If you think about stress in people, it is clear that it doesn’t come about all at once, but builds bit by bit until the result is that the person simply can’t cope any more with anything, no matter how tiny. The phrase ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ is just as applicable to snakes as it is with people, in that it is never one thing that brings on stress, but a number of things, one on top of the other, that eventually brings about a breakdown of mental or physical health – in the case of snakes more likely to be physical!
How stress gets missed
Many owners have expectations of the behaviour of their snake which means that they miss the early signs which, if addressed, can prevent a lot of distress for the animal. Because snakes do not ‘snack’ on their food and need feeding three times a day like a cat or dog, it is easy to miss growing anorexia. This is often one of the earliest signs. Weight loss is also not such an easy symptom to spot, especially in a small snake which may only weigh a pound or less. Two ounces is over ten percent of its body weight and so is a significant loss, but is less than the weight of a small hen’s egg, so very difficult to notice when handling the snake. The other main symptom of stress in a snake is increased lethargy. Some snakes are quite active but many are slow moving and in the case of nocturnal snakes this sign can be missed altogether. Stress can result in death, as the snake stops eating and will become prone to other conditions as it weakens, so it really pays to watch out for it.
Causes of stress
Snakes have a lot of quite precise requirements as to their environment, food and general treatment which, when listed individually make it sound as though they are quite difficult pets to have. This is not really true, because if all of the needs are met, the snake is likely to be happy and healthy and will be a fun pet for many years, with corn snakes – a very popular choice for a pet snake – routinely living more than twenty years. It is worth doing some research before bringing a pet snake home, one of the most important questions being; how big will it grow? This is not just because it will need a large environment if it is potentially going to get big, but to handle a big snake most experts say that you need an extra person for every two foot of snake after the first six feet. These chaps are heavy and strong. Temperature needs are also very precise and vary from snake to snake, within a surprisingly wide range. Some like dry sandy flooring, others prefer to burrow. Some are nocturnal, and this is particularly important if the snake is a pet for a young person, as they will seldom see a nocturnal pet (the same goes for hamsters, but that’s a different story). And finally, to food; you must be prepared to feed the snake what it wants. It’s no good taking a snake home and then not wanting to feed it dead chicks warmed up with the hairdryer. It’s your pet and its needs must be met to keep it healthy.
Can I handle my snake?
While most pets enjoy interaction and it is a very good way to get to know your pet and therefore notice any signs of ill health quickly, it is not always appropriate for snakes. They are quite shy creatures and don’t all enjoy being handled. Once a week is probably plenty for most, and this will give you ample opportunity to check it over. If your snake is showing signs of stress, giving consideration to its need for privacy may go a long way to helping it to recover. Look into what its natural habitat is, whether it is tree dwelling or lives on the ground and then go as far as you can to recreate this in its vivarium. If you have your snake in a glass enclosure like a fish tank, consider covering the sides, leaving just small clear places so you can enjoy watching your snake. The bright lights of an average room would be very disorienting for most reptiles. Thoughtless visitors often want to handle your snake – although it is probably fair to say that equal numbers would not touch it for a thousand pounds! – and this should never be allowed. Not only is this an almost sure fire way of passing on bacteria into the environment in the way of naturally occurring skin flora which can cause nasty infections on broken skin – in either direction – it is likely that the visitor is not familiar with snakes and can cause injury or severe stress in the animal.
Prevention of stress
Stress is easily prevented by providing the correct conditions for the snake, taking thought and time to make sure that it has what it needs and mainly to provide what the snake wants, not what you as an owner wants. If your snake happens to be a species which prefers to live quietly, eating in a hide and sleeping all day, then you must let it. It may turn out not to be the perfect choice of pet for you, but at the end of the day you chose it, not the other way around and when it is free from stress and begins to socialise more, your patience will be amply rewarded by a happy and healthy pet.