Snake mite - how to treat them effectively.
Updated: Aug 8, 2021
Snake mites are ectoparasites that feed on blood. In a previous blog we investigated the life cycle and living conditions of the snake mite, Ophionyssus natricis. While there are many types of mites that feed on reptiles, Ophyionyssus natricis is by far the most common. There are more than one way to get mites and if it is picked up straight away, it is not a sign of poor husbandry. A mite infestation, across multiple enclosures can be a sign of poor husbandry.
Why isn't snake mite a problem in the wild like it is in captive snakes?
The mite affecting snakes and (less commonly lizards) is known as Snake mite, Ophionyssus natricis. Snake mites are parasites, feeding off the blood from reptiles. They thrive in the same conditions in which many of our captive snakes do, are extremely small and can hide in miniscule crevices; therefore making them difficult to eradicate. With most species of mite dwelling on the skin surface, heavy infestations are seldom found in wild reptile specimens due to ecdysis (skin shedding) providing sporadic removal of the mite population on an individual (Davies, 2008) and the exposure to predators of mites such as ants.
Wild Carpet python, Morelia spilota
Why do I have mites?
There could be several reasons you now have mite in your collection. Did you handle a snake in a pet shop or at a mates place? Did a mate visit that has mites and handle your animals? Have you been side-tracked and the cleaning of cages got the better of you? Was your new acquisition wild caught? If left to their own devices and no treatment is offered they can quickly spread from one cage to a whole collection. Ophionyssus natricis are strongly attracted to the smell of reptiles and have been known to travel several metres, to find a host. This is one way they are able to spread so quickly. Even if you do not see mites in surrounding enclosures, treat them as if they were infected with mite.
What are the signs of mites?
Animal(s) soaking in water bowls continuously, even if it isn't hot. This is generally a sign of infestation, not a couple of mites. Soaking may kill the adults, but usually the eggs survive. It gives the snake short term relief and is a natural way of a snake coping with mites.
A change in temperament is often present in a snake with mites. Mites often make a snake lethargic. Mites need a blood meal to survive, they get in under the scales and suck the blood from their host. This can weaken the snake. As well as being lethargic, irritation is another obvious temperament change. Your snake will not be used to the feeling of the mites lodging themselves under the scales and feeding. Your snake will be uncomfortable with this feeling and want them gone. The irritation will disperse when the mites have been irradiated.
You may see black specks floating in the water bowl. These are mites that have drowned while the snake was soaking in the water bowl.
Tiny dark objects moving around the cage. Mites don't just stay on the snake. They will move off the snake to lay their eggs around the enclosure, utilising the dark places in corners and joins. This is why it is imperative to treat both animal and enclosure to eradicate them.
Tiny dark objects on the snake. You will see these mainly around the eyes, around the nostrils, in the labial pits, in the skin folds beneath the lower jaw, around the vent, under the scale on the belly, in the heat pits along the jaw (pythons) around the ears (lizards). It is usually the engorged female that the naked eye is able to see.
You may see the organisms on your skin after handling the snake in question or cage cleaning. These are some of the mites from your snakes enclosure. Whilst they will not breed and feed on us like they do our snakes, there have been reported cases of humans being bothered and bitten by them. Another reason to eradicate the problem.
You may be able to spot the mite faeces (which will be white and is commonly referred to as mite dust) on darker coloured snakes. It may look the same as dandruff in dark hair. Moults are also white and left lying around like faeces.
Swollen eyes. Mites will burrow under the scales around the spectacle. (preoccular, postoccular and subocular scales).
Loss of appetite - General stress is enough to make a snake go off its food. Combine the taxing time the body is having, along with possible dehydration, it is not uncommon for snakes to refuse a fed whilst they have mites.
Raised/abnormal scales. Mites burrow in under the scales to suck blood. The burrowing and irritation from the mites causes the scales to raise. This is visible to the naked eye. You should also be able to feel this by rubbing your hands against the grain of the scales. Please note, there are other reasons for raised/abnormal scales but it is also a warning sign for mites.
