There are tiny little white things crawling across my pet snakes face, and even on its eyes.
What are they, and what should I do about them? Are they harmful?
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John is right, your snake has mites. They're pretty similar in reptiles as fleas are in dogs and cats. Unfortunately the best way to deal with mites is to never get them at all because of the difficulty in getting rid of them. Mites will take refuge in the snake's scales, and pretty much every chemical that would kill the mites is harmful to reptiles as well. They're also so tiny in their larval stage they can hide anywhere.
There are sprays you can get that can help sooth the bites on your snake. Reptile Relief is the most commonly used I think.
To actually get rid of the mites, you should give the snake a bath with some Betadine solution (enough so that the water looks like tea). Wait to put in the solution until after the snake is in the bath, as it might want to take a drink when it's first in there. Also, if the snake defecates while in the bath, you should draw a fresh bath.
The water should drown the mites, while the Betadine solution should help clean the bites. Make sure to also (carefully) treat the snake's head as the mites can take refuge on it's head during the bath. You can use a cotton swab to help get the mites off of the head.
Now leave the snake in the bath for a couple minutes to let the water kill the mites. If you're comfortable with leaving your snake in the bath for a bit, you can move on to the next step.
Basically, everything in the terrarium can be considered infested with mite eggs and larvae. A couple things besides the terrarium itself are salvageable. These are the food and water dishes, and the decorations. All of that should be soaked in water with a hint of bleach in it, something like half a cup of bleach per gallon of water.
Let it soak for several minutes to kill the mites, and let the bleach soak and kill the eggs. Anything that can't be soaked should be thrown away and replaced. It's almost best to just use paper towels as a substrate for the next couple of weeks, just in case it turns out that the mites are still around.
Now that the terrarium is empty, fill it up with water and a little bit of bleach. That should hopefully take care of any mites in the silicon corners.
At this point, enough time has probably passed where you can draw your snake another bath, this time with just plain water to rinse away the Betadine solution. Now check to make sure you can't see any mites hiding in the scales or vents. If there's only one or two, or if they're dead and just stuck, you should be able to grab them with a cotton swab and mineral oil.
Now, go back to the terrarium and decorations, and rinse it thoroughly to get rid of the bleach. Especially in the food and water bowls. Now you're ready to put the terrarium back together and put your snake back in it. Make sure to keep an eye on it for any mites that might reappear, if you see any, you'll want to start the process over again.
Yes, these parasitic mites can be a vector for illness because they're effectively feeding on your snake. They're white when young, but will turn dark once they feed and would become easier to see, but they'll also be irritating the snake quite a bit.
In the linked article there is some information on treatment, which is basically to bathe the snake and, possibly also oil him. You should also treat the housing area to remove the mites. Some good information on treating your snake can be in this article: Dealing with Snake Mites.
I saw this post resurrected and I want to put in a resource I found.
Mite Eradication 101:
Permethrin comes in many forms - Provent-A-Mite (PAM), NIX/RID head lice treatment, Permethrin-10 from a livestock supply store, etc. Once mixed with water its half life is 30 days if kept out of direct sunlight.
PAM has several advantages. It has been tested for use with reptiles, and it comes ready to use. The disadvantages are that it's expensive and most reptile stores don't have it in stock, so you have to wait for it to be shipped to you if you don't have any on hand. Meanwhile the mites are busy feeding and breeding.
NIX/RID is cheaper than PAM and is readily available at WalMart, CVS, and other drug stores. It is also easy to dilute: mix one two ounce (59 ml) bottle of the cream rinse with one gallon of water.
At a dollar per ounce Permethrin-10 is the cheapest of the three options; one eight ounce (230g) bottle will make 240 gallons (910 liters) of solution, as only 6 milliliters of it are needed per gallon (3.78 l) of water to make an effective mite spray. The upside is that if you have a lot of snakes to treat this will do it very economically. The downside is that it's all too easy to make too strong of a permethrin solution which can seriously injure or kill your snakes.
