Do Snakes Have Lungs? How to Tell If Your Snake Is Breathing Properly

Slithering through myths and folklore, snakes have captivated the human imagination for centuries with their enigmatic nature. Among the many questions that arise about these fascinating creatures, one common query revolves around their respiratory system. 

So, do snakes have lungs, and how do they breathe?

Snakes do have lungs that are located in the upper part of their body, behind the heart. They primarily breathe by expanding and contracting their ribcage, allowing air to flow in and out through their nostrils. However, some snake species can also respire through their skin.

Keep reading to learn more about how snakes breathe and what to do if your snake is not breathing properly.

Do Snakes Have Lungs?

Like most terrestrial vertebrates, snakes do have lungs, but their lung anatomy is quite different from mammals and birds.

Snake lungs are spongy and elastic organs composed of thin, membranous tissues. They are positioned within their body cavity, occupying a significant portion of the space along the vertebral column. 

a photo of a snake respiratory system to show do snakes have lungs

The number of lungs that snakes have can vary depending on the species; most snakes have two lungs, while some primitive species may have only one. 

Another intriguing feature of snake lung anatomy is their elongated shape, which allows them to fit into the slender body of the snake. The right lung is generally larger than the left lung, as the heart takes up space on the left side of the body. 

The size and structure of the lungs can also vary based on the snake’s lifestyle, with aquatic or burrowing snakes sometimes exhibiting adaptations in their respiratory organs.

How Do Snakes Breathe?

Snakes breathe primarily through a process called “costal ventilation.” When a snake inhales, the muscles surrounding its ribcage contract, causing the ribcage to expand, which creates a negative pressure within the lungs, drawing air in through its nostrils. 

When the snake exhales, the muscles relax, and the ribcage contracts, pushing out stale air from the lungs. This rhythmic expansion and contraction of the ribcage allow snakes to effectively exchange gases, extracting oxygen from the air and removing carbon dioxide from their bloodstream, essential for their survival and metabolism. 

Additionally, some snake species possess supplemental respiration methods, such as cutaneous respiration (absorbing oxygen through the skin) or a buccal pump mechanism (pumping air in and out using mouth and throat movements) to facilitate breathing in specific environments or situations.

Can Snakes Hold Their Breath?

Snakes can hold their breath for extended periods. While snakes primarily use their lungs for respiration, they possess the ability to reduce their metabolic rate and conserve oxygen when necessary. This allows them to survive in various environments, including underwater, for prolonged periods.

Some snake species, especially those adapted to aquatic habitats, have developed specialized respiratory adaptations that enable them to hold their breath underwater for significant periods. For example, aquatic snakes can slow down their metabolic processes and rely on cutaneous respiration, where they absorb oxygen through their skin while submerged. This adaptation allows them to stay submerged for extended periods without needing to surface for air.

However, it’s important to note that the duration of breath-holding capabilities can vary among snake species and their individual physiological conditions. Each species has adapted differently to their specific environments, enabling them to survive under diverse circumstances.

How to Tell If Your Snake Has Breathing Problems?

Detecting breathing problems in snakes is crucial for their well-being and early intervention. 

Here are some signs that may indicate your snake is experiencing respiratory issues:

  1. Labored Breathing: Watch for abnormal breathing patterns, such as rapid, shallow breaths or open-mouth breathing (gaping). Gasping for air or audible wheezing sounds can also be indicators of respiratory distress.
  2. Nostril Discharge: Excessive or discolored nasal discharge, often accompanied by mucus or bubbles, can suggest respiratory problems in snakes.
  3. Coughing or Gurgling Sounds: Unusual sounds while breathing, such as coughing or gurgling, may be a sign of respiratory infection or blockage.
  4. Reluctance to Move or Lack of Appetite: If your snake seems lethargic, has decreased activity, or shows a lack of interest in eating, it could be related to breathing difficulties.
  5. Mouth Breathing When Resting: Normally, snakes breathe through their nostrils even at rest. If your snake starts to breathe through its mouth while resting, it might indicate respiratory distress.
  6. Weight Loss: Unexplained weight loss can be a sign of underlying health issues, including respiratory problems.
  7. Changes in Skin Color: Respiratory issues may cause the skin to become discolored or appear paler than usual.
  8. Behavioral Changes: Pay attention to any changes in your snake’s behavior, such as increased aggression, hiding, or spending more time at the water dish.

If you observe any of these signs or suspect your snake might have breathing difficulties, it’s essential to seek professional veterinary care immediately. 

Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for successful recovery, especially with respiratory infections, as they can progress rapidly and pose serious risks to your snake’s health. 

What to Do If Your Snake Is Not Breathing Properly?

If you notice that your snake is not breathing properly or exhibiting signs of respiratory distress, it’s essential to take immediate action to ensure their well-being. Here’s what you should do:

  1. Isolate and Observe: Move your snake to a quiet, stress-free environment in a separate enclosure with appropriate temperature and humidity levels. Observe its breathing closely to determine the severity of the issue.
  2. Check Environment: Ensure that the snake’s enclosure is clean, properly ventilated, and maintains the correct temperature and humidity for its species. Incorrect environmental conditions can contribute to respiratory problems.
  3. Seek Veterinary Care: Contact a qualified reptile veterinarian as soon as possible. Prompt medical attention is crucial for diagnosing the underlying cause of the breathing problem and providing appropriate treatment.
  4. Keep Calm and Handle Gently: Avoid unnecessary handling or stress on your snake. Keep noise and disturbances to a minimum to reduce any additional stress that could exacerbate the condition.
  5. Do Not Self-Medicate: Refrain from attempting any home remedies or administering over-the-counter medications, as these can be harmful to snakes and may worsen the situation.
  6. Maintain Hydration: Ensure your snake has access to fresh, clean water. Proper hydration is essential for overall health, especially during times of illness.
  7. Follow Vet’s Advice: Follow the veterinarian’s instructions carefully and administer any prescribed medications or treatments as directed.
  8. Monitor and Record: Keep a close eye on your snake’s behavior, breathing, and any changes during the recovery process. Record any observations to share with the vet during follow-up visits.

Remember, snakes can deteriorate rapidly when experiencing respiratory problems, so immediate veterinary attention is crucial. A qualified reptile veterinarian will be able to diagnose the cause of the breathing issue and provide appropriate treatment to aid in your snake’s recovery. 


In summary, snakes do have lungs, which are crucial for their respiratory process and survival. Through costal ventilation and other supplementary adaptations like cutaneous respiration, these remarkable reptiles have evolved to breathe efficiently and overcome challenges in their environments.

Understanding the intricacies of a snake’s respiratory system sheds light on the remarkable adaptations that allow these enigmatic creatures to thrive in diverse habitats. 

I hope you found it helpful! If you did, please share it or pin it!

Similar Posts