Dysecdysis - The term used for an abnormal sloughing of a reptile skin. Along with raised scales and dry scabby scales, mites can cause the snake to not shed properly. This can be put down to the invasive parasites and stress.
Snakes rubbing themselves on objects in their enclosure. This provides temporary relief from the itching caused by the mites. A snake will also rub itself on objects in their enclosure to aid in sloughing, they may think a good slough will get rid of the annoying creatures causing them distress.
Common side effects from mites:
Bacterial & viral infections.
Dysecdysis & retained spectacles.
Inclusion body disease - Commonly referred to as IBD.
Reduced immunity to other diseases and infections.
Weight loss and anorexia.
This is a lot of information to digest, we will provide more information on each of these side effects in future blog posts, and link them back so the information is easily accessible.
What treatments are available for snake mite infection (Acariasis)?
While it is imperative that the mite problem be eradicated, there is one major factor that needs to be taken into account before chemicals are applied without any experience. A heavy infestation of mites can kill your snake - but so can insecticides. You need to be absolutely sure your pet is healthy enough to withstand insecticides before beginning any treatment. Seek veterinary care if you are in doubt. Supportive care (fluids, antibiotics, even blood transfusions) may be required before your snake is given any insecticides if it has become weakened from mite. Make sure a reptile is well-hydrated before applying any acaracides. (An acaricide is a pesticide that provides economic control of pest mites and ticks. Mites and ticks are collectively called either acari or acarina.) Overexposure is a common problem. Follow the directions on the label closely. Seizures, twitching, lethargy and unconsciousness may be signs of insecticide toxicity. Toxic exposure to insecticides is not just a concern for your pets, but also for you as well. Always use sprays in a well-ventilated area and wear protective gear (rubber gloves, and face shields or goggles). Thoroughly clean any spilled insecticides, and always wash ANY skin surfaces thoroughly with soap and water if contact was made. Gravid, hatchling, neonate, sensitive and sick - severely debilitated pets shouldn't be given any pesticides without vetinary advice. Treating animals very young or unwell may result in death.
Warm soapy water. This is a method people use that don't like using chemicals, and is often used as a precursor to a chemical treatment to remove excess mites. A small amount of dishwashing soap is added to warm water and the snake is soaked in it. This has to be done daily. The water needs to have a temperature of about 26 deg C/80 F. The soap should cause the mites to drown by removing the layer of air surrounding them, and the water will also drown them. Keep in mind this method won't kill the eggs. Daily water soaks and baths are a nontoxic treatment that will drown a massive amount of mites and decrease the parasite load, but will not be effective in eradication. The snake will not submerge its head, any mites on the head will not be affected by the soaking. This is a good choice for gravid, hatchling, sensitive and sick - severely debilitated pets until they are healthy enough to handle other treatments. Whilst natural solutions are obviously chemical free, they don't tend to work as effectively as the methods that contain chemicals do. Soaking your snake should be done in a container larger than the snake. These should always contain ventilation holes and a lid so your snake is unable to escape. A 30 minute soak should be adequate. Reptiles should never be left unattended whilst soaking.
Betadine solution. The Betadine solution should be mixed to 10 parts water and 1 part betadine. The water needs to have a temperature of about 26 deg C/80 F. The container should have enough Betadine solution so your snake can soak in it without drowning. The water will drown the mites on the snake and the iodine in the Betadine will help disinfect any punctures created by the mites. Keep in mind this method won't kill the eggs. Soaking your snake should be done in a container larger than the snake. These should always contain ventilation holes and a lid so your snake is unable to escape. A 30 minute soak should be adequate. Reptiles should never be left unattended whilst soaking. Daily water soaks and baths are a nontoxic treatment that has the ability to drown mites and decrease parasite load but will not be effective in eradication. The snake will not submerge its head, any mites on the head will not be affected by the soaking. This is a good choice for gravid, hatchling, sensitive and sick - severely debilitated pets until they are healthy enough to handle other treatments.
