What is Inclusion Body Disease?
Inclusion body disease in snakes is a fatal disease to be sure. It has primarily been found in boas and pythons, though boas can carry the disease with few symptoms for many years while pythons will expire much more quickly when infected. It is communicable via body fluids and, while little is known about its prevalence in the wild, it is a major concern for captive pet boid snakes both here and abroad due to the popularity of transportation of pet snakes to and from differing zoological locations.
Inclusion body disease is a contagious disease which gets its name from the large and unusual “inclusions” which are seen in the cells of the diseased animals -- specifically found in boa constrictors and pythons.
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Symptoms of Inclusion Body Disease in Snakes
Inclusion body disease is progressive and ultimately fatal to snakes, being found in a number of species but most commonly found in boas and pythons. The symptoms you will likely note in your pet boa or python will be neurological in nature and you’ll likely note things like:
- Refusal or reluctance to eat (anorexia) and weight loss
- Regurgitation of their meals
- “Stargazing” - a behavior in snakes in which they raise their heads and twist the neck to enable them to gaze at the sky for long periods of time
- Difficulty righting itself when turned over
- Loss or coordination
- Inability to strike at or constrict its prey
- Neurologic symptoms in young animals can result in paralysis
- Inability to shed due to the loss of coordination and inability to move normally
Inclusion body disease (IBD) is a disease, as noted above, that has been found in many snake species, but is most common in boas with pythons being a more abnormal host. There are no specific “types” of inclusion body disease which is considered one of the most serious diseases affecting captive pet snakes all over the world.
When the disease is contracted by a boa, the disease can be active in the snake with few or even no symptoms for months before the condition progresses to its ultimately fatal stage. For the python, however, it is quite a different story. In the python, the disease process usually presents (or shows clinical signs) when it is in the acute stage, making the neurological signs and symptoms more significant or profound. While the boa can survive for months with disease signs and symptoms, the python will expire within days or weeks of clinical signs being noted.
Causes of Inclusion Body Disease in Snakes
Research has not yet found the definitive cause of inclusion body disease but researchers and scientists continue to look into the various viruses which have been found closely associated with the disease. This is what we do know about inclusion body disease and what may be causing it:
- A retrovirus was initially thought to be the cause of the disease
- An arenavirus has recently also been found to be associated with many cases
- Boas are considered to be the most likely host due to the number of boas in which the disease has been found
- Boas can become infected and “harbor” or carry the virus for years with very few, if any at all, clinical signs, while the python will be in an acute stage when conditions present and will expire within days or weeks
- Early signs will likely include things like anorexia, weight loss, secondary bacterial infections, decreased wound healing, necrosis (death) of skin tissue
- Acute signs include an increase in white blood cells in the blood while having a normal blood chemistry otherwise (there are only few diseases in snakes which cause elevated white blood cells)
- As the disease progresses, white blood cells are reduced to suboptimal levels while other components of the blood chemistry begin to fluctuate depending on the deteriorating condition of the snake
- As acute stage progresses, some of the other neurological symptoms noted could be facial tics, abnormal flicking of the tongue and seizures
Diagnosis of Inclusion Body Disease in Snakes
The diagnosis of this disease will be done primarily by pathological assessment. A complete history will likely be required of you and a thorough physical examination of your snake will be required by your veterinary professional. Your vet will need to do blood work and most likely a liver sample will also need to be collected. The blood sample and the liver sample will be sent to a laboratory where a pathologist will run the blood chemistry panel and will further evaluate the samples of blood and liver by looking at them under a microscope to ascertain the presence of the large and unusual “inclusion” bodies in the cells. Inclusion bodies are not always found in every sample, but finding them is an absolute requirement for diagnosis, making it sometimes necessary to obtain and test additional samples.
Treatment of Inclusion Body Disease in Snakes
There is no treatment for inclusion body disease in your snake. Euthanasia is generally the best option for treatment at this time. Or, you may, of course, choose to isolate your diseased snake and provide love and palliative care to keep it comfortable until the end. Researchers are not completely sure how the disease is communicated but, at this juncture, it appears to be transmitted in body fluids. Some of the ways in which transfer by body fluids could occur are:
- Fight wounds
- Fecal and/or oral contamination
- Snake mites
This list of methods of transfer is not complete but these methods of transmission are considered the most common ways the disease can be transmitted, given the normal activities and behaviors of captive pet snakes. It is vital to know and understand that the disease is transmittable and, if you have other captive pet snakes, they, too, are at risk.
Recovery of Inclusion Body Disease in Snakes
There is no cure for inclusion body disease in your snake. If and when your captive pet snake is infected, it is always going to be fatal. As also noted above, not all infected snakes are in an active state of the disease but, if they are infected, they should be kept away from otherwise healthy animals in your environment to avoid further infection of animals. Any infected snakes or even their offspring should not be offered for sale or transported as the infection can be passed through the birthing process to offspring. Other prevention techniques could include:
- Careful handling of your pet snakes will require hand washing after contact with them
- PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) testing of all newly received snakes in your environment - This test that analyzes samples of tissue for DNA or RNA to ascertain its pathogenic organism (testing for positive or negative IBD)
- Quarantining of new additions for a period of 3 to 6 months regardless of age
- Housing your animals in species-appropriate housing and environments
- Monitor the various animals weights, feeding and shedding times
These are steps that you can take to assure your captive pet snake(s) remain healthy and happy.