Reptiles can deal with a variety of health issues, many of which relate to poor shedding, improper temperatures, respiratory infections, parasitic infections, etc. But few novice reptile keepers expect mites to be a problem.
That’s because most people associate mites with fur-having animals, and reptiles aren’t known for their fluffy and glossy furs.
This doesn’t mean that they can’t get mites, though. So, let’s discuss that!
Overview of Reptile Mites
Reptile mites are the unseen scourge of the reptile world. Or, should we say, the barely-visible-crawling scourge.
These tiny parasites can infect any type of reptile, be it a snake, lizard, or turtle, spread fast, and are notoriously difficult to eradicate. Especially when the outbreak takes place in a close ecosystem, like a reptile terrarium.
The method of infection refers to the tiny parasitic arthropods burying themselves in their hosts’ skin and feeding on the animal’s blood. They can spread to other reptiles via direct contact, although this is only necessary in the first stages of infection.
If the parasite multiplies in sufficient numbers, it will simply spread throughout the entire tank and infect any reptilian lifeform nearby anyway.
While skin parasites might not look like much of a problem, the following 2 elements may change your mind fast:
- The accelerated reproductive cycle – These parasitic organisms can multiply extremely fast, with each female being capable of producing dozens of eggs. The resulting larvae begin feeding almost immediately and become sexually mature in a matter of days. I hope you can see where this nightmare is going.
- The potential and likely health issues – These parasites are by no means harmless. They won’t only stress your reptiles by causing frequent itching and skin irritation but can also lead to more ominous health issues. These include open sores, wounds, and even anemia due to steady blood loss. Severe infestation also leads to dehydration and localized infections, often resulting in the host’s death.
As you can see, skin parasites are not to be taken lightly. But how do these infections occur, and what can you do to treat and prevent them going forward?
Identifying a Mites Infestation
Everything begins with identifying the mite infestation early on to prevent complications and ensure a quick recovery.
Here are the signs you want to be looking for:
- Behavioral changes – You may not be able to observe the mites directly at first, especially if the infestation has just begun. But you will notice your reptile’s behavioral changes fairly rapidly. The typical signs to look for include restlessness (typically the result of itching), lethargy, lack of appetite, signs of dehydration, irritability, etc. These require immediate investigation to figure out the cause.
- Scratching – Yes, reptiles scratch themselves to deal with itching. The difference is that they scratch differently. The scratching process is fairly easy in lizards, as they use their legs for the job, similar to dogs and cats. The situation is a tad more complicated when discussing snakes, as these animals don’t possess legs. Not anymore, at least. Instead, snakes rub their bodies against various rugged surfaces around their habitat. Reptiles may also bathe in their water bowl more often, which is an attempt to ease the itching sensation and drown the parasites.
- Visible mites – You can only observe the mites if you’re looking for them. Otherwise, they may be quite difficult to observe due to their tiny sizes. Identifying the mites visually allows you to learn their type and figure out a targeted medication plan to remove them. The typical reptile mites are either brown, red, or black, and you can notice them crawling on your pet’s skin and even moving around the environment. That’s when you know you’re dealing with a generalized infection.
- Loss of appetite – The constant blood loss and the stress associated with the physical discomfort will cause your reptile to lose its appetite. You can tell that your reptile pet isn’t eating as often or as much as it used to. This is a dangerous situation because it leaves your pet vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies, which can be deadly.
- Signs of dehydration – Dehydration is a gradual process; it doesn’t just happen overnight. The typical signs of dehydration include lethargy, sunken eyes, dry skin that lacks elasticity, dry saliva, etc. Consider the situation critical if your reptile shows signs of dehydration because this means that the mite infestation is already severe.
- Anemia – The standard signs of anemia in reptiles include muscle weakness, lethargy, loss of appetite, discoloration of the oral and anal mucosa, and tachycardia. However, you should contact your vet for a more detailed investigation since you can’t really diagnose anemia accurately on your own.
Out of all these signs, the first to consider is the scratching behavior. Reptiles may scratch naturally at times, but something’s not right if your pet engages in the behavior frequently.
