Can Pet Snakes Recognize Their Owners?

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You certainly may recognize and love your snake, but does he recognize you? The bond between a boy and his snake is the stuff of legend. I was curious to see if reptiles have any cognitive ability to distinguish us from other humans so I did a little research, and here is what I found.

Can pet snakes recognize their owners? Snakes may recognize you in the sense that they understand you play some important function in their life, but they do not feel any familiarity towards humans as a dog or a cat would.

Snakes don’t see us like other mammals would see us, but there is a lot of debate on what a snake does think about its owner. If snakes don’t “recognize” us, then how do they feel about us?

Think Like a Snake

In order for us to understand how a snake feels, we need to get inside the head of a snake for a moment. So let’s do a little role-playing.

Imagine for a second that you are a snake. Oh boy, do you like eating rats. No legs? No problem. What is your first reaction? Probably that your skin’s too tight, or that you have an itch and can’t reach it. Darn, life is difficult without arms.

In reality, any snakes first thought will probably be about food. After locating and devouring a meal, a snake will then turn his thoughts to more food. Then about more food, and then somewhere down the line he will think about mating, but then right after that (can you guess?) more food. You get the picture.

It is hard to understand the psychology of a snake because we are not reptiles. As mammals, we are social creatures. No matter how anti-social someone believes themselves to be, we crave companionship. It is hard to picture a world where that need suddenly vanishes, but such is the world of a snake.

Snakes feel no need to be “social” whatsoever. The only reactions they have with others snakes (depending on the species), is through mating. To a snake, the only role a human plays is that of a dispenser of food.

What Does My Snake Think of Me?

So if my snake doesn’t recognize me as a friend, how does he view me? An excellent question! Let’s examine that for a minute.

While snakes don’t see us as buddies, as a dog would, that doesn’t mean they don’t know who we are. Snakes have incredibly developed senses. Before you even walk into your room, a snake can smell you coming. He is likely able to distinguish if you were at the office or the bakery and for how long. He will be able to tell if you rode your bike like you swore you would, or caved in (again) and called a cab.

In that sense, he recognizes you when compared to the scent of, say, your mother. However, this information isn’t very useful to snakes. Adam Denish, a veterinarian at Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Philadelphia and Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, Pennslyvania said,

“Unlike domesticated dogs and cats, reptiles have retained their primitive characteristics.”

https://www.petmd.com/reptile/care/can-your-reptile-bond-with-you

These “primitive characteristics” being a focus on only the most basic needs of survival, such as eating, resting, and drinking. Social cues, like knowing you called a cab, are not very useful to a snake and are discarded.

So, a snake may not see you as a social “friend” per say, but that doesn’t mean you are not important in the life of a snake.

I have read stories of snake breeders that say their snakes are completely immobile until the night before feeding day when they get increasingly restless. It is almost as if the snake has its own feeding scheduled memorized, or can almost smell you thinking about thawing their dinner out.

Similar stories have been told of other reptile caregivers as well. While snakes don’t show much cuddly love, there is a healthy mutual respect that builds between snake and owner. A real relationship built on trust.

I recently wrote an article specifically about whether or not snakes can be affectionate to their owners. I also discuss the question of whether or not they can be recognized, as well as if they enjoy being pets. Find the article here.

Why Your Pet Snake May Not Like You

There are a lot of things that you can do to get a snake to think highly of you. Again, you won’t find yourself cuddling with your snake, but you can definitely still have a positive rewarding relationship.

The first thing to consider is that all animals have their own personalities. As mammals, we are more keen on understanding how other mammals feel, but with a little effort, we can understand our reptilian friends.

Snakes can feel fear and anxiety just like we do. In fact, stress is known to cause a variety of health problems in snakes, making them more prone to disease, or even curbing their appetites. Some ways that you may be putting pressure on your snake, thus harming your relationship, are:

  • Inadequate tank size. A cramped cage can make a snake feel claustrophobic. Different species of snake require different amounts of room. If your snake appears twitchy and uncomfortable, give him some more room to stretch out.
  •  Other snakes living in the same enclosure. Having any sort of competition around can seriously stress snakes out. I think we can relate. Snakes feel much the same. Consider buying an extra tank. It isn’t too expensive, and can greatly improve the mood of your snake.
  • Aggressive handling. I think we all enjoy going for a walk outside of our house now and again. Snakes are much the same way, but if you take them out of their enclosure just to throw them around like a toy, I guarantee you your boa won’t feel so rosy when she sees you. Be gentle, just like you would with any pet. Snakes can’t whimper when their hurt like other pets, so be careful you’re not being rough.

But those are only a few of the reasons why your snake may be upset. If your snake still seems despondent, consider contacting a professional.

So, now we understand a few reasons why a snake may be upset at his owner, but what can we do to create more positive interactions?

