Reptile Skin Mites

Steven D. Garner, DVM, DABVP Diplomate,
American Board of Veterinary Practitioners,
Chief of Staff, Safari Veterinary Care Centers,

Skin Parasites of Reptiles: Ticks and Mites

Infestation with ticks and mites not only can cause itching, discomfort, and severe blood loss, but can also spread bacterial disease. These parasites feed on blood and in heavy infestations can cause life threatening blood loss (anemia). Mites commonly enter a collection from recently acquired animals that were not adequately quarantined. Once established in a cage, they can quickly spread to adjoining cages.
Mites tend to accumulate in skin folds, under the chin, around the eyes and under the scales. Most mites can be seen as small black to red spots moving on the reptile. Some species of mites burrow under the skin therefore a scraping of the reptiles skin may be needed to find the mites.

Mite Life Cycle: Female mites lay their eggs off the host in the cracks, crevices and substrate in the cage. As the egg develops it hatches into a larvae. The mite goes through a series of five stages before becoming an adult. Each stage must take a blood meal before developing to the next stage. After feeding some mites may drop off and wander the environment. Whenever a mite encounters a barrier, it climbs instead of going around the barrier. This leads mites to climb up the sides of the water dish, any other cage furnishings, and the walls. Any mite that passes through an opening and leaves the cage is likely to fall to the floor. There it continues to wander randomly until it either dies or enters another cage and finds a host. This wandering will rapidly infest every cage in the area. They are attracted by the smell of a host and tend to stop moving when a contact area on the back touches something, like the underside of a snake’s scale. The groove along a snake’s lower jaw and around its eye make excellent attachment points for a mite, as these areas are adequately warm, moist, and narrow enough to trigger the contact stimulus. Snake mites are not able to swim and will eventually drown in water. In a bath, they are able to migrate along a snake’s body to the head, which is usually out of water, and at least some of the mites survive. However, placing a clean snake cage on legs in a shallow pan of water will prevent mites from just walking into the cage.

Treatment: Ticks should be manually removed. Soaking the reptile in tepid water for 30 minutes will drown a large number of the mites. Following the bath, apply a thin coat of olive oil to the reptile’s skin to suffocate remaining mites. This will kill a large number of mites on the skin surface however, mites can survive hiding around the eyes and in the cage environment. Mite sprays containing pyrethroids (synthetic pyrethrins) such as Durakyl with resmethrin can be used. After applying the spray to the reptile’s skin wait 2-3 minutes then it should be washed off. Even this short exposure will kill the mites while minimizing the chance of toxicity to the reptile. In heavily infested animals, use of injectable medications such as ivermectin, is helpful in reducing the number of mites and ticks. These treatments should not be attempted without first consulting your veterinarian. Before placing the treated reptile back into its cage, the cage must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected to remove mites and eggs. After cleaning, the entire cage should be sprayed with pyrethroid spray. The cage should be allowed to soak for 5-10 minutes before the spray is wiped or rinsed away. All disposable cage material such as substrate, branches, etc. should be discarded. Water bowls, hide boxes etc. should be soaked for 20 minutes in a solution of one part bleach to 20 parts water. If meticulous cleaning is not performed, the mites will be back in 2-3 weeks. Use of no pest strips is NOT recommended. Over time, exposure to these products can cause fatal levels of toxin to be adsorbed resulting in the death of the reptile. In addition to treatment to remove and kill the mites, some reptiles may require additional treatment with antibiotics for bacterial infections commonly spread by mites and iron supplementation if severe anemia (blood loss) has occurred.