Oils such as Olive oil and Baby oil. Wiping your snake down with olive oil suffocates mites. Olive oil is nontoxic. The oil should be left on the snake for about an hour before rinsing it off. Olive oil will decrease parasite load but will not be effective in eradication. There will be places on the snake (eyes etc) that will not be coated with oil and therefore unsuccessful in mite extermination. Excessive oil use on a snake can loosen scales and this can lead to scale loss. This can be a messy way of treating mites, and a large snake can be difficult to manoeuvre as the olive oil makes the animal slippery. Do not put on the eyes.
Biological control. Biological control was previously used to control pests on plants and has been adapted for use in herpetoculture. It is the use of living organisms to attack and destroy pests. In this case, predatory mites (Taurrus mites) are introduced into the enclosure to control and eradicate the snake mite. The predatory mite should kill all snake mite life cycle stages. This is a great option for those that don't like using chemicals as this method has no after effects, and leaves no harmful residues. A infestation may need more than one introduction of predatory mite, as the Taurrus mites last approximately a month. Once the prey source runs out (snake mite), the predatory mites die. Introducing predatory mites is as simple as just adding the container of predatory mite to the enclosure, but note they should not be added within two weeks of using any chemical products. Taurrus can be applied on a regular basis as a preventative treatment by applying small amounts every 4/5 weeks.
Freezing for 5 days and microwaving. This will kill reptile mites, and may be useful for cage furnishing. This is obviously NOT to be used on live animals. I would personally recommend soaking in a bleach solution over freezing or microwaving - one spot, not through freezer.
Fipronil. (Frontline spray) - Can be used on both the animal and the enclosure. Frontline spray is a flea product made for cats and dogs. The active ingredient in Frontline is fipronil and is safe to apply directly to animals, most mammals and reptiles. Care should still be taken to avoid the animal’s eyes, mouth, heat pits (if a python) ear openings (if a lizard) and nostrils. Fipronil is toxic to rabbits so avoid handling your pet rabbit if you have used it. Fipronil works by attacking the nervous system of the mites. It is recommended to thoroughly rinse an animal after each topical treatment to reduce any potential toxicity to the animal itself.
Ivermectin (IVM) Ivermectin can be given either orally, by injection, or a diluted solution can be made into a topical spray and can be sprayed on the snake. Make up any solutions fresh, do not re-use old ones. Ivermectin is an antiparasitic drug that works by dehydrating snake mites on contact. Keep in mind it can also dehydrate your snake while it’s active. Some snakes will respond negatively to Ivermectin, while others won't have a problem with it. For a topical spray, dilute Ivermectin with water. Shake the bottle vigorously, and spray both the animal and the cage every two weeks. The spray is light sensitive, so keep it in a dark spray bottle, away from light. Dispose of Ivermectin as solid waste, DO NOT pour it down the drain, it is toxic to marine life. There is known toxicity for Ivermectin in some reptiles. Chelonians and crocodiles (toxic), problematic with very small lizards, chameleons, indigo snakes, juvenile tiger snakes and skinks. Ivermectin has also been recorded to discolour the injection site. A high overdose of Ivermectin can cause extreme sedation in mammals and reptiles. Sometimes Ivermectin has not been as effective as pyrethroids.
Moxidectin (MXD) Moxidectin is applied topically in a spray in the treatment of mites.
Top of Decent/Carrington. It is commonly referred to as TOD. Top of Decent is an aerosol preparation of synthetic pyrethrins. An excellent spray for the enclosure, but not for direct use on animals. This is a natural compound found in some flowers and is often used in the form of a powder for ecto-parasite control in poultry.
