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Medical Aspects of Captive Reptiles



Treating Ticks and Mites

Ticks may cross over to other species resulting in the discomfort of bites, but their real significance is more in the transmission of disease than in any pathogenicity in and of themselves.

Ornithodoros turicata, native to the United States and Mexico may transmit "relapsing fever" or borreliosis and leptospirosis pomona.  Ixodes pacificus in the Pacific coastal region can transmit tularemia and Lyme disease.

Mites, also known as chiggers, cause a dermatitis more often than any other problem and probably are not a valid vector of zoonoses.  However, if numerous, mites can debilitate their host.  Ophionyssus natrices, the snake mite, has been known to transfer bacteria from snake to snake, particularly the Aeromonas organism.  No cases of human transmission are currently noted.


  • Olive oil.  Coast the reptile, being careful to avoid the nasal passages.  The following day wash the reptile thoroughly with a mild soap such as Betadine scrub and rinse well.  You must treat the environment at the same time.

  • Sevin Dust 5%.  Dust the cage lightly while the reptile is out of it.  Replace the reptile in the cage for 24 hours.  Then, remove and bathe the reptile as above and thoroughly wash out the cage.  This is used extensively on snakes but not lizards or turtles.

  • Ivermectin.  This cannot be used in Indigo snakes or with any of the Chelonians.  Inject others with 0.2 mg/kg intramuscularly (IM).  Repeat in 14 days.

  • Ivermectin spray.  Add 0.5 ml of 10% Ivermectin to 1 quart of water.  Spray down the reptile and the cage with this solution.  Wash out 15 minutes later.  This solution is relatively unstable so use it immediately then discard appropriately.  Remember that this product is lethal to Chelonians and Indigos.  This is suggested for very debilitated reptiles (except turtles) because of its safety and efficacy.

  • Water-based pyrethrin spray.  Labeled for puppies and kittens.  Apply with a paper towel to reptile once a week for 2 to 3 weeks.  If cage treatment is needed, spray down cage.  Leave for 10 to 15 minutes.  Wash out thoroughly.  This spray can also be used on Chelonia.

  • Vapona strips.  6mm/10 cubic feet of cage.  Hang above cage for 4 days.  These strips were used in the past but all current references list them as potentially toxic.  If used improperly, vapona strips have been known to cause fatalities.  This author does not know of any reptile vets who have used this product for several years.

  • Provent-a-Mite.  New from Pro Products.  A federally approved treatment and prevention.  Lasts 30 days.  Excellent results and currently the best treatment available. 

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For those of us for whom the human-animal bond is part of our existence, our desire to help sick animals should not be overshadowed by the fear of zoonoses.  Those of us who rehabilitate and/or own reptiles, should take it upon ourselves to become informed of the potential for zoonoses and means to avoid them.  It is well worth the time to accomplish this by consulting with a physician and with the veterinarian who will treat these reptiles.

Areas that should be discussed include the origin of the animal, basic care and husbandry, sanitation requirements, possible food sources, human contact and the risk of exposure to other animals.  Much literature has been published recently regarding these issues.  Check with your local or regional herpetological societies, library, Internet and other rehabilitators who treat reptiles.

People who are at primary risk are those who are immunocompromised  or immunosupressed and children under ten years of age, as well as the elderly.  For people who fall into these categories, I strongly suggest conferring with a primary health care physician prior to handling any reptiles.  Depending on the circumstances, it may be best for people in these categories to avoid reptiles altogether.

The transmission of zoonoses in reptiles is from two major routes:  the fecal-oral route or the tactile-oral route which is the most common.  If there is contact with the animal, its wounds or its immediate environment (i.e. water bowls, substrate, cage furniture) a disease may be directly transferred by rubbing one's eyes, smoking a cigarette or scratching one's face before washing one's hands.  Washing the food and water bowls in the sink that is used for the household as well as allowing the animal free range within the facility will also result in disease transmission.

A secondary route of transmission is from bites and scratches that are exposed to reptilian fecal material and/or saliva.  The flora of a reptile's oral cavity is very different from that of mammals and can be pathogenic in nature.  Any bite or scratch should be thoroughly washed with antibacterial soap or Betadine/Chlorohexidine surgical scrub.  If a serious wound or infection occurs, a physician should be consulted immediately to obtain appropriate antibiotic therapy.

Following is a list of major zoonoses of reptiles.  This is not complete and it is highly recommended that rehabilitators further educate themselves about this issue if they plan to rehabilitate reptiles.  I would like to stress that although the zoonotic potential of these animals should not be taken lightly, if the guidelines of sanitation are followed and one is not immunocompromised, very young or elderly, there is no need to panic over issues such as the current Salmonella scare.  Many thousands of households have resident reptiles throughout the country and the actual incidence of zoonoses is quite small.

Fungal Infections

Fungi are ubiquitous in the environment and can also sometimes be found in the gastrointestinal tract, the skin, oral cavity of nasal cavity of reptiles.  Transmission can occur through the inhalation of spores, ingestion or through the inoculation of wounds.  Numerous fungal species can be involved including Mucor, Rhizopus, Candida, Trichosporon, Trichophyton, Aspergillus, Basidioholus and Geotrichum.  Superficial or oral mycoses can often be noted by observing shite plaques in the oral cavity or darkening to black skin lesions on the integument.

Commonly seen mycoses are superficial, noted as the above mentioned blackened areas on the skin, raised plaques or thickened grayish dry shin anywhere on the body.  Oral lesions of Candida appear as whitish plaques.  Internal mycoses may not be as apparent.  Although this poses a zoonotic risk, few have been documented.

