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Reptiles and Common Parasites

By: Dr Gareth Evans - Updated: 21 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
Parasites Ticks Mites Protozoa Enteritis

Although we don’t often like to dwell on the thought, most animals are prone to parasites of one sort or another and reptiles are obviously no exception.

The growth of captive breeding has helped to reduce much of the prevalence of parasites; wild-caught specimens – especially tortoises and snakes – were notorious for the unwelcome guests they brought with them.

Even so, sooner or later the reptile keeper will run up against one kind of parasite or another, so it’s as well to know a little about these remarkably successful, but distinctly undesirable, creatures.


Ticks and mites are the two most common types of external parasites to be found on reptiles. Fairly large creatures and readily visible to the naked eye, ticks attach themselves to their hosts using their specially adapted piercing mouthparts. As a tick feeds on the reptile’s blood, its bag-like, expandable body gradually swells up, making its presence very obvious – often looking like a small grey or brown coloured pea stuck onto the side of its host’s body.

Since the lifecycles of many of the kinds of ticks which affect reptiles tend to be complex, often requiring other kinds of creatures to act as intermediate hosts, which obviously tend not to be available in captive conditions, mass infestations of ticks tend to be rare these days.

Removing ticks is a job to be done with care. Their mouthparts are embedded in the flesh of the host reptile and leaving any bits of the parasite behind can result in an infection. There are many DIY methods which have been suggested over the years, including smearing the tick’s body with Vaseline or dabbing it with surgical spirit – both of which are supposed to get it to release its grip and drop off – while specialist “tick-removal” tweezers are also available. In the long-run, however, a visit to your vet is likely to be the best course of action, if you do spot a tick on your pet.


Considerably smaller than their relatives the ticks, mites are much less readily seen, even though they tend to occur in much larger numbers. Often the first time reptile keepers become aware of them is when they find a few mites running over their own skin after handling their pets – which is not exactly a welcome experience!

Fortunately there are very effective treatments available either to be hung up within the terrarium or which can be applied to the affected reptile itself – your local exotic pet supplier or vet should be able to recommend something suitable, depending on how many animals are affected, and how badly.

Some keepers recommend treating all newly arrived specimens for mites and keeping them in a separate quarantine room until the treatment is complete. There is much to recommend this approach since for such small creatures, mites can be surprisingly mobile and can spread alarmingly quickly from tank to tank.

Although in large numbers both ticks and mites could potentially threaten to cause anaemia, the main danger they pose lies in their ability to pass on diseases from one reptile to another in the course of their blood-sucking feeding activities. Clearly, it’s important to keep a careful eye out for them and take appropriate action to deal with any that are found.

Parasitic Enteritis

The microscopic protozoan, Entamoeba, is one of the most serious internal parasites found in reptiles. Although it occurs in tortoises, terrapins and lizards, it is most commonly encountered in snakes, causing symptoms which may begin with a drop in appetite or mild gastro-intestinal upset, before progressing – often rapidly – to severe enteritis typically accompanied with the production of bloody droppings.

Parasitic enteritis is a highly infectious disease and requires swift treatment from your vet – and the strictest of hygiene around your animals to avoid hastening its spread. Fortunately if things are caught early enough and the appropriate course of drugs administered, the chances of recovery are good – so it certainly pays to be vigilant!

Parasitic Worms

A range of tapeworms and roundworms are known to inhabit the guts of reptiles, causing a variety of symptoms from minor loss of appetite or weight, to death in extreme cases. Diagnosis can sometimes be obvious if sections of tapeworm are found wriggling within an animal’s recently deposited droppings, but in many cases there are few external clues.

If the presence of these parasites is suspected, microscopic examination of a faecal sample may be necessary to make certain, one way or the other – obviously a job for the vet or a suitable laboratory! If worms are present, it’s important to follow a properly prescribed treatment, since some of the drugs commonly available for cat or dog worming can prove fatal to reptiles – so again, it’s definitely time to see the vet.

Keeping a look out for parasites is an important part of keeping your pets in good health; as with most reptile ailments, the sooner you spot the problem and start to deal with it, the better and with modern medicines, most parasites can be successfully treated – so be sure to make friends with a good vet!

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