Treating aggression in Snakes
Within this post Todd gives us some great advice on how to handle snakes which may show signs of aggressiveness.
As a Reptile Rescue here in California, I get many questions asked of me. Someone recently asked me
“How can you train an aggressive snake?”
So I thought I would try to give an idea of what I do to calm an aggressive snake.
First thing you have to answer is,
Why it is behaving that way? Is it a normal territorial response? Feeding response? Or is it actual aggression.
Figure that out then you can work on what the issue actually is.
Most snakes live their life in fear, fear of being eaten by a larger predator (which we look like!). They instinctively bite first and ask questions later, out of a fear of being eaten themselves. This is not aggression, this is defensive. To “train” this out of them is usually simple for the most common species. Gentle care over time. Most of the commonly kept snakes (Ball Pythons, Corn snakes, King snakes, etc), will easily settle down into a routine, which includes you holding them, or picking them up to clean the cage. Remember, this defensive measure is no different from if someone burst into your bedroom when you were sleeping, your response is Fight or Flee, why expect different from your snake? Use gentle, easy, non-threatening care, and you will usually get a calm gentle snake.
Warning Graphic Feeding Image Below
Species and Mileage May Vary:
There are some species, (mostly larger, uncommon ones), who are notoriously territorial, Reticulated & Burmese Pythons etc., these take a little more to work with. You can(affiliate link) “Hook” train them though, which means every time you go to get them out you tap them, or push the head a little with a hook, or something similar. This tells them you are getting them out, or doing something in the cage, it is not feeding time. They need to know though first, that you are not a threat to them.
For example: I just got in a 7-year-old, 11 foot long, male reticulated python the other night. I sat for an hour next to the cage, letting him get used to my smell without any threat to him. I then opened the cage, moved stuff in and out, and around in his cage without any attempt to touch him. I will do this for a week or so, till he knows me, and I am not a threat. Then gently start working with him, touching him, moving him, lifting his tail, etc., for several more days before I attempt to get him out. All this is to “train” him I am not a threat to him. Rough handling makes them assume the worst, always treat them with the respect they deserve, and usually, the outcome will usually be in your favor.
Feeding response: Most snakes have a great feeding response, and this is the usual reason people get bit, is because they have “taught” the snake to bite what comes in the cage.
Let’s face it, most people who get a new pet snake in the first month want to hold it every day. You check on it, talk to it. Then after a month or so, it’s every week, after 6 months it’s once a month. But we still keep feeding. Pretty soon the snake gets to the point where if it enters my cage it is most likely food, then bites happen. This is the most common “aggression” I deal with in my rescues. It’s easy to fix. Here is the key,
interact with, and hold the snake more often than you are feeding it.
Cage Aggression: The key is to retrain them from thinking when you open the cage. First remember, most snakes can go weeks even months without eating, and it does not harm them. So what I do, to retrain them out of a feeding response is this. First I stop feeding every week. I feed them only every 3 weeks, but I interact with them in the cage or take them out of it every day. Soon they stop assuming food every time the door opens. Now, for most people it’s recommended to remove the snake from the cage and put them in something else to feed them. This is a common practice, and it is helpful to retrain them from thinking food in the cage.
I do not recommend tub feeding ONLY, as a means to overcoming an aggressive feeding response. All this does is transfer the response from the enclosure to the tub. But used in conjunction with the feeding delay/daily interaction, it can help.
When snakes are actually aggressive, usually it boils down to husbandry. Snakes, like us, need shelter, food, water. If any of these things are missing, you have an upset snake, an upset snake can be aggressive. There are only 5 species of snakes who are aggressive by nature. None of which are commonly kept as pets.
This is the hardest of all the problem areas to fix, if it is actual aggression. There are a couple of things leading to actual aggression in snakes:
Safety: For the most part, we don’t see snakes, they are wonderful players at Hide & Seek. They spend most of their time hiding. If they do not have a place to feel safe, pretty soon they get scared that everything is going to eat them, and they get to be aggressively defensive. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense.
The cure for this is simple, provide the missing piece. Whether it be a hide big enough for them to hide in. Leaving the lights on all hours of the night (get a reptile timer), temperatures all out of whack (get a reptile thermostat), any of these are typically why snakes become aggressive.
I have gone to pick up an “Aggressive” ball python, who struck at the cage wall every time one of the people walked by.
“Where was the cage?”
In 2 teenage boys room, where the lights were on till 2 or 3 A.M., the smell of Axe body spray permeated the room, and the snake had no hide in his cage. It only took a week with me, and the proper environment, for him to settle down. I have gone to pick up another snake who was aggressive, where was the cage? Placed right under the a/c vent, so all summer long the snake was freezing! We create most of our own problems through poor husbandry, and by not thinking about what is best for the snakes.
If safety is not the issue, the next typical issue is wellness. A sick snake is an upset snake. An issue with heating your reptile, and you could have a snake who isn’t digesting properly, or can be impacted if they swallow substrate. If you rule out all of the issues I have talked about. A trip to the vet is in order. The issues with internal health cannot be determined by looking at them.
And lastly, there are, just like with people, a few snakes with nasty personalities. Very rarely, but there are a few. And that, my friend, you just have to figure out how to deal with.