Viral Agents

Reptiles can be a reservoir of Western Equine Encephalitis.  The mechanism and zoonotic potential of this are not clear at this time.

Parasitic Pentastomes and Cryptosporidia

Pentastoma:  Primarily parasites of reptilian respiratory systems.  Humans can serve as incidental hosts of Pentastomes, usually becoming infected by the ingestion of feces, saliva or body secretions that have eggs present and are picked up either by direct contact or through contaminated water or plant material.  Another route of transmission is by eating infected, uncooked reptile meat.  This is often asymptomatic but local inflammatory reactions or septicemia is possible with the larval and encysted forms.  There is no known treatment for the larval forms at the present time.

Cyptosporidia:  A coccidian parasite, Cryptosporidia may be found in many species of animals and can be pathogenic to reptiles causing regurgitation in snakes, weight loss, mid-body swelling and gastrointestinal signs.  The reptile form, C. serpentis has not been documented to have zoonotic potential.


Most reptilian protozoans are host-specific, and due to the lowered body temperature of these animals, the transmission to humans is unlikely, although little is known about their significance.  These may include Giardia which can be found in many species of animals but has never been documented in a reptile to human zoonotic case.

Bacterial Agents

Note:  Many bacteria are either part of the normal flora in reptiles, or are found in healthy reptiles without causing disease.  Direct contact is required for transmission of these bacteria.

Campylobacter:  An enteric bacteria that can cause vomiting, diarrhea and other gastroenteritis in humans and animals, but can be found in reptiles without causing problems.

Aeromonas:  A common bacteria found in healthy reptiles, that is also known to cause disease to them.  This is a common bacteria also found in lakes, ponds and other bodies of water.  Humans can come in contact with this, either directly from the reptile and its bites or scratches, or from the water source.

Enterobacter/Klebsiella spp.:

These organisms have been diagnosed as pathogens in human genitourinary infections.

Proteus spp.:  This can cause diarrhea in humans.

Pseudomonas spp.:  This can cause purulent infections in humans.  This organism is fairly common in the oral cavities of reptiles and can be transmitted through contamination of wounds.

Mycobacterium:  Several species can cause disease in humans.  This is usually a cutaneous or subcutaneous nodular disease.  It can come from chronically infected reptiles and may involve any organ, system or area of anatomy.

Q fever, (Coxiellaa burnetti):  This is a rickettsial organism transmitted to humans from reptiles by tick bites from reptiles which may serve as a reservoir.  Transmission is thought to occur by direct contact, tick bite or inhalation.

Salmonella:  Severe clinical signs of cramps, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and fever are reported with some individuals requiring hospitalization.  Young, elderly or immunocompromised individuals may have more serious complications.

This organism can become established on endocardial surfaces of the heart valves from previous septicemic episodes which can lead to infective thromboemboli.  They, in turn, cana break loose and end up in other places in the body, appearing as abscesses in organs, joints or skin.  It is important to consider this organism whenever confronted by an infective-appearing disease in reptiles handled.  Sanitation principles should be applies, and concerns should be discussed with a veterinarian and a physician.  Salmonella is a problem because of a number of factors: first, its viability - it can survive in a dirty water bowl for 3 months, for 4 months in soil and 90 days in tap water.  Secondly, it has been proven that latent Salmonella infections, can become active when the immune system becomes compromised.  This organism can be found in food and water sources that are used for animals.  Lastly, because of its potential intermittent shedding and latency, it cannot be definitively concluded that a reptile does not harbor this organism.  Before one should panic however, one should remember that the incidence of Salmonella from poultry is many times higher than that of reptile-associated Salmonella.

The best defense in applying the principles of sanitation and perfecting the routine, so that exposure is limited while still enjoying the animal.



  • Barnard, S.M. 1996. Reptile Keepers Handbook. Malabar, FL: Kreiger Publishing Pp 51-54.

  • Barrett, B., Khurana. 1992. Iguana Associated Salmonellosis. Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians. Volume 3, #1.

  • Bodri, M. 1996. Symposium of The Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians. Common Parasitic Diseases of Reptiles and Amphibians.

  • Frye, F. 1991. Reptile Care. Chapter 8. Neptune City, NJ: T.F.H. Publication. Pp. 281-313.

  • Frye, F.L. 1995. Salmonellosis in Pet Reptiles and their Owners. Reptiles Magazine. Volume 3, #1.

  • Fudge, A. 1996. Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine. Volume 5, #2.

  • Harkewicz, K. 1996. Avian and Exotic Animal Medicine Symposium. Snakes: Physical Examination and Diagnosis of Their Common Diseases. University of California, Davis.

  • Hendrix, C.M. Reptilian Pentastomiasis - a Possible Emerging Zoonosis. Compendium on Continuing Education. Volume 10, #1.

  • Johnson, C.D., DVM. 1995. Potential Zoonoses from Nontraditional Pets with Particular Attention to the Immunosuppresed Pet Owner. Journal of Small Exotic Animal Medicine. Volume 2, #3. Orlando, FL.

  • Kirk, R. 1992. Current Veterinary Therapy XI. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders.

  • Lanser, M.S., P.Newcomb - Cayman, C.R. Nichols. 1992. Lizard Associated Salmonellosis. Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians. Volume 3, #1.

  • Levell, J.P. 1992. Bulletin of Chicago Herpetological Society. Eradicating Snake Mites: a Brief History with Report of Another Method. 27(10):205-206.

  • Mader, D.R. 1994. Salmonella. Reptiles Magazine. Volume 1, #5.


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