Snake Mites - How to get rid of them

Raymond Hoser
488 Park Road
Park Orchards, Victoria, 3114, Australia.

Originally published in December 2003 in The Herptile:Journal of the International Herpetological Society 28(4):146-155,168-176.


I refer to the letter to the editor of the June 2003 Herptile by Pam Mackale and her despair at being unable to get rid of snake mites.

These are without doubt enemy number one for keepers of reptiles and must under no circumstance be allowed in collections.

Noting that Pam is not alone with this problem, I present here some solutions to the problem in the form of a longer article. The following is written in simple language and presents alternative means to solve the problem so that keepers can choose what's appropriate to their situation.

While most of what follows is derived from the experiences of myself and close herpetological colleagues, there is quite a body of literature detailing mites and how to deal with the problem. Hence, further sources of information are provided at the end of this article.


Infestations by mites and ticks are known as Acariasis.

Reptile mites (Ophionyssus natricis) are without doubt one of the greatest killers of captive reptiles.

This is a great tragedy as they are so easy to control.

A mite infestation is usually indicated by one or more of the following:

    • Unusual restlessness in the reptile (usually in the early stages of infestation)
    • The reptile seeking to immerse itself in water
    • Unusual digging activity
    • White specs of dust (mite droppings on the scales)
    • Scales taking on a raised appearance
    • A loss of appetite
    • A rapid loss in condition (as infestation advances)
    • General listlessness (usually in advanced cases)

If you have good records, you'll also notice an increase in shedding frequency and/or a shedding brought on prematurely as a result of the mite infestation.

These tiny arachnids live under scales.

They are usually hard to see, except where they congregate around the eyes, under the anal plate and similar places.

If you suspect that you have a mite infestation you should immediately check the suspected reptile and all others in your collection.

Mites, if present can often be found drowned in the water bowl, where they take on the appearance of flecks of pepper. They may also be found hiding under scales in the places just indicated and as opaque flecks under scales elsewhere on the body, but particularly under the larger ventral scales.

With care, one or more mites can be removed and you will see them move.

When in large numbers they kill the reptile by removal of blood and poisoning what's left.

Postmortem's usually reveal death by septicemia.

Ophionyssus natricis which is the species most commonly seen on reptiles is usually brown in color, although when filled with blood may take on a reddish hue.

They breed very rapidly (a 30-90 day lifecycle in most cases) and there are five stages in the life-history.

The younger stages are microscopic and hence it's generally only the adults that are seen by the reptile keepers.

As already mentioned, the white droppings from mites are usually visible on the scales as white dots. In particularly bad cases mites themselves will be seen walking over the reptile.

The first three indicators above of mites, all reflect the efforts of the reptile itself to remove the mites.

Infected reptiles commonly soak themselves in a bid to drown the mites.

This works well in the wild situation, but in captivity any relief is only temporary at best.

Another indicator of mites is when a non-digging reptile starts to dig excessively or becomes unusually active. This may be the reptile trying to literally scrape the mites off the head or hoping that the mites will fall off.

In the wild state these methods work well, as the likelihood of the mite climbing back onto the moving reptile are remote.

However in captivity, where both are confined to a cage, the mites are soon able to find the reptile again and continue their attack.

'Shelltox Peststrips' with Dichlorvos (better known as 'Vapona') as the active ingredient, are the safest most effective means known to combating mites, but are getting harder to obtain.

There are numerous variants of procedures used to kill mites with pest strips (or pyrethrin-based equivalents, like dog flea collars), many of which have been trialled with success.

However below is the most reliable and safe (for the reptile) procedure for dealing with mites and then alternative methods.

Furthermore it's been shown in recent years that there are several species of mites that commonly attack reptiles besides Ophionyssus natricis. Some of these species may have different animals as preferred hosts at other times. Up to 250 species of mites are thought to have been implicated in mite infestations in reptiles at one stage or other, although not all may have caused fatalities or disease in the reptile hosts.

Hence care should be taken in terms of other non-reptile animals kept or moved into proximity with your reptiles as they may infect your own reptiles with these parasites.


The attack against the mites needs to be two fold.

In order to kill off mites both reptile and cage must be cleaned of mites.

In terms of the reptile itself, it should be placed in a small dry plastic container, with clear sides or lid and with an appropriate amount of pest strip.

No water should be in the container and preferably no substrate either.

A white container is best.

The ventilation in the container needs only be minimal and in fact it is preferred this way.

The reason is that then you'll be able to use less pest strip to do the job.

If placing a reptile in a container 30 cm X 15 cm X 15 cm high, with next to no ventilation, a segment of (new and previously unused) strip about 2 cm X 2cm square will probably be enough.

This is cut from the larger sized strip that comes in the packet.

The reptile is then placed in the same container with the strip and nothing else. No substrate, no water, nothing.

In theory you should be able to just smell the pest-strip smell and nothing more.

This will be enough to kill the mites.

