This page explains how to handle a garter snake, and how to deal with garter snake bites.

Many garter snakes, particularly if they are captive bred, are gentle and do not mind being handled, and handling them is simply a matter of picking them up and letting them explore your hands.

If you have experience handling other snakes, it’s important to remember that garter snakes are not constrictors. They don’t hang on the same way that a corn snake or a boa might. This means two things. One, you do have to give the snake a bit more support: since it can’t hang on the same way, you have to pay a bit more attention and make sure it doesn’t fall. And two, garter snakes tend to slide through your fingers rather than curl around them (though there are exceptions, including some wandering and Butler’s garter snakes I’ve known). I’ve had garter snakes move forward from one hand to the other as I went hand over hand.

It’s easy to get the hang of after a while — at least if your garter snake is tame.

But some garter snakes are not tame. And while some of them will settle down with regular exposure to people and gentle handling, some never will. Handling these snakes can be a bit of a challenge. You might not do so for pleasure, but there will be times when you have to take the snake out of its cage, for example, for feeding or cleaning.

A scared garter snake may react in several ways to being handled.

It may thrash in your hands — I’ve known ribbon snakes to do a pretty good imitation of a crocodile’s death roll. This is where providing support becomes important: you don’t want to have the snake explode out of your hands.

It may musk on you, emitting a foul-smelling fluid from its vent, along with whatever feces it has available. It’s smelly and unpleasant but not serious. (I’ve been messing about with garter snakes since I was eight years old, and I’ve long since gotten used to the smell of musk.) Simply wash it off.

And it may bite you, though that happens least often in my experience. Garter snakes are much more likely to musk than bite, and I’ve known some fairly unpleasant snakes that thrashed and musked but never once bit.

Biting is usually not serious and the snake is unlikely to hang on, especially if it’s biting in self-defence. But you may encounter a garter snake that is perpetually hungry — and somewhat confused. For some reason they think your hand is food and do their best to eat it. (I have a couple of Red-sided Garter Snakes like this.) Getting them to let go is a little harder.

If the snake does hang on, push its head forward to disengage its backward-pointing teeth. Be as gentle as you can. You don’t want to injure the snake’s mouth in the process: that can lead to mouth infections that are both serious and difficult to treat.

Some people have had reactions to garter snake saliva. A few have had serious reactions requiring medical attention. A garter snake has a Duvernoy’s gland and it is believed that this makes garter snake saliva at least somewhat toxic. Researchers who have been repeatedly bitten by garter snakes have become hyperallergic. In practice, it appears that a garter snake needs to get a good bite on you and chew for a while for there to be any reaction. Quick bites, even if they break the skin, do not seem to be significant. Don’t be alarmed, but be careful.

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