Are Pet Garter Snakes Dangerous?

Garter snakes aren’t dangerous as pets, but there are situations with garter snakes that will be more pleasant if you have some basic information about your pet garter snake.

In this article, we will tell you about some predictable problems with garter snakes and what you can do to prevent or deal with them.

But first, let’s go over what makes a garter snake a great pet—most of the time.

There’s a Lot to Like About Garter Snakes

Many people who are new to keeping snakes are amazed by the variety of colors available in garter snakes.

Bluestripe garter snake
Bluestripe Garter Snake

They love the way garter snakes are non-threatening. Nobody has ever been killed by a pet garter snake.

Garter snakes are skittish at first, but they grow into friendly pets.

They are active during the day, when they are easier to watch, and they may interact with you through the glass of their enclosure.

And because garter snakes are so abundant, it doesn’t cost a lot to buy your first garter snake.

Now, let’s consider what you need to do to have a good experience with your garter snake.

How to Have a Happy Relationship With Your Garter Snake

There are a number of things you can do not just to avoid any kind of dangerous or unpleasant reaction from your pet garter snake, but to increase your enjoyment of your snake.

Handle Your Snake Confidently

You are a lot bigger than your garter snake.

Some garter snakes that live in the wild in California and Nevada occasionally grow up to 5 feet (127 cm) long, but even a snake of that size won’t overpower you.

Your garter snake only weighs 5 or 6 ounces (140 to 170 g).

You might have some difficulty retrieving your garter snake should it escape, but garter snakes aren’t constrictor snakes.

There is zero chance of being caught in the coil of a garter snake, because they don’t coil.

The only thing you need to get a good response from your garter snake is to remember that you are in charge, not your garter snake.

Move slowly and pick up your garter snake without squeezing it, and you will avoid any kind of problem with handling.

Don’t Force Your Garter Snake Into a Situation Where It Can Bite

Garter snakes seldom bite, but that doesn’t mean they never bite.

If you squeeze your garter snake hard, or pick it up by its neck or its tail (always grasp your garter snake by the middle of its body), or you tease it menacingly, it may nip at you.

Garter snakes are mildly venomous (not dangerous for humans).

They swallow their prey whole. Their teeth point backward to hold the prey animal in a position from which it cannot easily escape, but it releases venom to paralyze the prey just in case.

This venom is strong enough to paralyze a water bug. It won’t have toxic effects on people.

However, it is possible to have a mild allergic reaction to garter snake venom. If you are on a blood thinner, a garter snake bite may cause bruising.

Approach Your Garter Snake From Its Side, Not From Overhead

In the wild, garter snakes are prey to larger animals. They are eaten by foxes, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, and a variety of hunter-mammals.

Just about any time a garter snake is attacked by an animal that would kill and eat it, it will be attacked from overhead.

There is a very simple reason for this. Garter snakes spend almost their entire lives at ground level. For garter snakes, the danger comes from above.

If your garter snake does not know you, and you hover over it and reach down to grab it, its instinctive reaction will be to flee or to bite you.

If you approach your garter snake from its side, maybe bending down so it can see you approaching it through the glass of its enclosure, it will be much less inclined to flee or fight you.

Don’t Hold Your Garter Snake Too Tight

Garter snakes don’t like to feel trapped.

They don’t like to be held tight. They prefer to slither through your fingers when you hold them.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use any pressure at all when you are holding your garter snake.

After all, you don’t want it to escape you and explore under your sofa, or investigate your Grandma’s dresser.

Apply just enough pressure to keep your garter snake from escaping, maintaining a calm demeanor.

Don’t Expect Your Garter Snake to Make Friends With Your Cat or Dog

In the wild, both dogs and cats eat snakes.

Your garter snake instinctively knows this, and will never make friends with your other pets. So while you can keep a garter snake with a dog or cat, don’t expect them to go along

Be Careful About Keeping More Than One Adult Garter Snake in the Same Enclosure

Adult garter snakes that were birthed at the same times sometimes make good cage mates.