The best way to set the correct dosage in a (virtually) sealed container, is to place the reptile and the pest strip in the container and leave for a few minutes.

You should then place your nostril up against the air hole into the container and see if you can smell the pest strip.

If you can just smell it, then your dose rate is correct. If the smell is strong and pungent to you, then your dose it too high. Remember the reptiles will be smelling it as well!

Just a whiff of pest strip should be enough to kill the mites.

Assuming the reptile has mites, the mites should start to fall off and die within 15 minutes and within an hour, all mites on the reptile should have fallen off as dead.

You will see the specs (mites) on the floor of the container.

You should observe the reptile continuously for this period. If it appears to gasp or act in any other way indicative of immediate threat to life, the reptile and pest strip should be separated.

Mere movement around the container is however acceptable.

This treatment should also be repeated every three days three times, so as to wipe out eggs or mites missed the first time.

While mites and their larval forms are killed by pest strip fumes, it's uncertain if eggs are and so it is necessary to repeat the process at three day intervals three times to make sure all eggs and larval forms are also killed.

Simultaneous to the above, you should fumigate the cage which was also infected with the mites.

This is done by placement of a larger amount of pest strip inside the cage so that it has a noticeable and pungent smell of pest strip.

This should remain in the cage for a month to kill off any mites, hatching eggs and the like.
Contrary to what is written in other books, there is no need to specifically clean, wash or fumigate the material because of the mites.

The pest strip will do this for you and the odors will go in to places you simply cannot clean.

Adjacent areas of the reptile room (not inside cages) can be sprayed with insecticide of a more general variety and it's also prudent to spray a surface insecticide in between cages to create a barrier to mite movement between the cages.

Almost all commercially available surface sprays will kill mites, but as some are toxic to reptiles if they have excessive contact, their use should be confined to the areas between cages and not in the cages.

Following the mite treatment of the affected reptile, it should be 'drinked' as in offered a drink of water.

It should then be moved into a known to be mite free cage.

If uncertain, then set-up a small cage with minimal furnishings and treat with a double (or more) dose of pest strip for the same time frame as the reptile is treated and at the same time.

Before placing the reptile in the new cage, remove the pest strip material and air it out.

While research has shown mites to be mobile parasites, they often appear in one or two cages and no others.

However as a precaution if you have a mite infestation, you should assume your whole collection may have them and treat accordingly.

A single packet of pest strips will rid even the largest collection of mites.

Noting that mites spread through snake bags, hooks and the like, all these materials as used by yourself should be similarly fumigated.

The best way to do this is to place for a day or so in a container with pest strip and allow the strip fumes to wipe out the mites.

You will also have to repeat the process every three days three times, or if you are lazy, simply leave the implements in the pest-striped container for a full nine days

Washing of the implements won't be necessary.

The reptile itself should be re-treated for mites in the same manner weekly for four weeks and checked each time for any further mites falling off.


Pest strips are so effective at killing mites, that even traces of their fumes are usually enough to kill hatching eggs and larval mites.

Not only that, but residues from pest strips are usually enough to keep further mite infestations at bay for quite some time.

There are quite a number of claims in the literature to the effect that pest strips and their primary ingredient, Dichlorvos are also deadly to some reptiles, particularly younger specimens and particularly young Death Adders (Acanthophis).

Investigation of these claims has come up with conflicting information, although based on experiments with humans and other vertebrates, there is little doubt that there is some effect on reptiles.

Notwithstanding this, by and large it seems that most reptiles that have died following treatment with pest strips have in fact died as a result of the mite infestation itself and not the effects of the pest strip treatment.

Rather, the reptiles would have died anyway.

The pest strips have in turn been blamed for the death caused by the mites.

Notable also is that Dichlorvos is thought to have an effect on vertebrates as a result of long term exposure, not short term as used in mite treatments.

When releasing their grip on reptiles, mites release toxic substances into the blood stream of the reptile.

As a mite infested reptile is treated with a pest strip for mites, it's system will receive a shock as a sizeable number of blood sucking parasites simultaneously release their grip on the reptile.

In terms of sizeable mite infestations, the shock will be noticeable.

Some reptiles will perk up and others will become more listless.

The same symptoms show with other mite treatments as well and are not something caused by pest strips.

The dosages indicated above as necessary to kill mites are effective at doing this. They are also well under the maximum tolerance levels for reptiles.

In one series of tests, healthy reptiles were exposed to more than ten times the dosage indicated for the one hour treatment above, and for more than 12 hours. All failed to show any ill effects and the species tested included snakes and lizards.

Pest strips are not just effective killers of mites. They are also effective killers of spiders, arachnids and insects, including fleas and the primary use of the chemical dichlorvos is as an agricultural insect killer.

If you keep any of these animals, they must be shifted well away from the treated snakes.

Some Sydney Funnel-web Spiders (Atrax robustus) kept in the furthest away part of a room adjacent to a room with some snakes being treated for mite died within 24 hours due to the residual pest strip fumes.

