Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Boid Inclusion Body Disease

One Herper's Experience

©1995 DeAnn Schott


Indiana was our first snake. She was a Ball Python. We bought her five years ago. And, as my love of snakes grew, so did my boid zoo. Three years ago my daughter began working for a local pet shop. Often, people would literally drop off unwanted snakes -- she would find them in a sack on the counter and nothing else. The owner of the store did not want the castoffs because they were usually undernourished, sick and full of mites. I could not let them just die, so ended up taking them all home. I had my "pet" tanks set up in my daughter's room and quarantine tanks were in the garage. I worked with my vet to de-worm them and bring them around. (I worked out a barter system with my vet --- I would wash dogs and cats all day Saturday in exchange for vet services.) As soon as my vet gave the O.K., I adopted them all out to good, prescreened homes. I still check on them and, I am proud to say, have placed over 20 snakes and they are all doing well. Ball Pythons and Red Tails were and still are our favorites. I've kept up with everything I could find about boids and thought I was knowledgeable about boids and the diseases to look out for. Until October 1995.

I first saw her at a reptile shop in July 1995 and it was love at first sight. I had never seen a melanistic Ball Python before and she was simply gorgeous. I was in the store looking for another Ball to add to our family of four, and I was smitten with the amel. I could not afford the $400 price tag, so I asked about any new juvenile CB's they might have in stock. They had just received and processed a huge shipment. We (my daughter and I) were led to a huge room in the back and the shelves were filled with plastic shoe boxes. All contained baby Balls - there were hundreds of them. This particular shop knew us and allowed us to take our time looking at all the Balls. But, something was wrong with these - terribly wrong. These babies had many problems: skinny, disoriented, stargazing, head-bobbing, random striking, rattling in their chests, etc. I was told they were in "shock" from the shipment. We didn't buy the excuse, but thanked them for their time and left.

I returned to the shop in September and was surprised to find that the amel Ball was still there. I found the owner and asked about the fate of the juvenile Balls I had seen in July. "All sold." I then asked the owner if I could see the amel. He had a huge Red Tail wrapped around his torso and he strolled in the back, grabbed the amel and handed her to me. I examined her closely. No mouth rot. Nice and fat. No obvious injuries. No rattling. No mites. Very friendly and not head shy. How much? I was quoted a much lower price than the first time and said I'd think about it. I returned to the shop the next day and bought her. I named her Jade. I quarantined her from my other four Balls for six weeks and kept a close eye on my new "favorite." She was great, ate well and seemed to be a very happy snake who enjoyed being held and loved basking in her water bowl. I introduced her to her new family after her quarantine and all five looked great and did well together.

In October I noticed that the two juvenile balls (from the same clutch and about six months old) were rattling when I picked them up. I checked their mouths and they were clean. So, I promptly took them to my vet and she started them on Baytril injections for 10 days straight. I put them in the quarantine cage when I brought them home. The Baytril seemed to do the trick and I was relieved we caught it in time. But, I still kept the two quarantined from the rest, just to make sure, for another three weeks. Everybody was eating and defecating regularly. Just about the time the three weeks was up, I noticed one of them acting strangely. He was writhing in the cage and seemed disoriented. I quickly picked him up, listened for rattling and heard nothing, but noticed how skinny he suddenly was. How could this be? He had just eaten two mice three days earlier! Then, I noticed his eyes had a wrinkle across each of them. This was baffling, because there was plenty of fresh water and the humidity and heat were exactly where they should be. So, I opened his mouth for a look. It was disgusting. Full of yellow mucous and rotten flesh. I was horrified. I quickly picked up the other and found she had full-blown mouth rot and wrinkles across her eyes, too. How could this be? They were perfect just 72 hours earlier when I picked them up to feed them and showed no signs of distress when I "bed checked" them the evening before! I rushed both to my vet and she, too, was mystified. I set up a tank at my vet's so she could monitor the situation. She did a lung wash and cultured each, but both cultures came back negative. The Baytril was not working this time. She tried Gentocin, but, before we could find out if it would work, Zeus and Medusa died. Sadly, Zeus's mouth rot actually ate away his tongue. I was devastated. My vet had done everything humanely possible to save those two for me, and I was in awe of her dedication and forever in her emotional debt. She told me to keep a close eye on the remaining three Balls and asked if I housed the Red Tails with or near the Balls. I said that they were in the same room, but definitely not the same cage. She suggested moving the Red Tails to another room, just in case it was an airborne disease. She then told me that she had been recently treating a lot of similar cases in boids and all from the same reptile house and all the pythons were dying, whereas the boas seemed to hang on a bit better, although most seemed to wither away, too. She was stumped. I went home, sterilized the quarantine cage, then sterilized the Ball and Red Tail cages, too. I put the Red Tails in another room. Then I took a long bath and cried bucket of tears over my loss.

