Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Cold Blooded Pets Can Catch a Cold, Too!


Pet Column for the week of March 15, 2010


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

If your snake does not seem to be slithering around as usual, or your already slow-moving turtle has a runny nose, you may be dealing with a sick reptile. Like humans, these pets can catch a "cold" that causes respiratory disease and pneumonia. But unlike us, where a runny nose is nothing to race to the emergency room about, reptiles with signs of illness are almost always worthy of a trip to your veterinarian.

Dr. Matt Allender is a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, but he isn't your typical companion animal veterinarian. His patients slither, swim, and walk as slow as a tortoise (because, well, some are tortoises) into his office every day.

He says, "turtles and snakes both can get bacterial and viral infections that are similar to the cold that people can get." Symptoms of respiratory disease in these animals are open-mouth breathing, nasal discharge, coughing, and just downright ADR (veterinary speak for 'ain't-doing-right').

Reptiles are great at hiding their signs, so by the time you notice any illness the disease may have been going on for a while and may be more serious than it appears. But that doesn’t mean it’s not treatable. For some of these diseases, the right antibiotic will do the trick and your scaly snake will be back to chasing mice in no time.

If you notice any symptoms of respiratory disease Dr. Allender recommends that you, "bring your pet in!" Treating the problem sooner, rather than later, can make a huge difference in outcome.

When examining a patient with a suspected "cold" Dr. Allender first does a thorough physical exam. Because reptiles don't have skin like dogs and cats, it is hard to see if they are pale or are dehydrated from the outside. So Dr. Allender will always open the snake's or turtle's mouth to look for signs of systemic disease like pale mucous membranes or white plaques that are indicative of a viral infection.

"Looking in the mouth of a reptile is one of the most important things you can do," explains Dr. Allender, "it's like listening to the heart and lungs of a dog." For the record, after many years gently prying open the mouths of sharp-teethed animals, he still has managed to keep all of his fingers.

After the physical exam, depending on what is found, x-rays may be taken to see if the lungs have fluid in them (indicating pneumonia), and swabs may be taken of the nose or mouth and sent to a diagnostic lab for testing.

In snakes, bacterial causes of respiratory disease, which are common, can be treated with an antibiotic given by injection every five days. Sometimes viral causes are more difficult to treat, but can be approached just like people--rest, heat, and plenty of fluids (sometimes by injection).

In addition to drugs targeting specific pathogens, it is important that sick snakes and turtles be housed in a warm environment with the appropriate temperature. Checking to ensure that your cold-blooded friend is housed in the correct humidity and temperature is actually one way to prevent respiratory disease in the first place.

In the end, giving your turtle a box of tissues or your pet snake some chicken noodle soup for their cold won't do much good. In most cases, these illnesses require veterinary treatment for a good outcome.

For more information, contact your local veterinarian.