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View Full Version : Milk Allergies Kill Snakes?


Exapno Mapcase
02-19-2008, 09:04 PM
From a CNN article (http://archives.cnn.com/2000/ASIANOW/south/11/30/india.snakes/):
As a crowd pleaser, some snakes are fed milk and butter during festivals, which often makes the snakes ill.

The World Wildlife Fund says some 70,000 snakes annually die from milk allergy, pneumonia, lung infection and sepsis.

In August, hundreds of snakes, their mouths sewn shut and venom glands punctured, were confiscated by wildlife officials before a Bombay Hindu festival in which starving cobras and rock pythons are forced to drink milk.

Puncture wounds in their mouths can turn septic and kill snakes, and milk causes them to suffer digestive problems and possibly choke them when it fills their lungs.
Nasty as this is, nothing about it resembles milk allergy. I can't even figure out why snakes would get digestive problems from milk. If they can eat whole mammals, including presumably the occasional lactating one, it's hard to see why a little milk could harm them.

Any animal experts have an explanation?

Blake
02-20-2008, 02:32 AM
I had written a long reply, but the board crash ate it.

Short answer is that a cat-sized mammal which is the natural prey of these snakes will only cnatin a few hundred mL of milk at best, and that willbe released into the gut over a period of weeks. That's hugely different to having your head forced into several litres of milk.

Humans also eat small quantitites of dirt with their food, that doesn't mean that you could eat a bucket full at a sitting without dying. Same principle.

Pullet
02-20-2008, 12:37 PM
Can someone more familiar with this practice explain why the myth of snakes drinking milk started? Is it somehow a good omen if a snake drinks milk or something?

RedSwinglineOne
02-20-2008, 01:09 PM
I had never heard that they sew the mouths shut, but that explains this video of a baby with a cobra. (http://youtube.com/watch?v=agBMxX1SeJo)

CalMeacham
02-20-2008, 01:13 PM
1.) Well, that really puts a damper in the myth of the Milk Snake. doesn't it?

A common myth about the milk snake is that they suck cow udders to get the milk. The myth is entirely false. The milk snake does not have the physical capabilities to suck milk out of a cow. Milk snakes are, however, frequently found in and around barns, making use of their cool and dark environments, and for the easily accessed populations of rodents to feed on. This proximity to barns, and therefore cows, gave rise to the myth.



http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milk_Snake

Which, as the last line shows, might explain some about the myth of snakes drinking milk.

2.) it also puts a damper (as if another one was needed) in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Speckled Band". That story is filled with scientific howlers, and science awaits discovery of the whistle-hearing, ill-natured, highly poisonous, and milk-drinking "swamp adder".

Good story, though.

Crotalus
02-20-2008, 01:13 PM
The folk lore about American milk snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum) drinking milk from cows is widely thought to be the result of their commonness around barns. They eat mice and lizards, mainly.

When I worked in a venom lab in the 70s, we force-fed cobras a diet whose primary ingredients were dog food and infant formula. I don't remember what brand we used, but I feel fairly certain that it would have contained milk in some form.

When we force-fed the snakes, using what was basically a caulking gun with a piece of surgical hose on it, we had to be very careful to keep things sanitary and to avoid injuring the snake's mouth and throat. I think that pneumonia, lung infection and sepsis are much more likely culprits in the deaths of the snakes in the story than milk allergy is.

Dr. Drake
02-20-2008, 01:18 PM
Can someone more familiar with this practice explain why the myth of snakes drinking milk started? Is it somehow a good omen if a snake drinks milk or something?I'm away from my sources at the moment, but I would suggest that is has little to do with snakes per se and more with the importance of milk. On a small traditional family farm, a dry cow can have a major economic impact. As with anything out of one's direct control, a number of folk beliefs (not myths. Not myths. Aurgh*) arise as to how cows can go dry: witches or fairies take the milk; snakes or hedgehogs drink the milk. Hedgehogs, shrews, and adders were also reputed to bite cattle, causing swellings. As to why these particular animals, I don't know, but I suspect it has more to do with what sort of wildlife can be found around cattle byres than any inherent property of the snake or hedgehog.

*In folklore "myth" is reserved for a particular type of narrative. Untrue folk beliefs are just untrue folk beliefs. But never mind, carry on using "myth" to mean "false belief." It's in the dictionary. The battle has already been lost.

