Updated: Sep 3
Many of the things we enjoy in life come with their own set of caveats, and herpetoculture is no exception. Where we find peace, comfort and happiness in the animals we keep, within that same space exists the inevitability of grief, loss and sadness that follows when sickness or death occurs in the animals we are so passionate about. While we have been able to significantly minimize the effects of disease and mortality in the captive setting, it can still find a way to creep up on us despite our best preventative efforts, as it did for my first pair of eastern indigos (Drymarchon couperi).
When I had welcomed home Blackjack and Roulette in February of 2020, I had no idea that I would be fighting for their lives for the next two years. From May 2020 until May of 2022, they would be battling a rather formidable opponent: snake fungal disease.
What is Snake Fungal Disease?
Snake fungal disease (SFD), formally known as ophidiomycosis, is an infectious and often fatal disease caused by the fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola. When a snake contracts snake fungal disease, they will eventually develop yellow, crusty ulcerations along their bodies, especially around their face, neck, and cloacal region. As the disease progresses, the snake will begin shedding at more frequent intervals, often entering another shed cycle only a couple days after finishing their previous shed cycle. In the earlier stages of the disease, the snake will appear completely healed after shedding, which can be deceiving at first – but without proper treatment, the disease will not simply go away on its own. Within two weeks after shedding, the ulcers and nodules reappear and become progressively worse over time, leaving the snake disfigured, weak and therefore vulnerable at all times.
However, what makes snake fungal disease so dangerous is that it is capable of invading far beyond the skin’s surface. The disease can infest the snake’s muscles, bones, eyes, liver and lungs, which can result in immunosuppression and, consequently, a plethora of secondary infections that predispose the snake to other forms of mortality. The disease also elicits strange, occasionally repetitive behaviors that would leave them even more vulnerable in the wild, such as resting for long periods of time in an open area.
The First Signs
The initial signs of many illnesses are often not the most obvious. Stealth is a valuable commodity in nature, and this is especially true with pathogens, who would prefer to lay dormant until the host is in a compromised state of vulnerability that allows the pathogen the most optimal opportunity to attack. Unfortunately, snake fungal disease has mastered this facet of evolution.
Blackjack and Roulette both exhibited strange behaviors consistent with snake fungal disease within the first couple weeks of their arrival. They would both spend extended periods of time resting on top of their hides, and after a few months, they would not move or react normally to movement for over 12 consecutive hours at a time. Having kept other species of the genus Drymarchon, it was apparent that their behavior was abnormal, and thankfully I had become aware of the signs and symptoms of snake fungal disease just months prior to bringing Blackjack and Roulette home. With that said, there is a relatively limited amount of information available on snake fungal disease, and most of the documented cases in North America were of wild snakes, particularly water snakes and rattlesnakes. While awareness of the disease began to spread, comprehensive information on how to actually treat snake fungal disease was nearly absent considering that it was – and still is – an affliction that is documented more in wild snakes than of those in captivity. For this reason, I had convinced myself that I was likely overthinking things, and concluded that they probably just needed more time to adjust to their new surroundings. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and I did not need to convince myself otherwise for very long. At the beginning of May of 2020, I discovered a small, yellow, crusty, ulcerative lesion on Roulette’s neck, and the battle against this horrific pathogen had begun.
Forming a Treatment Plan
After discovering the first lesion on Roulette, I immediately contacted our trusted herp veterinarian, Dr. Kimberly Buck. With such limited clinical research on snake fungal disease, we did not have a clear frame of reference on how to go about treating it safely and effectively. We formed our treatment plan using what little information we could find on snake fungal disease, then cross-referenced it with treatments used for fungal infections in other animals. We opted to administer the antifungal medication terbinafine, and we agreed that nebulizing the medication would be the most effective route of administration. Dr. Buck walked me through on how to prepare the solution, and I prepared a “nebulization chamber” for each of them using a plastic tub.
By the end of May, Roulette had developed several deep ulcerations along her entire body, with most clustered around her head, neck and tail region. Blackjack did not develop the disease as rapidly as Roulette, but both were already near critical condition due to weight loss and the upcoming onset of secondary infections. After having finally established a treatment plan for them, treatment for snake fungal disease began on June 8th of 2020.
The Conflicting Battle for Survival
Every night they were nebulized for 30 minutes. While they were being nebulized, their quarantine enclosures were thoroughly disinfected with chlorhexidine, and this became the routine for the next 30 days, when we planned to stop treatment and analyze their progress. Each night they would return to a barren quarantine enclosure on paper towels, and every night I’d beg them to forgive me for having to deprive them of the enrichment they deserved in order to save their lives. That was the worst part of it all – having to do everything I could to ensure they survived meant they had to live such a dull, confined existence until they fully recovered. I kept reminding myself that it was only temporary, but the fear that they would perish after having lived this way made for one of the most conflicting experiences I’ve had to face with our animals.
At first, they appeared to recover. I was elated that the treatment had worked. By mid-July, The secondary infections subsided and they began eating ravenously. September rolled along and the ulcerations healed up and stopped returning after each shed. By October of 2020, both appeared perfectly healthy, and even Roulette was able to heal with minimal scar tissue. After being free of symptoms for 6 months, in April of 2021, I was finally able to take them out of quarantine and place them in the spacious, enriching enclosures they deserved.
Then in May of 2021, I discovered lesions on Blackjack. Within that same week, Roulette followed suit, and we were right back at square one.
At this point, I couldn’t help but think that this scenario was just going to play out and repeat for the rest of their lives. Palliative care for an illness that can not be permanently treated, where you are only easing the suffering rather than eliminating it entirely. I thought they would never get to experience the enriching life I had planned to offer them, the life they deserved as such an amazing, intelligent species that I felt privileged to keep.
Identifying and Correcting Mistakes in Treatment
After I was able to take a step back, it became apparent to me that there were a lot of little mistakes I made along the way that I hadn’t realized until I got out of the “doom-and-gloom” mindset I was committed to. I hadn’t refrigerated the medication, I hadn’t prepared fresh batches of medication frequently enough, adjustments had to be made in the preparation of the medication – these are little details that I forgot or simply didn’t think of at the time that make a significant difference in the effectiveness of any medication.
With this in mind, I now had experience to move forward with, and we began the second round of treatment in May of 2021. In addition to the treatment adjustments previously mentioned, I opted to nebulize them for 45 minutes each night for 45 days, then begin slowly tapering off the medication for an additional 45 days. Treatment continued until July of 2021, and both Blackjack and Roulette remained in quarantine until they finally conquered snake fungal disease and were released from quarantine in January of 2022.
Winning the Battle
As of the date of this writing in August of 2023, I am happy to say that both Blackjack and Roulette have not exhibited symptoms of snake fungal disease since July of 2021, and both have consistently tested negative for snake fungal disease since May of 2022. They fought so hard against a battle that has been lost by many snakes before them, and seeing them not only survive, but come out the other side thriving has really shown me how resilient and strong these incredible animals are. They taught me a special kind of strength, and I hope they serve as an inspiration for others to believe in their own resiliency when the odds are stacked against them. It’s incredible what you’re capable of when you refuse to give up.