Snake Hissing Secrets: Decoding the Language of Snakes

Few things are more recognizable than a classic snake hiss. Almost all snakes have the ability to hiss, but what do they do it? People instinctively associate the hissing sound with threatening behavior, but is that always the case?

Today, we will dive into the snakes’ world again to shed light on their reasons for hissing, depending on the circumstances.

Overview of snake hissing

You’ve most likely heard snakes hissing before. In some situations, you may have been the target of the hissing yourself. But what is that sound and how do snakes produce it?

The hissing sound usually results from the snake taking it deep breaths beforehand and forcing the air back out through the glottis. This is a specialized structure located in the snake’s mouth, close to the back of the neck.

The glottis is an organ consisting of 2 flaps of tissue that vibrate when air is forced through. The resulting sound is the distinct hiss you’re hearing.

The hissing sound usually doesn’t come alone. In most cases, it’s accompanied by other behavioral displays, like flattening the body, posturing up, flicking the tongue in the direction of the danger, etc.

Usually, if you hear hissing around you, consider backing away slowly. But we’ll get to that shortly.

5 Reasons Why Snakes Hiss

Okay, so we’ve already mentioned that most people associate the hissing sound with a warning signal. That would essentially be the snake informing you to keep your distance.

This is partially true in the sense that this is one of the meanings behind it. But it’s not the only meaning.

Here are the 5 reasons behind the snakes’ trademark hissing sound:

1. Defensive Behavior

The loud hissing is usually the first line of defense. The snake is typically hidden, so most animals coming nearby, including humans, can’t see it in time. So, the snake hisses to announce its presence.

This informs everyone of its presence and warns any intruders to stay away. The hissing behavior isn’t the only defensive tactic, but it’s usually the first that the snakes will employ.

Other species, like rattlesnakes, also shake their tails to produce a distinct rattling sound in addition to their loud hiss.

The tail sound alone is enough to deter most animals from advancing any further. If that fails, the snake’s venomous bite should do the trick just fine instead.

2. Communication

The hissing can also suggest communication between 2 snakes, although the meaning behind it can vary depending on the circumstance.

Snakes typically hiss at one another to exact territorial boundaries, which is often seen in males. Females can exhibit the same behavior as well, given that they, too, are solitary animals.

Snakes can sense each other via smell, and they will immediately enter a defensive state. These reptiles are generally extremely territorial and have practically zero social skills, so they use aggression and defensive behavior to interact with each other for the most part.

But the hissing sound can transmit other intentions, like mating calls. Females may hiss to signal their readiness to mate, while males can produce the same sound to attract the female during the courtship.

This isn’t the only way that snakes interact with each other during the mating phase. Females also produce pheromones to attract males, which compete with each other for the right to pass their genetic baggage.

3. Shedding

Shedding is a delicate period in a snake’s life, and it refers to the snake losing its old skin as it grows. The process can last for 1-2 weeks, depending on the snake’s size, age, and other factors, including diet and environment.

The shedding cycle repeats every several weeks or months and places the reptile in a vulnerable state.

The snake cannot eat or defend itself during shedding, which is why it’s more likely to hiss and threaten potential attackers. It can also bite in times of extreme need if the hissing alone doesn’t get the job done.

If you have a snake pet that’s getting ready to shed, give it space to complete the process safely. Snakes can encounter a variety of issues during shedding, including infections, dysecdysis (incomplete or abnormal shedding), tissue necrosis, dehydration, etc.

Stressing out the snake to the point where it begins to hiss at you is a sign that you should back off.

4. Stress or Fear

Snakes use hissing as a self-comforting behavior or as an instinctive reaction when rattled by a threat nearby. It can be anything, including a loud noise or movement in their visual range, being handled longer than they’re comfortable with, being mishandled, etc.

You should always look for the source of stress if your snake starts hissing out of the blue. In most cases, snakes tend to hiss more often when brought to their new home first. That’s because they’re still not acquainted with the habitat and need time to grow their comfort zone properly.

To diminish your snake’s stress levels, lower the lighting a bit, provide the reptile with a hiding spot, and keep the noise down for a while.

