Gopher snakes are dangerous for gophers.
But for people, gopher snakes aren’t dangerous at all. And they aren’t poisonous, either.
If you keep a pet gopher snake, however, you need to know that there are potential mishaps you can avoid if you know how to handle your gopher snake properly.
Gopher Snakes Look Like Rattlesnakes But Aren’t Poisonous Like Rattlesnakes
One of the reasons that so many people ask whether gopher snakes are poisonous or dangerous is that they look a lot like rattlesnakes.
They also rattle a lot like rattlesnakes. Some people keep gopher snakes for their shock value. Visitors think they are keeping a rattlesnake in a cage.
It is not hard to understand why many people mistake gopher snakes for rattlesnakes when they see them outdoors.
Both gopher snakes and rattlesnakes have dark, splotchy markings on their backs.
They both have brownish or yellow coloration and large heads. They both lower their heads, hiss, and vibrate their tails (rattle) when they feel threatened.
Gopher snakes have developed these rattlesnake-like traits because they scare away predators, at least in the wild.
In backyards and gardens, many gopher snakes wind up getting killed by people who aren’t familiar with the differences between the two species.
Understandably, they don’t want to take on the risk that the snake they are dealing with might be a rattlesnake.
Here is how you can tell the difference between gopher snakes and rattlesnakes.
- The eyes of the two snakes are the best way to identify them quickly. The pupils of the eyes of a rattlesnake are two vertical slits, like the pupils of a cat’s eyes, The pupils of the eyes of a gopher snake are rounded, like human pupils.
- Gopher snakes don’t actually have rattles at the ends of their tails the way rattlesnakes do. They can just vibrate their tails so they sound like rattles.
- Rattlesnakes have heat-sensing pits in their faces. Gopher snakes do not.
- Gopher snakes are noticeably longer than rattlesnakes. A typical adult gopher snake will be between 3-1/2 and 4-1/2 feet (107 to 137 cm) long. Rattlesnakes grow to be 3 to 4 feet (75 to 100 cm) long. An unusually large gopher snake might be 9 feet (275 cm) long. An unusually long rattlesnake would be about 8 feet (244 cm) long.
- Both gopher snakes and rattlesnakes are sturdy snakes, but gopher snakes are slimmer and rattlesnakes are more stocky.
- The head of a gopher snake is rounded and narrow. The head of a rattlesnake is triangular when seen from above, almost pointing like an arrow when it is about to strike.
If you can’t tell whether a snake is a gopher snake or a rattlesnake, the best thing to do is to leave it alone! Gopher snakes are nonvenomous, but they can bite.
How Big a Problem Are Gopher Snake Bites?
Gopher snakes don’t usually bite.
When you want to play with your gopher snake and your gopher snake wants to be left alone, it raises its head and moves it back and forth like it is planning to strike.
It may thump your hand or a finger with its nose, and then with its tongue. In rare instances, it may nip at you or give you a painful bite.
There is a big difference between defensive bites, your gopher snake’s way of telling you “not now,” and feeding bites, which occur when your hand or arm gets between your gopher snake and its food.
Your gopher snake makes defensive bites when it is scared or angry. It may hiss, vibrate its tail, vibrate its whole body, and strike at you several times before it actually bites.
When a gopher snake runs out of warnings and goes ahead and bites, it won’t try to sink its teeth into you.
After all, biting you can break its tiny teeth. It will give you just enough pain that it hopes you will stop what you are doing.
Feeding bites are a different matter. These occur when your snake has reared back to grab its meal and your finger or hand gets in the way.
Or maybe your hungry gopher snake has mistaken putting your hand into its cage as a signal it is feeding time, and thinks you are dinner.
When a gopher snake catches a food animal in the wild, it bites down so the prey won’t get away before the snake can swallow it.
The mere sight or scent of food from about 3 feet (a meter) away activates a hungry gopher snake’s brain to be ready to catch and hold on..
If your gopher snake sees you bringing a thawed mouse to its cage, it is ready to eat even before you get the cage open.
It will strike at the food at the very first opportunity, the same way it must quickly take advantage of opportunities to eat in the wild.
Your gopher snake will sink all of its tiny teeth into your skin to hold onto you. Once it does this, it cannot let go.
The way your gopher snake’s teeth are pointed, food animals can’t escape. You, of course, can escape, but not without prying your snake’s mouth off your skin.
For you, this is like pulling off a cocklebur or pulling out a thorn. For your snake, it means broken or pulled-out teeth (which grow back in a few weeks).
Also read: What Do Gopher Snakes Eat?
How To Avoid Defensive Bites From Your Gopher Snake
The secret for avoiding defensive bites from your gopher snake is simply to avoid putting your gopher snake on the defensive,
Never stand over your gopher snake to pick it up.
Any predator that eats gopher snakes, like wolves, coyotes, foxes, and other predator animals, attacks the gopher snake from above.
When you stand over your gopher snake, it instinctively reacts as if you were a predator.
Always approach your gopher snake from the side.
If you have your gopher snake in an enclosure with its door on top, reach into the cage along a side of the cage, not from directly over the snake. (This rule is especially important for children who want to play with their gopher snake.)
Always approach your gopher snake slowly, calmly, and deliberately. Don’t literally rattle its cage. Let your snake see you are coming before you open its enclosure.
And respect its wishes if it hisses and vibrates to tell you it does not wish to be disturbed.
Gopher snakes always want to be left alone the day or two before they shed and the day or two after they feed/
How To Avoid Feeding Bites From Your Gopher Snake
The most important thing to remember to avoid feeding bites from your gopher snake is this:
Always feed your gopher snake in a second enclosure that is separate from the space where it spends most of its time.
You don’t want your snake to form the association “Owner puts a hand inside = food.”
You can discourage your snake’s ever thinking that your hand or fingers are a food item by always feeding it in a second enclosure, that you only use for feeding your snake.
Don’t dangle that delicious mouse in front of your snake with your fingers. Lower it into your snake’s feeding tank with metal tongs.
That way, if your snake’s aim is off, it nips the tongs, not you.
Good Hygiene Keeps You And Your Gopher Snake Healthier
There is basically only one disease that people can catch from gopher snakes. That disease is food poisoning.
Gopher snakes eat whole prey animals. These animals have fecal matter and fecal bacteria in their digestive tracts.
Snakes do not chew their food. The fecal matter and fecal bacteria stay inside the animal as it passes down the snake’s throat into its stomach.
Then the snake’s stomach acid takes a day or two to dissolve the animal.
All that time, fecal bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella multiply inside the animal inside the snake’s stomach.
They usually don’t cause the snake any problems, but the bacteria are still alive when your snake poops them out,
Don’t keep your gopher snake in a cramped cage. Make sure it does not have to lie in its own waste. Clean its cage weekly.
Wash your hands and change your clothes after handling your snake.
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