'A little bit scary': Stitching up a gravely ill python

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Cats and dogs are the bread and butter of small country town vets, so when Elise Cooper from Wauchope Vets on the NSW Mid North Coast was asked to operate on a snake, it came as a shock.

“I think in the last probably 20 years, according to the team, we’ve probably only had one other snake that we’ve seen,” she said.

The snake in question — a 1.5-metre-long diamond python with a large gash down its body — was brought in by a volunteer carer from wildlife rescue organisation FAWNA.

“It was stunning; a little bit scary, but stunning,” Ms Cooper said.

An injured snake with a large gash to its body in sits in a cage.An injured snake with a large gash to its body in sits in a cage.
The diamond python had suffered a large gash to its body, possibly from a lawn mower.(Supplied: Wauchope Vets)

Mystery injury and illness

The snake was underweight, in very poor health and in need of stitches for the mystery wound.

“It was quite a horizontal gash, so we were thinking (it might have had) a run in with a mower, or a shovel if someone got scared and tried to kill it.

“That was sort of our best guess, because it was quite unusual, it didn’t look like it had been run over or anything like that, it was just a horizontal 10 to 15-centimetre gash.”

How do you operate on a snake?

Ms Cooper made some calls to check the best way to medicate the reptile and seek advice on any other differences in the way to treat a snake, compared with the animals she’s used to seeing.

Following all the preparations and with specialised antibiotics at the ready, it was onto the operating table where the snake was placed in a special air-tight case which was then filled with anesthetising gas.

A snake with stitches down its body following surgery.A snake with stitches down its body following surgery.
The wound was cleaned and debrided and the gash stitched up using a special suture pattern needed for reptiles with scales.(Supplied: Wauchope Vets.)

The wound was cleaned and debrided before the biggest challenge of the operation; dealing with the snake’s scales when it was time to closure the gash.

“In terms of the stitch up itself, it was pretty straight forward, it just needs a different suture pattern because (a snake’s) skin isn’t the same as dogs and cats.”

Another of the unique issues was snakes’ susceptibility to anaesthetic; their low metabolism means it takes them a long time to go under, but also a long time to wake up.

Ms Cooper said it will be best if the snake can now recuperate, put on weight and shed its skin before it’s released back into the wild.