What is it about pet snakes that makes odor a problem?
Most of the time, pet snakes don’t smell bad.
If you are outside their enclosures—and you really should not be putting your head inside their enclosures—you usually won’t smell anything at all.
As long as their waste is cleaned regularly, with a few rare exceptions (that we will explain later in this article) there shouldn’t be any odors in your home at all.
But to keep your home odor-free when you keep a pet snake, you will need to know how to clean your snake’s tank.
You will also need to know how certain kinds of snakes can emit odors to protect themselves.
How to Clean Your Snake’s Tank?
Snakes don’t usually smell bad.
The odor of snake waste, on the other hand, can be intense. Enclosures for your snake can develop a terrible stench, worse than not taking the garbage out.
Preventing this smell requires regular attention to cleaning your snake’s enclosure.
There are different ways to set up your snake’s vivarium that have different cleaning requirements.
Some snake owners use paper towels as the tank’s substrate (material on which your snake lives, keeping it off the cold glass or plastic base of its enclosure).
If you use paper towels, all you will need to do is to
- Place your snake in a second enclosure while you are doing clean-up, and
- Pick up, throw out, and replace the paper towels
The disadvantage of this method is that you will use a lot of paper towels, and they won’t smell very good in the garbage.
Many other snake owners give their snake a substrate of coconut husk fibers or wood chips.
These are better insulators, and keep your snake warmer.
If you use fiber or wood chips as your substrate, you just pick up solid excrement in pieces and wipe urine with a paper towel.
The second approach takes more time but creates less paper waste. You can also choose wood chips for your snake’s enclosure that have a pleasant scent of their own.
You can also find snake bedding like Sani-Chips that is both scent-free and absorbent. It soaks up urine, so you won’t have to wipe it away.
Some brands of substrate for snake cages like Sani-Chips have the added value of being made from renewable resources.
Some Snakes Release Odors as a Defense Mechanism
There are snakes that don’t always smell bad, but can release odors as a defense mechanism when they feel threatened.
It’s easy to forget that snakes aren’t at the top of their food chain.
Many smaller snakes defend themselves against the animals that might eat them by releasing an especially unpleasant scent.
Until your snake gets to know you, it could use this mechanism to defend itself against any potential threat from you.
Some snakes will roll around in the musk they release to make sure no predator will want to eat them.
This odor can be so intense that some mammals that feed on snakes will starve before they enter an area where a snake has done this.
You may develop a similarly intense aversion to your snake’s cage if this happens.
These snakes release scent from glands at either side of their cloaca, the opening through which snakes of both sexes mate, female snakes lay eggs or give live birth, and all snakes release waste.
Female snakes also use these glands to release pheromones to attract male snakes when they want to mate.
Most snakes with this defense mechanism release odors that smell like dead animals.
Garter Snakes, however, release an odor that is cloying, sickeningly sweet. Rattlesnakes release an odor that is intensely musky.
And Copperheads release a scent that smells like cucumbers as if to tell their predators “Nothing to eat here. Just some cucumbers.”
Snakes that fear being eaten release odors on the principle that if something smells bad, it will taste bad, too.
This protects them in the wild.
Water snakes, and larger tropical land snakes like Anacondas, Boa Constrictors, and Pythons, don’t need this defense mechanism and won’t present this problem as pets.
How Does Your Snake Smell You?
There is a common misconception that snakes smell exclusively with their tongues.
Snakes have nostrils that lead to olfactory nerves that send information to their brains in the same way as the nose works in mammals and people.
They use their tongues to capture particles riding on tiny droplets of moisture to be “sniffed” with an organ in the back of their mouths called Jacobson’s organ, or the vomeronasal organ.
A snake flicks its tongue when it senses particles riding on tiny droplets of moisture that it is interested in.
These particles mix with fluids on the snake’s tongue and get snorted up into its vomeronasal organ.
The kinds of odors that snakes detect this way are those odors released by anxious prey, and odors released by other snakes that are ready to mate.
Snakes also flick their tongues to search for tiny particles that other snakes release to mark their territory.
Odors to Keep Snakes Out of Places You Don’t Want Them To Go
Since scent is one of the main ways a snake observes its world, you can use odors to keep your snake from going places you don’t want it to go.
Some of the easiest materials to use for this purpose are ammonia, human hair, sulfur, and wormwood.
- Ammonia is an effective deterrent to many kinds of animals. In nature, ammonia is a byproduct of protein digestion. It can be a signal that some larger mammal has been eating smaller animals, like snakes. Snakes with a good sense of smell will do their best to stay away from it.
- Human hair, preferably human hair that wasn’t washed for a few days before it was cut, is another effective deterrent against snakes. Smaller snakes know that they won’t win a fight with a human, so they will shy away from the scents of human hair.
- Sulfur is the main component of rotten egg odor. This odor is even more intense when combined with mothballs.
- Wormwood is an intensely bitter herb used in deworming formulas. It’s a flavor that most animals associate with poison, including snakes (and humans who aren’t used to the herb).
There can be odor problems with pet snakes. These usually occur when your pet snake is still getting used to its new home.
If your snake is comfortable in its enclosure, you will have fewer issues with pet odors when you own a snake than when you own cats or dogs.
Frequently Asked Questions About Snake Odors
Q. How do you get rid of the smell of snake poop?
A. Move your snake to a holding tank while you clean its enclosure. Put on gloves so you aren’t exposed to any Salmonella that may be in your snake’s droppings.
Use a whisk broom to sweep droppings into a dustpan. Then dump the droppings into a plastic bag, seal the bag, and place it in a trash can outside your house.
Remove any soiled bedding from the bottom of your snake’s cage. Put it in a plastic bag, seal, and discard in an outdoor trash receptacle.
Clean the cage with detergent and hot water, dry, replace the substrate, and put your snake back in its cage.
Q. I have never noticed any odor from my pet snake before. Why not?
A. Some pet snakes never have a reason to feel threatened.
If your snake has its own enclosure, so it does not have to release scent to mark its territory, and it has always been in a cage, it will have no reason to release an odor—unless someone gets too close too fast, or otherwise intentionally threatens it.
Most snakes are odor-free most of the time.
It’s only when they are first getting used to a new enclosure or when they have to be taken to the vet or moved to another enclosure that they are likely to let off odors.
Also read: 10 Pet Snakes that Don’t Bite (Easy to Keep)
Q. Can you smell a snake before you see it?
A. Intense gourd-like or cucumber smells can be a sign that either a Copperhead or a Rattlesnake has found its way into your house. (Rattlesnakes can release a cucumber-like scent in addition to a musky odor.)
Don’t try to find them yourself. Let your local Animal Control unit find, capture, and remove poisonous snakes for you.
Q. Can snakes spray stink on you?
A. Some snakes can spray you with their feces.
They cannot, however, spray you with their musk.
Q. Do all snakes release musk in the same amount?
A. Even though females are larger than males in most species of snakes, males release more musk.
Some females “borrow” musk from males to protect their clutches of eggs. Of course, this won’t happen if you keep your snakes in separate enclosures.
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