Good guy or bad guy? Diagnosing stomach disease in pet reptiles

May 31, 2011

Indigestion is surprisingly common in pet snakes and other reptiles. It frequently results from a parasitic infection known as cryptosporidiosis, to which reptiles seem especially prone. Cryptosporidiosis is highly contagious and often fatal but unfortunately diagnosis is extremely difficult. Scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, have developed a test for the identification of the parasites in question. The results are published in the current issue of the Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation.

Although known for over a century, cryptosporidiosis was believed to be an extremely rare condition and it only gained attention with the discovery that it can affect humans, especially immune-compromised individuals. It is caused by a single-cell parasite, one of a family known as cryptosporidia. Some cryptosporidia also infect , where after a sometimes lengthy they cause even in otherwise healthy individuals. The condition is usually persistent and is presently impossible to cure. It is therefore important to minimize infections and in this regard reliable are essential.

Diagnosis is based on the detection of parasites in but is complicated by the fact that snakes in particular excrete that they swallow together with their prey, so the presence of cryptosporidia in faeces does not necessarily mean the animals are infected. For this reason it is essential to be able to distinguish between "" cryptosporidia and those that cause infection in the snake. Barbara Richter and colleagues at the Institute of Pathology and Forensic in the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna now report a DNA-based procedure able to determine not only whether cryptosporidia are present but also whether they are of mammalian or snake origin.

By means of the test, Richter was able to show that a particular type of cryptosporidium is present in about one in six samples from the popularly kept corn snake and in about one in twelve samples from the attractive leopard gecko, a lizard frequently found in reptile collections. These prevalence figures are far higher than previously suspected, showing the widespread nature of the disease. The corn snake in particular seems highly susceptible to infection. Worryingly, the new tool revealed that a large proportion of captive leopard geckos contain cryptosporidia of one form or another. It is possible that some of the infections do not inconvenience the host geckos but the animals nevertheless represent a source of infection for other reptiles that come into contact with them. Many reptile collections house a number of species together and there is therefore a significant risk of cross-species infection.

The new diagnostic procedure represents a precise method for the early diagnosis of cryptosporidiosis in lizards and snakes, before the animals show symptoms of disease. Nevertheless, Richter still raises a cautionary note. "A further problem is that cryptosporidia are often present in faeces in very low numbers so it is easy to miss them in a single test. We are working to make our method more sensitive but it is very important to test the reptiles repeatedly. A negative result does not necessarily mean that the animal is really free of the parasite."

Explore further: Research helps steer mites from bees

More information: vdi.sagepub.com/content/23/3/430.full

Provided by University of Veterinary Medicine -- Vienna

not rated yet
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Snakes poisoned at birth

Feb 23, 2006

Scientists in Germany have found that a significant route of transmission of Salmonella in non egg-laying snakes is from the mother to the offspring during pregnancy and birth.

Snakes may be in decline worldwide: study

Jun 08, 2010

Distinct populations of snake species on three continents have crashed over the last decade, raising fears that the reptiles may be in global decline, according to a study published Wednesday.

Genealogy of scaly reptiles is rewritten

Nov 23, 2005

Penn State scientists have completed the most comprehensive analysis ever of genetic relationships among snakes, lizards, and other scaly reptiles.

Recommended for you

Research helps steer mites from bees

5 hours ago

A Simon Fraser University chemistry professor has found a way to sway mites from their damaging effects on bees that care and feed the all-important queen bee.

Bird brains more precise than humans'

6 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Birds have been found to display superior judgement of their body width compared to humans, in research to help design autonomous aircraft navigation systems.

User comments : 0