What are Ticks?
Ticks do more than just suck your snake’s blood; they can also transmit diseases such as sweating sickness, inclusion body disease (IBD), blood poisoning (which can all be fatal), and paramyxovirus, which can cause respiratory and central nervous system damage. Severe infestations can be lethal due to anemia (lack of iron in the blood) or respiratory failure. In the wild, ticks are commonly found on snakes and do not pose as big of a threat as those snakes that live in captivity. This is because in captivity, the ticks have no place to go and will set up a breeding colony in the cage or enclosure. Also, in captivity, your snake has no way to get away from the ticks as they do in the wild.
Ticks are ectoparasites that affect snakes and can cause various illnesses such as anemia (low iron), paralysis, and even death. There are two kinds of ticks that affect snakes which are soft (argasidae) and hard (ixodidae). Because ticks are rather large, you can usually see them before they start to create symptoms such as decreased appetite, behavioral changes, and lethargy. Your snake may be found spending a lot of time in the water bowl, trying to get rid of the pests. Ticks can spread many diseases such as tick-borne relapsing fever, anaplasmosis, Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI), tick paralysis, American babesiosis, Colorado tick fever, tularemia, Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
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Symptoms of Ticks in Snakes
Although you may see the ticks before your snake shows symptoms, there are signs you may notice, which are:
- Aggravation or irritation
- Excessive time in the water bowl
- Lack of appetite progressing to refusal to eat
- Weight loss
- Abnormal behavior
- Rubbing against objects
- Not shedding like normal
- Crusty or pitted scales
- Hemorrhages (red spots on scales)
- Anemia (excessive sleepiness, not eating, depression)
- Hard ticks have 13 types and more than 650 species. This parasite will stick to its host for up to a month (or more) and can consume 200 to 600 times its weight.
- Soft shell ticks have five types and over 150 species. These pests will stay on your snake for a shorter time than hard ticks (only a few minutes to several days) and can ingest about 10 times their body weight.
Causes of Ticks in Snakes
The cause of ticks commonly includes:
- Lack of handling and medical care
- Unsanitary conditions
- Transferral of ticks from owners
Diagnosis of Ticks in Snakes
Ticks are usually easy to spot so the veterinarian should have no trouble diagnosing your snake. However, the consultation will include a brief history of your pet and a physical examination, including vital signs such as heart rate, temperature, and respiration rate. Laboratory tests will also be needed to rule out transmitted diseases and infections. These usually include a complete blood count (CBC), serum biochemistry analysis, urinalysis, and fecal examination.
Treatment of Ticks in Snakes
You can remove the ticks yourself if you know the best way to do so. The proper way to remove a tick (other than letting your veterinarian do it) is to use tweezers or forceps to grab the pest by the mouth and pull slowly. Once you remove the tick, wipe the area with an alcohol pad and put the tick into alcohol to kill it. The veterinarian will likely do it for you if you ask, and will prescribe antibiotics to reduce the chance of infection due to bite wounds and transferrable pathogens from the ticks.
Treating the Snake Environment
You will need to remove your snake from the enclosure and place it somewhere safe while you disinfect the cage. The entire enclosure must be treated with a cyfluthrin product, especially in corners and crevices where the ticks can hide. Get rid of any hide boxes, logs, and other items made of wood because these are almost impossible to treat effectively. Let the cage air dry and then you can place your snake back in the cage.
Recovery of Ticks in Snakes
Your snake should be fine once your veterinarian removes the ticks and provides medicine if needed. If your snake has any complications from the tick bite, the prognosis may be different, but with prompt treatment from a veterinary professional that specializes in reptiles, chances of successful treatment are good. Keep treating the cage once a week for several months to prevent reinfestation from breeding colonies.