Most pet snakes are gentle and do not bite people unless they are provoked.
Bites can happen, however, when snakes are startled or starving. Snakes that are fed live rodents may lash out at the mouse or rat and accidentally bite the human hand that feeds them.
And there are some snakes that have awful aim and lunge in the wrong direction at feeding time.
Bites from nonvenomous snakes usually aren’t a serious health issue for the person who gets the bite as long as the wound is treated quickly.
Bites from venomous snakes can be dry, that is, the snake doesn’t release any venom with the bite, mild, as in the case of a bite from a Western Hognose Snake, or potentially deadly, when the snake is a water snake or a pit viper.
Treating bites from non-venomous snakes is much simpler than treating bites from venomous snakes.
We’ll start with what to do when you are bitten by a non-venomous pet snake.
Treating Bites from Nonvenomous Snakes
The first thing you need to do when you are bitten by a pet snake is to make sure the snake is inside its enclosure and can’t get out.
You don’t want an angry or hungry snake within the biting range of children, guests, or pets.
Just as soon as you are sure that your snake won’t be biting anyone else, then you need to turn your attention to treating the wound.
- Call 911 for an ambulance to take you to the nearest emergency room if you are bitten in the eye, head, or neck, or if the snake has bitten a child.
- Because snakes eat animals guts and all (even if you feed them Reptilinks), their bites can spread infections with fecal bacteria, including E. coli, Salmonella, and Klebsiella. These bacteria can cause nasty infections. Cleanse the bite with soapy water and hold the affected area under running, warm (not hot) water for several minutes to wash as many bacteria as possible off your skin.
- Once you have washed the wound, apply pressure to encourage clotting if the broken skin is still bleeding.
- If your pet snake bit you on the face or on a finger or some other appendage, it’s best to go to the ER to let a doctor evaluate the wound. Animal bites on the face and extremities can be hard to heal because they don’t get as much circulation as other parts of your body. They aren’t as easy for immune cells to reach.
- If the bite isn’t on your face, a finger or some other extremity of your body, call your doctor for advice. You may be advised to apply an antiseptic like Betadine and bandage the wound, and come in later,
Not All Nonvenomous Snake Bites Are Equally Serious
When snakes feel threatened, their bites are usually just a glancing blow.
A snake that is feeling threatened may just hit you with its open mouth and quickly retreat, barely breaking the skin.
A Western Hognose Snake, which is mildly venomous, may only “bop” you with its nose, keeping its mouth closed.
When your snake sees you as its next meal, however, it clenches its jaws hard as it bites you.
Constrictor snakes will then try to wrap themselves around their prey to kill it by cardiac arrest or suffocation.
If you cannot get your snake to open its jaws and let you go, try holding its head under cold water.
Dealing with Bites from Boa Constrictors
Boa Constrictors are popular pet snakes, but they pose special problems with regard to biting.
A Boa Constrictor has six rows of teeth.
They have one row of teeth on each lower jawbone, one row of teeth on each upper jawbone, and two rows of teeth on the roof of their mouths.
The feeding reflex in some Boa Constrictors is so automatic that the snake cannot stop itself from striking at anything potentially edible when they are hungry.
This includes their owners, children in the household, your other pets, any other snake in their enclosure, and sometimes even their own tails.
These snakes cannot control their impulses. The problem isn’t that these snakes are bad.
It is that they are snakes. You are not likely to run into this problem, however, unless you are breeding Boa Constrictors for new color morphs.
Treating Bites from Western Hognose Snakes
Strictly speaking, the Western Hognose is a venomous snake. It has fangs in the back of its mouth that can release enough venom to kill a frog or a mouse.
Most of the time a bite from a Western Hognose Snake will not even break the skin, but if this snake holds on long enough to leave fang marks, a clinical report confirms that the result can be bruising, swelling, tenderness, and cellulitis.
If a Western Hognose Snake bites hard enough to leave marks, then medical treatment is necessary.
Otherwise, follow these simple rules:
- Don’t panic. Trying to throw the snake off your body causes it to sink its teeth deeper. Yanking at the snake may break its teeth.
- Let the snake calm down in its terrarium while you do first aid.
- Wash bitten skin with warm, soapy water for about 20 seconds (long enough to hum “Row, row, row your boat” twice). If your skin isn’t broken, this may be enough. If you have fang marks, see your doctor about appropriate antibiotic treatment.
