Mouth rot is a common infection in pet snakes and it can have multiple causes. If left untreated, mouth rot can be a very serious—not to mention painful—condition. The infection initially affects the soft tissue but can involve the bone in more serious situations. Because of this, it's important for you to know what mouth rot is, how to prevent it, how to recognize it, and what to do if you think your snake has it.
What Is Mouth Rot?
Mouth rot is also known as infectious stomatitis and is an infection of the mouth of a snake or other type of reptile. Bacteria such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Morganella morganii are often found in mouth rot infections. Other types of bacteria or even fungus such as Aspergillus sp. can also be cultured in or around the mouth cavity.
Symptoms of Mouth Rot in Snakes
Though your snake may have symptoms indicating mouth rot, take your pet to the veterinarian because there may be another underlying cause of mouth rot that needs to be uncovered. Here are the common symptoms of mouth rot:
Loss of Appetite
Since mouth rot can cause pain and inflammation in the mouth, a snake will not want to eat or have a decrease in appetite as the infection worsens.
If loss of appetite occurs, the snake may lose weight and the spine may become more prominent.
Discharge or Bleeding Around the Mouth
Blood, mucus, or pus are commonly seen around the mouth and if you open your snake's mouth, it may also be present inside. Pus in reptiles looks more like cottage cheese than a fluid and it may also be pink if it is mixed with blood.
A foul smell is also not uncommon due to the bacteria that are present, as well as from any pus-filled lesions.
The mouth of a snake will become red, inflamed, and as a result, swollen when it has this disease. The snake may also have small blister-like lesions inside or around the oral cavity making the area swollen.
It is not normal behavior for a snake to breathe with an open mouth. If the infection and swelling are severe enough, the snake will begin to breathe with its mouth open.
Causes of Mouth Rot
Mouth rot is usually not a primary disease but is typically the result of another problem. It's also not contagious on its own. Some of the most common causes of mouth rot include:
- Coexisting disease (such as mites or cancer)
- Poor nutrition
- Mouth trauma (bites, aggressive rubbing on cage)
- Compromised immune system
- Stress from overcrowding
- Unsanitary housing conditions
- Inappropriate environmental temperature or humidity
Diagnosing Mouth Rot in Snakes
If you suspect your snake has mouth rot, visit the veterinarian as soon as possible. The doctor will look for signs of underlying problems during the physical examination and discuss potential causes in case it is something that needs to be corrected at home.
To diagnose the type of infection your snake may have cytology and/or a culture of the mouth discharge may be collected. Cytology will confirm the presence of bacteria or fungus as well as blood, while a culture will determine what kind of bacteria or fungus is present. Since so many different types of bacteria and fungus can cause mouth rot, a culture may be necessary to have completed prior to prescribing medications for treatment.
Depending on the severity of the mouth rot, the following treatments are typically administered:
- Gently washing or rinsing the area with medicated solutions
- Removal of dead tissue
- Topical creams
- Injectable antibiotics
- Surgery (severe cases)
If the cause of the mouth rot is known, you may then need to correct potential care or environmental issues. Additionally, UVB lighting and vitamin supplementation may be recommended to aid in healing, and removal of bedding that could potentially stick to the mouth sores will help keep the wounds clean.
Prognosis for Snakes With Mouth Rot
Snakes treated promptly for mild cases of mouth rot experience a good outcome. If the mouth rot is advanced and the result of a serious underlying cause, such as cancer, the infection may become fatal for the snake.
How to Prevent Mouth Rot
To prevent mouth rot from developing in your snake, you should provide a proper environment and diet at all times. Here are tips on taking the right husbandry precautions to prevent mouth rot:
- Ideal temperature: Make sure that the temperature gradient and humidity levels in the enclosure are appropriate for the specific type of snake.
- Cleaner cage: Keep the enclosure clean. If a snake is forced to live in an inappropriate or unsanitary environment, its skin may become unhealthy and its immune system could become compromised.
- More space: Avoid overcrowding in the enclosure because that will reduce your snake's level of stress. A crowded, stressed snake may begin to rub its nose and mouth on the cage which could cause trauma to the area and result in an infection. Lowering the stress level of your pet can help keep your snake's immune system working the best it can and prevent mouth rot from developing.
- Safer food: Feed your snake pre-killed prey, especially if your snake eats rodents. Feeding your snake live prey may result in bites or scratches on your snake. These wounds could contribute to the development of mouth rot. Pre-killed prey items are safest and can be offered to your snake with feeding tongs and other enticing methods.
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Snake Health 101. Reptiles Magazine.
Mustafa S, Popova T. Enterobacter agglomerans - a cause of stomatitis in a snake. Tradition and Modernity in Veterinary Medicine. 2017;2(1):39-44