Do you ever wonder why your pet snake is staring at you?
Many pet snakes, especially the big snakes, like boas, pythons, and anacondas, can spend hours staring at their owners.
There is a general agreement among experts that the most common reason a snake stares down its owner is that it thinks it is time to be fed.
Other reasons a snake may stare at the human it knows best include defending its environment, sensing you as a heat source, and not trusting you to handle it without harming it.
Staring can also result from a dangerous neurological condition called stargazing, which we will discuss in more detail later in this article.
But let’s start with the reason snakes can appear to be staring at you when they really aren’t.
Reasons Your Snake May Seem to be Staring at You
It’s only human to assume that everyone and everything else sees the world the same way you do.
Most people rely heavily on vision to get information about the world around them.
Snakes do not.
With the exception of a few species of snakes, like garter snakes, that are adapted to daytime hunting, snakes do not see very well or very far.
They can see movement, and they can see shapes. They cannot see details.
Just by looking, a snake cannot distinguish its owner from any other human of approximately the same height and weight.
Most snakes, after all, spend most of their lives in burrows. They do not need good vision to locate and strike at their prey.
The pit vipers can “see” at night, but they are actually using sensory tissue on the sides of their heads to detect a heat signature.
They are attracted to all heat sources of the same intensity equally.
A snake that seems to be staring at you from the other side of the room isn’t.
But what about that snake that seems to be trying to hypnotize you when you put your face up close to the glass of its enclosure?
That snake may not be staring at you, either. That’s because snakes don’t have eyelids.
When people don’t blink, it’s usually because they are intensely focused on something right in front of them.
When snakes don’t blink (which may give you an impression that they are staring at you), it’s because they don’t have eyelids. They do have a transparent scale over their eyes to protect them from injury and irritation.
If you have taken a course in psychology, chances are that you have heard of a concept called Pavlovian conditioning.
If that doesn’t ring a bell, maybe you remember something about Pavlov’s dogs.
Ivan Pavlov was a nineteenth-century Russian scientist who came up with some basic ideas in psychology, including reflexes and conditioning.
In one experiment, Pavlov and his assistants conditioned dogs by ringing a bell every time they brought them food.
Eventually, the dogs were conditioned to salivate when they heard a bell, even if the assistants didn’t bring them any food.
What does that have to do with my snake’s staring at me, you ask?
To your snake, you’re a lot like a great big bell would have been for Pavlov’s dogs.
When you appear, food often follows. Your pet snake wants to be sure to get it, so it stares at you in anticipation of being fed.
Snakes Can Sense Heat
Do you remember what we said about some snakes having heat-sensing organs on the sides of their heads?
These sensory organs are what make it possible for a snake to hunt in the dark.
There isn’t enough light for snakes to see their prey, and, anyhow, snakes don’t have very good vision even in full daylight.
But just because your snake can’t see you, that doesn’t mean they can’t sense you.
Every time you exhale, you send out a puff of carbon dioxide-rich air at body temperature, 98.6° F or, if you use the metric system, 37° C.
Chances are that your breath is considerably warmer than room temperature.
Your pet snake can detect your heat signature from your breath.
It doesn’t do any good to hold your breath in hopes that your snake will not sense you.
About 30 percent of your body heat escapes through the top of your head (if you aren’t wearing a hat or a toboggan). Your pet snake can sense that, too.
This fact, by the way, is one of the reasons you should never give your snake live mice or rats to eat. Snakes can sense the body heat of live rodents.
They come to associate a heat signature with dinner time. If you train your snake to eat living food, it can confuse your fingers or face with its next meal.
Snakes Can Become Territorial
Snakes in the wild don’t usually become very defensive about their territories.
After all, if you are a python that is 25 feet long, other animals are not likely to mess with you. You can slink and slither anywhere you want.
Snakes in a cage display a different orientation toward their territorial limits.
When a snake is cooped into a tiny terrarium 24/7/365, it develops a sense that its cage is its entire world.
This is the only place it gets food (which is a good reason for feeding your snake in a separate cage).
There is nowhere else for it to go. It may defend its territory against intruders, including you.
It may be waiting for you to “invade” its cage.
If you are bringing food, of course, all can be forgiven (maybe after nipping at your fingers, if you don’t present food with tongs).
But your snake only eats a few times a week to a few times a month, or even less often than that.
