Handling Tips

Handling is an essential part of owning a pet snake. Whether you prefer to keep it as a display animal, companion, or educational animal, getting it used to handling makes chores such as taking it to the vet and cleaning its enclosure a lot easier. Handling, when done correctly, can also be a beneficial source of exercise and enrichment for your boa.

Due to the fact that some boa species are capable of growing up to 10-11’ long, as well as the fearsome reputation created by media fearmongering, many people worry that boa constrictors are dangerous pets. Here are some quotes from actual boa keepers on the subject:

  • “It’s a lot like a large ball python that knows how to eat.”
  • “Less dangerous than a pet cat.”
  • “About as dangerous as your average paperweight.”
  • “I am more afraid of getting injured by a dog than the largest of boas.”
  • “They are only dangerous if you intimidate them, abuse or neglect them, or don’t handle them. If treated properly they are amazing.”
  • “My 3 year old son is more cause for concern!”

Red-tailed boas and larger snakes are active, intelligent animals with individual personalities that must be respected. And some, just as with cats and dogs, are safer than others. Some boas seem to genuinely appreciate handling, and others don’t care for it. Respect the fact that the snake is an individual, and treat it according to its wishes. If, despite your best efforts, it prefers to be left alone, then let it be a beautiful display animal. If it doesn’t mind frequent handling and is tolerant of being shuffled around, it may make a great educational animal.

Snake personality is pretty much luck of the draw. If handleability is important to you, buy captive bred (CB or CBB) and ask the breeder about the snake’s disposition, as well as its parents’ dispositions.

As with dogs, cats, horses, birds, and other pets, never leave a child unattended with your pet boa. This is for the safety of the snake as well as the child.

Buy boa constrictor - tips

Contributed by John Bazyk

When you first bring your boa home…

This is the hardest part. Wait at least 1 week before you first start to handle the snake, or if it is hiding and defensive, wait until it is eating regularly before you attempt to start handling.

How to handle a boa constrictor

Before you get your boa out of its enclosure, wash hands with soap and water. This gets weird scents off, and removes potentially harmful bacteria, viruses, or parasites from your hands. If you are particularly smelly/have been spending a lot of time around other animals, it is also advisable to change clothes. I like to rub BAC-D hand sanitizer on my hands as well to make sure I’m labeled by a consistent scent that is very different from food.

Once your hands are clean and smell like chemicals, use a paper towel roll or snake hook to gently tap your boa on the head. This lets the snake know that it’s time for handling — not food — and prevents potential accidents caused by a misunderstanding. Once the snake shows calm, slow tongue flicks, it is safe to pick it up.

Use a snake hook to initially grab and lift the snake, then use your hands to take out the rest of its body. Babies can be lifted and placed in your hands with the hook, but if you have an full-grown adult then it may be helpful to have another person help you if the boa is a full-grown adult. One hand should be behind the head and another should support the rest of the body. NEVER pick up a snake by its tail — this can cause severe damage to their spine.

Since snakes don’t have hands or feet to help them climb, they use their powerful muscles to wrap around objects for stability. During handling, your boa will treat you like a tree, wrapping around your body, arms, etc. so it doesn’t fall. This is normal, not an assassination attempt.

Snakes see humans in one of three ways: predator, prey, or weird tree. You want to be a weird tree. Don’t tense up (just keep breathing if you’re nervous), don’t chase, grab, or restrain it. Support the snake’s body and use a loose grip to enable it to move freely. If the snake is moving in a direction you don’t want it to go, use your free hand to gently guide its head away. Otherwise, relax and just let the snake do its thing.

PRO TIP: Pearl Island boas tend to be more slippery during handling than other Boas, so be careful to keep a good grip on these.

Boa constrictor handling with a snake hook

Contributed by Simone Loi

Do not attempt to handle your boa if…

  • It is “in blue” (eyes are opaque) before shedding
  • It’s feeding day
  • Your boa has eaten within the last 48 hours

Boas over 6’ long should be handled in the presence of another adult, as a sudden bite and/or wrap from a snake this large can be difficult to get rid of without another person’s help.

Taming tips for successful boa handling

After your boa has settled into its new home, start handling sessions at no more than 5 minutes every few days. After a couple weeks of this, gradually work your way up to longer periods of time more frequently. Once your boa is up to it, handle for 10-15 minutes daily for best results. However if you have purchased your boa as a young adult or adult, handle with special caution until you get to know its personality.

Most snakes are “head shy,” which means that they quickly jerk back if you touch their head. This can lead to defensive responses like striking, so once your boa has become comfortable with handling, lightly touching or rubbing its head to help it learn that it doesn’t need to fear that contact.

