Snakes aren’t exactly “cuddly” pets. But the species most commonly kept as pets – including corn snakes, ball pythons, and rosy boas – are usually very tame and docile, even when being handled. They shouldn’t act aggressively towards their owners, so if yours is, there’s something wrong.
Aggression in snakes is often a sign of stress. This could be because they’re about to shed their skin, they’re ill, or there is something wrong with their environment (such as a temperature problem). Snakes may also strike or bite if they’re hungry, or have recently eaten.
We’re going to look at how to recognize aggression in pet snakes. We’ll then explore the potential reasons why your snake might be acting aggressively, and what you can do about it. Finally, we’ll discuss how to handle an aggressive snake safely.
What Are the Signs of Aggression in Snakes?
Snakes are never aggressive for no reason. There is no such thing as a “mean” or “angry” snake. Snakes only ever behave aggressively for one of two reasons:
- They believe that you are a predator. In this case, their aggressive behavior is a form of defense. They are trying to protect themselves by scaring you off.
- They believe that you (or your hands) are food. If you try to hold a very hungry snake, you may trigger their feeding response, which can be mistaken for aggression.
If your snake is acting aggressively out of self-defense, you might notice:
- This is when the snake pulls its body away from you. It may go into a coiled “strike pose,” with its top half lifted off of the ground.
- Hissing (expelling air violently through the glottis underneath the tongue)
- Tail-buzzing. Rattlesnakes aren’t the only snakes that vibrate their tails in response to a threat. Some non-venomous snakes, such as bullsnakes and rat snakes, will do it too.
- “Hooding.” According to the Journal of Zoology, some snakes can flatten out their heads when threatened, to make them look more triangular (like vipers). Two examples are the hognose snake and the African egg-eating snake.
- Some snakes “bluff-strike,” which means they throw themselves at you as if to bite, but they do so with their mouths closed. Other snakes may “tag” you with a small bite, and then let go.
If your snake has mistaken you for food, they will typically bite you with no warning, and may not be keen to let go.
There are some situations in which your snake might be more likely to feel defensive, or mistake you for food. Let’s have a look at some of them.
Why Is My Snake Aggressive After Eating?
You may have heard that you should never handle your snake straight after it eats a meal. This is excellent advice, and it’s for two main reasons.
Firstly, handling a snake after a meal can trigger regurgitation. This can cause damage to the snake’s esophageal tract, and may even result in death.
Regurgitation is a common response to a perceived threat. Snakes can move much faster without a meal weighing them down, so their first instinct when threatened is to empty their stomachs.
The second reason is that, after feeding, snakes remain in “food mode” for quite some time. During this time, they are “on the hunt,” and are actively searching for more food.
Any movement from an animal – whether it’s a mouse, a rat, or your hand – may be perceived as potential prey. There’s a good chance that if you reach into your snake’s enclosure, she will instinctively bite you, hoping that your hand is her next meal.
While a bite from a snake that has mistaken you for food won’t hurt much (particularly if the snake is small), it’s not a fun experience.
We would always recommend waiting at least 48 hours after feeding your snake before attempting to handle it. This will give your snake a chance to stop “hunting,” and will minimize the risk of you being mistaken for food.
Why Is My Snake Aggressive After Shedding?
Snakes shed their skin at least once every few weeks as juveniles, and several times a year as adults. They do this because they continue growing throughout their lives, and their skin cannot stretch to accommodate their new mass.
The entire shedding process can take from just under a week to over two weeks, depending on the species and age of your snake.
During shed, your snake may be more prone to acting aggressively than usual. This is for an understandable reason. For a long period during the shed cycle, your snake will be essentially blind.
Once the shedding process has started, but before any skin has started to come away, your snake will go into “blue phase.”
This can be recognized by the snake’s eyes taking on a blue or whitish tone. It’s caused by a buildup of fluid between the layers of new and old skin, which helps lubricate the old skin, allowing it to come away more easily.
During the blue phase, while the eyes are covered in fluid, your snake won’t be able to see very well. This, essentially, causes them to go into “high alert.”
They may become reclusive, spending a lot of time inside their hide box, and may startle at any sudden touch, movement or noise. If you attempt to interfere with or handle your snake during this time, they may instinctively defend themselves.
If your pet snake is suddenly aggressive, it may be because she’s going into shed. We’d recommend avoiding handling your snake until all of the old skin has come off.
Why Is My Snake Aggressive for No Reason?
If you’re sure that your snake is not mistaking you for food, and she is not in shed, there may be numerous other reasons for her aggression. Let’s look at some of the most common perpetrators of defensiveness in snakes.
When snakes are sick or injured, their bodies go through a lot of stress. They may not be able to move or strike as quickly, so they know that they are more vulnerable to predators. For that reason, sick snakes often go on the defensive.
They can become reclusive, lose their appetite, and react badly to being handled. If your snake is refusing meals and spending all of their time in their hide box, take them to a veterinarian.
2) Environmental Problems
Snakes can also become quick to aggression when there is something about their environment which is causing stress.
This could be related to:
- Too much humidity, or too little humidity
- Excessive heat or not enough heat
- An enclosure which is too small, leading to them feeling “cooped up”; or too large, which can make them feel unsafe
- A lack of hide boxes in the enclosure (there should be at least one on each end, and they should be small enough to make your snake feel secure)
- A recent move into a new enclosure, or to a new home
3) Lack of Socialization
It’s only natural that your snake might mistake a human for a predator at first. After all, we’re much larger than they are. In the wild, they wouldn’t socialize with any other animals. As far as they’re concerned, the only reason you’d be approaching them is to eat them.
Regular handling will sort this problem out, though it may take time for your snake to become tame.
How to Handle an Aggressive Snake
You shouldn’t be handling your snake after she’s eaten, or while it’s in shed. Handling at these times can cause stress and unnecessary risks to your snake’s health.
However, it’s important to handle your snake regularly when it’s not eating or in shed. Regular training will teach your snake that you are nothing to be afraid of. One 15-minute handling session each day can quickly transform a defensive snake into a tame one.
- Be confident. Reach into your snake’s enclosure and scoop it up in one confident motion – do not hesitate. Hold it securely at one-third and two-thirds along her body, so that it feels stable.
- Don’t react to aggression. If you back away when your snake strikes at you, it’ll learn that acting aggressively will get you to go away. Instead, if your snake is defensive, do not be fazed. Continue handling her confidently but gently.
- Handle your snake every day for at least 10 minutes. Repetition is the key to helping your snake realize that you are not going to hurt it. If you do get bitten, don’t panic. As long as your snake isn’t venomous, the bite will not cause any problems. Just make sure to wash the wound thoroughly as snakebites can cause salmonella infections, according to the Annals of Saudi Medicine.
If you are too nervous to handle your snake with your bare hands, you can purchase a snake hook. A good brand is the DocSeward Copperhead Series. This will allow you to remove your snake from its enclosure without having to reach in with your hands.
If you’re worried that your snake’s aggression may be down to illness, take it to a vet. They’ll perform a general health check and run tests to ascertain whether your snake has any health problems.