If you have spiders or scorpions with mites, they are best removed manually with a brush.

Pest strips new out of the packet have a strong pungent odor. This declines rapidly when the pest strips are exposed to air.

To prolong use, they are best stored in a sealed plastic bag.

If using older pest strips to kill or treat for mites, you must consider the age of the pest strip and increase the amount of strip used to compensate for the reduced [potency.

However as your own sense of smell sets the dose rate, you shouldn't have trouble working out the correct amount.

For ease of treatment and setting dose rates of pest strip in different containers, it's best to cut up pest strips into small 2 cm X 2cm squares and using as many as necessary in a cage or container to treat for mites.

If several 'squares' are in a single cage, they should be placed as far apart as possible.

The primary ingredient of pest strips is known to be an irritant to human skin and prolonged exposure may be carcinogenic to humans.

Thus gloves should be worn when cutting up the strips and they should always be handled using forceps. If you touch them, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately.

Pest strips and most other mite treatments are known to adversely affect and even kill other invertebrates and aquatic species and so if you have tropical fish or similar creatures in the vicinity, they should be moved to another area for the duration of the treatment.


Noting how prevalent mites are in both captive and wild reptiles, and how easy mite treatment is, it makes sense to treat all incoming reptiles for mites.

Typically incoming reptiles are treated for mites with the above method.

This almost eliminates the otherwise ever present risk of miter infestations arising from bringing in reptiles from outside.

In some states, including Victoria, it is necessary for snake rescuers to release reptiles caught from homes of distressed members of the public.

Because mites are also vectors for diseases, it's regarded as sensible to place the reptile in a container with some 'squares' of pest strip for an hour or so before release.

That way only the reptile is released into a new location … not the mites!


Above I advised that you should observe your reptile continuously when in a container with pest strip segment for an hour or so when treated for mite.

If you have never treated a reptile for mite and/or it is an important reptile, this advice remains true.

However, if you have conducted mite treatments on many occasions and know that your dosages are right and the reptiles will not suffer, it is then possible to simply place the reptile in the container for an hour and then return at the end of the treatment.

In this regard however, common sense must be applied.


Pest strips using Dichlorvos (Vapona) as their key ingredient have been phased out and are now hard to purchase.

Vapona-based products are still sold commercially in the UK, although based on reports from keepers in the UK are now all but gone from there as well.

Vapona products sold in the UK include one sold online as Nuvan 500EC by Novartis Animal Health UK Ltd. Although designed for agricultural use, they may also be used against mites in reptiles using the formula given above. However Nuvan 500EC is scheduled to be removed from the UK Market by 18 April 2004.

There are some non-Vapona based "pest strips" that also work on mites and these are in my view the second treatment of choice. This includes some sold commercially in the form of dog and cat flea collars. These are pyrethrin based and care is needed as some literally don't work against mites.

The methodology is the same as given above.


The best known in Australia is 'Top of descent', which is marketed by Callington Haven Pty Ltd, 2 Euston Street, Rydalmere, NSW, 2116 Phone : (02) 9898 2788 and sells for about $20 a can. It is also available from specialist reptile suppliers.

Alternatives are available in the UK.

The active ingredient is 20g/kg d-Phenothrin which is a synthetic pyrethroid.

This kills insects and mites quickly and yet is apparently harmless to humans and reptiles; at least if used judiciously.

Top of descent is simply sprayed in the cage which is then closed and left. The reptile itself is also lightly sprayed at a distance.

The mites fall off dead.

An hour later, the cage is then aired out and the reptile re-introduced.

The cage is resprayed a week later with the reptile in it.

The cage and substrate do not need specific cleaning or replacement.

Areas around the cage should also be sprayed as should the room containing the reptiles.

Users of the spray hail it's success as a mite treatment.

It's commonly recommended not to allow the reptile water after spray mite treatments.

The reason being that the reptile may bathe in the water, put spray into the water and then drink it, thereby ingesting the chemicals.

If this is likely, then water should not be offered for a day after spraying to allow the most toxic amount of the chemical time to more-or-less come off the reptile.

Alternatively the reptile can be 'drinked' in controlled circumstances, during this phase of the mite treatment.


The first is based on a synthetic pyrethroid (like 'Top of descent') and is sold as a head lice treatment in Australia.

It also works well against mites in reptiles.

A 250 ml bottle sells for about $13.

If using Orange Medic, the compound is diluted to 1 part to range medic to 6 parts water and sprayed on the reptile (all over), with the head area being wiped over with cotton wool immersed in the compound. The film is left on the reptile for an hour before being washed off.

The process is repeated once a week for five more applications. The reptile must also be moved to a mite free cage.

The other (original) cage must be 'sealed' and also fumigated by some means, typically an application of orange medic, by spraying all areas. This treatment for both cage and reptile must be repeated weekly for a total of six weeks.