Permethrin: a synthetic form of pyrethrin. Take note here that Permethrin, the man-made version of Pyrethrin, is MUCH more toxic. It should never be used on cats and must be diluted correctly for use in reptiles.
NIX and the other lice treatments. Over the counter equivalents such as NIX, RID, and other products designed for humans in the treatment of lice are often available at a much cheaper price from many department and pharmaceutical stores. These have often reported to be effective at treating mites in an enclosure. The chemical particles often have the same effective potential of killing mite eggs and other difficult to access or hidden mite life stages. Sometimes a cleaning misses or fails to kill these stages.
Pyrethroids are synthetic variations of the insecticide pyrethrin, which is found naturally in chrysanthemums. Pyrethroids generally kill the mites in a shorter period of time and have a longer residual activity. . For snakes and lizards, remove the animal and water dish from the enclosure. Spray the substrate and allow it to dry thoroughly. Be sure all vapors have disappeared before returning the animal to the enclosure. Animals showing signs of anemia or weakness should be evaluated by a veterinarian and given supportive therapy prior to treatment with pyrethroids.
Isopropyl alcohol. Pour some isopropyl alcohol on a paper towel and thoroughly wipe it over the entire surface of the enclosure. Isopropyl alcohol will effectively dry out the mites as well as their eggs. You need to be thorough and make sure no crevice or corner has been missed. Isopropyl alcohol evaporates very quickly leaving absolutely no residue and no toxic fumes. The downsides of using isopropyl are: you have to give more effort than the other alternative treatments and during Covid it was impossible to get.
Carbaryl Powder - This was used for mite treatment a long time ago in Australia, but was removed from our shelves in 2013, but is still available in the States. This is a powder that is placed at the bottom of a container. After sprinkling the powder in the container the snake is then added on top of the powder. The snake is then left in this container for a few hours, then rinsed and treated with diluted ivermectin or pyrethroid spray. (Carbaryl is an insecticide used on a variety of crops. Acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) occupational exposure of humans to carbaryl has been observed to cause cholinesterase inhibition, and reduced levels of this enzyme in the blood cause neurological effects. These effects appear to be reversible upon discontinuation of exposure. Headaches, memory loss, muscle weakness and cramps, and anorexia are caused by prolonged low-level exposure to carbaryl resulting from cholinesterase inhibition.)
Pest strips. Not recommended. In bygone times when there were not as many chemical products on the market, pest strips were used in the removal of mites. (Some people do still use this as a method of mite removal, but it is a terrible option. Both you and the pet should avoid direct contact with the strip. There are many varying instructions in the literature, therefore overexposure is common.) Advancements in science have led us to discover that pest strips often contain organophosphates which are very toxic to both us and reptiles. Fatalities from organophosphate (In humans - most patients exposed to organophosphates have come into contact with insecticides. The first organophosphate insecticide was created in the mid-1800s. IT was not widely used until after World War II. Organophosphates are used as medications, insecticides, and nerve agents (as a weapon). Symptoms include increased saliva and tear production, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, small pupils, sweating, muscle tremors, and confusion. Although it can take only minutes for the onset of symptoms to appear, and it can take weeks for them to disappear. Organophosphate pesticide exposure may occur through inhalation, ingestion, or dermal contact. Mostly exposure occurs from an agricultural pesticide, but there are household items, such as ant and roach spray, that also contain organophosphate compounds. This shows you how bad it is for us - let alone being stuck in a cage with a pest strip!) Poisoning from organophosphate can often be subtle and remote, so subtle that the deaths weren't linked to the usage of the products.
Frontline spray - the active ingredient is Fipronil. It is one of the most popular ways at the moment in the treatment and eradication of snake mite.
