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How to Avoid (or Treat) Parasites in Chameleons

If you saw last week’s blog post you might be a slightly horrified right now. A little like when we watch Monsters Inside Me and vow to never eat anything even remotely containing pork in a sketchy south-east Asian rural food stand. Easy enough; don’t order Yam naem sot while driving through the backwoods of Thailand. The bad news, however, is that it’s not as straight-forward to avoid parasitic infections in our herps. How do we keep the same thing that happened to Fox the panther chameleon from happening to other reptiles in our homes?

Parasites are everywhere, unfortunately. If you’ve spent any time on reptile groups or forums then inevitably you’ve heard that feeding wild-caught bugs (like grasshoppers, crickets, mantids, etc. from outside) carry a high risk of infecting your pet with parasites. This is true. However, this does not, contrary to popular misconception, mean that if your pets only eat captive farmed insects like crickets and superworms, that they will never catch any parasites. A biologist I knew, Pete Bandre (owner of Incredible Pets in Melbourne, Florida for a good two decades), told me once about an informal study he did once. He wanted to see if any cricket suppliers had “cleaner” crickets than others, so he ordered a bulk box from all the top suppliers in the US. He had each supplier’s stock sampled and they all came back positive for things like pinwom and even coccidia. Yikes!

Ok, so if even our innocent pet store crickets are riddled with the potential for parasites, the only things we can do are mitigate risk, do preventive testing and treatment, and treat parasite loads as necessary. 

Keeping Parasites from Taking Over

The truth of the matter is that parasites are everywhere. According to the CDC, millions of people carry some sort of parasite, and many are totally unaware. That’s the thing about parasites; it’s not in their best interest to kill the hosts they live in, and our immune systems keep them in check to a degree, so in most cases the host will never know they have parasites until their immune system is compromised somehow and the parasites get too prolific or they find themselves in an area of the body where they cause problems. If everything stays in balance a person or a chameleon could live full and healthy lives never knowing that they have worms or other parasites in their system.

What does that mean for us? That parasites are not an instant death sentence, thankfully, just something to manage. All the common parasites in chameleons are also easily treatable with the help of a veterinarian, In no particular order:

1. Keep insect colonies as clean as possible.

Clearly, our insects are coming in with all sorts of potential invaders, so to keep it from getting out of control I recommend keeping cricket and other insect colonies as clean and dry as possible. I had one chameleon test positive for E-coli in his saliva once from his food, so even though it’s not a parasite, keeping the insects from living in and around their own feces will help keep things more sanitary in general. From the anecdote I told earlier, we know crickets can be parasite vectors, so best to keep them as clean as possible.

2. Quarantine all new chameleons, always.

When we bring home a new chameleon it is vital to quarantine them away from other herps for a minimum of 60 days. Some people say 30 is enough but 60 is better practice. Keep animals and supplies separate, wash your hands between animals, and don’t share or swap supplied until the quarantine is over. This prevents any possible contagious issues from spreading to all the animals in your home. Nothing worse than a brand new animal passing along something like coccidia to all your other reptiles!

3. Do routine fecal tests.

These are not expensive to do, thankfully! If you have an exotics vet nearby they will usually charge you the initial visit to make the animal(s) a patient and then the fecal smear/float plus any recommended antiparasitic. In my experience, in Florida I’ve paid an average of $22 for the fecal and another $20 or so for the medication. I highly recommend doing routine fecal tests every 3-6 months and treating accordingly. Doing routine fecal tests may seem like over-kill for a captive animal that eats crickets and lives indoors, but it’s just good preventative practice.

If you have so many animals that the amount starts to add up, you can buy your own microscope for about $150 on Amazon and do your own quick checks. This can be a good way to run random checks more often on a large colony and if anything is detected in the feces that animal’s sample can be taken to the vet. This can save money on routine checks for larger collections, but just make sure to buy a good resource guide to properly be able to identify what might be lurking in a sample.

4. Disinfect cages.

Especially if you are buying any used equipment, please make sure to disinfect it well before using. And it’s prudent to really clean out all herp cages with a strong product at least every few months. There is no point in doing parasitic treatments and fecals if the cages are dirty and the chameleons are stepping over their old, infected poop every day. Or worse, licking water off dirty poop footprint-covered branches. Yuck! So really make a schedule to do super deep cleans routinely (everything gets torn apart, thrown into the yard or the bath tub, and gets scrubbed down with bleach water or another tough clearer. I do mine every 3 months; I do spot cleaning often, a semi-deep clean every two weeks (where I don’t take everything apart but I do clean the cage floor and walls well) and then once every 3 months I will drag the cages outside, strip them, and do a really, really deep clean. 

The Cautionary Tale of Fox the Chameleon

I’ve been keeping chameleons a long time and I’d never lost one to parasites until my last panther chameleon, Fox. How could this happen, right? I followed all my typical quarantine protocols; no instruments were shared, no animals came into contact with each other, and hands were washed between handling. So how did Fox end up with a heavy infestation of flagellate worms? This is a type of parasite that we see a lot in wild caught species but almost never in captive born animals! This is because the life cycle of this parasite includes a mosquito that is thankfully not found in the US, so even infested chameleons here cannot spread the worms to other animals, allegedly. That’s what they say, however Fox was not the only case of a young, alleged captive-born animal dying from a heavy parasite load. So in my opinion the transfer must be happening, rarely by occasionally, via other means.

It never even occurred to me to perform a fecal test on a CB animal this young upon receiving him, but now I have learned my lesson and will be performing fecal tests on ALL new chameleons regardless of origin as soon as they come through my door. My policy so far has been to leave CB animals alone in that regard until they are a little older, but I think now I will be amending my personal policy to include “welcome home” fecal tests and a test every 3-4 months thereafter.

It’s clear from how heavily he was infested that this did not happen in the month he lived with me (at the age of 7 months old), and it probably took some time for all the adult worms to accumulate, so he may have become infected at a very young age. I for one will be much more vigilant in regards to parasites from now on, and will be performing checks much more often even on young animals!

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