Q&A: Finding Garter Snakes in the House

A couple of questions from people who have discovered baby garter snakes in their homes in the dead of winter, have read my article about garter snakes in winter, and have still more questions.

Debbie wrote on a cold day in January:

My parents live in a rural area around Neepawa, Manitoba. It’s one of the coldest days in January here, -49 with the windchill. My mom has found a very small green and yellow garter snake alive on her kitchen floor in the early evening. How did it get into the house and how do we get rid of it? Also, is there a chance this is only a baby and there is a larger snake somewhere with more babies? She also has a small dog and three kittens. Any advice will be appreciated.

I wrote back:

You’re probably dealing with a baby snake that couldn’t find anywhere else to hibernate; it probably got in through a crack in the foundation or something. Baby garter snakes don’t stay with their mothers; they scatter after birth. In fact, baby snakes tend to hibernate in different spots than adults do, at least in Manitoba. So it’s not a given that there’s a whole “nest” of snakes waiting for your parents, unless a bunch of other snakes independently decided that their house was the only place they could find to hibernate.

Getting rid of it is going to be a problem in January, as I indicated in my article. Put it outside, and you’ll kill it. But keeping it may not be any easier, either. You mention the dog and kittens: I should point out that cats and dogs are more of a danger to snakes than the other way around (my two cats would kill any snake of mine that got out, and some of my snakes are quite large).

If it were me, I’d find some way of keeping it over winter and then release it in the spring. But you’re not me.

Next, Heather wrote last night about a baby snake that didn’t make it:

I’m in South Dakota, Sioux Falls to be exact. Yesterday we found a baby garter snake in the basement … very slow, cold and damaged on the tail from one of the cats. Once I warmed him up he was OK, and active. I cleaned out an old plexiglass 5 gallon aquarium, put in a dry washrag and a bowel of water. Today I went to Petco and got a heat pad, and bedding and a few crickets. Set him up and gave him crickets. Two hours later, I find him dead. He’s limp, unresponsive, but still “loose” not stiff. Pretty sure he’s dead since he’s so limp. I am really upset … what did I do wrong?

My response:

Apart from the fact that garter snakes don’t eat crickets, which wouldn’t have made any difference in the short time frame you had him, I can’t see anything obvious you did wrong that would lead to him dying.

The problem with snakes is that quite often they give you no warning that anything is seriously wrong with them until they very suddenly drop dead. (And yes: dead snakes are quite limp.) I know how upsetting it can be to have to face, and how confusing it can be when it really comes out of nowhere.

In this case, I can only make some guesses: the damage may have been more severe than it looked, or the snake may not have had a good hibernation and was on the verge of starvation — already too far gone — when you found him. We’ll never know.

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