November. Four weeks later Indiana, our beloved first Ball, started rattling. I took her to my vet's. She, too, dies after 30 days of valiant efforts by my vet to save her. My daughter is also crying buckets of tears with me.

December. Another four weeks. Now it's Jade's turn. She's a fighter. She wants to live and I want her to live. I visited her daily and give her pep talks. I can't cry anymore. I'm emotionally drained. What is this thing?

January. The fourth Ball, Ivy, now has succumbed to the same disease.

March 1996. Jade finally died March 8. She lasted the longest and I really thought that maybe she'd win. I go back to the shop where I bought her and question the owner. Has he heard of any new diseases or seen anything? He denies knowing about anything and says he would have heard about it on his "new" monitoring system. I asked him what he meant, figuring he's going to show me a computer system with some fancy herp software that connects people in the business. Wrong. He proudly shows me how he had recently had his shop completely wired for sound and how he can sit in his office and, with a flick of a switch, listen in on prospective buyer's conversations, to what's going on in the back room, the cash register, etc. I am not impressed and ask if it's legal to listen in on customers and/or employees like that. He says he can do whatever he wants because he's the owner. I tell him I really don't care, I just want to find out what killed my Balls. He assures me that my snakes didn't get this from him because his vet "checks all incoming shipments and would let him know immediately if there was an epidemic or something." I tell him I didn't see any DVM when the July shipment came in and that I did not have this problem until I brought Jade home. He's getting tired of my line of questioning and says he overheard me ruining a sale for him while I was waiting to talk to him and he didn't appreciate it. (I was approached, while in his store, by a prospective buyer who asked for my advice about a snake for her son. She was looking at a juvenile Reticulated Python. I was honest with her and told her that the Retic was a bad choice for a kid and why.) I looked at him in disbelief, turned around, walked out and haven't spoken to him since. However, I have run into some of his ex employees at herp shows and have heard horror stories. I wish I knew then what I know now.

May 10, 1996. It's been eight weeks since Jade died and our last ball, India, a female striped, is rattling, has wrinkles across her eyes and has suddenly stopped eating. I take her to my vet who, again, is trying her best. I decide to surf the 'net to find out if anyone know about this "Jim Henson-type pneumonia" (as we've come to call it) and receive a sympathetic reply from Melissa Kaplan who tells me it sounds suspiciously like Boid Inclusion Body Disease. Huh? IBD? What's that? It sounds vaguely familiar...I think I read about it somewhere, sometime... Melissa and I send several emails back and forth and I share what she's told me with my vet. My heart sinks as I realize my Balls exhibit all the symptoms of IBD, as did the shipment of juvenile Balls I saw last summer. I know, from first hand knowledge, that this store's employees never washed their hands between handling snakes, did not sterilize cages before transferring snakes from one cage to the other, sold sick snakes, etc. They broke all the rules. My vet says that if India dies, she will necropsy her. We did not necropsy the other four. Now I wish I had. No sign of IBD in my Red Tails...yet. I'm scared silly I'll lose all my snakes to this insidious disease.