Treating Bites from Venomous Snakes
It is important not to adopt a venomous snake as a pet unless you have a clear plan for dealing with bites.
One of the most important things to do before you get a venomous snake is to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of poisonous snakebites:
- Puncture marks from your snake’s fangs.
- Severe pain at the puncture site.
- Nausea, vomiting, feeling like you are going to pass out.
- Blurry vision or double vision.
- Blistering, bleeding, bruising, swelling, and redness at the bite site.
- Rapid pulse, but falling blood pressure.
- Minty, rubbery, or metallic taste in the mouth.
- Twitching muscles.
- “Blue around the gills,” also blue coloration of face, neck, hands, or feet.
- Increased sweat and salivation.,
- Difficulty breathing.
All of these symptoms can occur when you are bitten by a poisonous snake, but about 50 percent of the time, depending on the species of snake, these symptoms don’t occur.
The reason a bite from a poisonous snake wouldn’t result in these kinds of symptoms is that sometimes snakebites are “dry.”
The snake’s fangs fail to release significant amounts of venom.
The absence of symptoms can help you feel more at ease about your chances after you are bitten by your poisonous snake, but you still need to get to emergency care to be sure.
You shouldn’t drive yourself to the ER because you could pass out. Call 911 or get someone to take you to the emergency room as quickly as possible.
While you are waiting for your ride to the ER:
- Take a picture of the snake with your phone if possible. Even if you are sure you know what kind of snake bit you, a photo can help the doctor determine the exact species of snake.
- Wash the bite with warm soapy water.
- Use a sharpie to mark the leading edge of swelling, redness, or tenderness, and write the time next to it.
- Remove any tight clothing, jewelry, or wristwatch that could trap swelling.
- Keep the part of your body the snake bit higher than the level of your heart. For instance, if you were bitten on your hand, lie down with your hand raised above your head. If you were bitten on a foot, lie down with your foot elevated above your heart. If you were bitten on the face or neck, sit up while you wait.
Get to the ER as quickly as possible. While you are waiting for treatment, there are also things you should NOT do
- Do not apply a tourniquet.
- Do not slash the wound or cut it in any way.
- Do not try to suck out the venom.
- Do not apply ice to the wound.
- Do not soak the wound in water. Do any washing with running water.
- Do not take any painkillers. (They can interfere with blood clotting factors.)
- Do not drink any kind of alcohol to calm your nerves or as a painkiller.
Nearly everyone who gets emergency care in North America survives a bite from a venomous snake.
Deaths are rare, but sometimes occur when people were drunk or high when they started playing with a venomous snake.
How to Keep Your Snake from Biting You Again
It’s not hard to keep your snake from biting you.
Make sure your snake is well-fed. You don’t want your snake to get so hungry it wants to eat your hand along with its defrosted mouse.
Always approach your snake head-on.
Animals that eat snakes will usually approach them from above or from the side. Having a great big flesh-eating mammal (you) staring down at it makes it nervous.
Never surprise your snake. Don’t taunt your snake to make it strike at you.
Handle your snake gently, from the middle of its body, not the tail or the head. And give your snake its space when it is in the shed.
Snakebites aren’t always about you. A snake that bites a child or a neighbor may have to be put down.
You can face legal problems if you do not keep your snake in a secure enclosure, and it gets out and bites someone.
You need someone with you whenever you handle any snake, even a nonvenomous snake that is more than eight feet (2.7 meters) long.
The good news about snakebites is that most people who keep snakes are never bitten, and there are no problems for children, neighbors, or pets, either.
Take simple precautions and always be kind to your snake, and snake bites are unlikely to be a problem.
Some Surprising Facts About Bites from Pet Snakes
- An article published on the website Slate reported that about 550,000 households in North America have about 1.15 million pet snakes. Since 1978, just seven people in North America have been killed by pet snakes, and only eight have suffered serious injuries.
- Your risk of injury caused by your pet snake is about one in 150,000. Your risk of serious injury from a pet cat is about one in 400, and your risk of serious injury from a dot is about one in 40.
- Not every snake that has rattles is a Rattlesnake. Nonvenomous Texas Rat Snakes, also known as Chicken Snakes, also rattle to protect themselves against predators.
- Serious snake bites happen most often in the afternoon, and during the summer, when warmer temperatures allow snakes to be more active.
- Over 50 percent of bites from nonvenomous snakes will become infected, although most infections caused by snakebite are easy to treat. It’s important to see your doctor about antibiotic treatment if you are bitten by your pet snake.
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