The solution to this problem is to very carefully let your snake out of its enclosure from time to time.
Many snakes are aggressive inside their enclosure and friendly outside of them.
The downside of this approach is that once snakes get outside of their enclosures, they love to explore sofa cushions, inside pianos, up the air conditioning ducts, and the neighbors’ backyard.
You must be very careful to give your snake a secure space to spend time outside its cage.
Some people don’t trust snakes. Some snakes don’t trust people.
This is a common problem among snakes that were harvested in the wild and sold to pet shops.
A young snake is learning its terrain, living well by capturing young rodents or tadpoles or insects or worms. It is perfectly attuned to its world.
Then some human swoops down on it from above—the same way a hawk or a fox might swoop down on it from above—and stuffs it in a sack.
It endures a long, bumpy ride without food for hours or days and arrives in a cage at a pet shop. Then the thoroughly traumatized snake goes home with you.
If your pet snake seems to be intensely focused on you (it probably isn’t staring, but you are still the center of its attention), your snake may be suffering post-traumatic stress that is similar to trust issues in people.
Trust issues in a pet snake can be brought on by a variety of common mistakes snake owners make without knowing better.
Trust Issue #1. Approaching your snake from above
Animals that eat snakes approach them from above.
You need to approach your snake from the side.
Trust Issue #2: Approaching your snake from above too quickly
A bird or a raccoon that eats snakes will snatch up a snake and try to eat it. Snakes have an instinctive fear of quick movements from above.
Trust Issue #3: Handling your snake too often and expecting it to get used to handling too fast
It’s usually a good idea to desensitize your snake to being handled over the course of 5 to 10 sessions that take one to three weeks.
For your first session, just put your gloved hand inside your snake’s enclosure and draw your hand back.
Do this just for a minute or two, and wait one or two days before you have any more contact with your snake.
For your second session, place your hand in the enclosure and pet your snake without taking it up. Do this for a few minutes and quit.
Wait another day or two before you do the next training session.
For your third training session, it’s time to gently pick up your snake. Grasp your snake by the middle of its body, not by its head or by its tail.
Let it run through your fingers or wrap around your arm for a few minutes, and then carefully put it back in its enclosure.
Take your snake outside its enclosure for longer and longer periods, making sure it is comfortable every time.
Another way to deal with trust issues in your snake is simply to sit in the same room as your snake. Your pet snake will get used to your heat signature, your pattern of breathing, and your scent.
It will learn that you do it no harm, and remember that you are its source of food. Simply being around your snake on a regular basis helps it trust you more.
Stargazing in Pet Snakes
The most serious reason your pet snake may seem to stare at you is a phenomenon called stargazing.
Strictly speaking, stargazing is a symptom, not a disease.
It can be the most easily detected of a number of symptoms of a potentially deadly disease that is genetically linked to beautiful colors in some species of snakes.
Snakes that suffer stargazing stare straight up. Their head and neck muscles contract so the head is pointed almost straight up, as if the snake were gazing at the stars.
Usually, the snake will not be able to turn itself over if it is placed on its back.
The snake may have difficulties feeding. It may not be able to strike at its food. It may bite its owner’s hand, or try to swallow its own tail.
Any of the symptoms of stargazing are a reason to take the snake to the vet right away.
Stargazing is usually caused by viral encephalitis.
However, stargazing can also result from:
- An infection with a virus called paramyxovirus. This virus is in the same family of viruses that causes measles, mumps, and flu in humans. It attacks the brain, central nervous system, and lungs in snakes. It is most likely to infect colubrid snakes, like garter snakes and grass snakes, and viperid snakes, which are venomous.
- Inclusion body disease, also known as IBD. This is a condition that attacks the digestive, respiratory, and neurological systems of boids, such as boa constrictors and pythons.
- A kind of meningitis caused by amebas that live in stagnant water called acanthamoebic meningioencephalitis.
- Any kind of sepsis, a bacterial infection in the bloodstream, that crosses into the brain.
- Extremes of heat and cold
- Head injuries
- Major organ failure
- Exposure to the toxic chemicals found in mite sprays, cleaning products, and pest strips, none of which should ever be used around a pet snake
Only your vet can treat this condition properly, and in many cases, it cannot be treated at all.
However, getting a diagnosis of the disease may give you the information you need to keep infections from spreading to other pets.
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