Snakes 101

Fear of snakes is the most common fear in the world. So those of us who keep snakes are all quite familiar with the sideways looks and incredulous questions we get when someone finds out about our beloved limbless pets.

While some are merely curious and happy to have those myths debunked more often than not we're expected to defend the very existence of our pets and explain ourselves. Many of us have prepared statements handy but I find it's useful to have a handy FAQ available online as well for inquiring minds who want to know. These are all questions I've been asked- often in person.

Bewildered by a friend's choice of pet? Just wondering what it's like to own a snake? Looking to overcome a fear of snakes? This post is for you!

Do your snakes bite?

All animals can bite. Pet snakes bite for two reasons:

A: Stupid feeding errors such as not washing your hands after handling food (or a pet rodent/bird) thus smelling like food, not using tongs/ dropping food in and dangling the food item by the tail etc, this is also the reason a snake would constrict.

B: They're scared. Snakes don't bite because they're mean or out to get you or anything like that. A nippy snake is a frightened snake. Generally, if you leave a wild snake alone they'll leave you alone too and happily flee in the opposite direction.

Are your snakes poisonous?

Poisonous means it's dangerous if you eat it and there are only two known species who are-Rhabdophis tigrinus the Japanese grass snake, and Thamnophis sirtalis the common garter snake. This is due to the poisonous amphibians they eat. So don't eat any grass or garter snakes and you'll be fine!

Venomous means it's dangerous if it bites you, and no, none of my snakes are venomous. If you see someone with a pet snake wrapped around their shoulders I guarantee you that snake is not venomous. In fact, only 10% of the 3,000 known species of snake on Earth are venomous and those you commonly see kept as pets have a bite less dangerous than your average dog or cat.

You need special training and experience to keep venomous snakes and they are not the sort of snake you take for a walk. Casual snake enthusiasts like myself keep snakes that pose no danger to myself or others and that I can safely hold. Venomous snakes are pretty but are definitely not for handling.

When it comes to wild snakes, especially when you're unfamiliar with the species in your area, the wisest course of action is to let them be and keep your distance. They're shy beneficial animals regardless of species and won't strike unless provoked. If it's lingering in an area where your children and/or pets play and you're unsure then call a service to have them relocated. There is no reason to kill them.

Are snakes slimy?

Not at all!

They vary in texture from like fine leather to almost plastic-y but they're not even a little bit slimy. Newborns, maybe, like most animals but beyond that they're dry, clean animals. I can only assume people think they are because of things said in the movies or that beautiful sometimes iridescent shine. Precious stones shine too but no one thinks they're slimy. It's honestly bewildering to me that this is still a thing.

What do you do with a snake?

Experience it!

You can watch them, admire them, handle them, take pictures of them, watch TV with them... Sure they don't play fetch or anything, but there's a LOT of popular pets that don't do that which are a lot higher maintenance. I find handling a snake very relaxing and meditative. They say people who keep pets and love them have lower blood pressure, and I believe that. They're very soothing to hold and it watch.

Will your snake eat you/me/my dog/my cat/children?

Any news story you've heard about people/pets being killed or eaten by a pet snake (one of the giant species) is the fault of an irresponsible human being or an urban legend. And even then it's rare.

A well fed, properly handled, well secured snake is not a danger to anyone or anything. Just like needing to be careful with small pets like birds, guinea pigs, etc when you have a big dog it's the same with a sizable snake. Smaller more common pet snakes are IN more danger from dogs, cats, and children than the other way around! In fact back when I kept house rabbits I didn't worry for the bunnies sake! In the event of an escape said buns would kick the crap out of my poor snakes hence my locking them down like Alcatraz. Those rabbits were not to be reckoned with nor were they anywhere near small enough to be considered a prey item for my snakes' species!

Do your snakes run loose in your home?

This is a very common misconception and no they don't!

Snakes need very secure enclosures to live in or they will get lost or hurt. They don't come when you call and an escaped snake will likely find a warm place to hide where you might never find or be able to reach them. In the worst case scenario they could even starve, freeze, or get stuck somewhere. Free-range snakes would be careless and impossible to keep at healthy temperatures! No responsible keeper does this.

Aren't you afraid your snakes might escape and strangle you in your sleep?

Having a pet snake escape is a terrifying experience not because we're in danger but because we're worried we'll lose them!!

An escaped snake looks for somewhere warm and quiet to hide. It's an urban legend that they stretch out alongside you to 'measure if they can eat you'. They aren't biding their time or plotting against us. Few species get big enough to even consider a human meal. Which brings me to-

A snake will only get as big as its enclosure, right?

Nope! A snake will grow as big as its species dictates! I know the species I'm keeping, and I guarantee they are as likely to reach 30 feet as my house cat is likely to grow into a Siberian tiger. This is true for fish as well.

Only a few species will ever get that big. The lovely Burmese python, common in some pet stores, can grow around 20 feet and many of them end up abandoned. So many that zoos often won't take them anymore. Do some research before buying any pet so you know what you're getting and what they need.

Keeping a snake in a small enclosure in hopes of keeping it small is cruel! It's also cruel to keep a very small snake in a very big container unless you give them LOTS of hides. Feeling exposed is as stressful as being cramped. So if you're thinking of getting a snake, keep in mind cage upgrades as they get older!

