Parasitology: Snake Mites (Ophionyssus natricis)
Parasitic infections are not only one of the most common types of diseases in reptiles and amphibians but it is also one of the main causes of death in reptiles. In this post, we will focus on any reptile keeper's nightmare - mites!
The most common type of mite to infect reptiles is the Ophionyssus natricis, commonly known as Snake Mite. However, please note that reptiles and amphibians can be infected by other types of mites as well.
Mites are ectoparasites. This means that they live on the surface of their host's body and so are usually visible to the naked eye. They mostly affect lizards and snakes with tortoises showing lower numbers of this type of parasitic infection. They are an absolute nightmare to control if you have a numerous collection of reptiles as they can be transmitted from one reptile to the other and can carry diseases as well as cause disease themselves. Interestingly, snake mites can be transmitted to humans and cause septicaemia by transmitting bacteria - this is known as Zoonoses.
Reptiles with a heavy mite infestation will usually suffer from anaemia due to blood loss. Mites tend to target protected areas of the outer body such as under the scales, eyes, ears, mouth and under the tail. It is thought that a cluster of mites at the corner of a reptile's mouth can contribute to mouth rot.
Although mites can be visible to the naked eye, they are extremely small creatures and can be very difficult to spot at times. They also tend to hide in areas that are less visible unless one is closely inspecting a reptile's body. Therefore, reptile keepers must watch out for signs that their reptile might be infected. For instance, some reptiles will spend longer periods soaking in their water bowls whereas others may show a lack of appetite, regurgitate their meal or have difficulty shedding their skin. Of course, some of these signs can indicate other types of illnesses altogether. However, when linked to a mite infestation, they usually indicate a heavy or prolonged exposure to it.
Most vivariums will present optimum conditions to the proliferation of mites. They develop from egg to adult stage within 6 days with adults living from 10 to 32 days. They can easily escape through ventilation vents and infect any other vivariums in the room. If a mite infestation is identified, the incredibly difficult battle against them begins!
The very first step a keeper should take is to consult a specialised vet. They will not only be able to present you with the best treatment for your reptile but also help you with the best method of controlling the infestation in the vivarium and its accessories. While you wait for your vet appointment, try soaking your reptile as often as possible to help alleviate the symptoms caused by the annoying little buggers.
If you keep reptiles and would like to know more about mites, I would highly recommend Paul Schneller and Nikola Pantchev's book 'Parasitology in Snakes, Lizards and Chelonians: A Husbandry Guide'. It explains many different types of parasitic infections that reptile keepers may come across and so it is a great point of reference. However, I would like to emphasise that the book DOES NOT substitute a visit to the vet. Although it mentions the most usual methods of treating certain parasitic infections, only a qualified reptile specialist vet will be able to accurately diagnose your reptile. The book is merely a point of reference if you want to know more about the subject and be better prepared to avoid them as well as spot any symptoms that your reptile may be showing.