how do I know if my snake is dying?
Snake Health

Is My Snake Dead or Hibernating?

Your snake has been moving less, and not acting normal. It’s not eating its food, inactive, and doesn’t want to be handled. It would seem that something is seriously wrong with your pet snake.

‘Hibernating’ snakes are occasionally active to warm themselves. They will also react if you touch them or pick them up, wrapping around your hand if they’re a constrictor. The same goes for sleeping snakes, which will look around as if startled when you wake them up. Dead snakes are completely unresponsive.

A dead snake will hang limply from your hands if you hold them, and won’t react if you touch or hold them. If you think your snake might be dead, it would be wise to check with a vet. Whatever you do, don’t bury them or get rid of them straight away—they may still be alive.

Snakes hibernate in a way that’s similar to, but not the same as, mammals. If you’ve noticed that your snake is hardly ever active anymore, or that they’re not active at all, it could be due to this. But how can you tell if a snake is dead or hibernating? Or if it’s just sick? Let’s find out.

Do Snakes Hibernate?

Many snakes do go through a process called ‘brumation,’ though, which is similar to hibernation. Brumation is a period of low activity during the winter months.

Since snakes are cold-blooded, they need to conserve energy during winter, and do so by not moving around as much as they usually would. However, this is different from hibernation. During this period, they will move around, just not as much.

Not only that, but not all snakes brumate. Only those that are native to colder regions, like timber rattlesnakes that live in the north, will.

Snakes that live closer to the equator like boas and ball pythons don’t brumate in nature. If you like, you can cool their enclosure during the winter, and they will be less active. But you don’t need to.

So, a snake not moving isn’t necessarily a sign that they’re dead. They could just be going through a period of low activity. But that’s not the only sign that a snake is hibernating.

How to Tell If My Snake is Hibernating

A snake that wants to brumate will go to its hide, and lie there for extended periods of time. It’ll be exceptionally still for most of the day. If it does move, it’ll be lethargic (i.e., slow and sluggish).

It won’t want to eat during this period. That’s because snakes need a source of warmth to be able to digest. If they can’t find one, the bacteria inside their gut can’t break the food down. According to a paper in the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, the undigested food sits in the intestinal tract, which can cause problems later on.

So, what triggers a snake to brumate? The key is temperature. When it gets too cold for them, snakes will stop being so active, and that applies both in the wild and in captivity.

The majority of snakes need one end of their tank to be between 80 and 90 degrees, although the temperature depends on the species of snake.

Check the temperature in their tank to see if this is what’s causing them to be so inactive. This is also important for the snake’s health, as continued low temperatures cause illness in snakes.

How to Tell If My Snake is Sleeping

It’s unclear how long snakes sleep for. That’s because sleeping often looks like typical hunting behavior. In the wild, many snakes are termed ‘ambush hunters’ because they’ll sit as still as they possibly can, waiting for prey to pass them by.

They can sit still for days on end, but scientists aren’t sure exactly how much of that time is spent sleeping, and how much time is spent ‘hunting.’

Anyway, that doesn’t apply to a pet snake. So how can you tell if a pet snake is sleeping? Well, they’ll be entirely still. But they’ll have their eyes wide open, unlike other sleeping animals.

The best ways of telling that they’re asleep are as follows:

  • When you approach the snake, they let you get closer than they usually would before they react. If you’re quiet and don’t brush against them, they’ll let you get very close without reacting at all.
  • When you do touch them, they’ll appear startled—just like you would if awoken.
  • If you pick them up, they’ll look around confused, not knowing where they are or what’s going on. Again, that’s how any sleeping animal will react to being woken up.

A hibernating snake will still react if you pick them up, in a similar fashion. But once you disturb them, they won’t be active afterward. They’ll go back to their slumber, unless you warm them up.

What Does a Dead Snake Look Like?

A dead snake looks a whole lot like a living, sleeping snake. They don’t suddenly change color, or start smelling funny, or get cold—they’re already cold-blooded.

