Everyone who keeps pet snakes eventually hears their pet snake hissing. All snakes can hiss, although some snakes hiss louder than others.
Wild snakes, pet snakes, venomous snakes, non-venomous snakes, snakes large, small, and in between all can hiss.
Snakes hiss to let you know something is upsetting them. Snakes hiss to scare potential predators away.
Snakes hiss when they are unhappy and want you to leave them alone. Even friendly snakes may hiss when they are stressed, fearful, or upset.
In this article, we’ll start by explaining how snakes hiss. Then we will explain why snakes hiss in certain situations.
Why Does Your Pet Snake Hiss at You?
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons your pet snake might become upset enough to hiss at you.
Your Snake Doesn’t Trust Humans Yet
Non-venomous baby snakes have very few defenses. (Baby pit vipers, such as baby rattlesnakes, however, can deliver a fatally poisonous bite.)
In the wild, most of them will be captured and eaten by predators in their first year of life.
Pet snakes that are acquired from breeders will eventually learn that you aren’t a threat and will stop hissing at you.
A wild snake you put in a terrarium, however, will never learn to trust you, no matter how often you handle it or how faithfully you feed it.
If your mission is to rescue an injured snake, of course, you may decide the hissing is OK.
Also read: Can Pet Snakes Recognize their Owners?
Your Snake Has Been Startled
Another time snakes hiss is when they have been startled.
If you approach them from above, which is how a predator would approach them, they may not be sure you are friendly.
If you approach them immediately after opening their enclosure, they may be surprised and defensive.
If you let a stranger pick up your snake, or your snake knows you but is in a new enclosure, it will probably hiss at you.
Move deliberately and slowly around your snake, especially after you have lifted the lid of the enclosure.
Approach your snake from the side, not from above. Handle your snake by its midsection, not by its head or tail.
There may be times you have to use a hook to catch your snake, and you have to hook it by its neck, but it will not be happy with you.
Your Snake Has Been Handled Too Much
Even if you think of your snake as cuddly, it is unlikely that your snake thinks of you as cuddly.
If your snake likes to lie down next to you, it is probable that it regards you as a heat source. (It almost certainly is not planning to eat you, but don’t let a large snake stretch out next to your dog or cat.)
Hissing is a signal you have handled your snake enough, and now it wants to be left alone.
Any handling at all by a stranger, or by an excited child, or even by an adult who is afraid of snakes, may provoke hissing.
Your Snake Is About to Shed
How do you feel when someone sneaks up on you and grabs you in the dark?
That’s probably the way your snake feels when you try to handle them just before they shed.
Snakes don’t just shed their skin. They shed their eye caps, too.
Once their eye caps have begun to loosen and their eyes turn blue (or sometimes white), their vision is very poor.
They may feel your vibrations as you approach their terrarium, or they may not. They can’t detect your scent through a solid lid on their enclosure.
When a snake is shedding, it can’t tell whether you are friend or foe, and it probably will hiss at you to let you know it is willing to defend itself.
There will be three to six times a year you just have to leave your snake alone to shed.
You Have Recently Fed Your Snake
Snakes don’t have molar teeth. They don’t grind their food. They don’t have incisor teeth they can use to spear their food and hold it in their mouths.
Instead, they have jaws that unhinge so they can swallow food that is larger than they are.
They hold their prey in place with their powerful jaw muscles, and let their hook-shaped teeth push it into their stomach.
Snakes can’t defend themselves during this process.
Even when they have swallowed their food, they have a huge mass of food in their stomachs that their digestive juices have to break down from the outside right down to their bones.
This knot of digesting food makes it very difficult for the snake to defend itself.
For all of these reasons, your snake will be skittish for two or three days after feeding. You don’t want your snake to regurgitate its meal while it is being digested.
The insides of the food animal will have been decaying the whole time the outsides have been slowly breaking down, so the smell will be awful.
If your snake hisses at you the first day or two after you have fed it, leave it alone.
