Snakes can quite quickly become dehydrated and if it is not dealt with it can cause a number of problems which will need a visit to the vet, including urinary stones (called cloacaliths, because of where they form), faecoliths (dried out faeces) and incomplete shedding, possibly with eye involvement, being just a few. Sometimes it is difficult to know whether a snake is drinking adequately because it will not drink when it is being watched, so it is important to keep an eye on its general wellbeing and be guided by that.
Causes of dehydration in snakes
The obvious cause of dehydration is that the snake is not drinking, but in fact it is more complex than that. A snake which lives naturally in an area of high humidity will not be physiologically inclined to drink much, as it will get a lot of its moisture through its skin, and with its prey, which will be damp from the prevailing humidity. Such a snake kept in a drier environment and fed food which is too dry will become dehydrated very quickly. Also, a snake which is naturally quiet and shy will need water in a hidden place, because it has been known for a snake like this to become seriously ill through dehydration, rather than drink in the open. If the snake has diarrhoea or a respiratory tract infection, dehydration can be a side effect of this, although obviously the initial condition will be very clear to the owner and the dehydration will be very much secondary.
Dangers of dehydration
A dehydrated snake can become sick very quickly, with perhaps the worst problems occurring when it is shedding its skin. If it is too dry at this time, the shed will be incomplete and this has a lot of inherent problems, not least the potential for blindness if the eye-caps do not shed correctly. If you notice that your snake is not shedding properly, a bath in tepid water would probably help a lot, softening the skin and incidentally the snake may well take a drink at the same time. If the snake is dehydrated long term – and this will probably be sub-clinical so there are no other obvious signs – the first thing you may notice is that it is constipated. This will be apparent either when you clean the environment and find no faeces or the snake may be distended above the cloacal region. When a snake is dehydrated the body tries to hang on to all the water it can and so it reabsorbs the water from the faeces and also passes less urine. The urine in effect crystallises out until it makes a stone which blocks the cloaca, causing the faeces to become impacted even more than the drying out alone would cause. When a snake is as constipated as this, there is often no other recourse but surgery, to remove the faecolith, which can be enormous in relation to the size of the snake and is literally as hard as a stone. If the snake has had this kind of procedure already, it is particularly important that it is not allowed to become dehydrated and impacted again in this way, as surgery over and over in the same area is less successful every time, due to scarring.
Prevention of dehydration in snakes
It is difficult to make a snake – or any other animal for that matter – drink if it doesn’t want to. Keeping the correct humidity levels in the environment is crucial and addressing this may solve the problem in many cases. Giving wetted food will also go some way to solving the problem if the snake does not reject food presented in this way. Care must be taken here, as many snakes are relatively picky eaters and do not take kindly to change in their diet. Some owners give their snakes a brief bath in tepid water, making sure they cannot get out. This has a two fold effect as it moistens the skin and it is almost inevitable that the snake will drink some of the water as it swims. Again, as with diet, care must be taken not to stress the snake unduly; if it has a problem over hydration, it doesn’t need stress as well. Some snakes do not tolerate tap water and the water must also be clean. It is a good idea to use water that has stood for a while so that the chemicals are less, but on the other hand the water needs to have no layer of dust or similar on it or the snake may not drink. A snake vivarium is not the easiest place in the world to keep water palatable in, so this needs to be checked and topped up as necessary quite often.
This is a recurring theme when dehydration is being considered and of course it is not always easy to address. If the snake’s environment is in a room of a house given over to snakes and reptiles, it is relatively easy to make sure that the humidity is correct. If, as is more usual, the vivarium is in a room which is lived in normally, this is more difficult and the easiest answer to the problem is to create, within the general living area of the snake, a smaller part where the humidity is kept up. This can be done with vegetation, moss, absorbent materials and a careful monitoring of it, watering lightly when necessary. This way, if the snake feels too dry, it can go into the micro-climate to get moist. This will be particularly welcome to the snake when it is shedding its skin.