And sleeping or dead snakes don’t close their eyes, because they don’t have any eyelids to close. So, how can you tell if a snake is sleeping, hibernating, or dead? Let’s find out.

How to Tell If a Snake is Sleeping or Dead

If you touch or pick up a sleeping snake, they’ll react with surprise. Try this a few times with your snakes to gauge their normal reaction, when you know that they’re sleeping.

They’ll react as soon as you touch them, lifting their head and looking around, trying to figure out what’s going on. If they like you, then they might be happy crawling on and over your hand. If they don’t like you, then they might back away to try and get away from the threat that they perceive.

what does a dead snake look like?

A dead snake is unresponsive. They won’t react to you at all, even when you do pick them up. Instead of moving and looking around when you pick them up, they’ll hang limply in your hands.

If they’re a constrictor, they won’t try and wrap around your hand for balance. They’ll be cool to the touch, although this isn’t unusual before they get the chance to warm themselves up in the basking area of their tank.

How Do I Know If My Snake is Dying?

There are many ways for a snake to die. As such, they don’t always give off the same signs that they’re close to death. It depends on what is wrong. Below, we’ve looked at the most common reasons why a snake might be dying, and how you can identify them.

How Do I Know If My Snake is Dying of Old Age?

It’s very rare for snakes in the wild to die of old age. However, if you’re keeping a snake as a pet, then with good care they can reach the end of their natural lifespan. Their exact lifespan depends on the species. So, for example:

  • Ball pythons live for up to thirty years, although about twenty is more common.
  • Corn snakes live for up to twenty-five years, but between ten and fifteen is more common.
  • Boa constrictors live for up to forty years, but between twenty and thirty is more common.

For more information on the lifespans of snakes or others, we have detailed care guides that go into the topic in more depth.

You can tell that a snake is getting old because of the following signs:

  • In wild and wild-caught snakes, the older the snake, the more scars they tend to have. This is a natural result of predation.
  • The older the snake, the bigger they are. Snakes never stop growing at any point in their lives, unlike humans. Everything carries on growing: their head becomes wider and longer, they become thicker along their body, and they get longer too.
  • A snake’s color and pattern can change as they grow older. Their colors will become more bright, vivid, throughout the year or two after they hatch. Then, the majority of snakes get duller as they get old, and their pattern fades. This can result in the snake looking almost uniform gray, all over.

Bear in mind that these aren’t signs that the snake is dying, per se. However, they are signs of old age. If your snake is old enough to be close to dying of old age, they will begin to move more slowly and stop eating their food. These signs, when occurring alongside those described above, are signs that your snake is dying of old age.

What Are the Common Signs of a Sick Snake?

Sick snakes display different symptoms depending on what’s wrong with them. However, there are also some that are common to many different conditions. The following signs are the most common:

  • Not eating. This applies to snakes that have mouth rot, which can’t eat because it hurts them to do so. This applies to weight loss, and is also known as snake anorexia.
  • Lethargic. Being lethargic means that they aren’t as active as usual. Lethargy is a sign of many different conditions, not one in particular.
  • Breathe through their mouth, rather than their nose. This is a sign that they aren’t getting enough oxygen, because their respiratory system has been compromised in some way.
  • Nasal discharge, i.e., mucus, coming from the nose is another sign of a respiratory infection.
  • Shedding issues. This is where the snake is having trouble shedding all of their skin. This occurs when the snake is not getting enough moisture. This is also a sign of stress.
  • Parasitic infections either by worms, ticks or mites. Worms are internal whereas mites and ticks are external. You can visibly see mites and ticks.
  • Stargazing.’ This is where the snake lies in an unusual and uncomfortable position, with their head raised, as if they’re staring up at the stars. This is a sign of IBD/inclusion body disease. According to a paper in the Journal of Virology, this condition only affects boids.

If your snake has been displaying any of these signs, especially for a long time, then it’s more likely that they’re dead than hibernating. Because lethargic snakes show so few signs of activity, it is always possible that they’re only ill. If that’s the case, then it would be extremely regrettable to bury them without making 100% sure.