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Last updated January 1, 2014

Zoonoses From Reptiles and Their Parasites

It's not just your reptile you need to worry about...

©2001 Melissa Kaplan


When we think of reptiles and their parasites, we tend to (or should be!) thinking about how the presence of bloodsucking ectoparasites and the many different types of endoparasites may harm our reptile. While a healthy reptile can sustain a certain number of endo- and ectoparasites, a stressed or already compromised reptile cannot. Since captivity is, in and of itself, stressful, experienced herpers learn that it is better to deal with the issue right from the start, rather than wait for a problem to develop and to spread throughout all their other enclosures and reptiles.

What most herpers - and other pet owners - fail to realize is that humans may become infected with diseases borne by the ectoparasites, as well as become infected with organisms that pass through the reptile's digestive tract (nicely known as the fecal-oral route). What follows are abstracts and other information on some of the tickborne and other zoonoses from reptile hosts.

Seasonal activity and host associations of Ixodes scapularis (Acari: Ixodidae) in southeastern Missouri. Kollars TM Jr, Oliver JH Jr, Kollars PG, Durden LA. Institute of Anthropology and Parasitology, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro 30460, USA. J Med Entomol 1999 Nov;36(6):720-6

Based on tick collections recovered from wild vertebrates and by dragging, the seasonal occurrence of adult blacklegged ticks, Ixodes scapularis Say, extended from October through May in southeastern Missouri. Adult activity was bimodal with the higher peak occurring in November followed by a lower peak in February. The activity of immature I. scapularis had the general pattern of that found in the Northeast where Lyme disease is hyperendemic, with larval activity (July) peaking after that of nymphs (May and June). Vertebrates varied in their importance as hosts of I. scapularis. White-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginanus (Zimmerman), and coyotes, Canis latrans Say, were the primary hosts of adult I. scapularis. Broad-headed skinks, Eumeces laticeps (Schneider), and eastern fence lizards, Sceloporus undulatus (Latreille), were the primary hosts of nymphal I. scapularis. The broad-headed skink, 5-lined skink, Eumeces fasciatus (L.), and Carolina wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus (Latham), were the primary hosts of larval I. scapularis. Homeotherms were important hosts of immature I. scapularis, accounting for 30% of nymphs and 39% of larvae collected. The eastern cottontail rabbit, Sylvilagus floridanus (Allen), may play an important role in the epidemiology of Lyme disease in Missouri. Isolates of Borrelia burgdorferi Johnson, Schmid, Hyde, Steigerwalt & Brenner were made from ticks recovered from rabbits, making the cottontail rabbit a key species for further study of the epidemiology of Lyme borreliosis in Missouri.

Lizards as hosts for immature Ixodes scapularis (Acari: Ixodidae) in North Carolina. Levine JF, Apperson CS, Howard P, Washburn M, Braswell AL. J Med Entomol 1997 Nov;34(6):594-8

Previously archived museum specimens of lizards collected throughout North Carolina were examined for Ixodes scapularis (Say). Lizards (n = 1,349) collected in 80 of North Carolina's 100 counties were examined. Lizards with ticks were collected in 23 (29%) of the 80 counties from which lizards were examined. I. scapularis was detected on 8.7% (n = 117) of the lizards and was the sole species of tick obtained from lizards. Immature ticks were most frequently found on the southeastern five-lined skink, Eumeces inexpectatus, and the eastern glass lizard, Ophisaurus ventralis. Larvae were most frequently found on the six-lined racerunner, Cnemidophorus sexlineatus. One C. sexlineatus harbored 177 larvae and 2 nymphs. Nymphs were most frequently observed on E. inexpectatus. The majority of counties (chi 2, P < 0.01) where ticks were found on lizards were in the Coastal Plain.