The contraindications for orange medic from users are that it should not be swallowed by the reptile and that if used during a shedding period, problems may occur.

In terms of the former contraindication, death by ingestion of orange medic is rarely reported and so with common sense shouldn't be an issue.

In terms of the latter, shedding problems attributed to orange medic may in fact be merely those caused by the mite infestation and not the treatment. In other words the product has been wrongly blamed.

Tests with Orange Medic on several mite free snakes (Pythons and Elapids) approaching a slough failed to have any discernable impact on the shedding process, with the snakes shedding as normal (in one piece).

In terms of other aspects of Orange Medic treatment of mites, use is much the same as for Top of Decent.

There are also some sprays sold commercially that also claim to kill mites, including a number of bird treatments. Some work, some don't.

If using a spray to kill mites, it's best to speak with persons who have used them with success, before treating for mites yourself.

Don't automatically believe what the manufacturer claims.

The most popular commercially available spray specifically designed for killing mites and ticks on reptiles is 'Provent-a-Mite', which is available from most herpetological suppliers, or via mail order on the internet. It costs about $30 (Australian) a can and one can will easily deal with a mite infestation in all but the largest of collections.

The spray is best sprayed into a cage before a reptile is introduced. The application lasts 30 days and a second application should ensure that your reptile and cage is mite free.

The spray will kill all mites and larval forms in the cage and on the reptile that will be in contact with the substrate that in turn contains enough fumes to kill the mites.

To properly administer the spray, you hold the can upright and spray at a distance of 12" to 15" from the surface of the substrate at a rate of 1 second per 30 cm.

The enclosure should be ventilated well until the spray has dried and all but the most remnant of vapors have dissipated.

The reptile can then be re-introduced into the cage, but should me monitored for six hours after re-introduction.

If it appears to show signs of gasping or discomfort, it should be removed.

In terms of the reptile itself, if it has a mite infestation already, it should be placed in a small plastic container that has been sprayed with the product and allowed to dry.

The reptile should then be left in the container until after all the mites have fallen off and died.

If uncertain as to when this is, you should assume that it is 30 minutes after you noticed the last mite fall off and die.

It's at that point that the reptile can be placed back in it's now mite eradicated cage.

As with the pest-strip treatment, there is no need to replace cage substrate. Nor is there a need to even quarantine the snake to another cage for any period, save for that in which the spray is actually applied to the cage, allowed to dry and fumes dissipate.


This is an injectable or orally taken substance that is used to treat animals (including humans) for parasites. Ivermectin, made by Merck is sold under several names as 10 mg/ml and 2.7 mg/ml injectable form; 0.153 percent and 1.87 percent paste form; 10 mg/ml liquid oral form and 68 mcg, 136 mcg and 272 mcg tablets. It works well on reptiles with mites, except for turtles (and frogs), which often appear to show a strong allergic reaction, which parallels the reaction of fish to the chemical.

The compound is known to be able to cross the blood-brain barrier and cause coma and even death in higher doses. The margin for error with this product is not great and so it should be used with utmost caution.

In other words, guessing weights and amounts is simply not on!

Some lizards are also known to have allergic reactions to the drug and so if intending using this treatment, it is wise to check that your species is not one of the susceptible ones.

Most snakes respond well to treatment.

As implied here it's not a preferred mite treatment due to the relatively high dosages required relative to the known toxicity levels.

Ivermectin is available from farm suppliers and veterinary surgeons.

The mites ingest the material and fall off the host dead. Ivermectin attacks the nervous system of the mites.

Three doses injected at one week intervals are required to kill all mites and larval stages.

The surrounds of the cage should be sprayed with a barrier causing surface insecticide.

All mites that attack the host reptile will die. Those that don't will starve to death.

Hence using the above treatment, the cage will automatically become mite free as all the mites within it either die or starve to death.

The dose rate for reptiles is usually .2 micro grams per kilo.

Ivermectin is also used to kill nematodes and to prevent heartworms in mammals.

Ivermectin can also be used as a topical spray treatment for mites and trials using it this way have worked well.

If it is used, it should be used at the rate of 5 micro grams per litre of water. Both reptile and cage should be sprayed and the treatment should be repeated a week later. The reptile must be sprayed all over (top and bottom), head and tail.

Persons using the dosage and treatment just indicated claimed success in eradicating mites.

Spraying the cage and injecting the reptile may also be done in conjunction, but care must be made not to overdose the reptile (see above).


These are powerful desiccants, which are also effective against mites. Reptiles are known to have eaten food with Drie Die attached without apparent problems, although good sense says that this should be avoided.

These dusts are usually sold by avian suppliers who also use them to treat ectoparasites on birds.

These were the mite treatment of choice before pest strips were used and still in common use.

The powder is sprinkled on the live reptile and the cage and substrate replaced.

Try to make sure that the reptile doesn't inhale or ingest dust particles.