May 24, 1996. India has also died. My vet thought she was rallying and gradually turned her heat back up to the mid-80's, from the mid-70's. By decreasing the heat, my vet slowed down India's system so she could get the antibiotics into her. But, increasing the heat seemed to make the virus more active. My vet said that India was literally full of mucous overnight and she found India on her back in her cage, gasping for air. India died choking on her mucous while my vet was trying to aspirate it out. I have now lost five Ball Pythons to IBD and which means over $1,000.00 in livestock and vet bills is gone. But, never mind the lost money, the emotional heartbreak is incalculable. They were our pets and we cared very much for them. My daughter's inconsolable. I've removed India's cage from her room and have tried to take her mind off India's death, but to no avail. I hoped I could find her another Ball to take her mind off of India. But, to make matters worse, we've been advised to wait at least six months before purchasing another Ball Python to make sure all last vestiges of the virus are gone. Please don't let this disease take my Red Tails!

The point of my long dissertation is:

  1. Know your supplier. I found out yesterday my neighbor is a health inspector. I asked her about this shop and was told it's "famous for receiving diseased shipments." Call your local health inspection department and ask if anything's on file about your supplier.

  2. Keep up with the latest health information, especially IBD.

  3. Quarantine ALL newcomers. And be sure to thorough wash you hands after you handle your snakes and before handling any snakes! No exceptions!

  4. Sterilize all cages.

  5. Pay attention to care sheets and follow them. Keep up with new diseases on the Internet, reptile magazines or a reputable supplier.

There's nothing worse than watching a beloved pet suffer and die, especially if it could have been prevented. Remember the old saying, "forewarned is forearmed." Get forewarned. And, good luck. I sincerely hope that you will not have to endure what I have been fighting for the last seven months. Now, I'm on IBD watch for another six months with my Red Tails. Wish me luck.


Melissa Kaplan comments:
Some people think that if they buy their boid from the breeder or from a reptile specialty store that they will be spared the above experience. Think again. The store DeAnn talks about is a reptile specialty store in Southern California, one that has a good reputation. I am also getting increasing numbers of calls and letters from people who have bought their infected, dying and dead snakes directly from the breeder. Now, while it is possible that these breeders didn't yet realize their boids were infected, there is too much selling of infected hatchlings and adults, snakes that sicken and die of IBD-symptoms within months of purchase, to believe that is so.

Should you let the possibility of IBD put you off getting a boa or python? No. But if you do decide to get one, or another one in addition to ones you may currently have, exercise extreme caution and suspicion when buying, and quarantine them for at least a year or more. Sonoma county wildlife educator Bonnie Cromwell lost several of her boids two years after she took in a boa from someone who could no longer keep it. It turned out that that snake was infected but remained asymptomatic for a long time. It took almost two years for her other boids to begin showing signs, then dying of (or being euthanized due to) IBD.

Many years ago, before we knew a breed rescue existed, my husband and I bought an akita puppy from an akita breeder. She guaranteed in writing that her dogs were free of hip dysplasia, a congenital disorder found in several breed lines. The contract stipulated that if the dog we got developed hip dysplasia, she would give us, for free, another puppy, one of our choosing. Within six months of our getting the puppy, he developed signs of dysplasia and was in fact diagnosed with such by a top orthopedic veterinarian. When we told the breeder, she at first refused to believe it, saying that we must have "done" something to him. When we persisted, she said that we should take it to a vet specialist - and then gave us the name of the very vet we saw. At that point, she capitulated, and gave us the pick of her current litters. Perhaps if buyers of boas and pythons began insisting upon such guarantees from the breeders and pet stores they buy their snakes from, it would put the pressure and responsibility for the spreading this disease (and unethical business practices) right on those most responsible for its rapid proliferation throughout the boid trade.

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