Snake Handling and Restraint

Key Points

  • DO wash hands thoroughly after handling prey species; DO NOT smell like snake food.
  • DO recognize aggression or fear in the snake, indicated by the body held in rigid coils or drawn up in an S-shaped posture.
  • DO use assistants when handling large snakes.
  • DO NOT allow a boa or python to form a complete loop around your neck.
  • DO utilize slow, gentle movements and provide adequate support when handling a snake.
  • DO wear disposable gloves, whenever possible, and always wash hands thoroughly after handling a snake.

Introduction

Veterinary practices are often more hesitant to deal with snakes than with other pet reptiles, yet for the most part snakes are probably the easiest reptile patients to capture and restrain in clinical practice (Pizzi 2006) (Fig 1).

Although intimidating to some veterinary professionals, most snakes are relatively easy to handle and restrain

Figure 1. Although intimidating to some veterinary professionals, most snakes are relatively easy to handle and restrain. Photo credit: George Vopal via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

Transport

Reptiles should be transported to the veterinary hospital in a secure container. Snakes are best transported in a plastic box with a secure, escape proof lid. The container should have holes drilled to ensure adequate ventilation. Some owners will use a cloth bag or pillow case. Ideally the bag should be placed within a sturdy box or similar container with holes that is both leak proof and crush proof (Cannon and Johnson 2014, Eatwell 2013). The owner should take measures to prevent heat loss during transport. Microwavable bean bags or hot water bottles can be used as long as they are insulated from the reptile to prevent thermal burns.

 

Defense mechanisms

While many pet snakes are frequently handled and unlikely to strike, it is always best to be cautious. Snakes can strike out of fear or aggression. A potentially aggressive snake will demonstrate an active, flickering tongue and its eyes will be riveted on the item of interest. If able to move about, the aggressive snake will actually follow or stalk its “prey”. (Please note:  A flickering tongue is NOT equivalent to aggression. A snake extends its tongue merely to gather scent particles and pheromones, which are processed by the vomeronasal organ. In short, flickering the tongue is an essential way for a snake to evaluate its environment).

A fearful snake tends to draw its body back into an S-shaped striking posture. The body is held in rigid coils with the head up and away from the perceived threat (Fig 2). The mouth may be open and the snake may hiss.

This tightly coiled, S-shaped posture suggests aggression and/or fear

Figure 2. This tightly coiled, S-shaped posture suggests aggression and/or fear. Photo credit: Erica Mede, CVT. Click image to enlarge.

CONSTRICTION

Boas and pythons of all sizes can constrict. Snakes may constrict when being held in a manner that does not provide sufficient support, when threatened, or when they think you are a prey item.

CLINICAL TIP:  Snakes have poor vision and they recognize prey items primarily by smell. If your hands or clothing smell like a meal, the snake may consider your hand fair prey (pun intended). Wash your hands thoroughly after handling rodents, rabbits, and other prey items before handling snakes.

Large constrictors are powerful and potentially very dangerous. Simply by tightening muscles to maintain balance, a “giant snake” can cause injury by halting blood flow to the brain, resulting in loss of consciousness, or cutting off air flow (Mader 2009, Hernandez-Divers 2006). Giant snakes regularly exceed 8 feet (2.4 meters) in length, potentially making them difficult or even unsafe for the inexperienced to handle. Large constrictors regularly found in the pet trade include the reticulated python (Python reticulatus) and Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus).

CLINICAL TIP:  A good rule of thumb is to have one handler for every 3-4 feet (0.9-1.2 m) of snake.

Never drape a constrictor around the neck, and avoid coiling giant snakes around the torso as well (Fig 3). Assistants should be used for all handling, even routine husbandry tasks such as cage cleaning or water changes (Mader 2009, de Vosjoli 1990). There should always be more than one person in the room when a large snake is being handled or out of its cage.

Never drape a constrictor around the neck

Figure 3. Never drape a constrictor around the neck. Photo credit: @PatetBacasmot via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

TEETH

Pythons of all sizes can bite. Although the bites of small snakes are often of no consequence, bites from larger specimens can be much more serious. Snakes have recurved teeth which sink in and lock in place (Fig 4). Once the snake strikes, a feeding response can also be stimulated in which coils are thrown around the perceived “prey”, particularly when the “prey” struggles.

This boa constrictor skull illustrates the normal, recurved teeth of the snake

Figure 4. This boa constrictor skull illustrates the normal, recurved teeth of the snake. Photo credit: Joey Williams. Click image to enlarge.

TAIL

A snake that feels threatened or insecure may wrap its tail around you, the table, or another piece of furniture. It is best to provide adequate support for the snake and prevent this coiling as it is often extremely difficult to get the snake to release. The animal will often tighten its grip if it is pulled and can be injured during the untangling process (Bradley 2002).

ELIMINATIONS

When distressed, snakes will excrete voluminous feces and urates, while sometimes emptying their musk glands as well.

EGG EATER DEFENSE

The defensive display of the common or rhombic egg eater (Dasypeltis scabra) is unique. Although quite striking, this species is harmless (Video 1).

Video 1. The rhombic egg eater defense is a unique, yet harmless, defensive display

First do no harm

The handler should take measures to protect themselves, while doing no harm to the patient.

SPINAL TRAUMA

Snakes possess only a single occipital condyle articulating with the atlas. Rough or inappropriate handling can potentially result in spinal trauma (Bays 2013, Hernandez-Divers 2006, Pizzi 2006). The weight of a large snake hanging without proper support can potentially dislocate vertebrae if the animal  struggles. Restrain large patients by carefully supporting their body weight and anticipating any sudden movements. Do not hold the head too firmly and allow your hand to move as the snake moves its head.

