Tell me about cancer in snakes

Q: Have you had any experience with cancer in snakes? I have had two snakes with the diagnosis of spindle-cell sarcoma, and I am at wits end as to what might have caused this type of cancer. Any info you might have would be greatly appreciated. I live in rural north Georgia and can’t think of any environmental issues that could have caused these tumors. Any thoughts?

A: Snakes and other reptiles develop cancer just like humans and other mammals. I have seen many different types of cancers in snakes and lizards. As with most cancers in other species, we are unable to pinpoint the cause of most snake cancers. They seem to occur spontaneously.

Spindle cell carcinoma is a diagnosis made when the cell types are unidentifiable as a specific organ or tissue type. They are immature cells of an ellipsoid shape. I have found pathologists unfamiliar with snake tissues make this diagnosis because they cannot identify the tissue type. When submitting samples for analysis, be sure to submit only to a pathologist familiar with reptiles. Most pathologists are not.

Treatment of cancers is almost exclusively surgical in reptiles. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are too risky in cold blooded animals. I have known some snakes to live for many years with known tumors. With a slow metabolism, cancers also grow slowly.