If you’ve ever held your snake on your shoulders or allowed them to explore the top of your head, you may have noticed that your pet is quite interested in your hair. Perhaps they sit on it, burrow into your locks, or wrap themselves around your ponytail. What’s up with that?
Why does my snake like my hair? Your snake likes your hair because it provides not only a good source of warmth, but an opportunity to burrow (if you have long hair). Many captive snakes love to burrow and hide and will seize any opportunity to feel more secure outside of their tank.
In this article we’ll take a look at the natural behavior of snakes, including what drives them to hide and seek warmth. We’ll also talk about proper handling of snakes (allowing your pet snake to rest near your head or around your shoulders is not recommended), as well as how to gauge your snake’s mood before you handle them.
Why Snakes Love to Hide
In the wild, snakes have a plethora of natural predators, including racoons, foxes, coyotes, large birds such as hawks and ravens, and even other snakes. Domesticated animals can also pose a threat to wild snakes.
Cats will especially find a wriggly, panic-stricken snake to be the most interesting of playthings. Free-range felines will make a meal out of a snake, if given the right opportunity.
In both the wild and in captivity, snakes will spend most of their day hiding. Wild snakes spend most of their time moving from one hiding spot to another while searching for food. The main goal of these snakes is to eat without becoming a meal themselves.
Snakes will hide under rocks, in the burrows of other animals, under and inside logs, and in whatever tight, secure places they can find.
Being exposed to a wide open space is one of the most stressful situations for a pet snake. These spaces equal vulnerability to predators and in turn, strong feelings of insecurity. This is why many captive snakes will attempt to slither up your pants, down your shirt, or yes, into your hair, when you handle them outside of their enclosure.
Certain types of pet snakes, such as milk snakes, are avid burrowers. Their small, tapered heads, which are perfect for making holes in soil and leaf litter, are indicative of how they have evolved to fit this behavior. If a snake like this feels unsafe during handling time, they will attempt to burrow into the only “substrate” that is currently available to them, otherwise known as your hair.
Please note that burrowing species of snakes (corn snakes are another example) should always be provided with the right type and amount of substrate, to allow them to burrow within their terrarium if they feel so inclined.
Snakes and Warmth
We all know that snakes are ectothermic, or “cold-blooded” creatures. This means that they regulate their body temperature by exchanging heat with their surrounding environment.1
Different species of captive snakes have varying temperature requirements. As a general rule, most snakes need a temperature in the high 70s (°F) to be healthy and comfortable. They also need a basking area that is approximately 10-15° warmer than the rest of their enclosure.
If your snake has been out of their enclosure for an extended period of time, chances are they will start to get too cool.
The most popular average indoor temperature for a home, year round, is 70-75°F.2 This is a little too cool for any reptile. If your snake starts to feel too cold, they will seek a place to warm up, which they might just find atop your head, or wound into your hair. This, in part, is because body hair retains heat.
Even a layer of hair that is as thin as what you may find on your arms or legs can trap air and create a layer of insulation between your skin and the colder temperature of the air around you.3 The thicker and oilier your hair, the better the insulation and warmth it provides.
You can now imagine why the plentiful growth of hair on your head is so appealing to your cold-blooded reptile.
If you’ve had your snake outside of their terrarium for an extended period and you find that they are repeatedly attempting to burrow into your hair, it might be time to put them back under their basking lamp.
Proper Snake Handling
It bears repeating that the safest spot for your pet snake is not near your head or around your shoulders. Snakes are prey animals as well as predators. This means that if your snake feels threatened, or gets startled, they will defend themselves.
Many species of snake tend to aim defensive strikes at the face of a perceived threat. Any quick or unexpected movement on your part — a sneeze, a jerk of the head, or the wrong hand movement — can seem like a threat to your reptile. Snake bites are painful, and you definitely don’t want your face to be on the receiving end of one.
When you do handle your snake, it is very important to gauge their mood before removing them from their enclosure. We’ll discuss this more in the next section. Before you attempt to handle your snake, you should also wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
Next, be sure that your snake is aware of your presence before you attempt to lift them out of their terrarium. You can do this by gently tapping on your snake’s tank before opening it to be sure that your snake is awake.
Move slowly once you’ve opened your snake’s enclosure. First, touch your snake gently but firmly, somewhere on their mid-body. Not only does this let your snake know that you’re there, it also tells them that you are not about to feed them.
If your snake does assume it’s mealtime and they attempt to move toward your hand, mistaking it for a snack, you can gently tap them on the nose with a soft object to discourage their hunting behavior.
If you determine that your snake is ready to be handled, gently slide one hand under their body, about a third of the way down beyond their head, and begin to lift them. Once you begin lifting, support the other half of your snake’s body just beyond their midsection.
Always be sure that the entirety of your snake’s body is being properly supported. If your snake is large enough that they cannot be properly supported by one person, be sure to recruit a handling buddy. (A handling buddy is a good idea in any case, should anything go wrong while your snake is outside of their enclosure.)
When you are handling your snake, confidence is key. Maintain composure and avoid fearful, jerky movements. Your body language and attitude will dictate how your snake responds to you during handling. If you cannot handle your snake with confidence, you shouldn’t be handling them at all.
Gauging Your Pet Snake’s Mood
Before you handle your snake at all, it is a good idea to gauge their mood. Keep in mind that you should never attempt to handle a snake who has recently eaten a meal or is preparing to shed their skin.
Snakes, along with other reptiles, do possess the ability to demonstrate basic emotions. According to Dr. Sharman Hoppes, clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, the main emotions communicated by a snake are fear and aggression, but they can demonstrate pleasure as well.4
You should avoid handling snakes that you deem to be stressed, and keep the handling of new pet snakes to a minimum until they begin to feel more comfortable with you.
A lack of appetite and changes in body language are the clearest indicators that your snake is feeling stressed and should not be handled. A ball python who has curled their body into a tight ball (true to their name) is displaying a clear message that they are afraid or stressed and need to be left along.
Snakes may also act more aggressively when scared or stressed. If you reach into your snake’s enclosure and your snake recoils into an “S” shape, you should not attempt to handle them. If your snake lifts their head a couple inches off the ground and flattens their neck, you should not attempt to handle them. Both of these behaviors indicate a striking position and means your snake is agitated.
A hiss is also a clear warning to any snake handler. Much like a dog’s growl, a hiss means the animal wants to be left alone and if you don’t oblige, they will take more drastic measures, in the form of a strike or bite.
If your snake displays any stressed or agitated behaviors, leave the handling session for another day.
A snake who coils itself into your hair might seem rather cute, but chances are, if your snake is displaying this type of behavior, they are seeking security or warmth. Always be sure to provide proper temperature and hiding spots within your snake’s enclosure, and know when a handling session should end, or should be avoided altogether.