SKIN TRAUMA

Avoid unnecessary handling during ecdysis (shedding), as the newly formed skin is easily traumatized.

Approximately 1-2 weeks before ecdysis, the skin takes on a dull sheen, the spectacles appear milky blue and the snake’s vision is particularly poor. Many individuals become more agitated or aggressive during this period. The spectacles clear and shed begins 4-7 days later (Cannon and Johnson 2014).

Restraint techniques

Before handling any reptile, clearly define roles and gather all supplies that may be needed. To minimize the risk of zoonotic exposure, wear disposable gloves whenever possible and always wash hands thoroughly after handling the reptile.

PROTECTIVE GEAR

Most pet snakes can be easily captured using bare hands. Gloves can decrease the handler’s tactile abilities while resulting in possible injury to the animal. If the snake is aggressive, it may be necessary to use a towel with or without leather gloves to safely catch up the animal. Gently toss the towel over the snake. Then locate and pin the head. Once the head has been isolated and restrained, the snake can be safely taken out of the enclosure, supporting the rest of the body.

Reptile veterinarians also use clear plastic tubes, snake hooks, and padded tongs with extremely aggressive or nervous snakes. Improper use of the snake hook or tongs can cause patient injury and should only be used by experienced individuals (Fig 5). Tubing can be a safer and less stressful capture technique when compared to pinning down the head. Clear plastic tubes are selected based on the size and length of the snake. The snake is coaxed into the tube (Fig 6, Fig 7). Once a significant portion of the body has entered the tube, both the body and tube are firmly grasped to prevent escape (Fig 8). A snug-fitting tube will prevent the snake from turning, and the diagnostic or therapeutic procedure can then be performed.

Aggressive or venomous snakes can be manipulated by trained professionals using hooks or tongs

Figure 5. Trained professionals using hooks or tongs can manipulate aggressive or venomous snakes. Photo credit: Pat York via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

Aggressive or venomous snakes can be manipulated by trained professionals using hooks or tongs

Figure 6. Aggressive or venomous snakes can be manipulated by trained professionals using hooks or tongs. Photo credit: Erica Mede, CVT. Click image to enlarge.

Aggressive or venomous snakes can be manipulated by trained professionals using hooks or tongs

Figure 7. A snake is coaxed into a clear plastic tube using a snake hook. Photo credit: Erica Mede, CVT. Click image to enlarge.

Aggressive or venomous snakes can be manipulated by trained professionals using hooks or tongs

Figure 8. Once a significant portion of the snake’s body has entered the clear tube, both the snake’s body and tube are firmly grasped to prevent escape. Photo credit: Erica Mede, CVT. Click image to enlarge.

STANDARD TECHNIQUE

Slow, gentle movements and adequate support are the key to proper snake handling. Support the snake well along its entire body length, using multiple handlers if necessary. Larger snakes require one person for every 3-4 feet (0.9-1.2 m). At minimum, there should be a handler for every 5 ft (1.5 m) of animal (Pizzi 2006). Allow the snake to move slowly through your hands, moving along the snake’s body as required (Video 2). Hold the snake gently and firmly, but not too firmly. As with cats, the more firmly a snake is restrained, the more they are likely to struggle. The caudal third of the snake can be placed in a bag or pillowcase to catch any urination, defecation, or musk type secretions that may be expelled during the examination.

Video 2. Support the snake, allowing the animal to move slowly through your hands. Video credit: Erica Mede, CVT

CLINICAL TIP:  Handling a snake within 24-48 hours after a meal can cause it to regurgitate.

Restraint of the snake’s head will often cause it to struggle (Fig 9). Do so only when the patient is aggressive or when required for a procedure like oral examination. To restrain the head, grasp the base of the skull behind the occiput using the thumb and middle finger to support the sides of the head (Fig 10). Also place an index finger on top of the head (Fig 11). Do not apply excessive pressure around the neck region as this can impede respiration.

Firm restraint of a snake’s head will often cause it to struggle, so be prepare

Figure 9. Firm restraint of a snake’s head will often cause it to struggle, so be prepared. Photo credit: Erica Mede, CVT. Click image to enlarge.

Grasp the base of the skull behind the occiput with the thumb and middle finger supporting the sides of the head

Figure 10. Grasp the base of the skull behind the occiput with the thumb and middle finger supporting the sides of the head. Photo credit: Erica Mede, CVT. Click image to enlarge.

Securely place an index finger on top of the snake’s head

Figure 11. Securely place an index finger on top of the snake’s head. Photo credit: Erica Mede, CVT. Click image to enlarge.

Securely place an index finger on top of the snake’s head

Figure 12. Securely place an index finger on top of the snake’s head. Photo credit: Erica Mede, CVT. Click image to enlarge.

CLINICAL TIP:  When returning a snake to a container, do so tail first.

SNAKES IN A BAG

Snakes are commonly presented in pillowcases or bags. If you are unfamiliar with the patient or if the animal seems aggressive (e.g. hissing), do not simply open the bag. To safely remove your patient, first locate the head, then gently grasp and pin the head through the cloth. The handler can now transfer the head of this aggressive snake or this snake of unknown disposition to their free hand, and the entire snake can be removed from the sack.

VENOMOUS SNAKES

Venomous snakes should only be handled by experienced herpetologists and only when emergency plans for dealing with accidental envenomation have been carefully planned (Mader 2009).

Summary

Diagnostic and therapeutic procedures cannot be administered until you and your staff can safely handle and restrain the reptile patient. Large snakes have the potential of biting and inflicting serious damage. Take the appropriate cautions and employ slow, gentle movements while adequately supporting the body.

References and further reading