Dealing with the Dreaded Snake Mite (or Acariasis for the Technical Term)!
By Eric Roscoe
Perhaps one of the worst things any pet owner or herp (reptile and amphibian) hobbyist, breeder, or enthusiast can experience is discovering that their newly acquired animal, or collection of animals, has snake mites. This is due to several reasons including the fact that mites have the very high potential of very quickly spreading to other animals housed in the same room or collection, as well as the fact that mites can serve as vectors for several more devastating and serious diseases or disorders seen in captive reptiles, including IBD (Inclusion body disease) in boas and pythons for example, anemia (blood loss) in severe cases, and even simply causing distress and discomfort for the animals they parasitize externally. But there is also no need to fear or panic, as there are numerous ways of controlling and preventing the spread and establishment of these pesky parasites, which will be described in this article, along with some other basic preventative measures and a brief introduction to the biology and natural history of these mites. Overall, discovering the presence of mites is not necessarily indicative of being an irresponsible, negligent, or otherwise bad pet owner since nearly every keeper, especially those who may be experienced and long running are familiar with these parasites. However, if mites become a chronic problem and/or the infestation is allowed to become severe, there may well be issues to consider when avoiding a potential source for your new pet reptile.
While snake mites are not the only ectoparasites seen in captive reptiles, they are perhaps the most common in herpetoculture and among pets. The general, technical term for an infestation of ectoparasities such as mites or ticks is known as “acariasis”. Some other ectoparasites seen in captive reptiles that should at least be briefly mentioned here can include chigger mites (family Trombiculidae), lizard mites (Hirstiella trombidiformis), and hard shelled ticks (family Ixodidae). Chigger mite larvae can usually be identified by their small, pinpoint size, six legs, and red coloration. They are mobile, and most commonly infest the skin and scale folds around limbs or sometimes other dorsal surfaces. Ticks especially are typically larger and more conspicuous than mites, are mobile, and are most commonly seen and associated with wild caught or imported animals rather than captive born animals. Ticks can generally be treated and removed individually in most cases using appropriately sized tweezers of forceps, although some care should be taken in removing them to ensure their lodged head and mouth pieces are also removed and not left to potentially create infections.
The Importance of Quarantine!
Quarantining any new arrivals or otherwise newly acquired animals is perhaps the most important preventative measure that can be undertaken to quickly and proactively identify and control and mite infestations. Quarantining involves housing a newly acquired animal(s) away from where the main collection is located for a set period of time to monitor for and treat any potential diseases and/or parasites that animal may be carrying. Quarantining can be done in a separate room or area of the residence, or even off site at another residence or facility. The set time period for quarantining will oftentimes vary from source to source, but a minimum of a 30-60 day, or even 90 day periods are most typically recommended. When quarantining, it is also important to keep the enclosure and setup more simplistic than elaborate (but yet still be secure and escape proof), including using substrates ( such as newspaper, paper towels, or lighter colored cage liner material for example) in which any mites can easily be spotted or detected. Only after this set amount of time passes should an animal then be introduced or moved into the main part of a collection.
So What Exactly are Snake Mites?
