There are so many species of mite that can infest lizards that it is impossible for an owner to tell between them and it is not really necessary, as the treatment is the same. Ticks are not quite so numerous, with less than ten different species, but they can cause much more damage than mites, as they can carry some quite serious diseases; and that means serious not just for the lizard, but also for the owner, so great care must be taken when removing ticks. Tick removal is not for anyone who is a bit squeamish, and it is certainly not something that can be left with the job half done, so if you are in any doubt at all that you want to do the job it is something best left to the vet. The one good thing about both tick and mite infestation is that it is relatively easy to spot and deal with.
What to look out for
Ticks are easier to spot than mites as they are bigger and may cluster together, particularly in the vent area or around the nostrils. The infestation can be so severe that there are recorded cases of monitor lizards dying of suffocation because ticks have blocked the airways, so vigilance is important. Ticks can also cause an abnormal shed if not spotted, as they fasten on to the lizard through the skin, usually under a scale, and this in effect ‘staples’ the old skin on and so it can’t be shed normally, so it is important that they are removed for this purely mechanical reason, let alone because of the diseases they may carry. Mites are not anything like as big as ticks, but they do cause the lizard to look generally ‘dull’ and if you then look closely you can see them on and under the scales, as small red or black dots. Apart from the visible signs, the lizard will probably be feeling a bit miserable because of the itching which both parasites cause and it will probably also be seen to be rubbing itself on rough parts of its habitat or on the bars of its cage, to try and scratch the itch. They may also develop sore patches, from where they have scratched too much in one place. This of course can cause local infections and if there are many ticks or mites the lizard may become severely anaemic, so they must be removed as soon as possible.
If you are unsure you will be happy removing ticks from your lizard it is better to take it to the vet. This is a good course of action anyway as the vet can prescribe ivermectin to treat the infestation if it is really bad; this is not available over the counter. As long as your lizard is comfortable with being handled, you can remove the tick yourself. There are ‘tick removers’ which you can get from pet shops, but a pair of tweezers with a fairly long nose will do. The important thing is to never try and remove a tick with your fingers and to wear gloves at all times. Ticks can carry some pretty horrible diseases – Lyme disease being perhaps the one which most people know about – and when they are pulled out it is inevitable that there will be some blood loss from around the site and from the tick’s jaws, and that is if the tick is not accidentally squashed, which is usually the case. It might be necessary to wrap the lizard up and in a perfect world this is a two man job, so find a non-squeamish friend or family member to hold the animal for you. Grasp the tick firmly by the head (not the body – it will just come off and leave the mouthparts still attached, which can cause infection) and pull slowly away from the lizard. The tick should slide out. Never twist, this is another way in which the head will be left embedded. Never try to burn the tick off with a lighted cigarette end – it will grab tighter, not let go. Other mechanical means will not work – pulling it out calmly and firmly is the only way and anything else will cause more problems. So this is why it is vital for you to not be squeamish and be sure before you begin that you can finish the job.
Removing mites is relatively straightforward when compared with tick removal but it may take several goes before they are completely eradicated. There are several chemical methods – ivermectin and synthetic pyrethrum for example – but for the wellbeing of the animal and the reduction in chemical use in general, it is well worth trying some mechanical means first. If the lizard is happy being bathed, soaking it in tepid water for twenty minutes or so will drown the mites. The lizard may well have been self-treating by sitting in water on its own initiative and this may be one of the first signs that it has a mite infestation – which is called acariasis, in case you are interested. The problem with this method of course is that the mites on the head cannot be removed like this, so they will still be a problem, although obviously the total numbers will be very much reduced. If you don’t mind a bit of mess, then covering your lizard with olive oil will smother the mites and is effective all over, of course. A combination of soaking the body and olive oiling the head may turn out to be a more practical course of action and if repeated regularly will eradicate the mites with no sprays or medication.
Most owners will find that they have mites or ticks on a new animal, although they can both be brought in to a captive habitat on people or their clothes. Care should therefore be taken to make sure that visitors wash their hands if handling your lizard, although it is commonsense to not let visitors do this anyway, as it can stress the animal. If you do end up with an infestation, the habitat must be thoroughly cleaned, with all bedding replaced.
What not to do
Under no circumstances try to burn off a tick, or smother it with petroleum jelly or poison it with alcohol. It will die with the mouthparts attached and cause more trouble. Don’t try and keep mites at bay with a cat collar somewhere in the habitat – some people tape one to the lid. The active ingredients are very toxic to all reptiles.