Whichever treatment you decide to be the best for yourself and your animal/collection - you must follow through with the whole treatment. Skipping steps will have you back to step one. We are not recommending one method over another, merely giving you options to help you make an informed decision. Speak to your reptile vet to find out which method will work best for you - and by taking your animal to the vet you can insure the vet will check your animal over for undetected ailments which might produce side effects. You must also treat the enclosure, not just the snake. Treating the enclosure ensures you are able to get the mites that are currently not living on the host and hiding in the cracks and crevices. Never jump backwards and forwards from handling an animal with mite to handling an animal without mite. This will be the fastest way to cross contaminate. It is advisable to not only change all of your clothes after handling animals with mites, but also shower as well to avoid any mites spreading.
Step by step treatment in treating mites:
Choose your treatment. Always make sure to read the instructions first and follow them to the letter.
Move your snake. Before you start spraying, it’s best to move your snake to a separate enclosure/bin/tub. This ensures that the temporary holding enclosure is mite-free while you start to treat. Move your snake into this enclosure/bin/tub while you work on the snake's enclosure. To ensure your snake's safety ensure this has a lid and holes for ventilation.
Remove everything from the enclosure. Remove everything from the enclosure. This includes any substrate, furnishings such as branches, climbing apparatus, hides, dishes, lighting and heating and more. Separate the salvageable from the unsalvageable. Products like plastic dishes or plastic decorations are easily treated. My advice would be to throw everything else out! It’s best to be cautious with absorbent items, than kick yourself in a few weeks. Mites are notorious for burrowing into anything they can get into like cardboard hides, wooden boxes and branches, lava rocks etc. Seal up all the items you are going to throw out in a bag and throw them straight in the wheelie bin.
Clean the enclosure. Clean your enclosure out with a solution of bleach and warm water. Bleach should make up 3% of the solution. An alternative to bleach is F10. F10 is a veterinary disinfectant and a product that should be used in your reptile room. Rinse this off well. Once your enclosure is completely dry, spray it with either moxidectin, top of descent or frontline. Ensure all corners, cracks and crevices have been sprayed. Leave the enclosure to dry. If possible leave it empty for awhile, away from the animal(s) with mite. Literature suggests 60-80 days is ideal. Repeat the cleaning treatment before reintroducing animals into the enclosure. Remember to wear gloves whilst using bleach.
Clean non-porous cage furniture similarly, but separate to the enclosure. This includes water bowls, hides, plants, rocks, light/heat covers, and any synthetic cage ornaments. Soak these for a good 30 mins, but remember if they are not submerged there is a good chance the mites will climb to the top and survive. Rocks are porous, disinfecting them with bleach solution won’t work. It is recommended to boil rocks and ceramic hides in hot water for approximately half an hour. This should kill all mites on/in the furnishings. Remember to wear gloves whilst using bleach.
Wooden enclosures and furnishings. Honestly, it is much easier to ditch wooden enclosures and furnishings and opt for easier ones to both clean and dry. Remember you only need to miss one mite (the females don't require a male to breed) for the problem to remain.
Substrate. Obviously throw out everything that was in the effected enclosure(s) Mites are tiny and able to hide extremely well. A plain substrate is recommended for ease of detection. Butchers paper, paper towel or even tissue paper are the best substrates to use during this time.
Daily checks on your animals and surrounds. The treatment doesn't stop with cleaning and pesticides. To stay on top of mites, daily checks on your animals should be done for signs of re infestation.
F10 - an essential for anybody who keeps reptiles.
Mites will NOT die off after one clean. This process must be repeated. Usually 4 treatments are required to break the life cycle. If it is not repeated, the life cycle of the mite will allow the female mite to breed again and you will be back to square one. This means anything you have done, time and money spent will be wasted. So persevere. During this time, if you don't already use paper towel/butchers paper/white tissue paper as a substrate, switch to it. The dark body of the mite will show up much easier on the white substrate and you will be able to see if your treatment is working. Whilst your snake(s) are in treatment, use plastic containers for hides and water bowls. White ice-cream containers for hides work perfectly, and a smaller, white container for a water bowl. Not only are these easy to clean, the mites are easy to see against the white. Do what you need to do for your unaffected reptiles first, as you will need to wash any hooks and tools used after they have been near the animals with mites. Once you have finished all undertakings with your healthy reptiles then start with the mite infected animals. After you have finished handling the reptile(s) with mite wash your hands with warm soapy water and use a disposable paper towel to dry off.