Snake mites (Ophionyssus natricus) are a small, eight (8) legged species of mite belonging to a much larger class of invertebrates known as Arachnida, which include all species of arachnids including spiders, ticks, mites, scorpions, and other arachnids. While the vast majority of mite species are harmless and non-parasitic in their natural history, the snake mite does parasitize both captive and wild reptiles and can be harmful. They most frequently are seen on and parasitize snakes, although other terrestrial reptiles can also be affected (such as many lizards), while primarily aquatic to semi aquatic animals or animals otherwise requiring moisture (such as amphibians) are less prone to them for obvious reasons. Snake mites also tend to be reptile specific in their host selection, and very rarely are known (if at all) to parasitize humans or other animals, although they can very easily be spread through these means on clothing or other objects if an animal with mites is handled. They have been known to also parasitize rodents on rare occasions (Mader 1996). Certainly, any live feeder rodents used in between a mite infested animal and one that is not has the potential for serving as a vector for them. Conversely, any species of mites that routinely parasitize rodents have not, to date, been known to affect reptiles. In fact, snake mites are so much so host specific, that they have evolved extremely similar optimal thermal preferences to that of the snakes that host them, being 75-85 degrees F and requiring humidity of 70-90%. Generally, snake mites will be killed or negatively affected by any temperatures exceeding 105 degrees F or below 38 degrees F for prolonged periods of time over several days. They will also desiccate at humidity levels below 20% (Barker and Barker). Snake mites have five known life stages, and their color, size, and appearance varies depending on their life stage. All life stages are wingless and cannot jump, but some life stages can be moderately to highly mobile. The following five life stages/life cycle of these mites is described below:
1. Eggs: The eggs of snake mites are typically invisible to the naked eye, are adhesive (sticky), and are most typically laid along the rims of an enclosure, near the ocular (eyes or eye scales), ventral/anal scale(s) of an animal, or other areas that may be dark and moist. A single adult female snake mite typically lays anywhere from 10 to 25 eggs at a time, and up to 60-80 eggs during its lifetime. Depending on the ambient temperatures, eggs usually hatch in 1 to 4 days after being laid.
2. Larval Stage: After hatchling, the mites enter their second life stage known as the larval stage. This stage typically lasts for 1 to 2 days, have limited mobility, and are a non feeding stage. This stage is also usually very difficult to see to microscopic to the naked eye, but are most often pale white, or yellowish in color.
3. Protonymph Stage: The third stage in the life cycle is the protonymph stage. The protonymphs are often visible to the naked eye, and are pale whitish, to yellowish in color, or reddish after feeding, and can be very mobile. The protonymphs must feed before entering their next life stage, and their life span ranges from a couple of days to two or three weeks, with molting taking place usually one to two days after feeding.
4. Deutonymph Stage: After feeding and molting, the fourth life stage of snake mites is the deutonymph stage. This life stage is also visible to the naked eye, but usually does not move (or has limited mobility), and is non feeding like the larval stage. Deutonymphs are dark reddish to blackish in color, and usually last for 1 to 2 days before molting into the last life stage, the adult.
5. Adult Stage: The adult stage is the final and reproducing life stage of snake mites. Being visible to the naked eye, they can vary in color and size from yellowish or tan and relatively smaller in males, and larger, black to dark reddish in females (which are most often seen and known of in more moderate to severe infestations). The adult stage is also highly mobile and is a feeding stage that usually feeds on the animal for 1 to 6 days. They can travel up to 8 inches per minute (48 feet per hour) when engorged, and up to 11 inches per minute (or 55 feet per hour) according to Barker & Barker. The adult stage can live for 10 to 40 days before laying eggs again.
Where Do They Come From?
Another commonly asked question is where do snake mites come from? As it has been previously discussed, snake mites are highly mobile and can very easily spread via direct or indirect contact with other already mite infested animals, enclosures, or collections as well as improper or non-existent quarantine measures. Substrates are also often believed to be responsible for harboring and spreading mites, but are unlikely to be a cause on their own unless proper cleaning and quarantine procedures are not followed from previous use or exposure to infested animals. Snake mites occur in herpetoculture and pet ownership situations worldwide, and their exact origin is uncertain, although it is most likely that they ultimately originate or originated from wild caught and imported animals which serve as natural hosts for these mites in their native ranges (possibly Africa with ball pythons, or Python regius, serving as the natural host, or other areas and species).
Why would they become a problem then? In the wild, snakes (as well as other animals) normally have the ability to cope with low to moderate levels of parasites without significant or adverse effects due to their periodic ability to shed their skin (ecdysis) of any excess or unwanted external parasites and generally have the ability to more greatly disperse. In captivity, however, an animal does not have the ability to disperse (they are typically confined to an enclosure), and any parasite loads then tend to become more concentrated and potentially more severe. Animals in captivity may also become stressed, and their immune systems become impaired or compromised as a result. And thus, any diseases, parasites, or other disorders that animal may have normally been able to either fend off or cope with can manifest and become more prevelant.