Ixodes (Ixodes) scapularis (Acari:Ixodidae): redescription of all active stages, distribution, hosts, geographical variation, and medical and veterinary importance. Keirans JE, Hutcheson HJ, Durden LA, Klompen JS. Institute of Arthropology and Parasitology, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro 30460-8056, USA. J Med Entomol 1996 May;33(3):297-318

The blacklegged tick, Ixodes (Ixodes) scapularis Say, 1821, is redescribed, based on laboratory reared specimens originating in Bulloch County, Georgia. Information on distribution, host associations, morphological variation, and medical/veterinary importance is also presented. A great deal of recent work has focused on this species because it is the principal vector of the agent of Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi Johnson, Schmidt, Hyde, Steigerwaldt & Brenner) in eastern North America. Its distribution appears to be expanding, and includes the state of Florida in the southeastern United States north to the provinces of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, Canada, west to North and South Dakota, United States, and south to the state of Coahuila, Mexico. Although I. scapularis feeds on at least 125 species of North American vertebrates (54 mammalian, 57 avian, and 14 lizard species), analysis of the U.S. National Tick Collection holdings show that white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus (Zimmermann), cattle, Bos taurus L., dogs, Canis lupus L., and other medium-to-large sized mammals are important hosts for adults as are native mice and other small mammals, certain ground-frequenting birds, skinks, and glass lizards for nymphs and larvae. This tick is a polytypic species exhibiting north-south and east-west morphological clines. Analysis of variance and Student-Newman-Keuls multiple comparisons revealed significant interpopulational variation that is expressed most significantly in the nymphal stage. Nymphs from northern (Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maryland) populations had relatively larger basis capituli with shorter cornua (except Maryland) than southern (North Carolina, Georgia) populations. Midwestern populations (Minnesota, Missouri) differed from eastern populations (Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia) in idiosomal characters (broader scuta, larger coxae III, and IV). In addition to Lyme disease, this tick is also a primary vector of the agent of human and rodent babesiosis, Babesia microti Franca. Under laboratory conditions it has transmitted the agents of deer babesiosis, Babesia odocoilei Emerson & Wright, tularemia, Francisella tularensis McCoy & Chapin, and anaplasmosis, Anaplasma marginale Theiler. Moreover, I. scapularis can reach pest proportions on livestock, and females can cause tick paralysis in dogs.

Exp Appl Acarol 1999 Sep;23(9):731-40 Related Articles, Books, LinkOut

Abundance of ticks (Acari: Ixodidae) infesting the western fence lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis, in relation to environmental factors. Talleklint-Eisen L, Eisen RJ. Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California at Berkeley 94720, USA. Exp Appl Acarol 1999 Sep;23(9):731-40

We examined the impact of environmental characteristics, such as habitat type, topographic exposure and presence of leaf litter, on the abundance of Ixodes pacificus ticks infesting the western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) at the University of California Hopland Research and Extension Center (HREC), Mendocino County, California. A total of 383 adult lizards were slip-noosed and examined for tick infestation in April and May 1998. At least 94% of the lizards were infested by ticks and at least 20% of the females and 33% of the males carried > 15 ticks. This intensive utilization of western fence lizards (which do not serve as natural reservoirs for Lyme disease spirochetes) by subadult ticks, is probably the primary reason for the low prevalence of infection with Borrelia burgdorferi in I. pacificus nymphs and adults previously recorded at the HREC. Tick loads were higher on male than female lizards. Also, male lizards were generally more heavily infested in late April than in late May. The prevalence of tick infestation exceeded 88% in all habitat types but males collected in woodland and grass/woodland edges had higher tick loads than those collected in open grassland. Male lizards captured in open, exposed grassland tended to carry heavier tick loads in northern/eastern, as compared to southern/western, exposures, and when leaf litter was present.

Human infestation by Ophionyssus natricis snake mite. Schultz H. Br J Dermatol 1975 Dec;93(6):695-7

A family presented with a papular vesiculo-bullous eruption of the skin, found to be caused by the snake mite, Ophionyssus natricis (Cervais, 1844). A pet python was the primary host. Treatment of the animal and its environment led to clearance of the human skin lesions.

Pentastomes (Pentastomida, Armillifer armillatus Wyman, 1848) in snakes from Zambia. De Meneghi D. Dipartimento di Produzioni Animali, Epidemiologia ed Ecologia, Universita degli Studi DI Torino, Italy. Parassitologia 1999 Dec;41(4):573-4. Parassitologia 1999 DEC;41(4):573-4

Twenty-three snakes, belonging to eight different species, were collected from rural areas of Zambia and inspected for the presence of pentastomes. Pentastomid parasites were found in four snakes: one African rock python (Python sebae), one puff adder (Bitis arietans) and two Mozambique spitting cobras (Naja mossambica) were infested with a small number of Armillifer armillatus, respectively five, two and one adult parasites. As humans can be incidental/intermediate hosts for reptilian pentastomes, the zoonotic potential of these parasites, especially in tropical countries, is discussed.

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