Isn't it true that if you feed a snake in their own enclosure they'll be more inclined to bite when you reach in for them?

No, that's a myth.

I - and many other snake enthusiasts - feed our snakes in their enclosures where they're comfortable with no change in their personalities or behavior.

Is it true that a snake can go years without eating and be fine?

Not exactly.

Snakes feed between once a week to once a month depending on the animal and the size of the food item. This is standard for most snakes. They have a very slow metabolism so this is all they need. Pet snakes are spoiled snakes as their wild counterparts eat less regularly. A healthy animal can go months without food if it has to and skipping a meal here or there won't harm them but after a certain point a snake will starve just like any other animal. They can suffer and die if denied food for too long. Some snakes fast for a few months in the winter, and that's okay, but much longer then that and it's time to visit a vet. If you go on vacation for a couple of weeks, so long as the snake has water it won't phase them at all.

Snakes always need water.

Can I feed a snake something other than rodents?

You can but you shouldn't.

All snakes eat meat although there are a few smaller species that eat crickets. There's no such thing as a vegetarian snake though. Only giant snakes like Burmese Pythons, Reticulated Pythons, and some big Boas as a few examples will ever need bigger meals than mice or rats. Some snakes get picky when you get creative about meals too so best to stick with what works best for you health-wise and financially. This is, typically, mice or rats.

I caught a wild rat/mouse! Do you want it for your snake?

No, I certainly do not! Please never feed wild rodents to a pet snake. You don't know where they've been or what they're carrying. This is a common way for snakes to pick up parasites that can make them very sick. Once someone even offered my wife a rat they had poisoned themselves for our snakes with the best of intentions. The mythic reputation of serpents and their unusual bodies can sometimes make them seem magical but in reality they are just animals vulnerable to poison and disease just like any other!

Our snakes only eat food from a reputable, domestically bred source.

When you feed them frozen rodents, do you defrost them?

Yes!

A snake isn't going to eat a ratcicle. Especially since they're cold blooded I don't think they could if they wanted to. If you try they won't even register it as food. We defrost our frozen/thawed food items in a small tub of hot water till they're nice and warm - no longer solid.

I've also been asked more than once if f/t rats come back to life when you defrost them. The answer is no. No, they do not.

Will I get salmonella from a snake?

Many animals carry salmonella, and it's caught from a carrier's feces. Most reptiles (like birds) have it naturally in their systems but you're only likely to catch it if you've handled feces and don't wash your hands.

If you keep a clean snake and enclosure, you're probably fine. Still, it's always good to wash your hands after handling your reptile. If you have a poor immune system, children under 5, or are pregnant, be extra careful about any animal feces! Especially farm birds and reptiles.

Do snakes poop?

Yes! All animals poop.

Snakes don't do it as often as other animals though. For example most of my snakes poo every other week. One of them only goes once a month and when he does... it's a doozy! And no, you can't litter train a snake, when they gotta go they gotta go. Snakes also drink water, pee, and sleep just like any other animal. It's just hard to tell they're sleeping because they don't have eyelids.

Do your snakes love you?

Without getting into a philosophical debate here it's important to make clear that snakes are shy solitary animals. They don't get lonely or miss you if you're gone nor do they crave each other's company. They're wired differently from mammals. The important thing is that YOU love your snake, not the other way around. We so often praise pets for their unconditional love we as humans should return the favor more often.

That being said keep in mind that a good snake owner does love that animal. We love them just as much as you love your dog or cat. The last thing we want to hear when our hobby/pet comes up is 'Kill it!' 'Oh, I hate them!' 'Gross!' 'That reminds me of a story about a dead snake-" or anything else along those lines. Imagine someone responding to your new puppy that way. Awful, isn't it? Snake keepers get this kind of response a lot. It's rude, unnecessary, and depressing. Trust me, we know. We've heard it. Stop this. Seriously. WTF.

But I saw a snake just like yours in a movie attacking and eating people!

That's Hollywood for you.

More often than not they like to use tame nonvenomous snakes in movies because they're obviously easier to work with. The more you know about animals often the sillier and more unrealistic a lot of movies become. This is true of many insects and arachnids too. Ask any snake owner how realistic movies like Snakes on a Plane or Anaconda are. Unless they're having a bit of fun at your expense they'll either laugh or cry.

Killer corn snakes and backwards projectile regurgitation of a human being are... um... no.

I read a book by/know an experienced guy who's kept snakes for years and he told me the opposite of some/many of your answers on this page!

What we know about snakes, all kinds of pets, and even proper Human health care changes all the time. We're always learning, and need to adapt to new information best we can in order to provide our animals with the best of care. There are many books out there that are way out of date yet still commonly sold in book and pet stores. There will always be those who resist change or find it inconvenient, and choose to stubbornly ignore new information. Myself, I'd rather admit I was wrong and make a positive change than give outdated information.

If you see something here that seems wrong to you or outdated, please let me know and I will look into it!

Do you have a question I haven't covered here? What kinds of questions have you been asked as a snake keeper? I'd love to hear from you below in the comments!

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