How Can I Tell if My Snake/Reptile has Mites?
Being ectoparasites, which are parasites that feed externally on the blood and other bodily fluids of other animals known as hosts, most cases of snake mites can be seen and confirmed visually on the animal or within the enclosure (i.e. in water bowls), particularly the protonymph and adult life stages. These stages most often appear as small dark specks of “dirt” or pin points with legs or that move. Drowned adults and protonymphs in the animal’s water bowl for example, often appear as flecks of pepper. Feeding stages of these mites also frequently cause discomfort for your snake (or other reptile), and other signs and symptoms can include frequent or prolonged soaking, abnormal restlessness or activity within the enclosure, and/or conditions indicating anemia in severe infestations (which can include increased lethargy, paler bodily color and appearance, and other signs and symptoms). You can also become familiar with recognizing and identifying the various life stages of mites mentioned above as a way of distinguishing them from either any other ectoparasites that can parasitize reptiles, or invertebrates which may be benign and harmless to your reptile.
Treatment Options for Animals
When mites are spotted or detected on an animal and/or inside the enclosure, it should be assumed that they are also present on the animal, including within and underneath scales, eye caps and ocular scales, and anal or ventral scales. If detected, the animal should first be removed from its enclosure and then soaked in a shallow combination of warm water (75-85 degrees F) and Betadine solution. The water should not be too deep as to unintentionally drown your animal or be too hot or too cool, and the tub or enclosure in which the animal is being soaked in must be secure to prevent escape and be adequately ventilated. The intended purpose is to drown and/or suffocate any mites which may be on the snake, but not in the enclosure (see the next section below on treatment options for the enclosure). The exact times and durations the animal should be soaked will vary depending on the source and circumstances, from 30 minutes to an hour or more daily, to every several days. It is also very important to remember that many of the insecticides, and other toxins used in mite treatment (such as no pest strips, pyrethrins, and pyrethroids commonly associated with commercially available mite sprays and treatments) should not be used directly on animals (especially any amphibians, very small or young animals, or animals that may be otherwise compromised in health) or within close vicinity to or otherwise poorly ventilated areas with animals as they can be toxic or even fatal in some cases. The use of oils such as olive oils, baby oils, or mineral oils is also widely suggested, and can often be used to detect and dislodge attached mites, although some care and caution should be applied when using these, particularly on small, young, or otherwise health impaired animals.
Some treatments, such as Fipronnil (a commonly used ingredient in the Frontline treatments) can be applied topically to animals, but care should still be taken to disallow exposure of these substances to or in an animal’s eyes, mouth, ear openings (if a reptile other than a snake), nostrils, and/or heat pits. Also be sure to rinse an animal thoroughly after each treatment to reduce any potential toxicity to the animal itself. Other methods, such as thermal or heat treatments, dehumidifiers, and mite desiccants are other options that can be used to treat animals, but caution should obviously be used when applying them to animals, and only when the thermal and humidity tolerances for the particular species in question are known and understood. Treating the animals themselves is often more simply done than their enclosures described in the next section. There are overall many differing treatment options and methods that exist for treating animals themselves, some of which may be more successful than others. Generally, if a treatment option has been proven to be safe for the animal and works best for your particular situation or circumstance, then it should continue to be used for as long as it is effective.
