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Guide to common husbandry issues and first remedial steps

Guide to common husbandry issues and first remedial steps

By Mike Biernacki

This guide should help you make first remedial steps before you contact veterinarian for more specific help. It is my intention to promote seeking professional help in dealing with health issues of pets we care for. I am indicating certain treatments and drugs we employed in dealing with described issues, but I purposely refrained from giving dosages and other details of treatment, beyond general description.

There is no substitute for a keen eye of professional or experienced keeper, so relying on guide alone will only get you so far. It is better to have an idea what you can do yourself – like mite treatment or dealing with obstruction, and where and when you need to seek help of professional.

Treatment of sick animal is never routine. There are many factors that go into deciding what to use and when. General guidelines can’t replace that, they are just it – general guidelines.

My experience come from dealing with every described issue in the past and being able to know what to do and when. Despite my experience, I would not be able to do it without help of my vet team.


This usually is limited to two types of mites and ticks.

-snake mites

Presence of black, round, less than 1mm size “bugs” that crawl on animal or on tank furnishings

Common places you can find them on lizards include under scales if scales are significant in size and overlapping, around vent area, near eyes and near ear. Lizards with loose flaps of skin will have them in skinfolds or in a gular area in folds of more delicate skin.

Snakes will have them under scales all over the body but particularly on a ventral side.

Mite feces will be visible on snakes in the form of whitish speckles. Snake looks like it was salted.

-chigger mites

Bright orange arthropods located on a tail of lizard, between scales in armpits and near vent. In snakes around the eyes and around vent area.


Bigger arthropods ranging in size from few mm to 1cm if feeding. Found in similar places on reptile as it is the case for mites.

First steps:

Determine that you are dealing with a mite infestation and not springtail presence. There are several beneficial arthropods that live in a bioactive soil and can be found crawling on reptiles. Beneficial bugs are – beneficial, so let us make sure we are dealing with real threat.

Snake mites and ticks are feeding on a host blood and they become engorged with blood when they become noticeable.

Brushing them off animal on a white piece of paper allows for closer examination. If they are black round and moving, try to squish one with blunt object like your fingernail. If they squirt blood or black liquid (already digested blood) there is a good chance you are dealing with snake mites.

Adult Chigger mites are tiny and bright orange, they are deeply embedded into a skin of animal. Larvae feed on reptile skin, they can cause an irritation in a spot that they are attached to, they can cause a proliferation of dead skin layers, but will not actually drain reptile off blood. Adult mites do not parasitize reptiles, they usually use them to hitch a ride. Unsightly as they are, they do not pose much danger to lizard or snake they are attached to.

Ticks are rather obvious, if they are deeply embedded in skin, they may not be readily visible. Slightly raised scales of snakes usually reveal a hidden tick.


- Identify affected reptiles.

- Identify extend of infection – check neighboring units.

- Isolate affected areas/cages/animals

o Animals are to be but into sick bay. Cage with paper towel for bedding and simple hide spot. Arboreal species simple plastic climbing branch


Snake mites:

For snakes and smaller lizards: Put all affected snakes or smaller lizards overnight into Neguvon laced bags. If you do not have these, follow remedy below.

For larger snakes, larger group of lizards or larger lizards use Nix bath. Dissolve I container of Nix in 1 gal of water. Use it to bath affected animals. Remaining liquid can be used to douse cages or spray paper towels in sick bay.

Empty containers where affected animals were found, clean and disinfect using disinfectant.

Racking system, large cages or stands with immediate area – treat with Zodiac Premise 2000 flea spray as per instruction on the can.

Warning! Area spray will kill all insects and arachnids that it can reach. That includes your feeder insects, tarantulas, and scorpions if you display them in same area as reptiles. Take steps to remove all arachnids and insects (cricket bin and other feeder insects) from treated area.

Feeding of insect eating reptiles needs to be suspended during treatment.

Keep vigilance over next 2 weeks. If you caught full bloomed outbreak, second wave will be possible in 2-3 weeks time.