Dr. Drake
02-20-2008, 01:24 PM
PS: There's a nice short rundown of milksnake lore in Clifford B. Moore's article "American Mythical Snakes" in the Scientific Monthly 68:1 (1949), 52-58. available on JSTOR for those who have access.

Exapno Mapcase
02-20-2008, 01:35 PM
I had written a long reply, but the board crash ate it.

Short answer is that a cat-sized mammal which is the natural prey of these snakes will only cnatin a few hundred mL of milk at best, and that willbe released into the gut over a period of weeks. That's hugely different to having your head forced into several litres of milk.

Humans also eat small quantitites of dirt with their food, that doesn't mean that you could eat a bucket full at a sitting without dying. Same principle.
I couldn't get a good sense of what the forced feeding of milk to the snake was like (or the size of the snake being forced either) but getting more than a few hundred mL into a snake would seem to be unlikely. A U.S. pint is 473 mL. That's a lot.

Still can't figure out how milk allergy comes into play, though.

CalMeacham
02-20-2008, 01:48 PM
It occurs to me that the problem spoken of in the OP might be nothing more than Lactose Intolerance. Even people who lack the required gene (and that includes a lot of people -- Chinese, many Africans, and native Americans, both North and South. this page cites a claim that 70% of adult humans are lactose intolerant: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactose_intolerance ). The same lack of lactase might keep the disaccharide from being absorbed through snake intestines as well as humans. I don't even want to think about a snake with explosive diarrhea.


A quick search turns up a few instances of lactiose intolerance in adult animals, but nothing on snakes.

CalMeacham
02-20-2008, 01:58 PM
Apropos of nothing, I recall that, as a kid, I visited William Haas at the Miami Serpentarium (he used to "charm" a King Cobra on a grass circle out in the yard in front of visitrors, with no glass or cage between you and the snake, then "milk" the venom from them in front of you. Try doing THAT today. Try getting insurance for your tourist attraction when you do that. Maybe that's why they don't do shows at the Serpentarium any more)


Besides doing this, he demonstrated "force feeding" of his venomnous snakes. I recall that he stuck a plastic tube down the snake's throat and "pumped" a thick liquid down into their stomachs. The liquid was visible through the transparent plastic tube -- it was thick whitish stuff, as if he was forcing a milk shake down their throats. At a guess, I'd guess that it WAS dairy-based.

But I don't know that. For all I know he was pushing soy down into them. Or finely ground albino mice (Haas had a big business milking venom and processing it into antivenin, so I assume he wanted to be sure his snakes were getting a scientific and balanced diet, rather than relying on what they caught, or possibly to keep them from losing valuable milking time by being torpid for a week).

Pullet
02-20-2008, 02:32 PM
I'm away from my sources at the moment, but I would suggest that is has little to do with snakes per se and more with the importance of milk. On a small traditional family farm, a dry cow can have a major economic impact. As with anything out of one's direct control, a number of folk beliefs (not myths. Not myths. Aurgh*) arise as to how cows can go dry: witches or fairies take the milk; snakes or hedgehogs drink the milk. Hedgehogs, shrews, and adders were also reputed to bite cattle, causing swellings. As to why these particular animals, I don't know, but I suspect it has more to do with what sort of wildlife can be found around cattle byres than any inherent property of the snake or hedgehog.

*In folklore "myth" is reserved for a particular type of narrative. Untrue folk beliefs are just untrue folk beliefs. But never mind, carry on using "myth" to mean "false belief." It's in the dictionary. The battle has already been lost.

So the theory is, if I feed the snake milk now, it won't suck my cow dry later? Interesting.
Thanks! (and sorry for my lack of sensitivity on the correct usage of "myth.")

irishgirl
02-20-2008, 03:41 PM
When I was in India a few years ago (Maharashtra province) there was a local cobra festival when we were there. Local women left bowls of milk outside by cobra nests for the snakes to drink, we didn't attend, but AFAIK no-one actually handled any snakes or forced them to drink the milk. It was explained to us as a local fertility ritual, especially for those who wanted sons.

If you need help with the symbolism of snakes+milk=fertility ritual I think you might be lacking in some imagination.

Dr. Drake
02-20-2008, 04:51 PM
(and sorry for my lack of sensitivity on the correct usage of "myth.")No problem... my whine was directed at the whole world rather than at you specifically.

