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Do Snakes Get Sad?

by Lucy

Sadly, snakes just aren’t everyone’s favorite animal. The majority tend to think of snakes as cold-blooded (pun-intended) entities, but not snake enthusiasts. 

Why? Because they know snakes are just living creatures like everybody else and that when you know how to handle one, they actually make for rather fun and interesting companions!

In fact, many domesticated species are not only fun to hold and beautiful to look at, but also quite docile and easy to handle. When you watch snake owners together with their scaly buddies, it’s no wonder they’re so attached to their danger noodles. But can snakes feel the same? Or even feel at all, for that matter?

Do snakes get sad? There isn’t yet evidence of snakes getting sad. According to Dr. Sharman Hoppes (Clinical Assistant Professor, Texas A&M), reptiles show basic emotions, mainly fear. A new study published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology found that garter snakes develop social bonds with one another as well.

But does ‘mainly showing fear,’ mean snakes are incapable of feeling sad? That’s precisely what we’re going to be discussing in this article. So, grab a coffee and get all comfy as I walk you through the complex world of snake emotions. 

Do Snakes Feel Emotion? 

You know you’ve hit a controversial topic when there are three groups of people with differing opinions. 

As far as the subject of snakes feeling emotions is concerned, you need to understand that this territory is basically like Star Trek’s ‘final frontier.’ I’m trying to say that it’s a field that animal behaviorists and science have only recently started looking into. 

So, while I’m not going to dispute what the science says, I will add that until recently, people believed that cats were pretty stone-cold in terms of emotions too. However, the Animal-Human Interaction Lab at Oregon State University sure proved them wrong. 

As humans, we love to assign human characteristics to animals and don’t often misunderstand our pets when they act in ways contrary to our own nature. For example, dogs are mostly so loveable because they exhibit behavior we can assign as loyalty, excitement, happiness, etc.

But different animals show emotions differently. For a very common example, dogs wag their tails when they’re happy, while cats purr.

Which is why this article will focus on the science and what snake owners themselves feel regarding this question. 

What Science Says

Alrighty, so we’ve already covered that Dr. Sharman Hoppes with the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences thinks reptiles (including snakes) can feel basic emotions like fear. For example, certain snake moves like hissing are indicative of the animals feeling threatened or frightened. 

But here’s where things get a bit interesting. Science recognizes that snakes seem to know the people who handle or feed them regularly and that they’re more accepting or comfortable with them. They’re more likely to exhibit relaxed and curious behaviors with the people they’re familiar with.

Does that mean snakes are capable of affection? Well, the jury’s still out on that one, but the important thing is there’s no concrete evidence stating that snakes don’t feel affection. Snakes are just so different from humans that if they do feel any affection at all, it likely looks much different than we expect it to.

However, while snakes have long been thought to be solitary and unsocial creatures even in the wild, it turns out some species, namely garter snakes, are actually capable of developing strong bonds with other snakes! You can read more about this study in an article by National Geographic here.

And, some reptiles, like lizards, are even capable of showing pleasure when stroked. So, it’s undoubtedly true that certain types of reptiles do enjoy human contact or peer contact at least. Some even run to their owners’ hands to be handled after a while.

Plus, animals do tend to have unique personalities, and that means that until there’s actual proof of the fact that snakes don’t feel emotions like happiness, sadness, or affection, the field’s wide open on interpretation.

What Snake Owners Say

Some pragmatic snake owners think their pets are indifferent and don’t really care much for their humans beyond the fact that they feed them. They’re alright with this because they’re happy just to have a cool looking animal around, regardless of any human-animal bonds.

Other snake parents feel that their pets not only recognize them but are also attached to them on some basic level. The truth is, there’s no real way of settling this debate except perhaps by observing and handling your pet snake. You can also compare the behavior of your pet with how other snake owners say their pets behave. 

The way snake owners experience the behaviors of their pets may also be tied to the way they handle their snakes or how often they interact with them. We at least know that the more snakes are gently socialized, the more docile, more active, and less fearful they become.

While you may not be BFFs with your serpent, it’s possible that your pet’s attached to you (in a good way, not in a get-in-my-belly type of way).

Do Snakes Get Sad?

This is a very popular question in the reptile world. After all, we all want our little friends to be as content and happy as can be.

Considering how snakes act in the wild, hunting, eating, sunbathing, and lying dormant, it’s clear that they don’t have a very active lifestyle. In fact, eating and chilling out are what snakes do best.

So, unless you’re very sure you’ve seen your snake slither into a corner to shed a tear or two , snakes likely don’t get sad or depressed. 

The closest a snake will come to feeling sadness is being stressed or miffed about regular changes being made to its routine or anything crazy going on right outside its tank.

Remember, enrichment is important when it comes to snakes. Enrichment allows your legless lizard to feel like it’s more in control of its environment, which will help keep stress and related health problems at bay. 

Enrichment includes adding foliage for cover to their tank as well as branches for climbing and exploring, and even taking it out once it’s comfortable with you to explore or slither through the grass (on a warm day) for a while.

Stress in Snakes

A lot of people confuse the symptoms of stress as a sign of sadness in snakes. Snake owners observe their pet going off its food or staying in one place more than usual and think their pet is unhappy about something. But, the emotion you’re looking at in such situations is stress. 

