Snakes: frequent questions


Can you identify a snake for me?
Sorry, no. There are about 120 species of snakes in North America, some of them with subtle markings, and we aren’t confident our identification would be correct. Here’s what to do when you spot a snake: Try to guess the approximate length; note the shape of the head and its size relative to the neck; the color of the body and any patterning — bands, blotches, etc. Also, the pupils — are they vertical, like a cat’s eyes, or round? (Round means non-venomous, which most snakes are.) If you can quickly snap a digital photo, that will help a lot. If you can’t find a match to it online or in a guidebook, show it to your city naturalist or local Wildlife and Parks Department.

How to remove a snake from house
First, stay calm. The snake is as unhappy as you are. Snakes don’t like confrontation and simply want to escape. This is true even with venomous ones. Call a professional animal trapper if you need help, especially if you think the snake is venomous.

Don’t kill the snake. He’s an important member of your backyard wildlife habitat. Not only that, but in most states it’s against the law. Release him close to some protective cover at the back of your yard. Don’t forget to look for the hole he used to enter your house and seal it up.

Don’t lose sight of the snake or you may never find him again. Snakes can find hundreds of places around your house to hide in, on, behind or under. Snakes are fast and you’ll need help. Use brooms to guide him into a box or trash can. Snakes are escape artists, so take care to secure the lid while carrying him back outside. You can also try to grab the snake by his tail and drag him outside. Or hold him by the tail and lift the front of his body with a stick and carry him out. Another technique is to throw a towel or blanket over the snake and quickly scoop the whole bundle up and into a container.

University of Missouri Extension offers these other suggestions: Use a long stick with a Y-shaped end to pin the snake to the floor while sweeping him into a large bucket. Or, place damp, rumpled clothes where the snake has been seen. Cover them with dry cloths. The snake will be attracted. Once he enters the pile, gather everything up and carry it outside. Or, use a glue board, available at local hardware stores. Once caught, soak the glue strip and the snake that’s stuck to it with vegetable oil, take it outdoors to a place where the snake won’t be defenseless prey while still stuck. In about an hour he’ll be able to free himself and slither away.

Snakeskin found in house
If the skin is dry, the snake may be gone. Skin is usually about 25% larger than the snake who shed it. Take the skin to your state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife or the city naturalist for identification. If you find several dry skins, it doesn’t necessarily mean several snakes are in your house. It may be one snake who has molted several times. If you determine the skin to be that of a venomous snake, contact a professional animal trapper for help. If the snake is harmless you’ll need to start hunting for him, and a good place to start is the area where you found the snakeskin. Read the Q&A just above for snake removal tips.

Do snakes have eyelids?
Snakes don’t have eyelids. It’s this missing feature that gives them the stare we find so unnerving. Their eyes fit tightly in their head and have limited movement, too. A clear membrane called the brille protects the eyeball. The pupils of pit vipers, a group of venomous snakes, are vertical and elliptical, which adds to their alien appearance. The pupils of other snakes are round, like a human’s. In the U.S., that’s one way to distinguish a non-venomous from a venomous snake, but with one exception: the venomous Coral Snake.

Do snakes have a nose?
Snakes have a nose and nostrils they draw air through. It’s their primary method of detecting smells, but not their only one.

Image of Tiger Rattlesnake's eyes.

Tiger Rattlesnake (Crotalus tigris). (Ltshears / Wiki; cc by-sa 3.0)

How to identify a venomous snake
Almost all venomous snakes in the U.S. are “pit vipers.” They have a noticeable “pit” on each side of their face near their nostrils, which look something like nostrils. Also, all but the Coral Snake have cat-like pupils. They can be vertical, or elliptical, as shown in the photo above. It’s best not to get close enough to discern these characteristics! Also, most venomous snakes have a triangular-shaped head.

First-aid for a non-venomous snake bite
Unless you’re certain the bite is from a non-venomous snake, seek immediate medical attention. For a non-venomous bite, wash the area with soap and water and rinse. Allow the bite to bleed for several minutes. Apply an antibiotic ointment. Watch for developing signs of infection — swelling, redness, warmth, tenderness, red streaks — and, in that event, seek medical attention.

First-aid for a venomous snake bite
According to the American Red Cross, this is what you should do for a venomous snake bite:
  Don’t put ice on the wound, it can be harmful.
  Don’t use a tourniquet, it can cause loss of the entire limb.
  Don’t cut the wound open, it can cause more harm than good.
  Wash the bite with soap and water.
  Immobilize the affected area.
  Call 911 or go immediately to an emergency room.
  Keep the bitten area lower than the heart.
  If the victim can’t get to medical care within 30 minutes, wrap a bandage 2 to 4 inches
   above the bite to slow down the venom. Don’t wrap it tightly enough to cut off blood flow
   (you should be able to slip a finger under it.)
  Try placing a suction cup over the bite to help draw venom out of the wound.

Learn all about snakes

*Top image: Tiger Rattlesnake, Crotalus tigris. (Ltshears / Wiki; CC BY-SA 3.0)