Researchers race to head off snake fungal disease

Captive and wild snakes in 15 states are being afflicted by this disease, reports the University of Illinois.

Bats killed by the millions because of white-nose syndrome, amphibians decimated worldwide because of chytrid fungus, honeybees declining across the U.S. and now snakes are the latest animal group besieged by a mysterious pathogen.

More than a dozen species of captive and wild snakes in at least 15 states have been affected by what’s being called snake fungal disease (SFD).

A research team headed by Matt Allender, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACZM, a veterinary professor at the University of Illinois, along with other researchers affiliated with the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) are studying samples to come up with some viable treatment options.

“We have collaborative projects in nine states,” Dr. Allender said. “Some of our collaborators are just sending us samples and we’re helping with the diagnostic testing. Others, including individuals at some zoos with infected snakes, are working with us to test new treatments.”

Researchers are exploring every facet of the disease, including its epidemiology, how it grows, how it is transmitted, how to treat it and even which disinfectants work or don’t work against the primary fungus associated with it, Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola.

Allender, along with former and current UI veterinary students, are looking at various treatments, including nebulizing snakes and using a variety of disinfectants to kill the fungus; both options have met with some success.

“Before this, nobody had nebulized a snake,” Allender said. “When I told my veterinary colleagues—not biologists, but people who treat individual animals—what I was planning, they said, ‘That’s never going to work.’”

Allender and former veterinary student Lauren Kane demonstrated that administering treatments via a fine spray allows therapeutic levels of terbinafine, an antifungal agent that kills O. ophiodiicola in cell culture, to get into healthy snakes’ blood plasma.

Their report on this work appears in the Journal of Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics.

Researchers are testing whether snakes with SFD actually benefit from the nebulizer treatment.

“There is still so much we don’t know about snake fungal disease,” Allender said. “We don’t know anything about its effect on snake populations. It may be a conservation threat; it may not be. We don’t know every snake species that is affected. We don’t know whether the fungus is different in different parts of the country. And we don’t know what is causing the emergence now.”

“We’re trying to protect an endangered species,” said INHS herpetologist Sarah Baker, Ph.D., a collaborator with Allender on several studies. “A lot of pit viper populations are declining—not only in Illinois, but nationwide.

“Snake fungal disease is just one more threat that they have to contend with, and anything we can do—to find effective treatments, for example, or disinfectants that stop people from spreading the disease from place to place—could make a difference for their long-term survival,” she said.

Originally published in the May 2017 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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