Inclusion body disease
Inclusion body disease (IBD) in the boid family of snakes, particularly Boa constrictor, has been recognized since the mid-1970s. It is so named because of the characteristic intracytoplasmic inclusions which are observed in clinical examinations in epidermal cells, oral mucosal epithelial cells, visceral epithelial cells, and neurons. In the 1970s and 1980s, the disease was most commonly observed in Burmese pythons, Python bivittatus. From the 1980s till the present day, it has been most commonly observed in boa constrictors from South America.
All boid snakes should be considered susceptible to the disease. Many zoos quarantine boas specifically as a result of this high risk before introducing them into their permanent collections and (breeding) programs. While the disease has not been identified in non-boid snakes, it is yet unknown whether non-boid snakes harbour the virus. The primary host of this virus has not yet been identified, but mites are thought to be primary hosts or at least a contributory factor.
Its distribution is worldwide, specifically in captive boid snakes. Its occurrence in the wild is unknown. Strangely enough, the disease has only been identified in adult and subadult specimens. Even so, all age groups are considered susceptible. Also, anecdotal reports of the infection in neonates have been made. A retro-like virus infection was suspected as the causative agent of IBD, but identification of highly divergent arenavirus sequences from boa constrictors with IBD suggested arenaviruses to be the etiological agent of IBD. Cell culture isolation of several arenaviruses from boid snakes with IBD further solidified, but did not yet confirm, the etiological relationship between IBD and arenaviruses.
Clinical signs may vary, with regurgitation and neurological symptoms being the most prominent in the early and later stages of its progression. In boa constrictors, the first signs may include off-and-on regurgitation, and some develop head tremors. Abnormal shedding may occur. Some develop chronic regurgitation and anorexia (lack of appetite or refusal to feed). However, not all infected snakes may regurgitate. Boas lose weight and may develop clogged nares (nostrils), stomatitis, or secondary pneumonia. The disease can rapidly progress to produce nervous-system disorders, such as disorientation, corkscrewing of the head and neck, holding the head in abnormal and unnatural positions, rolling onto the back, or stargazing. Stomatitis, pneumonia, undifferentiated cutaneous sarcomas, lymphoproliferative disorders, and leukemia have all been observed in affected specimens. Burmese pythons generally show signs of central nervous system disease without manifestation of other clinical signs and regurgitation is seen only in boas. These are symptoms similar to those seen in specimens infected by Chlamydia–specifically Chlamydophila psittaci, the so-called parrot's disease.
Several snakes have been seen with proliferative pneumonia, while inclusions are commonly seen in the liver, kidney, and pancreas. Cases have also been observed where with only very few inclusions. In a few snakes with signs of central nervous system disease, and with a severe encephalitis, no inclusions have been seen in any cells. While the presence of characteristic inclusions is diagnostic for the disease, the absence of such inclusions does not necessarily indicate that the snake is not diseased or is free from the IBD virus. While cells having inclusions may show mild degenerative changes, inflammation is rarely seen in visceral tissues. In the brain, mild to severe encephalitis occurs, with lymphocytic perivascular cuffing. Several snakes with lymphoproliferative disorders have been identified with lymphoid infiltrates in multiple organs.
The disease can be diagnosed in live snakes through blood tests.
Primary route of transmission
The primary route of transmission has not yet been identified, but direct contact may result in its transmission to developing embryos in viviparous species and eggs in oviparous species. Venereal transmission is also indicated as a possibility. The snake mite, Ophionyssus natricis, has been implicated as a possible vector for the virus, since mite infestations are commonly seen in epizootics of IBD and in captive specimens of these snakes. Mites are sometimes very difficult to eradicate due to their resistance to certain toxins used to eliminate them.
Permethrin is known to be effective against mite infestations, but should be used with great caution and only in small quantities due to their toxic nature. Also, several nonchemical substances may be just as effective. These biological agents are sprayed onto the infested animal and desiccate the mites, rendering them unable to lay their eggs or consume blood beneath the scales of their host. The incubation period for mite eggs is thought to be about 10–14 days, so the treatment should be repeated after 10 days to ensure that any eggs that hatch or larvae that develop into nymphs are also quickly eliminated from the host before reaching sexual maturity and able to repeat their reproduction cycle.
Prognosis and treatment
To date, no treatment for IBD is known. Snakes diagnosed with or suspected of having IBD should be euthanized because progression and transmission of the virus is both very rapid and destructive. All newly acquired snakes should, therefore, be quarantined for at least 3 and preferably 6 months before being introduced into established collections. The recommended period of quarantine for any wild-caught boa or python is at least 4–6 months.
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