Chigger mites:

Adults are stowaways, they do not affect health of the reptiles. Eggs are needed to be laid in the soil, so adults stay on lizards, until it is safe to fall of and complete cycle. Since chigger mites affect mostly small reptiles follow same treatment as for snake mites. Once mites are killed, they still can be embedded in lizard’s skin. They need to be mechanically removed using soft brush.

Area treatment for Chigger mites is not required unless infestation is present in multiple cages. Chigger mites do not travel same way snake mites do.


Pick ticks by hand. Grab tick with your fingers or forceps and start pulling. Keep pulling until they let go.

If you have trouble with removal, ask mike for demonstration.

Area treatment for ticks is not needed. Parasites stay on animals and once attached do not migrate unless fully engorged with blood. We catch them long before that happens – usually right upon importation.

Pneumonia and related Respiratory Infections:


- Animals spending lots of time with mouth partially open, that is not related to thermoregulation.

- Reptiles displaying swollen head, gums, and throat area.

- Reptiles holding head straight up and appearing gasping for air.

- Excess saliva pouring from parted mouth.

- Whistling or cracking sound accompanying breathing.

Animal suspected of having respiratory infection may have one or more symptoms identified above.

In addition, it can be listless and weak. It may keep eyes closed, not be alert or showing reaction to touch or to being picked up.

Next steps:

Identify animals and affected enclosures. Move animal to sick bay. Set environment on bare minimum -paper towel, hide spot climbing option (if required)

Increase heat to maximum range for affected species increase humidity to 80-90 % unless dealing with desert species (this one 60% only)

This issue needs usually more complex medical attention and antibiotic treatment that go beyond first steps.

Contact your veterinarian for further action.



Nipped tails, nipped digits, obvious bite marks, missing limbs, tails, or chunks of flesh.

These are usually effects of intraspecies interactions. Aggression can be shown over food, basking space, mate, or a territory. Many such interactions can be avoided by spacing animals in less dense groups, providing same size cage mates, separating males from females during breeding season and avoiding keeping mature males in the same enclosure.

Once aggression results in injury follow these steps:

- Isolate injured animal immediately in a sick bay – bare minimum container with paper towel, hide/climb perches are to be used.

- Clean wound with water and disinfect with peroxide or rubbing alcohol.

- For minor wounds use Betadine.

- If injury is extensive immediately seek help of licensed veterinarian.



Swollen areas of the body including but not limited to head, limbs digits and tail.

If accompanied by laceration swollen area around injury or cut.

Presence of enlarged bumps – abscesses.

Discoloration of the skin or areas of damaged skin or scales.

Discharge from mouth or vent. Oozing open sores or presence of blisters.

Next steps:

Isolate animal in a sick bay on bare minimum set up: paper towel, hide spot, climbing branch (if needed)

For skin infections you can try disinfecting drying agents like rubbing alcohol or better yet Betadine.

Increase heat and humidity to maximum allowable for affected species, except when you suspect fungal skin infections. Those need to be kept dry.

Seek medical attention as soon as possible and follow specific instructions.

Remedy for infection will require antibiotic treatment once proper identification is made.

Follow antibiotic regimen once established.

Lost of appetite, apathy, weakness, bloody stools:


Above are the symptoms not a disease. They can be symptomatic with infection or internal injury or they may be a result of internal parasites.

Internal parasites, just like infections, need to be properly identified and remedy is different, depending on what type of parasite affects health of the animal. Proper remedy will involve positive identification and targeted treatment prescribed by Vet or prophylactic treatment.

If you find a sick animal, isolate it in a sick bay on bare minimum furnishing (paper towel, hiding cave, climbing branch (if needed).

Animals with internal parasites are usually dehydrated due to diarrhea and rehydration is your first remedial step. Once isolated use eye dropper with Pedialyte to rehydrate animal.

Once rehydrated and isolated seek attention of Vet for further instructions about more specific treatment.

