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Vomiting Vs. Regurgitation In Snakes

This article is to describe the differences between regurgitation and vomiting for the benefit of troubleshooting problems with a snake, before a symptom becomes a problem.

Vomiting Vs. Regurgitation In Snakes

Regurgitation and vomiting usually go hand in hand when it comes to keeping snakes, and hopefully, it can be avoided at all costs. There are significant differences between the terms. The purpose of this article is to describe the differences between regurgitation and vomiting for the benefit of troubleshooting problems with a snake well before a symptom becomes a problem.

Most of the time, you can tell the difference between regurgitation and vomiting because regurgitation happens soon after prey is eaten. Vomiting happens hours and even days after a prey item is eaten. Regurgitation typically occurs when food is expelled from the esophagus, and is undigested most of the time. Vomitus, however, occurs when the prey is expelled from the stomach, with the prey usually being partially digested. Nevertheless, it may sometimes be difficult to distinguish which of these two processes is occurring.

Some of the probable causes are listed (but not limited to):

Handling too much or too soon after feeding
Increased stress before, during or after feeding
Improper husbandry practices
Eating a meal backward (toe to head)
Foreign body obstruction
Infections of various kinds
Bacteria infested environment (dirty cages)
Over-drinking after eating
Prey consumption that is too large, old, toxic, or offered too frequently
Inadequate hydration (under-hydration)
Inadequate temperatures for digestion

The most normal cause of regurgitation is improper ambient temperatures for digestion. If the heat provided is not adequate for digestion, the prey item will rot in the snake's stomach. Hence, the item must be purged. Raising or lowering the temperature sharply may also stimulate a purge.

If you have a snake that regurgitates, the temperature is the first thing to check. Sometimes there is too much action or movement around a snake's cage, and this may cause stress and regurgitation. Another possibility is when another reptile is introduced to the snake's environment.

The new snake may not even necessarily need to be placed in the same cage, but perhaps in view may be enough to cause stress. (Too much action/movement is a very common cause of stress with certain lizards.)

Note: "Constant disturbances and other factors that cause stress will also deplete a snake's immune system, leaving them susceptible to disease, or sickness in general. If snakes are housed together, this can escalate the spread of disease very quickly. That is why this writer recommends housing every snake separately if possible, and especially not housing any differing subspecies together."

Many times, regurgitation is nothing to worry about if it happens quickly. This refers to the regurgitation happening soon after the meal has been ingested.

Another very common cause of regurgitation is when a prey item is simply too big for the snake to handle. Just like people, snakes can also have eyes that are bigger than their stomachs. Ever feel very full after Thanksgiving dinner? If a snake feels that way, chances are it won't stand for it, and will simply regurgitate the item.

Feeding snakes very frequently may also lead to regurgitation. Sometimes, there is just not enough room in the stomach to digest. You'll find that many snakes will continually accept prey items that you will give them. However, just because a snake "eats and eats" does not mean it is healthy to keep feeding it. It is good to have a snake that regularly eats, but a regular feeding schedule is encouraged.

Over-feeding your snake, referred to as "power feeding" is actually detrimental to the snakes health and can decrease the snakes overall lifespan. A snake that grows rapidly from power-feeding is not the picture of health that many ignorant owners believe. The increased growth rate is a result of the increased consumption of protein. Many power-fed snakes exhibit stunted growth and become obese. A healthy feeding schedule consists of one appropriately sized prey item every 7-10 days for most snakes. Larger meals given to larger snakes can go as long as 2-3 weeks between feedings.

Overfeeding a snake may lead to obesity, constipation, stunted growth and more. If you've ever seen a snake pass hardened stool, it's constipated. The best defense is regular soaking of the snake, although the causes of constipation tend to be humidity levels that are too low, impaction, or lack of exercise, in most cases. If a snake needs to pass stool, for example, and the cage temperatures and humidity are not within ideal range, the snake may actually sit near the heat source long enough to warm its internal fecal matter in order to help with its defecation.

We have established that throwing up a prey item hours or even days after it has been eaten is called vomiting (Vomitus). When a snake vomits, there's a very good chance that it has to do with an internal problem. For example, a cage that is not cleaned regularly will certainly allow bacteria to thrive. Many times, vomiting is due to a large presence of bacteria in a cage (especially in water that is not changed regularly) or on a prey item. It may look questionable if this happens and everything else appears to be okay, but bacteria are too small to see, and examining cage cleanliness (as well as cleaning and disinfecting it well) is the first thing to address. If you suspect any other type of parasite, or if vomiting happens more than one time, and it is clearly not regurgitation, I would recommend immediately calling your reptile veterinarian for a checkup and taking stool samples with you.

The most effective way to make a vet visit if an internal parasite is suspected is to bring a stool sample with you when the snake provides you with one. Many times, veterinarians can not tell you what is happening with your reptile any more than you can unless they can examine what is in the snake's feces. (Use a seal-able plastic bag. They work well.) In fact, even a regular checkup at the veterinarian should include a fecal exam with the stool samples you provide. By providing stool samples to your vet at every visit, you will identify, eliminate, and even prevent parasitic harm to your snake. Other effective procedures done only by veterinarians to help identify parasites suspected from vomiting include biopsies, cultures, and sensitivity tests.

If you suspect anything out of the ordinary, seek a veterinarian's advice and educate yourself. Although there are procedures and treatment that only veterinarians can do, your own knowledge about your snake will certainly minimize your visits (and bills) to the veterinarian as well as help keep your snake healthy.

Attribution - Resources

Author: Todd Schaefer & Richard Brooks
Reptile Medicine and Surgery, Mader, 2006
What's Wrong with My Snake, John Rossi D.V.M., M.A. 1996
Boas, Doug Wagner, 1996