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What are Amebiasis?

Amebiasis is a serious, highly contagious disease in snakes that is caused by a parasitic infection. Occurring worldwide in snake colonies as well as in captivity, this parasitic disease often causes death in reptiles, such as lizards, snakes and sometimes tortoises. Amebiasis is caused by the most common parasitic protozoan known to appear in captive snakes, Entamoeba invadens (E. invadens). Upon infection with E. invadens, snakes often become ill with enteritis (inflammation of the intestine), hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) and, occasionally, nephritis (inflammation of the kidneys). Diarrhea may be severe and bloody, and the snake’s appetite will subside. Any attempts at eating may result in regurgitated food. The snake may appear depressed and lethargic. Without fast treatment including an amebicide such as metronidazole and subcutaneous fluids, snakes infected with the dangerous parasite may become deathly ill. While amebiasis is relatively simple to diagnose by fecal testing, awareness may come too late.  Unfortunately, amebiasis often results in morbidity. 

Reptiles that are most prone to amebiasis are meat-eaters; carnivorous snakes such as vipers, rattlesnakes, boas and colubrids are more susceptible to the disease than plant-eating snakes. For whatever reason, some reptiles such as garter snakes, eastern king snakes, cobras and turtles appear to be carriers of the disease, yet do not suffer from its symptoms. They are, however, responsible for spreading Entamoeba invadens either through direct reptile to reptile contact, or through the spreading of infected droppings in contaminated water. Unsound husbandry practices, such as holding the snake with unclean hands and using unsterile equipment, may also lead to the reptile becoming infected with a parasite. Reptiles thrive on a clean, sanitary environment and a nutritious diet to stay healthy. Make sure your food, particularly in the case of live feeding, comes directly from a well-known supplier. 

If you notice any of these symptoms in the snake and suspect a parasitic infection, wear gloves when handling the snake, and seek an immediate consultation with the reptile veterinarian. Take extreme care because amebiasis can spread to humans.

The protozoan parasite, E. invadens, causes a highly-contagious disease in captive snakes called amebiasis.

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Symptoms of Amebiasis in Snakes

  • Diarrhea (with blood and/or blue-green mucus)
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Lethargy
  • Excessive thirst (due to dehydration)

Causes of Amebiasis in Snakes

Amebiasis is a serious infection occurring in a reptile that is caused by the protozoan parasite, Entamoeba invadens. The snake becomes infected with the protozoa in one of the following ways:

  • Direct contact with infected reptiles
  • Contact with droppings of infected animals, usually through contaminated waterC
  • Contact with caretaker’s unwashed hands and/or equipment

Diagnosis of Amebiasis in Snakes

While other types of parasites infect reptiles, E. invadens is the primary cause of serious infections in snakes. Reptile veterinarians are very familiar with the parasite and typically recognize the resulting infection. 

Because clinical symptoms of amebiasis resemble those of other infections, it is difficult to obtain a definitive diagnosis without a microscopic examination of the feces or the use of the floatation/concentration procedure. 

The clinical symptoms that are most suggestive of amebiasis include blood and mucus in  diarrhea, as well as a complete loss of appetite. Anatomically, the veterinarian may be able to feel the colon due to extreme inflammation.  

In case of morbidity, diagnosis will be made at necropsy. The veterinarian may be able to spot lesions throughout the snake’s gastro-intestinal system, particularly in the small intestine and colon. Commonly, ulceration, bleeding and inflammation of some organs will be observed. If the infection was severe, the liver and kidneys may show signs of inflammation and discoloration.

Treatment of Amebiasis in Snakes

For a surviving snake, a veterinarian will likely prescribe metronidazole, which is the most common drug (antiprotozoal) for amoebiasis. Supportive medical treatment is often necessary to compensate for fluid loss caused by diarrhea and vomiting. The snake will typically be provided with sub-cutaneous fluids and multivitamins (to prevent visceral gout). It is important to isolate the snake from other reptiles.

Recovery of Amebiasis in Snakes

To maintain your reptile’s health, you must not only provide extremely hygienic living conditions, but also practice fastidious husbandry. Careful management of reptilian waste is essential to avoid contamination with E. invadens or other parasites. Observe frequent hand-washing and equipment/utensil disinfection, particularly when handling different reptiles. 

Ongoing maintenance might call for the use of insecticides to reduce instances of parasites carried by insect “transport hosts.” This must be discussed with a reptile specialist due to possibility of poisoning. 

Above all, remember that amebiasis is infectious and transmittable to humans. Remain vigilant when caring for a snake with a parasitic infection.