For a week the reptile is kept in a Spartan cage with minimal substrate and the dust die sprinkled in the cage to kill hatching eggs and larval forms of mites, lice and ticks.

No water is in the cage and the reptile is 'drinked' (offered a drink) daily.

If using Sevin dust or another product brand name that uses this, make sure you get the 5% dust and not the 10% dust as there have been reported problems with the higher concentration.

One liter-sized can of the dust will last most keepers several years.


'Neguvon' powder is a toxic substance available only on prescription.

When mixed with water it is also effective in removing mites from reptiles and cages although it can be toxic to reptiles.

It's not a preferred mite treatment, due to the high risks involved to the reptile if too much is used or if the reptile ingests any.

Put another way, the allowable margin of error for this treatment isn't much.

The former practice of applying oil to reptiles in a bid to suffocate mites should be avoided as this will also often kill the reptiles.

Under no circumstances should ‘Dettol’ be allied to reptiles with mites. If the mites don’t kill the reptile, then the ‘Dettol’ probably will! This author is aware of at least one case where a supposedly experienced herpetologist applied ‘Dettol’ to two young Burmese Pythons (Python molurus) which had mite infestations. In spite of their mites, the snakes were otherwise in good health. Within minutes, one of the snakes was dead. The second animal was washed of the ‘Dettol’ but it also died.

It was the intense irritation caused by the ‘Dettol’ on the skin that killed the snakes.

In spite of this well-publicized case way back in 1997, there was as recently as 2002 a self-styled 'expert' posting on internet lists his view that 'Dettol' was the only proper way to treat mites in reptiles. The same recommendation was also to be found on several websites.


There are some species of reptile that are more susceptible to getting and suffering adversely from mite infestations than others.

This in part stems form the nature of their scales. Large scaled species and soft scaled species typically fare worst.

In the snakes this means that young Tiger Snakes (Notechis) and Death Adders (Acanthophis) appear to fare worse than the smooth-scaled Taipans (Oxyuranus).

In terms of Death Adders (Acanthophis), there appears to be no credible evidence that these snakes are unusually susceptible to pest strips, although they are evidently more suspeptible to mites.

Young snakes tested with abnormally high dosages of strips came out in flying colors.

In another case a pest strip was left for several months dripping into a water bowl from which the snakes frequently drank and again there was no ill effects.

Life Cycle of the Snake Mite Ophionyssus natricis (Gervaid) as reported by (Camin, 1953)

Development stage

Temperature of 30 deg. C.

Temperature of 20 deg. C.


28 hours

98 hours

Larva (nonfeeding)

18 hours

47 hours

*Protonymph (feeding)

3 days

14 days

Deuteronymph (nonfeeding)

13 hours

26 hours

Adult (feeding)

10 days

32 days

*The time spent in the protonymph stage refers to those that find a host

soon after molting. Unfed protonymphs will live 15 to 19 days before dying of



These should never occur.

No keeper should allow a heavily mite infested reptile into their collection. No keeper should ever allow a mite infestation to last a minute longer than necessary and therefore no keeper should ever have a serious mite infestation.

However in the real world of poor husbandry and slack keepers, serious mite infestations do occur and yes, in the real world, treatment for advanced mite infestations and the consequences caused by them are needed.

In the event of a blood borne infection (such as Hemorrhagic Septacemia) resulting from mite infestation, the reptile will show symptoms of listlessness and poor health. If the reptile's health is obviously poor and death appears imminent, it may require a course of systemic antibiotics administered via injection.

You will need to consult a competent herpetological veterinary surgeon at this stage to determine the full extent of the problem, what organs of the body are affected and probably test to find out the pathogen. The prognosis for a reptile with a severe blood borne infection is at best guarded and the recovery process may take some months to complete.

The reptile may also be dehydrated and may need a multivitamin injection and perhaps rehydration via a separate solution.

For less severe cases, where a formerly mite infested reptile appears listless, but generally healthy, it may be possible to allow the reptile to rehydrate to a degree by drinking as it requires, and at the same time force or assist feeding it small and easily digested food items (such as small lizards).

As the nutrients and fluids are absorbed into the body, the reptile should recover.

The regularity of feeding is determined by the rate of absorption of the food and the rate of recovery of the reptile.

One of the consequences of mite infestations is anorexia and it's common for severely mite infested reptiles not to have eaten for quite some time.

On that basis alone the regurgitation risk is higher, hence the recommendation for small feeds only during the recovery phase.

Mites also transmit potentially fatal viruses such as paramyxovirus (OPMV in snakes), reo-viruses and so on in collections with one or more infected snakes. Hence the risks posed by mites cannot be overstated.


Ticks are readily noticeable on reptiles as either flattened oval structures lodged under the scales, or sometimes as bulbous oval shaped protrusions.

These are the abdomens.

The tiny head and limbs come from the anterior part of the body and are usually only noticeable on close inspection.

Ticks are not commonly found on snakes and if they are, usually only in small numbers.