Remember, prevention is worth an ounce of cure:
Quarantine. We can not stress the importance of quarantine. One of the most important aspects of quarantine is that it is separate from all of your other reptiles. This will contain any potential disease or outbreak and prevent it from spreading. You should have separate enclosure(s) for use in your quarantine room and nowhere else. Quarantine is not important for just mites, there are numerous diseases that can be easily transmissible. The recommended quarantine period for mites is 12 weeks. 90 days Assume every animal you bring into your collection has mites. We spray no matter who we obtain an animal from. Any cages in quarantine should have bare minimum furnishings. Always feed, clean the cage, handle that reptile last, etc., and wash hands and utensils well afterward.
Monitoring. If you see any changes in your pet - whether it is shedding/scales or behaviour, always get them checked over by a vet. Regular handling (if appropriate) will help you identify any changes in your pet early, which will aid you in rapid treatment.
Substrate. For a long time it was thought mites could be transmitted via substrates. Mites will be harder to detect in substrates such as kitty litter, bark, natural and naturalistic looking enclosures. If you don't quarantine animals try a substrate like butcher's paper. Yes, it doesn't look as good, but you will spot mites much quicker should the problem arise and be able to deal with it sooner.
Furnishings. If using furnishings in your enclosure (natural or synthetic), thoroughly clean them. Do not share furnishings between enclosures. Have what you need for each enclosure, not a few things to be passed around between enclosures.
Hygiene. Good hygiene is a practise you should already have! Washing your hands between handling different reptiles, between the cleaning of different cages and feeding animals will cut down the risk of cross contamination. This should also be done when using different equipment in the reptile room. This is good practise for all sorts of disease, not just mites.
Butcher's paper or any white paper is an excellent substrate whilst treating mites. The mites body shows up aginst the white and it is super easy to clean - simply remove and throw in the bin!
Conclusion: Snake mite sucks, but it isn't the end of the world. It really isn't that different to your kids bringing home nits, or your dog getting fleas - it's a pain in the ass, but completely treatable. Just about every keeper will have to deal with mites at some point. Mite treatment should be started the minute you see mites, not in a couple of days or a week or two. That short time span could mean the difference between "mites" or "a mite infestation". While treating mites is completely accomplishable in your own home, it is recommended that a vet checks your animal over for any current diseases that may react adversely to treatment and to walk you through treatment particularly if it is your first time dealing with the problem. If you take your reptile to a vet for mites, they need to be told when booking the appointment so they are able to take the necessary precautions before you enter the surgery. Mites breed at a rapid rate and if left untreated it may cause serious problems to your animal(s) and serious cost to your pocket in treatment. Mites are slowly building up resistance to the commonly used treatments. This is why prevention is better than cure.
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We are not vets and have had no formal training. Anti-parasitic drugs contain chemicals and can be toxic, making them dangerous to use on reptiles. ALWAYS check with a reptile veterinarian before using any form of chemical - either in sprays or washes. Always use common sense, follow the instructions on the label, and if there is something you are unsure of - ask for help.
In Australia no products are licenced for use against mites. Any products used are at the owner's risk. Unless you see a vet that has reptile knowledge dose rates are generally formulated using sound scientific principles from knowledge of other species. While all due care is taken to ensure the appropriate recommendations are made concerning medications, where medications are used off-label the client accepts all risk of adverse reactions and there is no liability on the manufacturer, the author, or the seller of the product.
Resources and recommended reading:
Eipper S.C. 2012 A guide to Australian Snakes in Captivity - Elapids & Colubrids, Reptile Keeper Publications, Burleigh Heads