A Necropsy Guide to Serpentes

Key Points

  • The postmortem exam is a key diagnostic tool in understanding the reasons for a snake’s morbidity and mortality. Necropsies can provide valuable information to provide a risk assessment for other animals in a population or collection and can help provide closure for a grieving owner.
  • Conduct necropsies in a systematic, thorough manner to ensure all pertinent tissues are evaluated and collected.
  • Make every effort to maintain sterility to ensure culture results on fresh tissue are accurate and do not reflect contamination.
  • For tiny patients, open the coelom, examine coelomic contents, take fresh samples, and submerge the entire animal in formalin, using a 10:1 ratio of formalin-to-tissue.
  • If the snake is venomous, carefully  disarticulate the head and transfer it into a non-compressible, formalin-filled container.
  • To begin the internal examination, place the snake in dorsal recumbency and begin a midline incision at the cloaca.
  • After evaluating the fat bodies and coelomic cavity, identify organs that are often difficult to find or that are easily “lost” during the necropsy procedure, such as the thymus, thyroid, and parathyroid glands.
  • The ophidian lung is a hollow sac that can be divided into a cranial respiratory portion and a caudal saccular portion. In many snakes, except for boas and pythons, the left lung is vestigial or significantly smaller than the right lung.
  • Normal ophidian kidneys are multilobular, with a dark brown, “stack of coins” appearance.
  • In males, the sexual segment of the nephron is a portion of the distal convoluted renal tubules.  The size of this segment is variable by season and reproductive activity, and may be grossly appreciated as pale tan, linear, streaks, and thus will require histopathology to rule out a pathologic change.
  • The gallbladder, spleen, and pancreas are closely associated in snakes in an arrangement that is often referred to as the “triad”. Some snakes possess a fused spleen and pancreas, also known as a splenopancreas.

The postmortem exam is a key diagnostic tool in understanding the reasons for a snake's morbidity and mortality. Necropsies can provide valuable information to provide a risk assessment for other animals in a population or collection and can help provide closure for a grieving owner. This manuscript reviews the snake necropsy in a systemic, thorough manner, describing normal anatomy and proper collection technique from head to tail . . .


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