PNHS, we need snake mites! Dr Elliott Jacobson, the premier reptile disease researcher who was the Keynote Speaker at the ECRE last June, is looking for snake mites. We’ll be providing a limited number of collection kits at the next several meetings, or you can contact Aimee to arrange pickup or mailing of a kit. And, nope! ~they don’t have to be alive. The easiest way to collect them is to scoop several of them into a tube (part of your kit), cap the tube off, and pop it in your freezer. You can mail them off yourself, or get them to Aimee to be mailed to Dr Jacobson’s lab at the University of Florida.
The snake mite is sometimes treated like a dirty little secret; most people are sensitive to being branded as a “bad snake owner” or as “someone with bad quarantine or husbandry practices”, but the reality is that this affliction could happen to any one of us slithery-critter keepers. They’re much like fleas in dogs and cats – you do what you can to prevent them, but sometimes a few eggs slip through. Before you know it, they’re all over your house! Some people are pretty open about infestation (“yeah, I’ve had mites X times, this is how you treat them….blah blah blah”), while others may furtively search the web for removal tips, get rid of them, and never tell a soul. If you should be so generous as to capture a dozen or more mites for this research project and bring them to Aimee for shipment, you can be assured that discretion will be utmost if you so desire.
Why does Dr Jacobson want mites? Well, he strongly suspects that the relatively harmless, common little snake mite is a vector for IBD (inclusion body disease); in other words, as the mite bites your snake to take a blood meal it can pass on this putative retroviral disease the same way a mosquito can pass malaria, or a flea can pass the bubonic plague. Dr Jacobson and his laboratory are conducting a survey to collect enough data to prove this hypothesis, and also to find out how widespread IBD may be in various populations of mites. Please help us to further understand this devastating disease by furthering this research project!
Is your skin crawling yet? *shiver*
What is a snake mite, exactly? Ophionyssus natricis, the snake mite. These external parasites appear as black or red moving specks on the surface of the snake’s scales, and they bite the snake to obtain a blood-meal in much the same way as lice, ticks, fleas, etc. Sometimes they insert themselves into the spaces between scales, and you can often see little clusters around the eye socket of an infested snake. Please see the links following the article for more details, and I’d encourage you to perform a google-image search for pictures of actual mites on snakes.
How do mites get into your collection? Well, it seems that when people are willing to talk about their mite infestations, usually there was a recent addition to their collection, either from a store, a show, or picked up elsewhere. Invariably, the keeper either didn’t notice a few mites on the animal or perhaps there were eggs hidden in the scales and waiting to hatch, even if there weren’t any visible mites. It only takes one egg-laden female mite to spread them through your collection. This is why proper quarantine and treatment as a prophylactic measure is a must for all snakes coming into your collection, no matter the source. This can prevent outbreaks in your home and, just possibly, introduction of IBD into one of your pets. As another prophylactic measure, before outreaches I typically spray down all pillow cases and/or tubs used to transport my critters to and from the event with PAM (Prevent-A-Mite; nope, not the cooking spray!). Whether you’re at a reptile show, a school with 6 or 7 other snake-keepers, or a birthday party, it’s only a common-sense measure to prevent any mites that might be picked up from traveling back to your home and the rest of your collection.
How do you get rid of snake mites? Well, there are a number of recommended methods. There is some anecdotal evidence – old wives’ tales, you might say – about the safety of various treatments available, but not very much research has been done into actual levels of toxicity. Certainly, if you panic over a mite infestation and spray your snake with Raid, you’re very likely to harm your pet! Whichever method you choose, please be careful to follow the directions explicitly and carefully to ensure the least possibility of harming your snake. The treatment I have used on a foster who came in with mites is one involving the use of PAM. PAM is available at the Beanfarm and many other places where pet supplies can be purchased. This is a pyrethrin-based treatment and must be used with caution as pyrethrins can be toxic; however, in my experience it’s quite effective and careful usage will limit your potential for danger. First, thoroughly spray PAM onto plenty of newspaper, newsprint, or paper towels to use as substrate for your infested critter. Do this somewhere with adequate ventilation; PAM’s not something you want to inhale! In the warmer months, I do this outside on a clothesline or over the fence. In the winter, I do this over the curtain rod in the bathroom with a mask on and the exhaust fan running. Let the paper dry completely and thoroughly. This is important! Take a clean tub or aquarium to house your animal during treatment and spray it with PAM. Let it dry completely. Place the dry paper substrate into the enclosure, add a water dish with minimal amount of water (so the snake is unlikely to re-wet the PAM if he goes for a soak). Every time your snake defecates or otherwise needs a cage-cleaning, or at least once a week, exchange the paper with freshly-PAM’d paper substrate. As the life-cycle of the mite is about a month, to be on the safe (paranoid) side I treated the infested foster for 6 weeks to be absolutely certain there would be no lingering eggs. When new fosters with no visible mites come into my quarantine room, or when I acquire an addition to my collection, I treat the individual as a prophylactic measure for 4 weeks. For heavily-infested animals, I’d highly recommend spraying PAM outside the enclosure as well. If your quarantine room is carpeted, you can dust the carpet with Borax (non-toxic) to kill any escapees into the carpet fibers. I know of one particular individual who had 3 infestations over a year that all stemmed from one heavily-infested foster, with several months between infestations. This particular case is why I would go so far as to treat the floor if you have a heavily infested critter. Better safe (paranoid) than sorry, for sure! Another thing to consider is common-sense practices: treat the individual in a quarantine room; treat the rest of your collection as a prophylactic measure, wear gloves while handling any animals with mites and put your clothes directly into the wash after working with mite-infested animals.
Please note that there are other methods available; this is simply the one that I use and I’ve found it to be effective. I’d recommend a survey of these links to what methods other keepers use and recommend. Whichever method you choose, please keep the safety of your snake and yourself as the first consideration – and before you spray the PAM, scoop some into a tube for Dr Jacobson’s research!
*Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian and can only share information I have found. PNWHS is not liable for any action taken based on the contents of this article. It is up to the individual to do their own research, and I strongly encourage all keepers to seek out trusted information sources and to rely on the advice of their veterinarian. If you suspect your animal is ill, please take it to a licensed veterinarian.