Refusal to eat is a symptom, so we need to address an underlying cause to solve the issue.

Most internal parasite outbreaks are caused by stress. Stress of being in captivity, in a overpopulated cage, stress of environmental kind, like to being kept in the terrarium with improper humidity and temperature, stress of lack of access to hiding spot or basking area and finally being fed improper food (type size, quantity).

It would help alleviate stress for other cage mates, once weakened animal is found, by correcting husbandry and addressing any of the above-mentioned stress factors. This action can limit the further progression of problems with other animals in the cage. It is also a good reason to run husbandry audit on other cages in the store.

Once internal parasites overwhelm reptile’s internal defenses, medical treatment is necessary to get that animal better.

Prophylactic treatment involves medicated mash or direct treatment of newly arrived animals.

For pinworms and roundworms, we use Fenbendazole.

For anaerobic bacteria and protozoans, we use Metronidazole.

For coccidia, we use SulfaTrim.

For fungal infections we use Lamisil.

Above treatment can be ordered by Vet. Follow their instructions to complete next steps beyond re-hydration and environmental check/correction.


Dystocia or egg retention affects female reptiles, as they are the ones that lay eggs.

Occasionally, either through design or by chance, our female reptiles become pregnant and are in need of laying eggs.

If environment is hostile, females may withhold egg laying until there is safe to do so. If that break does not come in time, eggs continue to develop inside mother’s body and animal can become egg bound.

So, what constitutes as hostile environment? Anything that female perceives as threat to her or her brood.

This can include:

- other animals in enclosure.

- lack of suitable egg laying site or medium in which to lay eggs.

- presence of a male in the same enclosure.

- improper environment in general – size of cage, temperature, humidity, decorations or lack of it.

- constant disturbance in the cage or in its immediate vicinity

- any form of external stress

Beyond environmental factors, dehydration, and hypocalcemia (lower level of calcium in the body) can also be a contributing factor.

Egg bound females are easily identified by their extended abdomens where eggs are visible and palpable under skin, females are weakened, they may be laying on the bottom of the cage. There also may be signs of dehydration.

If discovered – they need to be either moved to larger cage with proper environment to lay eggs or other cage mates need to be moved out of the cage, if that cage meets brooding environment requirements.

Regarding a mom to be:

Rehydrate animal using eye dropper and Pedialyte. Provide liquid calcium as per instructions on the bottle. Liquid calcium is being sold through either Zoomed or Exoterra line of supplements. Provide peace by blocking any visual disturbance outside the cage.

If above actions do not bring improvement, hormonal treatment of oxytocin may be needed. The application of injectable calcium and oxytocin can be performed by your attending Veterinarian.

In most severe cases surgery is the only solution left to save the animal, so being in contact with your veterinarian is important.


If animals are being kept on unsuitable medium like sand, coco fiber, beta chips, gravel, some of the medium can stick to food and be ingested by animal.

Small quantities can usually be passed through digestive system, but sometimes volume of ingested medium can be so big that it will cause impaction.

If impaction is suspected – lack of appetite in otherwise healthy-looking animal and presence of impactable medium together with evidence of medium present in fecal matter (if available), follow these steps:

Isolate animal from current environment by placing it on paper towel – you will see evidence of impaction if more stools are produced.

Provide a bath in a lukewarm water. Gently massage animal belly to stimulate bowel movement.

If obstruction is still present after those steps seek Vet help.

Yellow Fungus Disease:

Disease is limited mostly to Bearded Dragons but reports of infected Green Iguanas also has been made.

Look for lesions and discolorations, that can be yellow in color and eventually can form a dry skin crust. First appearance will be on ventral area and near vent. Also, around neck chin and eye.

There are no successful long-term options for infected animals. All infected animals must be euthanized immediately. All cage-mates and every other animal originating from same source free of symptoms, must be isolated and put under quarantine with oral treatment of antifungal antibiotics as prescribed by Vet.

Metabolic Bone Disease:

This is a disease of poor husbandry and inadequate supplementation of the food animals eat.