On lizards they are most commonly seen lodged in the ear holes and then most commonly under the vent or immediately adjacent to it.

Most reptiles have a strong degree of immunity to ticks. However ticks reproduce rapidly and can kill reptiles when in numbers, so it is important to keep reptiles clean of these parasites. Fortunately this is very easy.

Ticks kill reptiles by injection of poison and excessive taking of blood, in much the same way as mites.

Large ticks are removed by tweezers.

This is done by a close grip at the front of the abdominal region or even the head itself.

When removing ticks it is important to make sure that the head and associated mouth-parts are also removed. Failure to do so could result in further complications, such as infection and shedding problems.

The secret is not to jerk the tick off suddenly, but rather to apply steady pulling pressure to the tick over several seconds and actually feel the whole animal coming out.

Ticks inject enzymes and related substances into the skin of the host to help soften the tissue to make it easier to feed on. It's usual for this island of tissue to come loose and be removed at the same time as the tick's head and mouth.

It's common for a small lump to form after a tick's been removed and this may lead a keeper to mistakenly believe that the head is still inside the reptile.

This is usually a mild infection.

Most keepers simply remove ticks and leave the sites of removal untouched in any way, leaving nature's healing process to take it's course.

If there is a worry about potential infection Povidone Iodine (usually known as Betadine) can be applied to the area, as can a general broad-spectrum anti-biotic such as Neosporin.

Both should only be applied to clean tissue areas.

An alternative method is by burning them off using a cigarette.

The tick simply lets go and tries to flee.

The reptile will get incidental burning, but this usually heals without complication.

There is a minor risk of infections occurring at points where ticks are removed.

Small ticks are best treated in the same way as mites. They are killed by the same means and due to the fact that they are easily missed on inspection due to their submicroscopic and microscopic size, chemical means of elimination is essential.

Mite treatments for incoming reptiles should as a matter of course kill the small ticks as well.

Pest strips will also kill larger ticks. The only issue here is that the time taken to kill them is longer. Usually overnight (12 hours).

Because of this, unless the reptile is completely covered with hundreds of ticks (as is sometimes seen in large monitors), the preferred treatment is manual removal of ticks.

When a reptile such as a large monitor presents with hundreds of ticks, the preferred method of treatment is overnight exposure to pest strips and then manual removal of the ticks that remain on the lizard (most of which will probably be dead already).

As always, if in doubt as to the correct pest strip exposure for the reptile, you should observe the reptile continually during treatment.

Alternatively inject with Ivermectin at the same dosage as for mite infestations. This will kill all ticks on the reptile.

Ticks, like mites cause blood borne infections, although these are rarer in reptiles than is seen for mite infested reptiles.

In the event of a blood borne infection resulting from tick infestation, the reptile will show symptoms of listlessness and poor health. It may require a course of systemic antibiotics administered via injection.


While lizards may have problems sloughing, it's most commonly a problem associated with captive snakes.

But for both groups of reptile, the causes and treatment are essentially identical.

When a snake has a problem shedding it's skin, that's not the real problem. You see it's caused by something else.

By far the most common cause is mite infestation. Even if the mites are removed from the snake, a shedding problem may occur.

Likewise for when other causative factors are removed.

For the purposes of this section of the paper, we'll assume that the cause of the shedding problem has been removed and that the only problem at hand is literally the shedding.

In the normal course of events, a snake's eyes will become milky or opaque prior to a slough.

These will clear before shedding is due and usually from one to three days later, the snake will literally crawl out of it's skin.

If after a noticeable delay, such as a week or so, the shedding hasn't occurred, you probably have a shedding problem.

In all it's manifestations, a shedding problem is when the snake is unable to shed all or part of it's skin.

While the causes vary, the essence is that instead of coming free, the epidermal layer of the skin that need to be removed isn't coming off. It's stuck to the snake.

You'll notice this problem if the snake is shedding in a piecemeal manner and bits of the skin apparently won't come off.

Alternatively the snake may be rubbing the snout, but is apparently unable to raise the skin.

Commonly, the snake may be able to remove the first part of it's skin, but the rest simply won't come off.

The treatment is very simple.

The snake is removed from it's cage and placed in a container of luke warm (28-30 degrees) water to a depth just sufficient to cover it's body.

If in doubt as to the temperature, use a thermometer to check.

Excellent for the soaking is a small plastic 'snake-box' as the snake mustn't be allowed to escape from the water.

While some ventilation is obviously required, the rule of thumb is that the less there is the better as higher humidity will assist the shedding process in terms of any skin that rises above the water level and would otherwise be dry.

The snake will raise it's snout above the water level, either by holding it up, placing it on a coil or most likely up against the side of the container. This is so it can breathe and rest in a comfortable position.

Because of this instinctive response, it won't drown and there is no need to be alarmed.

You may wish to place a small rock in the container as an abrasive surface for the snake to attempt to remove the skin, but this isn't essential.

