Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Reptile parasites and wormers

©2000 Melissa Kaplan


Okay, I hear you out there squealing, "Ewwwww! Parasites!"

Well, a parasite is like a weed. While a weed is just a plant you don't want where it is, a parasite is just an organism that, for the most part, you don't want too many of them where they are. Let's face it: Our bodies (and those of our reptiles) are teeming with microscopic organisms: bacteria, fungi, protozoans, little flagellated thingies, little worm thingies, and weird combinations of things that don't fit into long-established categories. The digestive tract alone hosts an enormous range of organisms.

Fortunately, most of them happily live out their lives without affecting our own. Gut organisms can be divided into the following categories, depending on what role they play in the gut:

  • commensal: both the host and the organism benefit by their association, as the worms that eat the ingesta, thereby breaking it down so that the host can access the nutrients

  • saprophytic: marginal or no benefit to the host, but no harm, either; the organism benefits by living in a suitable environment (such as Salmonella, E. coli)

  • parasitic: of no benefit to the host, the organism, in sufficient numbers, harms the host by destroying tissues (i.e. lungworm) or stripping nutrients before they can be absorbed by the body (i.e. tapeworm)

Your healthy reptile has a number of these organisms, all kept in check by a healthy immune system and the beneficial gut flora. When the reptile is highly stressed, or under prolonged moderate to severe stress, the immune system falters. In cases of improper environmental temperatures, starvation, or prolonged dehydration, the beneficial gut flora die off, resulting in the more opportunistic of the organisms that are benign in small numbers to gain ascendancy and start to become problems.

Since the vast majority of reptile parasites and protozoans are too small to see without a microscope, you cannot tell if your reptile has a problem (other than changes that may occur in the color, consistency, and/or odor of the feces and urates). The only way to know is to properly collect a specimen of newly deposited feces and have it examine by a reptile veterinarian's office. Why a reptile veterinarian? They are most familiar with the varieties of reptile-related organisms, have a better feel for what number of them in the sample constitutes a benign, "no need to treat" level vs. one requiring immediate treatment.

Pet Store/Over The Counter Wormers vs. Veterinary Care
Unfortunately, too many herpers want to do things on the cheap. This includes buying and using the various wormer products sold in pet stores and farm/ranch supply stores rather than paying for a vet examination and treatment. Unfortunately, this rarely saves money in the long run, as it deludes the keeper that they are adequately dealing with a problem. At worst, an already stressed reptile is given a dose of unnecessary medication, too much of a medication that then makes it sick, or not enough medication which creates resistance in the surviving organisms, making them harder to kill and allowing them to propagate to where they cause even further problems. Ultimately, if this doesn't kill the reptile, it ends up costing much more when vet treatment to salvage the reptile is finally sought.

In other words: pet store products are doing the pet store more good than they are you.

The main problem is that wormers (anthelmintics) are developed to treat specific types/species of worms. Some destroy a species's ability to reproduce. Other's the species's ability to maintain their mouthpart's grasp on the gut wall. Still others may interfere with their ability to process nutrients. The vet examination identifies the species based on the eggs they see in the fecal sample, enabling them to prescribe the right medication.

In addition to prescribing the right medication, the vet takes into consideration the species of reptile being treated as well as its size in making the determination as to which medication, the dosage, and frequency of follow-up doses. You can't do this with pet store wormers.

Another problem with pet store wormers is that, since the companies who make the stuff want to protect themselves against consumers who don't have accurate scales on which to weigh their animals (especially ones that weigh only tens of or a few hundred grams), and humans tend to have a "if a little is good, more is better" mentality, the drugs are extremely weak to ensure that no one could easily overdose their animals. All this does is result in the organisms not being affected at all by the product, or killing only the weakest ones, and building resistance to the drug in the ones who survived.


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