Mending Max: Helping an Indigo Make a Speedy Recovery



“Max”, a five foot male Indigo Snake that is part of our telemetry study, was captured in January 2012 near a tortoise burrow in a patch of dry, sandy, scrub habitat, and despite the fact that he was moving extensively and using a variety of habitats, all apparently was not well. In late August, our field technician, Lance Paden, found Max and immediately noticed that he was very emaciated. That is, Max was very skinny with the skin pulled tight around the bones. We estimated that Max had lost about 21% of his body weight. Although he was still alert and responsive, something was obviously very wrong. There were multiple possible explanations for this sudden weight loss: high parasite loads, unsuccessful foraging, disease, complications from the radio transmitter, organ failure, and/or some other unknown factor. Understanding, then solving the problem would require some professional assistance, so we took Max back to the UF Zoological Medicine Program, headed by Dr. Darryl Heard, BSc, BVMS, PhD.

The reptile veterinarians at the UF Zoological Medicine Program are among the best, and Max received a variety of diagnostic tests. He received a physical exam to check for injuries and make sure his throat and mucous membranes appeared normal. Blood work was performed to look for evidence of infection, disease, or organ complications and Max’s feces were examined for parasites. The blood work showed a moderate increase in white blood cells, which could be due to a bacterial or viral infection. However, there was no evidence of inflammation or infection around the transmitter site, which was good news for our telemetry study. A fecal examination did reveal many parasite eggs. But the most significant finding was highly elevated uric acid levels in the blood. Instead of urine, reptiles produce a liquid called uric acid.

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Elevated uric acid levels indicate severe dehydration or some problem with the renal system (the kidneys). Although we are still not sure what factor (or factors) caused these symptoms, Max was given several standard treatments. He was given fluids (just like a human would get with an IV) to help bring the uric acid levels down to normal levels. Antibiotics were given to address the high white blood cell count and an anti-parasite drug was given to combat the parasites. After six days Max was tube fed a high caloric carnivore diet to help him start regaining his strength and muscle mass.

Max remained at the UF Zoological Medicine Program for eight days, during which time his condition improved. His uric acid levels responded well to the fluids, dropping back to normal levels. Max was then moved to the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation (OCIC) in Lake County Florida, to continue his recovery. Here staff set him up in a quarantined area to assure nothing vectored from Max to the captive collection of Indigos kept in our Herpetarium. Max has regularly been receiving his antibiotic injections and has started a second round of de-wormer. On his second day at OCIC, he ate 5 small minnows. This was great news for him because it meant he would not have to go through the added stress of tube feeding. Since then he has been eating a variety of prey items (fish, mice, and small rats) almost every other day. Within the week Max became opaque and shed by the end of the second week he was here. Although he needed some assistance getting the entire shed off, he looks great with his new skin. His ability to eat, defecate and shed (all normal processes for any snake) are all indications that his body is working normally, and a positive sign on his road to recovery.

However Max is still 19% below is original capture weight. Because of this, OCIC staff will continue to monitor his progress until he is in prime condition. The vets from the UF Zoological Medicine Program will periodically examine Max to make sure his white blood cell count and uric acid levels remain acceptable. Director of Captive Conservation Fred Antonio has reported that Max continues to be bright and alert. Without the care and treatment he received, Max would have certainly died from his condition. However, thanks to the staff at the UF Zoological Medicine Program and the OCIC, Max will soon be able to again hunt amongst the scrub and hammocks of Highlands County, Florida.