How to Get a Snake to Positively Recognize You

So you’ve bought your snake a bigger tank, you have kicked out all of his annoying snake neighbors (or, Sneighbors, as I like to call them) and you have stopped using him in your make believe WWE matches, but he still doesn’t seem to like you.

After cutting out the negative, what are a few positive interactions that you can do to spruce up your relationship with your snake, and get him to positively recognize you? Let’s look at a few examples.

  • Try handling him more often. In the previous section, we mentioned be more gentle to your snake, but how often do you pick him up and let him coil around your arms? Snakes seem to enjoy your body warmth and a little time out of their tank is good for them, so don’t be afraid to take Ol’ Mr. Slithers out of his cage every now and then. Do snakes enjoy being stroked or pet? Here, you can find an article I wrote about whether or not snakes enjoy being petted, and how to make them more accustomed to being handled.
  • Take your snake outside. I’m not advocating that you take your snake to a dog park or anything, but many people report that they feel their snakes get immense enjoyment from slithering around the backyard every now and again. Just be careful. Snakes are very good at hiding and are prone to getting into trouble. You don’t want your neighbor calling the cops when he finds your ball python exploring his pantry.
  • Switch up their habitat. You may experience the undeniable urge to completely clean and rearrange your room, or organize your desk and dresser drawers immaculately. Mr. Slithers is no exception. A little mix up in your snake’s enclosure could do him some good. Consider adding a fake tree or some additional hide boxes. While we are on the subject when was the last time you changed the substrate in the tank?

Now that we have discussed how a snake may perceive you as the primary caregiver, let’s explore how a snake may see the world around it.

How a Snake Recognizes the World

Clearly, snakes do not understand the world as do you or I.  They don’t even understand it as other mammals would, so what exactly does a snake “recognize” and how does it know?

Snakes have all the same senses as humans (with the exception of taste. Which is just terrible in my opinion), but with some unique modifications that give them super-powered abilities.

We have already briefly discussed a snake’s sense of smell, which is easily one of the most powerful senses a snake has. Similar to humans, a snake breathes in airborne scents into a nasal opening located in their skulls.

When a snake flicks its tongue, it gathers information and sends them to not one, but two olfactory chambers for processing. The amazing power of a snake’s sense of smell lets them sense other animals for as far as the scent is carried on the wind for potential miles.

Snakes can also hear as well, although they don’t have outer ears like a lot of mammals do. When a sound wave hits the skin of the snake, the vibration is sent through the muscle and skin until it reaches the ear bone found at the base of the skull.

The vibration is then processed by the brain. Some species of snake can even interpret the size of approaching animals through vibrations they pick up through the ground.

A snakes sight is very different from that of humans. We perceive mostly in color, a trait most likely developed to help us judge whether a fruit is ready to eat or not. A snake’s vision also developed to help snakes with their food. As we know, snakes are predators, and their sight aims at helping them catch and eat prey.

The eyes of different species of snake vary greatly from one to another. Snakes that spend most of their time underground, for example, have much simpler eyes than snakes that spend their time above ground hunting. Snakes that spend a lot of time in the dark have much simpler eyes, that see only low-light fuzzy images. Kind of like a very old, blurry black and white picture.

Snakes that live in brighter places tend to have more complex eyes that allow them to see clearly and with amazing depth perception. Large snakes, like boas or anacondas, have little divots built into their faces called pit organs.

Pit organs help a snake “see” heat from objects in front of them. They operate much like infrared goggles. This special tool helps them sense pray, even when hunting at night.

As you can see, most of a snake’s senses are developed to help them recognize and catch their next meal. Generally not social creatures, snakes are loners finely tuned for hunting.

Conclusion

So, do snakes recognize their owners? Why, yes they do! But maybe not in the way you would think. Their finely tuned senses help them distinguish you from other humans, and the familiarity of your smell may even put them at ease, but they do not see you the way a dog or a cat would.

That doesn’t mean you aren’t still a big part of your pet’s life though, nor does it mean you can’t bond with your snake. Your relationship will just be different than it would be with another pet. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about your snake.

They are still magnificent creatures that need to be taken care of. Don’t give up on your snake. Keep spending time with him and you are sure to have a rewarding relationship.

Related Questions

Can a snake recognize its name? Snakes hear very different from what us humans can. Language as a whole will go way over your snakes head. Sorry, it looks like you won’t be able to speak Parseltongue to your snake after all.

Can snakes feel joy? Snakes can feel a variety of emotions, but their two dominate ones appear to be fear and anxiety. Some snakes appear to become excited when offered food, and others seem to enjoy being stroked, but beyond that, who knows? Certainly, they feel some sort of instinctual reward for eating, drinking, etc. But can that be compared to the complex joy that humans experience? I’m not sure.

Do snakes have personalities?  Because snakes are so different from us, I suppose it is difficult to distinguish unique traits in one snake from another snake of the same species. However, the fact all snakes behave differently under the same circumstances indicate that snakes do indeed have unique personalities.

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