Detail of a snake mite.

Dealing with snake ticks & mites

Infestations by ticks & mites are known as Acariasis.

Reptile ticks (Ixodoidea) and mites (Ophionyssus natricis) will eventually kill their hosts if left untreated. The ticks and mites themselves are not particularly common, but they still remain one of the biggest killers of captive reptiles, which is a real tragedy, because these parasites are not too difficult to defeat. Both ticks and mites feed from their host's blood supply removing blood and vital nutrients which leaves the snake anaemic. This makes the snake far more susceptible to illness, and as ticks and mites also introduce diseases into the snakes blood supply while feeding, the snake will eventually die. Post-mortem's carried out on snakes which have died due to a mite infestation usually reveal that the reptile had died from septicaemia.

Tick or mite infestations are usually indicated by one or more of these behaviours:

1. Unusual restlessness in the snake (usually in the early stages of infestation).
2. The snake seeking to immerse itself in water more often than usual.
3. Unusual digging activity.
4. White specs of dust (mite droppings on the snake's scales).
5. Scales taking on a raised appearance.
6. The snake loosing their appetite.
7. A rapid loss in condition (as infestation advances).
8. General listlessness (usually in advanced cases).

It is always a good idea to keep records of when your snake moults (shed their skin), as this could help you identify possible problems much earlier. Irratic shedding is another symptom of having ticks or mites.

How to free your snake from ticks

Ticks are much larger than mites and adult ticks can be seen much more easily than adult mites. Ticks are usually dark brown in colour, but will appear more like a deep red after they have gorged on blood. Ticks can be removed easily if found walking across the scales of a snake, but they are much more difficult to remove if they are beneath the scales, and attached to the snake's skin, as they use their mouth parts to firmly dig in to the skin to feed on the snake's blood.

If you wish to remove a tick yourself, it is important not to attempt to do so by grabbing the tick's head or body with tweezers and pulling it away from the snake, as this can remove the body of the tick but leave it's mouth parts still embedded in the snake. The tick should be removed by holding it's mouth parts with a decent set of metal tweezers and gently pulling it away from the snake, do not try twisting the tweezers as this can also result in the tick's mouth parts being left attached to the snake.

When the tick comes away, it should be placed in alcohol to die, use hot water if you don't have any alcohol available. DO NOT be tempted to crush the tick to kill it as they carry several diseases which can be equally harmful to humans, and be sure to wash your hands and the tweezers when you are finished.

Methods of removing mites from your snake

Mites however, are much more difficult to deal with, they are much smaller than ticks and can breed rapidly and infest a snake without the keeper noticing. Mites are usually black or red in colour, but the poo they leave behind will look like tiny white specks on the snake's body. Removing mites from a snake will require a different procedure.

The size of a mite compared with a 5 pence coin.

This is an adult mite crawling across a 5p coin. Young mites are a fair bit smaller than this and the babies are smaller than the tiny dots around the edge of the coin, so thinking that you are clear of them might be a big mistake !!

One of the safest ways to remove mites is to simply drown them. This is the way snakes themselves remove ticks and mites in the wild. However, mites enjoy living on the snake's face, especially in the eye sockets and nostrils which makes drowning them a lot more difficult. Ticks and mites also tend to congregate around the snake's cloacal opening, under the anal plate and under the large ventral scales.

Tick & Mite - Death By Drowning

Allow the snake to soak in 5cm ~ 10cm of cool to luke warm water for approximately 20 minutes. Don't add anything else to the water, unless advised to do so by your vet. (soaps, shampoos and other chemicals can be very harmful to the snake.) Use an appropriately sized plastic tub for this, complete with a clip on lid with ventilation holes. Juvenile to adult snakes should be fine, but you should still keep a watchful eye on them. Baby snakes however, tend to tire out quickly and are more likely to get into difficulties, so do NOT leave them in the water unattended.

Try to ensure that the tub you use is very clean, and that the water is clean. The surface of the water should look good enough to drink! Shortly ater you place your snake in to the water, the first thing you are likely to notice is all the tiny white particles floating around on the surface of the water, don't be too alarmed, this could be dust particles from the vivarium substrate, but if the snake DOES have mites, then this is more likely to be mite poo.

If mites are present, they will slowly start dropping off of the snake and either sinking or floating. The ones which float might look dead, but they probably aren't. Don't fish them out and place them on any surface as they are likely to start crawling after a while. After 20 minutes is up, prepare another tub of clean water, then transfer the snake to this one and replace the lid. You can now study the contents of the first tub to see what was on the snake. You might need to repeat this procedure several times.

Corn snakes enjoy a nice luke warm bath

It is a good practice to bathe your snake from time to time, most corn snakes seem to enjoy bathing, providing that the water is cool to luke warm, don't use very cold water to clean or bathe a snake as this will shock the snake, and NEVER use hot water, snake's are cold blooded reptiles and hot water is likely to kill them.

Another method of killing snake ticks and mites is to smear a small amount of olive oil all over your snake's body, this will also drown these external parasites, but this is a little messy. Care must be taken to avoid the snake's eyes and nostrils, which unfortunately is where the mites like to hide. The oil can be washed off after 20 minutes or so. If you think you will be unable to remove all ticks and/or mites from your snake, then you will need to visit your veterinarian for more advanced treatments.

Killing ticks and mites via this method is all very well, but will do little to prevent the snake from suffering future infestations if their vivarium or any other type of enclosure is not thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, along with water bowls, vines, hideaways, pieces of bark etc, in fact, nothing short of a complete fumigation is needed. Ask your vet for advice on what type of disinfectant to use for this. Most of your vivarium furniture could be cleaned in a dishwasher, although pieces of bark and other soft woods could be more problematic!

You should now house your snake in a suitably sized ventilated plastic tub, lined only with white paper towel. Check the snake every day, especially on the face, around the anal plate and under all the large ventral scales. Look out for 'raised' scales anywhere on the snake as this could also be harbouring a parasite. Check the water bowl and white paper regularly for signs of ticks or mites. Place the snake back in their original home only after you feel confident that your snake is tick and mite free.

Keeping your snake Tick & Mite free

Snake ticks and Mites are a little like cat fleas, you may think you have completely eradicated them, only to see them 'bounce' back again. This is caused by not destroying all of the parasite's eggs and/or babies which are incredibly small. The only solution is to repeat the above over and over until they really do die off.

If like myself, you have a collection of snakes, ticks and mites can be a real horror, so any new snakes entering your collection should be quarantined for a while until you are sure that they are free of any external parasites. The best way to do this is to have a vivarium set up in a different room from your other snakes. Use white paper towel for their bedding and keep a close lookout for anything other than snake poo appearing on the paper. Introduce them only once you are satisfied they are clean.