It’s surprisingly easy to upset a snake, considering how cold-blooded they are. Jokes aside, it is possible for a snake to die from stress. So you definitely don’t want to get your snake all riled up. You’ll want to make sure its life is as easy-going as possible. 

And before we get to discussing the symptoms of stress in snakes, let’s talk about what to avoid to keep your pet from getting agitated. 

Causes of Stress

The number one cause of stress in snakes is inadequate living conditions. Your pet serpent certainly doesn’t like too many changes made to its environment. I mean, how many of us would appreciate it if someone kept rearranging our homes every other week? 

Apart from that, here are some other reasons why your pet may feel tense:

  • The temperature of its tank/enclosure is too dry, cold, or humid
  • Not having a place to hide
  • The tank is too small, too spacious, or too overcrowded
  • Overhandling 
  • Illness

Pay attention to your snake’s habits when it’s happy and healthy to know when it’s not doing so hot. Note that some snakes may get less active and more lethargic in the wintertime depending on the species and where you live.

Make sure its tanks stays at a warm and consistent temperature and that it has both a warm and cool side of the tank to regulate its own temperature.

Symptoms of Stress

Stress in pet snakes may not be obvious to the owners right away. That’s because not all snakes will show all the symptoms of stress. Although, if you keep a vigilant eye out, you’ll be able to pick up your pet’s anxiety pretty soon.

Here are the symptoms of stress in snakes:

  • Lack of Appetite – One of the most common signs of stress in reptiles is lack of appetite and disinterest in food. 
  • Escape Attempts – If your pet is unhappy with its surroundings, it’ll constantly be trying to escape from its tank. You’ll notice objects placed on the sides of the enclosure being pushed towards the middle because of this. 
  • Regurgitation – Your snake may throw up or regurgitate what it’s eaten due to anxiety.
  • Hissing – Generally, hissing is associated with fear in snakes. But, it’s not uncommon for a snake to hiss when it’s agitated as well.
  • Rubbing Against the Tank – Snakes may also rub their noses against the enclosure’s wall when stressed out. They can even go so far as to rub the scales raw.
  • Coiling – Excessive coiling when handled can also be a sign of distress.

If your scaly friend exhibits any of these behaviors, it’s best to see a veterinarian to ask what you can do to make your snake’s life more comfortable, relaxing, and enriching.

How to Help Your Snake Calm Down

To help your pet calm down, your first order of business should be figuring out what’s causing your snake stress in the first place. Once you’ve identified that and fixed it, everything should return to normal pretty quickly. 

For example, say you’ve added another rock to make your pet’s environment more like its natural habitat. Try removing the latest addition to your snake’s enclosure and observe how it reacts. If your pet picks up eating again, then the problem is solved. 

If your pet doesn’t show any improvement or if you can’t figure out the cause of its stress, it’s best to take your snake for a visit to the vet. 

Tips to Ease Your Snake’s Anxiety

If you’re here, you’re likely happy to learn everything you can about your slithery pals. That’s why this section will focus on tips you can implement to help your pet stay anxiety-free. 

1. Provide Hides

In the wild, snakes are susceptible to being snatched away by flying predators, which is why they like resting under some type of covering. That’s where hides come in.

To make sure your snake is comfortable in its new surroundings, you need to set up its enclosure with at least two hides. Place one hide on the side where you’ve set up the heat pad and the other cover on the cooler side of the tank. 

That way, your snake will be able to regulate its temperature with comfort and ease. 

2. Cover Two Sides of the Enclosure

How stress-free would you feel if you thought you were being spied on night and day? That’s exactly how your snake feels about its see-through glass home.

If you don’t have a wooden enclosure, that’s okay. Try placing your snake’s tank against the wall on one side and cover another side with the help of linings/backgrounds to give your pet some extra privacy. 

3. Proper Handling

Picking up a snake isn’t like handling a puppy. If you’re not careful about how you manage your little serpent, it may let you know its displeasure by striking at you. To avoid such unpleasantness, learn the proper technique for handling your snake. 

First off, don’t get all handsy without building a connection with your pet. Spend some time with your snake apart from when you’re feeding it to let it get used to your scent.

Avoid moving fast or jerking it around. Stay relatively still or move slowly to keep your grip on your snake. You don’t ever want to squeeze a snake either, as this could not only hurt your snake but cause them to get distressed and snap at you.

You also shouldn’t hold them by the end of their tail. Depending on their size, use one or two hands to support their weight in one wide spot or two different spots. Don’t touch your snake’s head unless you’re sure they aren’t head shy.

 Never handle a snake after it’s eaten, at least for the first 24-48 hours. This can cause your snake to regurgitate. Painful for your snake and nasty for you!

Here are the times when you don’t want to handle your snake:

  • Before or during shedding, especially when their eyes are cloudy
  • After your pet has eaten (wait 24-48 hours)
  • While your pet is chowing down (give them a little space, while you’re at it, or they may think you’re a larger predator coming to steal their food)

Last but not least, remember that while a snake needs socialization to stay docile, this means a few minutes a day, not hours or several times a day. Too much handling can easily stress them out.

Up Next: Can Rats Eat Dog Food?

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