Also, avoid any contact with the snake until it appears calmer and no longer sees you as a threat. The snake may hiss at you for a while until it begins to associate you with food.

At that point, the reptile may begin to exhibit excitement whenever you appear near its enclosure. This is a sign that the snake has accepted you as its caretaker.

5. Digesting Food

Snakes may also hiss when digesting food, but not for the reasons you may be thinking. Snakes consume large prey, usually a lot larger than their bodies’ width. Burmese pythons, for instance, can consume jumbo rats and even pigs, deer, and monkeys in the wild.

Digesting the prey takes a lot of time and energy due to the snake’s slow metabolism, which is why some snakes only eat once every 2-3 months. Some may only eat 2-3 times a year.

The hissing is simply a way for the snake to calm down, relax, and conserve energy during the digestion process. The same behavior may regulate the snake’s temperature, aiding in digestion.

The snake may also hiss menacingly when digesting its food, informing you that you should keep your distance. And you should because if you stress out the snake, it may regurgitate its food, which isn’t good for the reptile.

How to Respond to Snake Hissing

How you should respond to a snake hissing is the same whether the snake is in the wild or in captivity: back down and keep your distance.

The situation may be a bit different in the wild because the snake isn’t located in a safe container but in the heart of nature. So, the hissing is an indicator of the snake’s aggressive intentions, which you should absolutely take seriously.

If you hear the hissing near you, stop moving and wait to see how far the hissing source is from you.

Once you’ve determined the direction and distance to the sound, back away slowly, with gentle and calculated movements. Don’t jump back, run, or make any sudden movements, even if you’re terrified of snakes.

Despite what you may think, you need to control your basic flight urge because it will do you more harm than good.

Keep in mind that humans have an average reaction time of 200-300 milliseconds, while snakes fall into the 40-70-millisecond range. So, you can’t hope to evade the snake’s attack by relying on your speed alone.

Instead, you should move slowly so that the snake doesn’t see you as a threat.

Tips for Avoiding Snake Bites

Nobody wants to be bitten by snakes when going out for a stroll in the wild, but this is generally easier said than done.

The primary reason for that is that snakes are quite difficult to observe in their natural habitat. So, you have to rely on a variety of prevention tactics to make sure you don’t get bitten.

These include:

  • Plan the route ahead of time – If you’re going out into the wilderness, for whatever reason, learn the geography of the place and the fauna you’re likely to encounter along the way. Most importantly, plan your route carefully ahead of time, aiming to go around more dangerous areas known to be snake hot spots.
  • Be aware of your surroundings – Keep your eyes on the road and pay attention to your surroundings. Identifying a seemingly innocuous movement can make the difference between life and death. The same goes for detecting a faint hissing sound in time.
  • Get the right equipment – Have a pair of thick and long pants, impervious to snake bites, and a good pair of solid boots.
  • Control your impulses – Stay away from areas with high vegetation, and don’t go out of your way to investigate unusual sounds or movements in the bush nearby. Also, if you do spot a snake, keep your distance and go around. You never know what you’re dealing with.
  • Keep your head up – Most people focus on the terrain they’re walking on and forget that many snake species are arboreal and can easily hang from tree branches. And you most definitely don’t want a venomous snake to bite you by your face.
  • Educate yourself before leaving – Always educate yourself on the different snake species that you’re likely to encounter on your path. Speak to a snake professional, if possible, about the typical snake behavior and how you can protect yourself in case of confrontation. The expert’s input can save your life. Or, at the very least, spare you the pain, discomfort, and risk of infection associated with a non-venomous bite.


Snakes have a variety of behaviors, and they may not all have strict meanings.

When it comes to hissing, make sure you understand the reason behind the snake’s behavior. This is more important in captivity than in the wild, though.

In the wild, if you hear a reptilian hiss, take it as a sign of aggression, and you’ll live longer.

Robert from ReptileJam

Hey, I'm Robert, and I have a true passion for reptiles that began when I was just 10 years old. My parents bought me my first pet snake as a birthday present, which sparked my interest in learning more about them. read more...