Snake Bites, Strikes & Constricting — Oh My!

Two of humanity’s most common fears are snakes and spiders. Why is that, do you think? But in my experience, most people display a preference of one over the other. For some it’s a mild difference, and for others it’s a matter of favorite versus phobia. Using myself as an example, I’m comfortable around nonvenomous snakes. But if you try chasing me with a spider…people will be hearing my screams on the other side of the world.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

So let’s discuss the two most common reasons why people are afraid of snakes: bites and constriction.

What You Need to Understand About Snakes

Guys, snakes are stupid. Of course there are exceptions, but the fact of the matter is that as a whole, their biology makes little room for intelligence.

Snakes operate according to the basic needs of survival.

  1. Food
  2. Shelter
  3. Safety
  4. Reproduction

In other words, a snake’s world is full of black-and-white decisions.

  1. Is this edible or not?
  2. Can I hide here or not?
  3. Will this hurt me or not?
  4. Can I mate with this or not?

Using this formula, how would a snake see a mouse or rat?

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. No
  4. No

Action: Eat the mouse/rat.

By comparison, how does a wild snake see a human?

  1. No
  2. No
  3. Yes
  4. No

Action: Get away from the human using any means necessary. Domestic snakes are conditioned to say “no” to question #3 and “yes” to question #2, putting them in a state of ease.

Difference Between a Bite and a Strike

Dumeril's boa bite with toothmarks

This is a bite Hubby received from our Dumeril’s boa, Strider, when he was hungry. The wound healed quickly.

One of most common things snake keepers get asked is, “Omigosh, has it ever bitten you?”

Chances are, he or she answers, “Yes.” And then we have to spend at least 5 minutes explaining:

  • No, it’s not a big deal.
  • Yes, it kinda hurt (though this response varies by snake size).
  • No, I’m not getting rid of my snake.
  • Actually, it was my fault.
  • The difference between a bite and a strike.

When a snake strikes at or bites a human, it’s because a misunderstanding has taken place. In the case of a strike, it’s because they’re answering “yes” to question #3. In the case of a bite, it’s because they’re answering “yes” to question #1. In other words,

  • A bite is a feeding response, when the snake is trying to eat you. They latch on to you with their teeth and (in the case of constrictors) try to constrict the area.
  • A strike is a defensive response, when the snake is afraid of you. This is a quick chomp-and-release, telling you to get out of their space.

Sticking to your snake’s feeding routine and helping it feel safe are the two most effective means of preventing either response.

It’s About Communication

man sleeping with male Dumeril's boaLike relationships, successful snake ownership involves communication. Snake keepers need to be able to read snake body language while knowing how to tell the snake about their intentions.

To prevent getting mistaken for prey, snake keepers follow some rules:

  • Don’t smell like food. I like to scent my hands with hand sanitizer.
  • Use a snake hook. Using a snake hook to remove a snake from its enclosure for handling time signals to it that it’s not time to eat. This is also a great way to avoid an accidental strike.
  • Know the snake’s digestive cycle. How long does it take for your snake to poo after a meal? Snakes tend to get hungry after they’ve pooped, and hungry snakes are more likely to make mistakes.
  • Feed appropriately and on time.

Avoid a strike by letting your snake know you’re there. Talking and touching away from the head are great ways to gently alert him or her to your presence. Don’t make sudden movements. You know you’re safe when it starts moving and its tongue flicks out.

Help, My Snake Bit Me!

  1. Stay calm. Keeping a level head will get you out faster.
  2. Do not call Animal Control. They will kill the snake.
  3. Do not hurt the snake. Crushing its head or pulling on its tail may only cause it to bite harder. Rarely is a snake bite so severe that drastic measures must be taken.
  4. Grab some Listerine or rubbing alcohol and pour a capful into the snake’s mouth. Anyone who’s used Listerine knows how intense it can be, and snakes like it less than we do. It will let go immediately. Vodka will also work.
  5. Disinfect the wound. Rubbing alcohol and some polysporin ointment works great.

About Constriction

young woman with amelanistic corn snakeA year hardly passes without seeing at least one of these in the headlines:

  • Child Dies After Being Strangled by Pet Python
  • Escaped Python Believed to Have Killed Two Young Children
  • Pet Python Blamed in Virginia Beach Woman’s Strangulation
  • 10 Most Horrifying Big Snake Attacks on Humans

Yes, large snakes can be dangerous. But as we’ve discussed earlier, the danger lies only in poor handling. If you are worried about being suffocated to death by a snake, allow me to set your mind at ease.

Snakes are not humans. They do not kill for the sake of killing. They kill to eat, and in extreme cases, to protect themselves. When you see a snake wrapping around a person’s torso or arms, it is not a murder attempt — it’s simply getting comfortable.

Imagine yourself as a tree. When snakes climb trees, they wrap their bodies around branches since they don’t have hands to stabilize themselves with. It’s like a monkey’s prehensile tail, providing support to prevent a lethal fall. So when a snake starts squeezing around your arm, or wrapping around your neck, he or she is just using you as an anchor. This is why when you try to remove a snake, their grip will tighten.

  • PRO TIP: When you need to remove a snake from your arm/shoulders/neck/torso, always start with the tail. The tail is the weakest point of a snake’s body, preventing potential injury to you and the snake.

Because of this tightening action and the potential for accidents, a good ground rule to have is to never handle your snake alone. Of course, with this advice comes the common sense: An average adult can handle small snakes (less than 4 feet long) without concern over getting into a “tight” situation. And children should never be allowed to handles snakes without supervision.

Another good way to prevent accidents is to keep your snake enclosures securely latched—even locked, if need be. No one likes playing hide and seek with a snake first thing in the morning anyway.

By following these safety measures, you can be a better snake keeper. And if you’re still not fond of them, that’s okay. I won’t be getting a tarantula anytime soon myself. 😉