Garter snakes are famous North American non-venomous snakes that live in a variety of habitats. These include urban and suburban areas, where they often come into conflict with humans. But how serious are these conflicts, and should you be concerned?
We already know that garter snakes are not venomous, but they do possess teeth. Not fangs, like venomous species, but rows of teeth that they use to secure their prey.
Are these teeth enough to inflict serious damage on humans? More importantly, do garter snakes attack humans, to begin with, and should you be concerned when traversing their habitat?
Let’s dive into it!
Do Garter Snakes Actually Bite People?
The answer is: typically, no. In other words, garter snakes prefer to hide or flee when encountering a human presence. The likelihood of them attacking and biting even if they have the option to flee is…unlikely.
With this said, garter snakes can bite when threatened and have nowhere to go. Holding a garter snake against its will may trigger this instinctive behavior, causing the snake to bite to save its life.
It doesn’t matter whether the snake is actually in danger or not; it only matters what the snake believes.
What if You Get Bit by a Garter Snake?
Fortunately, nothing will come out of it in most cases. Garter snakes don’t possess fangs, and they only have rows of tiny, albeit sharp, teeth. Their teeth are so small that they can’t even hurt the snake’s natural prey.
That’s because this isn’t what their teeth are supposed to do. Instead, they’re supposed to provide the grip necessary to prevent the prey from escaping the snake’s mouth.
This explains why the teeth are sharp and curved backward toward the esophagus. The prey will exert force in the opposite direction, attempting to flee, while the teeth will grip the animal’s skin like tiny claws, preventing its escape. All constrictor snakes exhibit a similar teeth structure because it serves the same purpose.
This means that the garter snake’s teeth cannot inflict any meaningful damage on humans because they cannot pierce the skin. Not to mention, garter snakes treat humans as predators.
So, they will most likely bite fast, as a warning, and attempt to flee the area. The situation would probably be slightly different if they would hold onto the bite and grind the teeth against the skin, but they don’t do that anyway.
How to Handle a Wild Garter Snake Safely?
It’s common for garter snakes to slither their way unseen into backyards or barns on the lookout for potential prey.
So, what can and should you do if you meet one and want to remove it from your property? The ideal approach would be to announce the right authorities to handle the situation for you.
But, presuming you don’t have this option, for whatever reason, consider the following instead:
- Observe – Never jump into it blindly. You must first make sure that you’re actually dealing with a legitimate garter snake. You don’t want to mistake a venomous and more dangerous species for a garter, as this can be a costly mistake. Look for the trademark dorsal and lateral white or yellow bands, which are present in pretty much all garter specimens. Also, check the snake’s eyes just to be sure. If the pupils are round, the snake is not venomous.
- Use protection – Use rubber gloves and cover your hands up to the elbow. We’ve already determined that the garter snake’s bite isn’t dangerous, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely harmless. Sometimes, garter snake bites can inflict some minor skin damage, which is prone to localized infections, especially due to the snake’s saliva. Always wear protection.
- Move slowly – Snakes react defensively to sudden movements, making them more likely to run. Approach the snake slowly so as not to scare it away.
- Support the snake’s entire body weight – You should always handle the snake with both hands. Many people grab them by the neck with one hand and handle them that way, which puts the snake at risk of vertebrae damage. This is especially more likely to happen with larger and heavier snakes, as gravity isn’t exactly on their side.
- Practice pristine hygiene – Always wash your hand after your contact with the snake has concluded. Wild snakes are prone to infections, bacteria, parasites, and other pathogens that can affect humans. Remove your gloves and wash and disinfect your hands after handling the snake. You might also want to change your clothes if the snake touched them. Safety before regret.
Once you’ve secured the snake, make arrangements to relocate it, depending on the circumstances. If you only want to move the snake out of the highway, for instance, move it further back on the side of the road. Position the snake’s head so that it faces the area you want it to go to and leave it be. The reptile will be on its way immediately.
If you’ve caught the snake in your back garden or near your home, call your local reptile management authorities to take over.
Prevention Tips for Avoiding Garter Snake Bites
We’ve already determined that garter snake bites can be damaging in some instances, although nothing serious should come out of them.
But this isn’t the main reason why you want to avoid snake bites. It’s the snake’s wellbeing that matters most in this context. If the garter snake is ready to bite, it means it’s stressed to the point where that’s its only option. And stress can be detrimental to reptiles.
To keep you and yourself safe and avoid getting bit, consider the following:
- Keep your distance – If you don’t need to interact with your garter snake, just don’t. This applies to both wild and captive-bred garter snakes. Especially if the snake appears irritated and attempts to flee your presence.
- Protect yourself – We’ve already discussed this point. Protection is great for when you absolutely need to interact with the snake physically. Even if the garter snake bites, at least nothing will come out of it.
- Keep your cool – Don’t panic if you’re afraid of snakes. It’s always better to keep your composure and act with a clear and calm mind. Remember, the snake is more likely more afraid of you than you are of it. Keep your distance if you don’t need to engage, and engage slowly with controlled movements if you need to.
- Keep the snake in a controlled enclosure – Make sure that your garter snake cannot leave its enclosure. This will minimize the risk of the reptile escaping and potentially attacking someone.
These tips are useful to know, even if garter snakes are unlikely to bite.
Risk Factors for Human-Garter Snake Interactions
Garter snakes are typically friendly and docile, so they’re unlikely to cause any problems.
This being said, they are wild animals, so they’re prone to behavioral instability and other issues that we’ll discuss shortly.
Overall, there are several risk factors to consider when interacting with your garter snake:
- Disease transmission – You can transmit various bacteria and viruses to your snake just as your snake can transmit them to you. While humans and snakes are 2 completely different species, there are numerous pathogens that do not discriminate between them. You should always wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling the snake to lower or even eliminate this risk.
- The risk of biting – Garter snakes are docile and easygoing reptiles, but that’s not always the case. They do have their tantrums occasionally, in which case you should respect their desires. So, don’t interact with your snake physically if it’s shedding, digesting its food, resting, or simply showing signs of wanting to be left alone.
- The risk of injury – Improper handling can cause the snake to experience physical injuries, especially when the reptile attempts to flee your hold. Garter snakes aren’t opposed to handling and petting, but they won’t love it either. These animals lack proper social behavior like most mammals. So, don’t mistake their craving for your hand’s warmth for emotional bonding. It’s the snake that should dictate the time and duration of the handling session, not you.
- Stress – Stress is the greatest risk factor to consider. Reptiles, in general, are prone to stress due to their more reclusive and antisocial nature. They don’t like loud noises, sudden movements around them, constant petting, etc. Always respect your snake’s boundaries and assess its behavior and temperament so you can learn what it likes and what it hates.
Garter Snake Interactions with Pets
This should be a non-problem because your garter snakes should never have contact with any of your pets.
That’s because there’s no happy ending to consider, no matter the scenario. If you have a smaller pet like a guinea pig or a canary, your garter snake will appreciate its presence, but for all the wrong reasons.
If the pet is large, like a dog or a cat, the roles may be reversed. Keep in mind that garter snakes are wild animals and reptiles, above all else, so they lack that part of the brain that makes them sociable and acceptant of other animals.
Garter snakes are to be kept isolated in their personalized enclosure, and the only animals they should interact with should be their meals.
Garter snakes are pretty friendly and skittish animals, so they’re unlikely to bite unless specifically provoked. That being said, they are wild reptiles, so they won’t hesitate to bite if that means saving their lives.
Keep that in mind next time you find yourself wandering in your garden in search of some rodent snack.