Newborn and juvenile boas tend to be a little nippy, but that’s because their instincts have them on high alert for potential predators. Don’t take it personally. Consistent, gentle handling will help them grow into docile and trusting adults. If you’re nervous about getting bitten during this phase, just wear a pair of a leather gloves during handling.

If you have a young boa that hisses a lot, don’t be intimidated and proceed with removing them from the enclosure so they don’t think they can intimidate you or that you’re someone worth intimidating.

If your adult boa is coiled and hissing at you, however, this means that they are not in the mood to come out of their enclosure today. Respect its wishes, especially if it is a normally docile animal. Even snakes have bad days sometimes.

Boa constrictor behavior - defensive posture

Defensive posture: Note the tight ‘s’ coil of the body and gaped, hissing mouth. Contributed by Crispy Snakes.

Taming can only be done successfully when you prioritize making handling a positive experience for the snake. Be gentle, give them their head, speak positively (snakes are sensitive to the vibrations that your voice creates), and make handling an overall positive experience. Even if it pees on you during handling, do not put it back immediately because this “rewards” undesirable behavior by teaching the snake that if it defecates or urinates on you, it can flee back to its home. Snakes may not be as smart as dogs (as far as modern science has been able to prove), but they do understand that “if X happens, then Y happens next.” Always end on a positive note when you and the snake are calm.

A snake that has become accustomed to handling should not be left alone if you wish to keep it tame. Just like a dog that has gone to puppy school, if you do not “enforce the rules” to remind your boa that you are not a threat, then it may revert to acting defensive and wild. To keep your boa comfortable with human interaction, handle it at least 1-2x/week, but no more than 1x/day.

Face Training

Face training is an important part of keeping a medium or larger pet snake because it teaches them that the warm, blood-rich area that is your face is not food — just part of the weird tree that is you. This makes handling a much more relaxing and enjoyable experience for you, and helps prevent any potential frustration on the snake’s part.

In essence, face training is simply letting the snake repeatedly get close to your face without danger of striking. Let them try to climb on your face, over your glasses, and through your hair. Let them get used to your breathing, the way you move when you talk, etc. Once comfortable with you, don’t be surprised if your boa regularly invades your space to slither allll over your face.

Keep a close eye on your snake’s body language during face training. If it’s not coiling up or acting defensive, then you’re good to keep going. If they’re getting close to your face with lots of rapid tongue flicking, tension in the body, and short, frequent breaths, interrupt them immediately because they may be preparing to strike.

Boa constrictor handling - face training

Contributed by Pat Hawkins

What if it bites??

Dogs bite. Cats bite. Birds bite. Hamsters bite. Horses bite. Fish bite. Frogs bite. If it has a mouth, it can bite.

Biting is not exclusive to snakes, and although the experience can be unpleasant, it rarely poses a real threat to humans and is not a reason to panic. Especially those of baby boas — these are tiny, quick, and barely noticeable. Some have likened it to being attacked by an angry toothbrush.

However, a bite from a large adult over 8’ long can be much less pleasant and even potentially dangerous in rare cases (no, red-tailed boas are not capable of eating humans — not even children). Have another adult in the room with you during handling, and you will be fine.

As discussed before, do not put the snake back in its enclosure after a bite. This reinforces the message that biting means they get to go back ‘home,’ which can create dangerous habits for later. Also do not try to “punish” it by smacking its head or anything similar. Snakes are very reactive animals and lack the logic to associate the pain with their bite — instead they will associate you with the pain and will become more defensive and even aggressive toward you.

Don’t yank the snake off of you, either. This risks ripping out its teeth, which can give your pet a nasty infection. A boa’s teeth are rear-facing, so pulling the snake toward you (rather than away, as your instincts will be telling you) should dislodge it. If that doesn’t work, pour cold water on the python’s face or use a little bit of mouthwash and it will release on its own. Treat the “wound” (it’s a series of pinpricks, really) with soap and water and you’ll be fine.

Whatever you do, don’t post to social media about the bite! There’s no reason to show off the blood and act like you just survived getting mauled by a bear. If you need something like that to boost your ego, then you have bigger problems. Snake bites, especially bloody ones, have a nasty way of getting picked up by animal rights activists and anti-reptile lobbyists who want to make snake keeping illegal. Please do the responsible thing and don’t make a big deal out of it. When you own a pet, you accept the possibility that at one point it may bite you.

While there are many things worse than even a large boa bite, I can’t say that I’d let them bite me for fun, either. Read more about what to do in case of a snake bite here.

Boa constrictor handling

Contributed by James Lora

What about salmonella?

Contrary to popular belief, salmonella infection from reptiles is very rare, provided that you follow proper hygiene and husbandry protocols. Keep your boa’s enclosure clean, wash your hands and arms thoroughly after each handling session, don’t kiss your snake, and you should never have a problem. More information on the relationship between salmonella and reptiles here.

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