But in most situations, you should keep garter snakes in separate enclosures.

A mother garter snake doesn’t eat while she is pregnant. After she gives birth to 10 to 15 baby snakes, she is famished.

You can imagine what is available for a snack if baby snakes aren’t promptly removed from their mother’s enclosure.

Seven or eight days after birth, garter snakes go through their first shed. They are now ready for their first meal.

If you try to feed a group of baby garter snakes all at the same time, some will stuff themselves and some won’t get anything at all.

Also, since this will be the first time the baby snake has ever fed, it may not realize that it shouldn’t eat one of its siblings.

Separating baby snakes into separate containers for feeding, making you clamp down the lid before and after offering them food, makes sure everyone gets a meal and no one is the meal.

Avoid Feeding Garter Snakes Exotic Foods

You can feed garter snakes South American tree frogs, betta fish, and Daddy longlegs (spiders).

The problem with doing this is that your garter snake can decide that some special food is the only food it is willing to eat.

Then you are faced with a situation in which you either find some hard to get or expensive food indefinitely or your garter snake may choose to starve.

Build Your Garter Snake a Beautiful Terrarium, but Not All at Once

Give your garter snake a week or two to get used to new additions to its living quarters so it is not stressed out by the decorations in its terrarium.

And yes, you don’t have to build a terrarium for them. They can easily live and be happy in a regular enclosure.

Dealing with Inevitable Problems with Garter Snakes

There are predictable problems with garter snakes that you will have to deal with sooner or later.

These aren’t really “dangers,” but they are situations for which you need to be prepared.

Garter snakes Poop More than Other Pet Snakes

Garter snakes eat about twice as often as other kinds of pet snakes, and they poop about twice as often, too

Garter snakes produce especially smelly feces. You don’t want to let their waste accumulate in their enclosure. The smell will be very unpleasant, especially to your other pets.

Count on having to clean your garter snake’s cage twice a week.

Avoid giving your garter snake wild-caught tadpoles, frogs, worms, or insects, which may carry parasites that give it diarrhea.

Garter Snakes Release Stink Bombs when Threatened

Biting isn’t the only way garter snakes can defend themselves

Garter snakes can release a “stink bomb” from their tales when they feel threatened.

They may do this the very first time they are held. You need to be ready to remove this smelly musk should they choose to mark you with it.

Small Pets and Garter Snakes Don’t Go Well Together

Garter snakes mostly aren’t a threat to other pets, but there are some exceptions

Small birds in or out of cages, hamsters, guinea pigs, and pet mice become very alarmed at the sight or smell of a garter snake.

Should your garter snake escape its enclosure, your other small pets will become very, very upset.

Garter snake bites have a much more severe effect on small animals than on people.

The Most Important Thing to Remember About Garter Snakes

If there is one thing that helps you avoid problems with garter snakes, it’s this:

Always buy captive-bred garter snakes.

Don’t buy garter snakes that were caught in the wild.

It is very important to avoid garter snakes caught in the wild in California or Nevada since these species grow exceptionally large and may be quite aggressive.

Any wild-caught garter snake almost certainly will have parasites and diseases it can spread to your other snakes, or that require ongoing treatment.

Captive-bred garter snakes have known parentage.

There won’t be any question about whether they are that kind of garter snake that grows exceptionally large, or they are the species that produce smelly musk, or they have genes for odd behavior that are linked to beautiful color.

You won’t have to worry about whether your garter snake has skin mites or internal parasites from eating wild insects and animals.

You won’t have to be the first person ever to coax your garter snake to eat.

Your dealer will be able to tell you the foods your garter snake likes and when you can expect it to shed.

Raising garter snakes can be lots of fun, especially when you know enough about garter snakes to breed them for exotic colors.

You could even become a dealer yourself. But when you are just getting started, keep things simple by getting properly identified garter snakes with lots of advice for keeping them happy, and save experiments for later.

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