Snake behaviors are all too often misconstrued as threatening or aggressive by cult classic horror films and urban legends about pet pythons gone rogue. The reality is that snakes are remarkable animals whose behaviors are driven by instinct and survival, not malice. Although their behaviors are innocuous, it doesn’t make them any less bizarre sometimes.
An example that any snake owner is familiar with is how snakes frequently wrap parts of themselves around food, objects in their environment, and around their owners!
But why do snakes wrap around you?
It’s most likely that your pet snake is wrapping around you to prevent themselves from falling while exploring. A hungry snake may also wrap around you as part of an instinctive feeding response called ‘constricting’. Less common but still possible is that your snake is taking advantage of your body heat to warm itself up.
While wrapping their bodies around you or an object in their environment is an exploratory behavior all snakes engage in, there are times when your snake is wrapping around you for one of the other two reasons. A snake’s body positioning and environmental factors can hold important clues to help us determine the ‘why’ behind your snake’s wrapping behavior.
Reason 1: Stability
The most common reason your snake is wrapping around you is for security. Specifically, your snake is using you as an anchor point where it can loop a coil or hook the tip of its tail to prevent it from taking a nasty fall. In the wild, snakes also do this with trees or structures that they are attempting to climb.
This behavior can be recognized by part of your snake, usually, the lower half, gripping your hand or arm while its upper body and head remain free to probe in different directions and investigate new smells. Although your snake will have a firm hold on you, its grip should feel snug, not uncomfortable and not tight enough to impede circulation to that part of your body. An exploring snake is a relaxed snake and its overall body language will reflect this.
Without arms or legs, snakes have evolved to have unique anatomy specialized to help them hold on and move without the help of limbs. A snake has multiple interconnected, serially repeating, overlapping muscles on either side of their body, which help in locomotion, propelling them forward (or sideways). These sophisticated movements are further made possible by features like several hundred vertebrae (depending on species), mobile ribs, and ventral scales (scutes) along their belly.
Here is a video showing an example of snake locomotion:
Then, what does it mean if your snake is wrapped around you tightly and doesn’t seem to be exploring?
Reason 2: Feeding Response
A feeding response is a snake’s instinctive reaction to the perceived presence of prey. This term is used in reference to a snake striking out of hunger (as opposed to a fear-based response/self-defense). However, in certain types of snakes, this feeding response can go a step beyond striking.
Owners of ball pythons and other popular constrictors are no strangers to seeing their pet bite a prey item, yank it towards its body and rapidly coil around it, squeezing their bodies tightly as they do. As their name suggests, constrictors like pythons and boas utilize their thick, heavy bodies to dispatch prey instead of venom.
Pet constrictors will display this behavior with thawed-out prey items as well before swallowing their food whole.
If your pet constrictor is hungry and you reach in its tank or attempt to handle it, you could be on the receiving end of this bite-and-constrict behavior. While this isn’t a pleasant experience, this does not mean your snake views you as prey. This is an instinctive response driven by hunger. If your snake is not a constrictor, it is most likely not wrapping around you for this reason, though exceptions like king snakes also constrict.
You can reduce the risk of being on the receiving end of a snake’s feeding response (constrictor or otherwise) by avoiding handling food before reaching into an enclosure, not handling a hungry snake, feeding your snake with tongs, and ensuring that your snake is fed on a regular schedule.
Constricting looks different from the exploratory wrapping behavior of a pet snake in that a snake constricting its prey (or, accidentally, you) will have its entire body and head close together, like a coiled spring, whereas a curious snake wrapping itself around you will have a more relaxed body and will freely move its head and upper body to explore its environment.
Reason 3: Warming Up
A third reason your legless companion could be wrapping itself around you is to take advantage of your body heat.
Snakes and humans differ in many ways, but a key difference is the way that humans and snakes regulate their body temperatures. You have probably heard that snakes are ‘cold-blooded’. This doesn’t mean that your snake’s blood is actually cold; it’s a colloquial term that people use for ectotherms.
