Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Snake Bites

Part 1: Non-venomous

Quite a few people have asked me if snake bites hurt or if I've ever been bitten. Or they get confused when I tell them that a snake will bite, but that it isn't poisonous. Let's talk first about bites from non-venomous snakes. 
Why do snakes bite?
Snakes are not "mean." But, just like most animals, snakes will take action to defend themselves if they feel threatened. In most cases, this involves attempting to escape, various displays of aggression, excreting foul substances, and, finally, biting. 
Snakes also may bite if they are hungry. If you stick your hand into a hungry snake's cage, the warmth and movement may confuse the snake and trigger a feeding response, especially if your hand smells like food. Usually the snake will let go once it realizes it made a mistake. Sometimes they chew a little.
I've noticed one other type of bite: the "leave me alone" bite. Sometimes a snake will get tired of being handled, or not want to be handled at all and give a warning bite. These bites tend to be painless and usually don't even break the skin. It's the equivalent of shoving someone away who keeps poking at you.
Do all snakes bite?
Some snakes, such as the hognose snake, will NOT bite. It instead has a host of other tricks which I've discussed here before. Many snakes, though, make biting part of their repertoire of defense. It depends on the species, the temperament of the individual and even the individual's age (Honduran milk snakes and carpet pythons, for example, tend to be very nippy for the first several months of their lives. Once they have grown a bit, they tend to settle down).
Wild-caught snakes tend to bite much more often than captive-bred specimens, but this is not always the case. My brothers and I have caught a number of snakes over the years that were completely docile.
Does it hurt?
Not really. Sorta. It depends. Is it uncomfortable? Yes. But it's more like a little pinch. Does it bleed? Usually there is a small amount of blood, about the same as getting poked by a few tiny thorns (although thorns hurt more). It really depends on the size of the snake (and it's teeth!). A bite from a really big snake, such as a large python or boa, would hurt and may require medical attention. However, bites from most common non-poisonous snakes are inconsequential. They hurt much less than a bite from a dog or even a mouse! I've been bitten by a mouse and my wife has been bitten by a rat. Both were much worse than any snake bite we've ever had.
What should I do if a snake bites me?
For most bites, assuming the snake is non-venomous, there is little that can (or needs to be) done. 
Step 1: Clean the area with warm soapy water and/or anti-bacterial soap. 
Step 2: Forget you were ever bitten.
If you receive a nasty bite from a large snake and it continues to hurt and bleed, you might need to seek medical attention. Treat it as you would any other cut. Use your best judgement.
Have you ever been bitten?
Yes. Many, many times. I don't even flinch any more. The largest snake that ever bit me was a 4 or 5 foot rat snake. It hurt a little, but I've never had a bite that continued hurting after the snake let go. Sometimes they itch a little.


  1. By the way, that picture is a tangerine Honduran milk biting me when he was a baby. He's since grown out of the biting phase and is fun to handle.


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