It is not an infectious disease but rather effect of feeding imbalanced phosphorus rich and calcium poor diet. With inadequate UV exposure or inadequate supplementation.


Bowed and disfigured legs, stiff joints limiting mobility. Soft (rubbery) jaw and soft cranial bones.

In extreme cases crooked skeleton with very malnourished body.

In advanced stages, animal cannot stand on erected legs, has difficulty moving and food often slips from its mouth.

Gentle pinch of the nose or lower jaw can show very flexible, rubbery bone. At this point it is usually too late to save animal. MBD can be stopped but cannot be reversed.

Early stage can be improved by injectable calcium gluconate, increased UVB exposure a modified diet with appropriate supplementation.

It is important to look for early signs of MBD and correct environment and diet in time to prevent more serious onset or worsening of the condition.

Another reason for MBD is overbreeding of females when clutches are being laid in very short intervals without appropriate nutritious and supplemental back up.

Remedy would be in improvement of diet and providing rests between breeding.

Amphibian specific issues:

Red Leg Disease:

Red leg is a disease of dirty environment. It is caused by a common bacterium Aeromonas hydrophila.

Early signs show tights, legs, and abdomen skin to be reddened. This infection is often present in newly imported frogs, that spent long time in dirty environment during transport or amphibians kept in unsanitary environment or in too high densities.

Prophylactic treatment includes:

Bathing all new arrivals in a concentrated Melafix solution for 20 minutes before frogs are set in their final cages. Concentrated solution can be made by following dilution on label, but by mixing it in third volume of what is recommended. Since you are doing a quick bath, animal is not exposed to a concentrated agent longer than 20 minutes.

Remedial treatment includes:

- bath in Tetracycline solution

- keeping all amphibians on a bare environment (glass, plastic tank with paper towel soaked in Melafix regular solution (not concentrated).

- if found in established, post quarantine animals -full revision of environment and cleaning schedule needs to be looked at. Animals are not being maintained properly.

Chytrid fungus:

Every new import of frogs, and especially field collected frogs, needs to be evaluated towards presence of Chytrid Fungus.

All frogs need to be put in a quarantine following standard Melafix bath as described above.

During that time close observation needs to be made regarding frog’s skin shedding and overall health.

Chytrid fungus needs to be confirmed by a lab and if suspected we will treat with Lamisil solution.

Lamisil is a drug you need to get prescription for, so you need to contact your veterinarian for it.


This is condition that happens when we are initially dealing with obstruction and part that is stuck in intestine is finally eliminated. The longer the obstruction last the greater chances that it will give us trouble. Stuck part may not be eliminated, or it may come out but like a too tight glove on our fingers, once removed it will evert itself. This is exactly what happens during prolapse. The end of intestine is everted when big piece of stool finally passes through the animal.

If prolapse is minor it can be absorbed without any additional action. Animal needs to be kept well hydrated and be put into clean environment with clean, soggy wet paper towel on the bottom of enclosure to prevent drying out of the intestine.

I have also had success with using instead of pure water, mix of water and honey. To my surprise this concoction worked quite well.

In more severe cases gentle massage of exposed part with clean hands may help in retrieval. Extreme cases require surgical fix.

Prevention includes keeping animals well hydrated, allowing pets big enough enclosure, so they can exercise and thus help moving food in digestive track. Finally, making sure the bedding or bottom of the cage does not get ingested. Prolapses happen often with species that get debris stuck to their tongues – tree frogs, horn frogs and on reptile side, chameleons.

Final notes:

Diseases can strike at any time, but properly run facility, clean cages, adequate food and environment and most importantly a keen eye of a keeper, can reduce a chance of serious outbreak and help treat animals on first onsets and prevent a major disaster from happening.

All our captive animals rely on us for adequate care and protection. We are responsible for their well being, and how we apply ourselves in our job will have significant impact on ones we care for.

If you are not sure of anything – ask. If you do not know something – find solution or seek help.

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