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A View Through the Window on Animal Health: Snake Exams

November 3, 2016

By Sarah Banducci, Museum volunteer

Unlike the young girl next to me with her face pressed against the glass of the Window on Animal Health in excitement, I nearly recoiled in fright when I saw today’s patients: four snakes. Just like humans, Museum animals require annual wellness checkups, in this case with Chief Veterinarian Dr. Dan Dombrowski. The four non-venomous snakes examined today represent only a few of the Museum’s approximately 100 resident exhibit and educational programming snakes, several of which can be observed by visitors in the Museum’s “Snakes of North Carolina” live native snake exhibit on the third floor of the Nature Exploration Center.

Patient #1: Rat Snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensi / Elaphe obsoleta)

Greenish rat snake being held by gloved hands. Photo: Shane Christian.

Yellow rat snake. Photo: Shane Christian/NCMNS.

The common rat snake (or eastern rat snake)  can be found throughout most of North Carolina. To the north and west in the state, rat snakes are predominately black with a white chin and called black rat snakes. To the east and southeast, they are often “yellowish” with 2 lateral longitudinal black or dark stripes and called yellow rat snakes. This “greenish” variant occurs in a relatively narrow band across the state where the two described above meet. This particular snake was caught in the wild and brought to the Museum in 2005. During his yearly checkup last week, the doctors noticed a scab associated with an area of inflammation near the snake’s vent that required a follow-up exam. The “vent” is simply a multipurpose opening to the cloaca in the snake that allows for passage of materials from inside the snake to the outside including musk, feces, urates, and babies or eggs in female snakes. After a thorough exam of the vent, Dr. Dombrowski was content that the irritated area was healing nicely and had been treated early enough to prevent it from becoming more serious.

Patient #2: Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula getula)

This eastern kingsnake is at least 20 years old and has been at the Museum since 2006. Eastern kingsnakes are found throughout North Carolina, often in wooded areas near water. Dr. Dombrowski started off his exam by using a Doppler ultrasound to estimate heart rate via blood flow through the snake’s heart as it was beating and pumping blood. Listen to a sample here:

Like the first patient of the day, this snake also was seen last week for his yearly checkup. Some swelling near the vent required a follow-up visit to the clinic. In this case, the musk or scent gland, located just caudally (or towards the tail) to the vent, was believed to be the culprit. During the exam last week, the doctor used a syringe with a needle to extract some material from the swollen area and examine it under a microscope to determine if the swelling was from musk, a tumor, or an infection. Based on those findings, it was suspected to be an impacted musk gland. Today, Dr. Dombrowski used a dull probe while examining the area and pushed out more material from the enlarged glands. This snake will be soaked in a warm water bath once a day for the next few weeks, a treatment that helps to loosen any material that may be plugging the gland opening. In a few weeks the snake will be returned for another follow-up to track the swelling and make sure it does not progress into something worse.

Patients #3 and #4: Rough Green Snakes (Opheodrys aestivus)

Rough green snakes can be found throughout North Carolina but prefer areas of dense vegetation near water. The first rough green snake examined today has been in the Museum since 2010. He was in the Window for a full annual checkup and reported to be in good health. The second rough green snake has been at the Museum since 2009 and was referred to the Window for weight loss. While the first of these two snakes was lively and moving about quickly, the second was much less energetic. These two small snakes live together in an exhibit, which creates a few challenges. First, it can be hard to identify the snakes correctly. But more importantly in this case, it is nearly impossible to track the individual eating habits of the snakes. Dr. Dombrowski will be following up with this underweight snake to make sure she gains some weight.

My initial fear toward today’s patients faded away after watching them undergo these check-ups and I discovered a newfound respect for our slithery friends.

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