Ectotherms, like snakes, depend on external heat sources like the sun. Their body temperature changes with the environment they’re in. Snakes can influence their own body temperature a bit by seeking out shade or sun, but ultimately, they are at the mercy of environmental conditions.
Humans are ‘warm-blooded’, or endothermic, organisms. That means our bodies can generate heat through internal chemical reactions without a need to rely on external sources. Our core body temperature stays within a narrow range of degrees regardless of how hot or cold our environment is. In fact, our bodies have mechanisms like sweating and shivering that further help our bodies maintain a stable temperature.
So, with our bodies capable of generating heat and snakes needing to seek out heat sources, is it any wonder that they sometimes wrap their bodies around us for warmth? This heat transfer by means of conduction allows our self-generated body heat to travel from the warm surface of our skin directly to the cooler body of a snake.
While this is a possible reason for your snake wrapping around you, it is less common than the first two reasons. A snake with proper heat sources in their enclosure will very rarely need to seek out warmth in this way.
If your snake wraps around you and feels colder to the touch than normal, make sure to check that their enclosure’s heat sources are working, and that the overall temperature of the room is not too low for them.
It Isn’t A Hug
It’s tempting to peer into the beady-eyed face of a ball python and imagine that your pet is trying to cuddle you, but your snake is not giving you a hug. There is no scientific evidence to support that snakes (or other reptiles) feel affection or perceive the affection of their human companions.
While this doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the moment of closeness with your pet and appreciate what a remarkable animal snakes are, it’s important to make sure that mislabeling their clingy behavior as affection isn’t preventing you from noticing your snake has an unmet need, like food or adequate heat, that requires your attention.
Your Snake Isn’t Trying To Eat You
A pet snake like a ball python or red-tailed boa wrapping around you as an instinctive feeding response does not mean your snake considers you prey or wants to eat you. Most snakes do not regard human beings as possible food sources. We’re just too big and while they’re driven primarily by instinct most snakes are smart enough to realize that they aren’t going to be able to eat an entire person.
In spite of sensationalized headlines or urban myths, only the largest snakes in the world, like the African rock python, green anaconda, Burmese python, and reticulated python, are even capable of eating a human being.
This doesn’t mean that other species can’t cause you harm. It is not advised to drape a hefty species around your neck or handle a large constrictor while it is hungry. Always have a second person standing by while you handle especially big or reactive snakes.
How To Stop Your Snake From Wrapping Around You
First things first, ask yourself: Is your snake wrapping, or is it constricting? These are two different behaviors.
While you can’t make a snake completely stop wrapping around you while exploring, the following will help you remove your snake from you (or another object) if you need to return it to its enclosure:
With either wrapping or constricting, start by trying to peel the snake off by its tail first using calm, deliberate movements. The tail is a snake’s weakest point, making it the easiest place to start. Any panicked or frenzied movements could cause the snake to hold on tighter. As you unwind it from around you, make sure to support its body to avoid putting unnecessary strain on it or making your snake feel unsafe.
If your snake is constricting, consider whether you are contending with a species or scenario that could reasonably put your safety at risk. If the answer is ‘no’, then remove the snake using the tail-first method, understanding that it will take more strength to unwrap a constricting snake than a relaxed snake.
If you can do so without harming your snake, try to get it to release or loosen its bite, as these two reflexes are often linked, releasing a bite linked to the loosening of constricting muscles.
Always have a minimum of a second adult present when handling a larger constrictor. If the situation arises, enlist the help of this person in freeing yourself or use products like rubbing alcohol or vinegar near the snake’s face to make it release its bite. Prevention is key. Handling a hungry or stressed snake increases your chances of having a negative interaction for both you and the snake.
Although you can’t honestly boast that your snake is cuddling you, having your scaley friend wrap around you as a point of security as it ventures out into the unknown is worth bragging about any day.
And while being on the business end of a feeding response is nobody’s definition of enjoyable, nor is it as rewarding as knowing you’re providing your snake with warmth, there’s something to be said for seeing all of these behaviors for exactly what they are: the ingenious survival mechanisms of a mysterious and thrilling animal.