Exapno Mapcase
02-20-2008, 05:06 PM
A quick search turns up a few instances of lactiose intolerance in adult animals, but nothing on snakes.
All adult mammals naturally stop producing the lactase enzyme. All adult humans too, except that 30% or so who have a mutation in a gene on chromosome two that never sends the signal to stop making lactase.

Technically, this is called lactase persistence. Lactose tolerance, in medical parlance, is the lack of symptoms when drinking milk.

Usually. You can find many names in the medical literature for this.

Popular usage completely mixes up the two. That's why you can find articles about all Asians being lactose intolerant and Asians who love dairy products. Most people who have the genetic heritage and even the mutation can still have some dairy without symptoms.

Other animals too, which is why you can feed a dog or cat milk. Whether domesticated animals are also being selected for the ability to tolerate milk isn't something I have an answer to.

Snakes have no reason to be able to tolerate milk when young. That doesn't necessarily imply that they would get the human-style symptoms of lactose intolerance. Those are particular to the effects of undigested lactose on the osmolality of the intestines and the effects from bacteria in the large intestine when lactose reaches them. If there is any reason that would be the same, or even close to that of mammals, is another question for the experts.

Exapno Mapcase
02-20-2008, 05:12 PM
*In folklore "myth" is reserved for a particular type of narrative. Untrue folk beliefs are just untrue folk beliefs. But never mind, carry on using "myth" to mean "false belief." It's in the dictionary. The battle has already been lost.
Not so. "Myth" as "untrue story" is an older usage than "folklore". You mean to say that a modern group of experts try to separate out the terms in their jargon, but don't know enough about the facts behind a different expertise, i.e. in English, to get that right. :)

This battle will now hijack the thread for the next 152 posts. :p

Dr. Drake
02-20-2008, 05:24 PM
Not so. "Myth" as "untrue story" is an older usage than "folklore". You mean to say that a modern group of experts try to separate out the terms in their jargon, but don't know enough about the facts behind a different expertise, i.e. in English, to get that right. :)

This battle will now hijack the thread for the next 152 posts. :p No it won't, because you're right. Ancient Greek muthos can have that sense of untrue STORY (emphasis on narrative content). Modern academic folklore, in which the term is used as technical jargon, narrows the sense to a particular kind of traditional narrative. We know the origins of the term very well! It's only the use of "myth" to mean "untrue BELIEF" (no narrative content) that bugs me. But as I said, the battle is lost: both "myth" and "folklore" have the wider meaning of "anything untrue" in vernacular English, and have had for generations. All my grumbling won't change that.

Exapno Mapcase
02-20-2008, 05:27 PM
What am I now supposed to do for the next 151/2 posts? :smack:

Blake
02-21-2008, 01:26 AM
Snakes have no reason to be able to tolerate milk when young. That doesn't necessarily imply that they would get the human-style symptoms of lactose intolerance. Those are particular to the effects of undigested lactose on the osmolality of the intestines and the effects from bacteria in the large intestine when lactose reaches them. If there is any reason that would be the same, or even close to that of mammals, is another question for the experts.

There's s a good reason why similar symptoms will affect all animals. An inability to digest lactose means that the sugar will continue through the gut until microbes manage to digest it. Being a sugar it will interfere with the ability of the gut to withdraw water from the gut content. When microbes digest it they will inevitably produces gasses that will lead to bloating. Basically if you can't digest a sugar it's going to ause those problems, it's not specific to lactose or to any species.

CalMeacham
02-21-2008, 07:21 AM
Snakes have no reason to be able to tolerate milk when young. That doesn't necessarily imply that they would get the human-style symptoms of lactose intolerance. Those are particular to the effects of undigested lactose on the osmolality of the intestines and the effects from bacteria in the large intestine when lactose reaches them. If there is any reason that would be the same, or even close to that of mammals, is another question for the experts.


Of course snakes have no reason to be able to digest milk -- ordinarily they don't drink it. But if it's forced into them, and if they have the same problem absorbing the disaccharide that other animals do (which, since they lack the enzyme lactase and have similar digestive mechanisms to other animals, wouldn't be surprising), then I can easily see it causing gastric distress. And since snakes don't drink milk in the wild, there'd be no selection mechanism to weed out those highly sensitive to lactose and promote those with higher tolerance.