The general advice is only do this if you think the snake is likely to use it while in the container.

The snake should be left in the warm water for at least an hour.

At this time, you should inspect the snake to see if the skin appears to be coming loose.

If not, then leave the snake in the water for as long as is needed for the skin to appear to start to loosen.

As a matter of course you should check the snake at least hourly.

Up to twelve hours in the water is acceptable, but it's important not to let the water cool too much as this may in turn precipitate other health problems.

To avoid this, you'll either have to change the water occasionally (most likely), such as every hour, or perhaps place the container over a heat mat and monitor the water that way.

No matter how you regulate the water, you should avoid the temperature going over 31 or below 26 degrees Celcius.

Once the skin on the snake appears to have loosened, you may either place the snake back in it's cage to finish the job of sloughing, or alternatively attempt to manually force the skin off the snake.

In the real world, either alternative usually works.

However in terms of deciding which option to take, the following guideline will help.

If the snake is still robust and strong, you should allow it the chance of shedding itself.

If however the snake is in a weakened state, such as a result of a mite infestation, a manual shedding is probably quicker, easier and less stressful for the snake.

This is because you'll probably be able to do the job within a minute or two, versus a weakened snake struggling for some considerable time.

In terms of manually forcing the skin off the snake, this is done by gently using your fingers to massage and pull the epidermal skin off.

You must be very careful not to remove any layers of skin that are not meant to be shed.

If in doubt, don't attempt this procedure.

If any part of the skin comes off that shouldn't have, you should stop the procedure immediately and allow the snake more time to soak.

Remember, there's no time deadline on this.

Don't unnecessarily force the skin to come off.

As you go about manually shedding the skin you should proceed very slowly. As you remove the epidermal layer, you should aim to remove the entire skin in the same manner that the snake normally would.

That is from front to back and with the skin coming off in a circular manner as it moves down the length of the body.

Assuming you've allowed the snake enough time to soak, the whole process should be very simple.

More often than not, you'll be able to manually shed the skin more-or-less as one piece, but this obviously reflects the problem you started with.

Once the shedding is completed, the snake should be returned to it's cage to recover.

Things to watch for

  • Shedding difficulties may run across more than one shedding cycle, even if the cause has been removed. This means you may have to do the soaking process more than once for the same snake. However this isn't common. More common is that the snake's shedding cycle will speed up and it will shed more frequently until it's skin condition has completely recovered. This may mean a follow-up shed in 5-6 weeks instead of a more common three month interval.
  • In terms of soaking the need for the luke-warm water is that it will better assist the loosening of the epidermal layer than will cooler water. If using water over 30 degrees Celcius, you may risk overheating and killing the snake.
  • Even after soaking, sometimes parts of the skin will not come off easily. Assuming most of the skin is removed and you are only talking about one or two small groups of scales, or perhaps the eye-shield, then you shouldn't try to force their removal. Such a situation is particularly common in snakes following on from a mite infestation, where clusters of mites have bored through the edges of the indented scale edges to effectively separate them from the other scales. While removal of eye-shields is usually possible with the careful use of a pair of appropriate tweezers, if the snake jumps about or moves unexpectedly, there is a risk of injury to it. Likewise in the event that the shield has since become stuck to the scale beneath. As a rule, these attached scales come off at the next shedding.
  • The same rule applies in terms of a snake that sheds without difficulty but for reasons unknown one or a few scales don't detach that are on some other part of the body. These will generally not cause the snake any problems and also come off at the next slough. However in those cases, you should also look for a potential cause, including perhaps mites, ticks, scale infection or injury. If you haven't already done so, remove the cause of the problem.
  • It is rare for a snake not to have got at least the first part of it's epidermal skin off before you decide it is having shedding difficulties. Typically the head part of the skin is removed or hanging off the snake, (possibly minus the eye shields and sometimes one or two other scales). In the rare cases where no head scales are in any way removed, you should spray the head with luke warm water at 15 minute intervals while it is soaking. If attempting to manually shed the skin, you will by rubbing or gently teasing the scales have to try to remove at least some of the head shield layer to commence the manual shedding process.
  • Under no circumstances should you ever attempt a manual shedding of a snake's skin unless you are totally certain that the snake has gone past it's appropriate shedding time and are totally certain that it is experiencing shedding difficulties.
  • There are some products on the market that facilitate shedding in snakes experiencing difficulty. Using these substances, the treatment is generally as already indicated, the only difference being the product is added to the water the snake soaks in. Experience shows that these substances are rarely if ever needed to get the desired result. They may however allow shedding to take place after a reduced period of soaking.
  • Some publications recommend against manual shedding of dangerously venomous snakes on the basis that risk of bite outweighs potential benefit from manual shedding. They are in error. As with other procedures involving such reptiles, assuming the snake is handled responsibly the risk of bite is virtually nil. The fact of the matter is that manual shedding of dangerously venomous snakes has been conducted countless times and without adverse incident.