Snakes Can Also Make Sounds Other Than Hisses
All snakes can hiss, but some snakes can make additional sounds.
King Cobras earned their title by eating other snakes. In addition to their cannibalistic diet and their fearsome hood, they also growl.
Most snakes have a high-pitched hiss of about 7,500 Hz (7,500 cycles per second).
A King Cobra has a growl at about 600 Hz (600 cycles per second). We hope you will never hear a King Cobra growling in person, but if you, the growl sounds a lot like an angry dog.
A Rattlesnake’s rattle is a sound that will make you stop in your tracks.
Just about everyone in North America knows that this rattling sound is a warning to turn around immediately, to go no further.
However, most people don’t know how Rattlesnake rattles make their sound.
Rattlesnake rattles aren’t like beads filled with pebbles in a baby’s rattle.
They are specialized, round collections of scales that make the distinctive rattling sound when they rub against each other.
The Rattlesnake vibrates its tail when it wants to avoid a confrontation, but is willing to bite.
Rattlesnakes aren’t the only snakes that can make rattling noises.
Rat snakes can make a rattling sound to scare off predators by beating their tails on the ground.
And some Rattlesnakes, like the Western Pygmy Rattlesnake, have a rattle that makes a faint buzz that can be heard only about a yard (a meter) away.
Western Pygmy Rattlesnake bites aren’t usually fatal to humans, but they still require medical attention.
Some snakes scare predators and people away with a sound more politely called cloacal popping, which is essentially a loud snake fart.
If you ever see a snake and hear this sound, leave it alone.
This is a defense mechanism of the venomous Sonoran Coral Snake as well as the harmless Western Hog-nosed Snake, the latter snake sometimes kept as a pet.
Saw-Scaled Vipers can roll their bodies into coils and rub their scales together.
This makes a sizzling sound very similar to a hiss. Like any hissing sound from any snake, it’s a warning to stay away.
How Do Snakes Hiss?
Snakes hiss from their glottis, an extension of their windpipe (trachea) just below the tongue.
The glottis is similar in form and function to the vocal cords in people, but it has some functions that are unique to snakes.
A snake can extend its glottis outside its mouth when it is eating. This way it can continue to breathe while it is swallowing its food whole.
This is particularly important when a snake is consuming prey that is wider than its mouth.
The snake’s glottis doesn’t have the complex structure of human vocal cords. However, snakes do have a piece of cartilage in this location.
Ordinary breathing does not cause the snake’s glottis to vibrate. However, when a snake forces air out of this part of its throat forcefully, the cartilage will make a hissing sound.
Hissing occurs in four phases. First, the snake forces air out of its glottis. This makes a loud sound.
Then there is a pause for a fraction of a second. Next, the snake inhales air through its nostrils.
This makes a second, softer sound. Finally, the snake holds its breath before hissing some more.
In some snakes, the second hissing sound, during inhalation, is so faint it cannot be heard. But in every snake, hissing conveys just one message:
Leave me alone.
Snakes aren’t like dogs and cats that can communicate different emotions through their bars and meows. Snakes only communicate to tell you to leave them alone.
Snakes never hiss by accident. Hissing is always an intentional act.
Many snakes, particularly grass snakes, hiss at high frequencies that can be heard by predator mammals, like rats, weasels, and raccoons, but not by humans.
Herpetologists have discovered that poisonous pit vipers, in contrast, hiss at low tones, as low as 40 Hz (40 cycles per second), low enough that humans can hear them clearly.
Some non-venomous snakes imitate the low-pitched hisses of venomous snakes to scare away their predators.
Interestingly, snakes can’t hear their own hisses. Snakes can only hear sounds between 80 and 1000 Hz.
This means a large snake can’t hear a low-pitched hiss of 40 Hz, and a small snake can’t hear a high-pitched hiss of 12,000 Hz.
It also means that snakes can’t use hissing to communicate with each other.
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