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Impacted Scent Glands "Bulbtail"

Updated Oct. 14, 2020

Please carefully read all of the following information and then watch the videos.

What is it?
Impacted scent glands also referred to by some as “Bulbtail” is a common occurrence where the musk producing scent glands of a Western Hognose snake become impacted. The regularly thick fluid can become granulated, building up in the narrow duct and become stuck. If it helps to visualize it, think of it as a stubborn pimple. This is most common with adult females, but can also happen to males, or non-adult individuals. 

Why does it happen?
There is still some speculation on this topic, and it should be noted that some of these are theories. Impacted scent glands may happen for various reasons including a combination. Unfortunately, very little scientific information can be found on this topic specifically referencing Western Hognoses and scientists and veterinarians alike are still not sure what all causes it and are often in disagreement with one another.

one of the theories, (which I agree with) is that in the wild, Western Hognoses are faster to go into survival mode, such as their famous range of defensive behaviour such as playing dead and are far quicker to musk. In captivity, these behaviours still occur but far less frequently. By regularly expelling the musk, it may help in not having it build up to become a problem.

Another theory that we agree with and believe goes hand in hand with above is, in the wild these animals live in a larger range, being more active and exposed to various microclimates which may help to naturally work/massage the glands more.

Other causes include but are not limited to are unclean enclosures, even in a relatively clean enclosure that houses an animal or breeding pair on a substrate that can introduce faecal material into the glands.

Shipping. It could be the stress of shipping mixed with being near urates/faeces in a small area. , (although, in the cases of shipping, it should be noted that the 'bulb' should be very tiny, anything larger and it shows that the animal had it as an existing situation.)

Straining to lay eggs. We have noticed that breeding females tend to be more prone to having impacted scent glands.

It should also be known that some individuals are seemingly predisposed to have impacted scent glands occur, regardless of husbandry.

Does it affect the snake's way of life?
Some breeders and keepers have expressed their belief that even in severe cases of scent gland impaction that it does not affect the quality of life, or breeding of the animal and should be let to take care of itself. We strongly disagree with this viewpoint.

Due to animals not being able to express if something is hurting them I believe that it is our responsibility to watch for visual cues of distress and or take note when an animal is acting out of its nature. In cases of severe Bulbtail, the snake can be seen holding their tail at odd angles, often doing an odd dragging motion with it. This is not natural for this species, so again we see it as a sign that it should be dealt with.

On the topic of breeding, I have witnessed multiple females who were able to pass eggs far easier after the gland was dispelled. (only if minor impaction is involved.)

We have noticed that some animals who have a good report of excellent eating habits have gone off food when having a small amount of buildup in their gland area. These animals have benefited from having the gland gently expressed as they would eat soon after. To me, this is an indicator of the animal not feeling 100%. (Providing all other husbandry is on point.)

It has also been said by some breeders/keepers that it is better to just leave the impaction alone, saying that it will sort itself out. I have not once seen this be the case. In any situation where we have had this, or have been helping others with their snake, anytime the situation has been left, it has always gotten worse.

Some breeders/keepers say don’t bother trying to express the musk, it will just come back. The point of the gland is to rebuild up musk. For individuals more pre-disposed, yes there is a high chance of a re-offending impacted scent gland. We have at least 2 females here that it is just common knowledge that I will have to deal with very minor impaction once or twice a year. However, if maintained, the gland is far more manageable, should not grow and should benefit the quality of that animal’s life.

Is it a sign of being a sick snake?
I will agree with the popular mindset that just by having impacted scent glands it does not mean that the animal is sick, or that is will be guaranteed to have complications breeding etc. However, I feel that reputable breeders should not be selling animals with enlarged impacted scent glands and or not treating the issue. As breeders and keepers, the health and comfort of our animals should always be a top priority.

Impaction VS infection
I have never heard of death resulting from scent gland impaction, however, vets that I have spoken with have noted that if the bulge in the scent gland area is a result from infection or foreign debris such as substrate antibiotics and even surgery will likely be needed. An infected scent gland can be extremely serious and can very likely result in death. Treatment should occur right away but can be difficult to diagnose because organic material will not show up on certain types of scans. We have lost a couple of males who got shredded aspen in their hemipene pocket and or scent gland area. For this reason amongst others, we advise against using aspen as a form of substrate for this species. We know it is the most common substrate to use but we are not alone in losing animals due to this reason, and often wonder how under-reported this issue may be.

The information above is gained from our several years of breeding, consulting with other breeders and keepers far more experienced than ourselves, vets and various online information.

As with any advice/information we offer. We are not to be held accountable for anything. If you are not comfortable expressing the impacted gland or are not sure what it is, as always please contact a certified reptile vet. The reason we put this information out there is because even many vets are not familiar with with reptile care and or Western Hognoses.

I have recently found a link that talks a bit about what I mentioned above and can be found here 

I am not out to change minds. My article and video are for those who wish to help manage their snake’s situation.

If anyone has any questions or concerns, as always, regardless of whether you are one of our clients or not please reach out to us and we will try to help you with your Western Hognose.


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