Variations to the above treatment

The following variations have been tested and work in all except the most intractable cases, for which the above treatment is perhaps the only option.

If it's thought or anticipated that a snake is about to have a shedding problem caused by excessive dryness in the cage, the snake can be temporarily moved into a new shedding cage.

This is essentially a fairly confined one such as a converted fish tank in which the humidity is kept high and the substrate is kept very moist. Typically this is dead leaves, dead moss and bits of bark.

Most of the cage is heated to ensure that the humidity remains high.

Inevitably the moisture will be absorbed by the snake's skin and it'll find shedding easier.

You'll know the humidity in the cage is high by water condensing on the glass sides.

Use of a shedding cage is perhaps best as a pre-emptive means of preventing the necessity of warm water soaking and will work well for most snakes recovering from mild mite infestations and the like.

A variation on the shedding cage theme is that of a shedding box.

It's usually a sealed plastic container with a cut hole in one side to allow the snake entry to it. Inside is placed dead moist leaves and bark. As in the shedding cage, the material should not be live or part-dead as they will tend to give off pungent odors that may not be to the snake's liking.

The shedding box is placed either wholly or (preferably) partly over the heated part of the snake's cage. The snake is then directed to crawl into the shedding box.

Even if it then leaves, the snake will be aware of it's presence.

Snakes aren't stupid and will automatically seek out the shedding box if it needs it. In cases of snakes with shedding difficulties caused by dryness, they'll tend to stay inside a shedding box placed in their cage until they physically shed.

In rare cases, some keepers find that their snakes are best kept in dry cages at all times and that when the eyes cloud over, a shedding box is placed in the cage to aid the snake's shedding. The routine can be continued indefinitely.

In the absence of special circumstances such as a one-off mite infestation, the use of a shedding box shouldn't be a routine unless a snake has shown difficulty shedding because of excessive dryness at least twice.


    • If possible, avoid buying or obtaining a reptile known to be carrying mites or have had a recent infestation. The risks of the reptile carrying other disease is great.
    • Treat all incoming reptiles on the basis they have mites and treat accordingly. Do not take risks.
    • Have a well-defined protocol for dealing with new reptiles (incoming) and any potential mite outbreaks in your collection. Without this you will eventually get them.
    • Quarantine is important and lack of it is the major cause of mite infections. Be particularly weary of casual handling by other reptile people who visit you (who may be carrying mites on their person) or in terms of other reptiles that may pass through your address 'in transit'.
    • Note: many reptile people will not disclose they presently have or have had mites in the past when asked, even if they have had them. Also keepers will commonly overlook mite infestations, especially in the early stages, so a denial of infection made in good faith should be treated with skepticism, even if it comes from a herpetologist of the highest standing.
    • Substrate added to cages should as a rule be treated for mites before being added to the cage. This usually means by being sprayed or exposed to chemical and then aired out.
    • Never knowingly trade out to another person a mite infested or otherwise imperfect reptile. If forced to do so, then disclose all to the potential purchaser.
    • Dealers and large institutions with several people on their staff are particularly prone to mite infestations. Managers should be of the utmost vigilance.


Abrahams, R. 1992. Ivermectin as a spray treatment of snake mites. Bulletin of the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians 2(l):8.

Boyer, D. and T. H. Boyer. 1991. Trichlorfon spray for snake mites (Ophionyssus natricis). Bulletin of the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians 1(1):23.

Camin, J. H. (1948), Mite transmission of Hemorrhagic Septicemia in Snakes. Journal of Parasitology 34:345-354.

Camin, J. H. 1953. Observations on the life history and sensory behaviour of the snake mite, Ophionyssus natricus (Gervaid) (Arachnida:Macronyssidae). Special Publications of the Chicago Academy of Sciences (10):1-75 + pl. 1-3.

Mackale, P. 2003. The annoying Snake - Mite. Herptile 28(2):44-45.

Mader, D. R. 1995. Mite survey results. Reptiles 2(5):10-12.

Mader, D. R. and Palazzolo, C. 1993. Mite and tick infestations. Reptiles 1(1):64-72.

Rosskopf, W. J. 1992. Ivermectin as a treatment for snake mites. Bulletin of the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians (USA) 2(l):7.

Shah, B. Mite infestations in Australian skinks:Seasonal, geographical and ecological variation. Herpetofauna 31(2):102-107.

Walter, D. E. and Shaw, M. 2002. First record of the mite Hirstiella dioli Baker (Prostigmata: Pterygosomatidae) from Australia, with a review of mites found on Australian lizards. Australian Journal of Entomology 41:30-34.

Watharow, S. and Reid, A. 2002. The introduced snake mite Ophionyssus natricus on wild populations of Eastern Blue Tongue Lizards (Tiliqua scincoides). Herpetofauna 32(1):26-29.

Hoser Herpetology papers index.

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