New Blood Test Can Be Used to Detect a Fatal Snake Disease Before It Spreads

Researchers may have found a cure for a deadly disease that affects captive snakes. Inclusion body disease spreads quickly and can often be fatal to boas and pythons. New research may finally lead to blood tests, prevention methods, and a potential cure. The findings were just published in The Veterinary Journal.

Inclusion body disease (IBD) was first observed in the 1970s, when it began killing captive Burmese pythons and boa constrictors. The disease, which may be caused by a reptarenavirus, can spread very quickly and wipe out entire snake collections. Early symptoms include regurgitation, anorexia, and shedding problems. IBD progresses rapidly and leads to odd behaviors, such as “stargazing” in which the snake stares up and shows little control over body movements. Sometimes infected snakes roll onto their backs. Since scientists don’t fully understand the mechanisms and causes of IBD, there is no prevention or cure. Zoos and reptile enthusiasts often quarantine new animals to prevent the spread of IBD. The disease can be a huge problem for zoos and captive breeding programs since it can result in the loss of rare or expensive animals.

Thanks to a grant by the Morris Animal Foundation, researchers from the University of Florida collaborated with scientists from other universities to better study IBD. The team collected blood samples from 131 captive pythons and boas. 25 of these snakes were found to be infected and most infected snakes were boa constrictors. The team was looking for signs of viral infection and did find that infected animals had nucleoproteins associated with reptarenaviruses, newly described viruses that may cause IBD. Some of the infected snakes had no symptoms and only the blood test revealed IBD. This is good news for zoos and collectors; snakes with IBD can be identified and isolated early, before the animal shows symptoms of the disease.

The team’s research on IBD can be used to develop a definitive blood test to detect IBD in infected snakes before the first symptoms occur. The findings also provide new insights into the cause of IBD, possibly leading to the development of treatments or preventatives in the future.

REFERENCE

Chang et al. Detection and prevalence of boid inclusion body disease in collections of boas and pythons using immunological assays. The Veterinary Journal (2016).

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