Treatment Options for Enclosures
Once mites are seen or detected, not only will the animal need to be treated accordingly, but more importantly, the enclosure itself will need to be as well. Only treating the animal in question will not completely eliminate an infestation, as both feeding and non-feeding life stages including eggs may still be present within the enclosure. Enclosures, or at least their edges and corners can also be treated in the absence of mites just as a simple monthly preventative measure. In nearly all cases, an animal or animals (if the enclosure is a multi system set of enclosures or racks) will need to first be removed before enclosure treatment is safe to conduct. In addition, any water bowls and leftover or uneaten foods should also be removed from the enclosure and be thoroughly cleaned or disposed of prior to treatment to reduce the possibility of absorbing or collecting any airborne chemicals or particles from treatment. Enclosures can also be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. Substrate can and should be removed and disposed of (preferably outside or well enough away from any animals being kept), and the enclosure and its sides should be thoroughly scraped and vacuumed. Cleaning and disinfecting the enclosure in of itself will not kill all of the life stages of mites, but may be successful in drowning at least some of the mites in an infestation. Helpful cleaning products which may be used can include diluted bleach solutions, Clorox or other all purpose cleaners, veterinary and hospital grade F10 cleaners. Any furnishings in the enclosure in which mites may be able to hide and/or lay eggs in, as well as the enclosure itself if circumstances allow, can also be removed and exposed to either thermal treatments or cold treatments outside of the mite’s optimal temperature zones mentioned above (obviously with any animal removed from the enclosure for the duration of such treatments).
Pyrethrins, and pyrethroids as well as other chemicals, pesticides, and insecticides are also commonly associated with many of the commercially available mite sprays and treatments, and can often be used with success inside an enclosure, but should be applied in a well ventilated area or enclosure. Larger areas or enclosures can of course be more difficult to treat, and require more dedication and persistence in treating. Well known brands such as Provent-a-Mite, Black Knight, and their over the counter equivalents such as NIX, RID, Equate bedding spray, 5% Seven Dust, and Pronto designed for human lice treatment are often available at low or affordable prices from many department and pharmaceutical stores, and are often reported to be effective at treating mites within an enclosure. These chemical particles often have the effective potential of also reaching and killing mite eggs and other difficult to access or hidden mite life stages that a simple cleaning may miss or fail to kill. These may be available in your local or area reptile specialty store, online, or through other vendors at your local/area reptile show. Some of the other commercially available pet industry sprays sold in retail stores, such as RepRinse and Mite Off are frequently reported to have very low to no effectiveness against treating mites. After usage of these products, it is also important to allow the treated enclosure to aerate for several minutes to hours depending on the product or solution being used before reintroducing the animal back into the enclosure. Other methods such as no pest strips have also been traditionally and historically used to treat mites. However, there have been increased findings of organophosphate poisoning associated with direct contact or indirect contact from these strips’ fumes, and are no longer as widely recommended as a treatment option than they were before. Fatalities from organophosphate poisoning can often be subtle and remote, and thus oftentimes not be easily attributable to the use of such products. Overall, the directions and instructions for using whichever spray or treatment being utilized should always be understood and taken into consideration when it comes to their usage. As with treatment options for animals, there are overall many differing treatment options and methods that exist for treating the enclosures, some of which may be more successful than others. Generally, if a treatment option has been proven to be safe for the animal and works best for your particular situation or circumstance, then it should continue to be used for as long as it is effective.
To conclude, while this article may have run long, it is our hope that anyone with mite related issues or concerns takes the time to read this article and use it as an up to date resource (or at least the sections they have questions about or have the greatest interest in) with the end goal of gaining a greater understanding of “how mites work”, the products and techniques that are out there for controlling or eradicating them, and some general FAQs about mites. While there are of course several other great in depth articles out there on this topic that we would encourage readers to consider as well, it is also our hope that this article can provide some of the new and updated products, information, and techniques for controlling mites that continue to develop as trends further in the modern reptile and pet industries. As mentioned in previous sections, there are numerous ways and techniques different people use in different situations when it comes to mites. As long as a product or technique is effective in killing mites, is safe to use on or around an animal, and/or is applied or utilized properly so as to prevent poisoning of or harm to an animal, then it should be considered a viable treatment for these pesky parasites.