiotic treatment in their water to help them gain good stomach bacteria and electrolytes, we like to use the Ultimate Exotics Repti-Boost which has been especially formulated for this. After the14 days when you feed again make sure to feed a smaller size prey item which will allow your snake to easily digest it and regain its strength and allow its stomach to start working properly again. After it has eaten this prey item and digested it without any issues your normal feeding routine can continue.

If your snake continues to regurgitate even after you have made sure everything is correct and you have waited the 14 days then there could be other issues that are more serious and these possible causes make up the remaining 10 percent of regurgitation/vomiting cases. There are several diseases that can cause a snake to vomit or regurgitate shortly after taking a meal. The exact mechanisms are beyond the scope of this article, but some of the causes can include bacteria, fungal infections, viruses, parasites, obstructions, cancer, kidney, liver and pancreatic diseases, and brain damage. The diagnosis of some of these conditions can be as simple as examining a routine fecal sample or as intricate as performing elaborate laboratory tests or even an MRI. Unfortunately, some of these latter tests can be quite costly.

An example of a common parasite that causes regurgitation in snakes is frequently seen in corn snakes, an organism called cryptosporidiosis. This can be difficult to diagnose at times, and interpreting the tests results can be confusing. Worse, there is no treatment currently available and the disease is contagious to other reptiles. If you have a herp that has been diagnosed with cryptosporidiosis, it is imperative that you follow strict quarantine procedures so that other animals in your collection do not get sick.

With keeping multiple snakes at times you might find a snake may regurgitate or vomit for no known reason and all its environmental conditions have been double-checked and are perfect. It does happen and as long as you wait the 14 days and then continue feeding all will be okay. The best advice for owners of vomiting snakes is to critically evaluate your husbandry practices. As mentioned, it may be worth having someone with experience assess your management and housing. If the problem cannot be readily identified, then a visit to your local reptile veterinarian should follow as soon as possible. When caught in time, many of these diseases can be treatable.

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