St Patrick banished wild snakes - not pet ones
St Patrick may or may not have genuinely chased snakes out of Ireland, but in the twenty first century, snakes are back in this country. Pet snakes are more popular than ever before, and as a vet in practice, I'm called to treat them from time to time.
One of the remarkable aspects of qualifying as a vet is that we are expected to be able to treat every type of animal, from a honey bee to an elephant. And while we do receive basic training in almost every type of creature, obviously we wouldn't be expected to be asked to treat the more exotic creatures without further education and experience. Vets who specialise in bees or elephants would need to do extra training and gain experience in the field before taking on a professional role.
Snakes are more mainstream: the general veterinary course includes a substantial amount of detail on the anatomy, physiology and disease of these remarkable creatures. It's still regarded as a specialist area, but vets in general practice will often be asked to carry out first aid and basic treatment of unwell reptiles. Sometimes the problem is simple, but if it's anything out of the ordinary, GP vets will refer their patients to a colleague with a particular interest in the rare and the exotic.
The most popular pet snake - and the one with which I am most familiar - is the Corn Snake. This is a yellow-brown reptile, measuring around a centimetre in diameter and 20 -30cm long. It's a good choice for a beginner in the snake world: my own daughter got one when she was ten years old, so I learned first hand about their day to day management.
The key to good health in snakes is to get the initial set up and the day to day husbandry correct. Every snake species has its own preferred environment and diet, based on its area of origin in the wild. If novice owners don't get this right, ill health inevitably follows. You'd think it would be easy: pet shops should instruct owners on exactly what's needed, and owners can easily Google the optimal way of caring for their snake. But sadly, basic mistakes in caring for snakes happen all the time, and the creatures suffer as a consequence.
The initial set up includes buying a vivarium, which is a glass or plastic tank, as well as substrate (the sand, gravel or other material that lines the tank), along with "furniture", which means a den for the snake, along with objects to decorate the tank, such as pieces of wood, rocks etc. The general idea is to mimic the natural environment where the snake comes from. A saucer for water and a food bowl are also needed.
Heat and light are important: most snakes come from warmer, brighter parts of the world, so they need to have some sort of heat supplied, as well as special ultraviolet light that allows their body to produce Vitamin D. Attention needs to be paid to creating atmospheric conditions that are suitable, with optimal humidity levels. If a snake is kept in a tank that's too dry, they can suffer from problems such as an inability to shed their skin properly, or gummed up eyes.
Once the vivarium has been established, the next focus is to get the snake's nutrition right. Again, new owners should do their research online, finding out what's recommended for their specific species of snake. Corn snakes eat small prey in the wild, and the easiest way to provide this is to buy deep frozen new born baby mice - known as "pinkies" - that are sold in many pet shops. This may seem gory to pet owners who are familiar with the blandly jelly-like dog and cat food that bears no resemblance to the animals that provided the meat, but it's the reality. It's surprising how quickly you get used to the idea of thawing out new born mice, one at a time, offering them once or twice weekly to your pet snake.
When the environment and nutrition of pet snakes is optimal, most thrive, but there is one common hazard: escape. Snakes are able to wriggle through the smallest opening or gap, and if somebody forgets to close the vivarium properly, a pet snake will rapidly sense freedom. Many owners have checked on their pets only to find the tank empty. And once a snake is free, there are hundreds of possible hiding places in a home, so it's not easy to find them. There are some tricks for locating them. Snakes tend to curl up and sleep in a hidden place in the day time so it makes more sense to look for them at night, when they are out and about. They enjoy sidling up to vertical surfaces, so if you use a torch to search along skirting boards, bookshelves and the insides of drawers and cupboards, you can often find them. You can also leave a dusting of flour on the floor, and in the morning if a snake has gone by, you'll see slither marks.
It's also possible to set snake traps, using plastic bottles containing food for the snakes to tempt them in. The hope is that they will have a meal, then curl up to sleep inside the bottle. Sadly, many escaped snakes are never found: their whereabouts remain a perplexing mystery.
For those who enjoy snakes, all this talk may be interesting,but for many people, the mere thought of snakes is enough to cause a sense of repulsion. For these folk, St Patrick should perhaps come back, and this time, I'm sure they'd like him to complete the task by. banishing pet snakes too this time!