Your snake can die from the knock-on effects of stress, so it’s not a health problem that you can allow to continue indefinitely. Pet snakes, such as corn snakes and ball pythons, become stressed due to their living environment and your actions, such as over-handling.
A stressed snake’s body language will be different from normal. It may refuse to eat, rub its nose against objects, and start hissing or striking. The cause could be due to improper care, such as a tank that is too large with no hides or too much/little humidity (heat stress). Snakes also get stressed out if you handle them incorrectly or too frequently.
That’s why you need to take steps to make your snake feel more relaxed and at ease. The good news is that stress in pet snakes is relatively easy to resolve. It’s always related to something being wrong with their care, which with some simple modifications, you can easily correct.
What are the Signs of a Stressed Snake?
Stress doesn’t have obvious visual symptoms like other snake health problems. However, there will be behavioral signs that your snake is unhappy. This is your snake’s way of letting you know that there’s something wrong. The symptoms of stress in snakes include:
- Your snake will refuse to eat, even if by their regular schedule they should be hungry.
- Your snake will rub their nose against their enclosure, repeatedly, even if it causes them pain.
- Your snake will be agitated, and even violent. According to Live Science, a snake that experiences stress is more likely to strike out at you.
If your snake is stressed because of how you handle them, the signs are slightly different to normal. They will get into a defensive position, which differs between species.
Some species will coil up into an S-shape so that they’re ready to strike. And all snakes hiss to warn you that they don’t like you. They may strike at you if you keep coming closer. When you handle them, they’ll consistently try and get away from you.
What are the Causes of a Stressed Snake?
If the snake feels that their living conditions differ to what they experience in the wild, this causes them stress. You may notice that your snake is experiencing a strong desire to find somewhere more suitable to live by trying to escape when its cage is being cleaned, for example.
In the wild, they would find somewhere better to live. But, when they’re kept in an enclosure, they can’t. This is the cause of snake stress. Here are some reasons for stress in snakes:
- An enclosure that’s too small or too large.
- If the snake doesn’t have anywhere to hide, they’ll feel vulnerable.
- If the enclosure is too warm, cold, humid or dry, they’ll be unhappy.
- If they’re cooped up with other snakes, whereas they wouldn’t be ‘social’ in the wild, they’ll want to find their own private space.
- If they’re ill, they’ll naturally be unhappy and stressed.
- If you don’t handle them properly, they’ll see you as a threat. The same applies if you handle them too frequently. Some snakes, like milk snakes, dislike being handled at all.
Each of these factors relates to improper care. Every case of stress in snakes is directly related to their owner not taking care of them properly or neglecting an aspect of their care.
Can Stress Kill a Snake?
The side effects of stress can cause a snake to die. The most noticeable adverse effect is that stress causes the snake to stop eating.
Over the first few weeks, this isn’t much of a problem. After all, snakes that brumate will naturally go months without eating. But not eating at the wrong time of year will make your snake much weaker, and will damage their immune system.
Beyond that, their nose-rubbing behavior can cause problems too. If they keep going for long enough, this can cause abscesses and open wounds. These wounds can become infected, which can become fatal (septicemia).
Stress is also associated with poor husbandry. If you keep them at the wrong temperature or humidity, or in the wrong-sized enclosure, this can cause them unnecessary stress.
How to De-stress Snakes
If you think your snake is stressed out, there are many ways you can help. But first, you have to identify what’s stressing them. Figure out whether their enclosure is too small, you’re handling them too often, or you’re keeping them at the wrong temperature/humidity.
Do Snakes Need Hides?
Hides are where your snake can go if they’re feeling stressed or vulnerable, they need rest, or they want to avoid detection from potential predators. It’s best for your snake if they have a minimum of two hides in their enclosure.
There should be one hide on the basking side, which is warm, and one that’s cooler on the other side. These two hides will help your snake to regulate their temperature more effectively.
Aside from hides, your snake also needs cover. Things like branches, leaves, twigs, anything that will make their environment a little more natural. Don’t get these from the wild to save money because they could be infested with mites or ticks.
A cover helps your snake to feel more secure. The same applies if your snake is a natural burrower, like a western hognose. You need to provide them with the right type of substrate that they can burrow into and feel safe in.
Get Your Snake a New Enclosure
Some snake enclosures are better for stressed snakes than others. An enclosure with glass on all sides, even on the top, will leave your snake feeling exposed and vulnerable.
It’s like if you were out in wolf country with nothing to defend yourself with, and nobody else around. You’d feel vulnerable and stressed out.
Other enclosures are more suitable. Wooden enclosures, for example, usually are wooden on all sides except one. Your snake will feel like they’re safe on all sides because they can keep a close eye out front and feel safe at the back.
If you can’t buy a brand-new enclosure, consider using backgrounds and linings to cover at least two sides of the enclosure. Or, place their cage up against the wall, at least.
Give Them Something to Climb
Your snake might be stressed because they’re bored. This is often the case with snakes kept in standard enclosures, with nothing inside to climb on or interact with, and newspaper substrate. A snake in an environment will be stressed and unhappy.
While you’re providing them with a cover in their enclosure, you should also offer them something to climb. Many snakes enjoy basking on branches in the wild, and other snakes beside enjoy having something different to sit on.
It might not sound like it would make a difference—if you were kept in an enclosure, for example, it wouldn’t make much difference if you had a branch to sit on—but it does.
How to Handle a Stressed Snake
It’s also quite stressful for the owner, too, to see that their snake is so unhappy. So, how do you handle a stressed snake? Follow these guidelines:
- Handle your snake regularly. Spend plenty of time with your snake aside from when you’re feeding them. Otherwise, they’ll expect food each time that you handle them.
- Don’t handle them before they shed (blue phase), just before they’re about to eat, or before they finish digesting their last meal. Handling during these times causes your snake to feel more stressed. It could also lead to your snake regurgitating its food.
- Start by getting your snake used to you. If they’re cage aggressive, begin by opening their enclosure and standing there. Once they’re used to that—over the next few days—get them used to your hand by letting them sniff it and flick it with their tongue.
- When handling a snake, don’t restrain or overhandle them.
You also have to make sure that you’re always calm around your snake, never moving too quickly or forcefully. A calm owner leads to a more relaxed and less stressed pet snake.