No matter which product you use, it must be used correctly. I've never applied any permethrin product directly onto my snakes as it's not needed for mite treatment, and permethrin poisoning in a snake can cause irreversible neurological damage or death.
Permethrin use: spray the enclosure, paper substrate, and hides with the diluted solution or PAM. DO NOT SPRAY THE WATER BOWL. Allow everything to dry completely before returning your snake to its home. Also keep a supply of treated and dried newspaper or paper towels and treated hides available so that when a snake makes a mess, you replace the soiled paper and hides with treated ones. Treat the enclosure every two to three weeks.
Reptile Spray kills mites on contact while wet, once it dries it loses its effectiveness pretty quickly. Reptile Spray is a solution of salts rather than an insecticide; it kills mites by dehydrating them. I don't spray the snakes as more ends up on the floor than on the snake. Instead, I spray a white paper towel with it and wipe it on the snake. That way you get even coverage on the snake, you can work it into the area under their chin really well as that's a favorite hiding place for mites, you don't stress out your snake, and you can look for mites on the paper towel to see how quickly they're being eradicated. Apply twice a week. Note - this stuff hurts like h*** in an open wound.
Some people take a Hot Shot No-Pest strip, cut it into pieces, put each piece into a small sealed container, poke some holes in the container, and put each container into the snake's enclosure. I've used the No-Pest strip but I just hang it in the snake room and close the door. Either way is effective, especially if you have a major outbreak.
If you do use it, remove the water bowls as the insecticide is strongly attracted to water and you don't want the snake drinking it. After 24 hours remove the strip (or pieces), put them into an airtight container for future use, air out the room, and put the water bowls back. Repeat treatment weekly.
Important! If you also keep tarantulas, feeder roaches/dubias, crickets, etc. do not use the No-Pest Strip as it can kill them too!
One or two drops of mild dish detergent in your snake's bath water will break the surface tension and prevent mites from floating in the water so they drown. No more than that is needed, your snake should not look like it is taking a bubble bath.
Don't laugh, but a temperature of 135 °F (57 °C) for five seconds will kill mites and the eggs. I purchased a heat gun used for stripping paint that can be set to blow hot air from 180 °F through 1200 °F (82 °C through 650 °C). Using the heat gun and a temperature gun I heated the surfaces and crevices of my racks and enclosures to kill off any mite eggs that may have been laid outside the tubs. Don't get your enclosure surfaces and joined/glued areas too hot or you can damage them.
Mite treatment should continue for 30 days after you stop finding mites on your snake, as an egg can take that long to hatch.
Effective quarantine means that you treat every new arrival as if it has mites, and new snakes are kept as far away from your established collection as possible for at least 90 days. I treat the quarantine enclosure, hides, and paper with permethrin a day or so before the new snake arrives, and I wipe it with a paper towel soaked in Reptile Spray as part of my inspection process when it comes out of the shipping box. If it has mites I will know it within a day or two at most. This also goes for snakes from "trusted" sources, my first mite outbreak ever came from someone I trusted.
A couple notes on this. I wouldn't recommend the chemical treatments he says unless the mite outbreak is really bad. It seems that yours is just beginning so I would first try the bleach the cage and soap water or betadine strategy. Only in dire circumstances should you risk exposing your snake to chemicals. The reptile spray is probably fine too, but remember the salt will also dry out your snake's skin too. There is also a strategy of catching mites on a surface outside the cage of putting upside down or double-sided tape in a circle around it to see if you can grab any trying to escape or just exploring. As I mentioned in comments, you should clean out all substrate immediately and after bleaching and after the fumes evaporate you should put paper towels to cover the bottom to make it so you can clean the cage easily and so you can see mites easier. Remember not to use water bowls in presence of chemicals and to keep the treatments up for more than 30 days.
Sorry for reviving this dead post, but there are always mite questions and it is good to know a few other solutions if the betadine doesn't work