Causes of Infestation
The first obvious question to come to mind is, ‘How can my reptile pet get infected in the first place?’ This is a legitimate question, given that your reptile lives in a close ecosystem with little-to-no contact with the outside world.
But that’s usually an illusion. In reality, your pet reptile will have plenty of contact with the outside world, even if not directly.
To explain this point more thoroughly, here are the main causes of mite infestation in reptile pets:
- Contact with infected animals – It’s enough for you to have contact with an infected animal and then touch your pet. This will allow the mites to use your hand as a transportation vehicle, and, in most cases, you won’t even know it.
- Raising live-caught reptiles – I understand the appeal of catching your reptile pets straight from the wild. The most obvious benefit is that this costs nothing, financially speaking. But you may also be oblivious to the downsides. One of them is that wild reptiles are usually infested with bacteria, intestinal parasites, and skin mites, all of which will carry over to the tank. The situation becomes significantly worse if the wild-caught reptile is supposed to join a healthy reptile group in the main terrarium. The infected one will cause an outbreak that may kill the entire group.
- Poor terrarium husbandry – Captive reptiles require a clean habitat and regular maintenance to remain healthy. That’s because they live in warm and humid environments that are prone to mold, fungal, and bacterial infections. Mites can also develop in ecosystems with poor hygiene.
As general rules, always wash your hands before and after handling your pet, stay away from wild-caught reptiles, and provide your pets with optimal tank maintenance.
As with anything, it’s always easier to prevent a mite infestation than to treat it. Generalized mite infestations are extremely difficult to eradicate and may cause complications that can kill your reptiles. To prevent that, consider the following:
- Ensure proper terrarium hygiene – Clean or replace the substrate regularly (typically once every 2 weeks, but once a week works too), change the water bowl daily, remove debris, clean the terrarium walls, and don’t leave food in the enclosure. These measures alone will decrease the risk of mite infestation dramatically.
- Ensure adequate UVB lighting – This is to keep your reptiles in good health and with a solid immune system. This will make them more resilient to any type of infection.
- Monitor the reptile constantly – Many people enter a form of routine where they just feed their reptiles regularly, and that’s about it. You should also check your reptiles daily for signs of stress, dehydration, or any other health issues, including mites. The earlier you detect these health problems, the sooner you can take measures and the faster the reptile will recover.
- Speak to your vet – Always keep your vet on the line in case you need professional guidance before and during the infection. The expert can advise you on what to do in case of mild infections to eradicate the problem fast and effectively.
Treatment Methods for Reptile Mites
So, all your prevention tactics have failed, and you now have a mite infestation on your hands. What now? Fortunately, I have some great anti-mite tactics for you.
- Quarantine – This should be the first step. It doesn’t matter how severe the outbreak is, how many reptiles you have, or any other factor. Prepare a hospital tank immediately and move the reptile there. This allows you to clean and disinfect the main terrarium more effectively and treat your pet properly at the same time.
- Topical medication – Ivermectin and selamectin are two of the most powerful ointments you can use to eradicate skin mites.
- Oral medication – These include fenbendazole and metronidazole can also counter mites, parasites, and infections. These need to be delivered in precise doses, so consult your vet about it.
- Insecticide powders – Some insecticide powders can also work wonders when dealing with skin mites. Think pyrethrin or permethrin.
- Get professional assistance – You should always discuss the situation with your reptile vet, no matter the outbreak’s severity. We’re talking about administering various types of medications, which usually come with precise doses and the risk for various side effects. A reptile professional’s insight is priceless in this sense.
- Generalized cleaning and disinfection – Empty the terrarium completely (substrate, equipment, decorations) and clean and disinfect everything. You can use an insecticide in the process to eradicate mites and their eggs and larvae at the same time.
Although there are several treatment and prevention methods available, keep in mind that reptile mites are notoriously difficult to combat. You should have a good prevention routine in place and keep close contact with your reptile vet in case prevention fails.
Skin mites may seem banal and innocuous, but that’s an illusion. Reptile mites are more aggressive and damaging compared to mammalian ones.
Always treat them with the utmost respect and employ shock-and-awe, aggressive treatment methods to counter the threat.