Have you ever wondered why your snake seems to be licking you? Reptiles, amphibians, and many mammals (including humans) have a Jacobson’s organ or vomeronasal organ (VNO), which uses chemoreceptors to send signals to the brain to better identify different chemicals or smells.
When your snake licks you, it is most likely smelling you by using the chemicals in the air and analyzing them through their vomeronasal organ. This olfactory sense allows them to gather more information about their environment. In other cases, snakes may lick you accidentally as a result of poor eyesight
This is completely normal behavior that snakes exhibit to analyze their environment, but can it ever indicate something more?
Let’s get a whiff of the possible reasons your snake may be licking you.
What Does It Mean When a Snake Licks You?
Snakes use their tongues to smell their environment using the VNO. Snakes will also lick objects (sometimes people) to gain additional information about their environment and the smells around them.
This is a video of what it looks like when a snake licks someone:
Reason 1: Snakes May Lick You if They Have Poor Eyesight
Most snake species do not see very well, which is why smelling by tongue flicking and licking is a predominant sense that is used. Just like humans, snakes have cells in their eyes known as “cones” which allow them to see in some color (though less than us) but also allow them to see ultraviolet light. Depending on if a snake hunts in the daytime or lives a nocturnal life and hunts at night, they will have adapted to allow different amounts of ultraviolet light in.
When a snake that normally hunts or is active at a certain time of day tries to see at the opposite time (day/night) they may not be able to adjust to the amount of light and their vision may be impacted. Depending on the natural history of your snake and the light conditions, they may be licking you to gain information at times when their vision may be poor.
Reason 2: Snakes May Lick Objects When They Are Shedding Due to Poor Vision
Snakes will also have poor vision during shedding. You probably have never seen a snake wink at you or blink. That is because snakes do not have eyelids. During the shedding process, snakes shed their eye caps, or special scales over their eyes that are also known as spectacles.
A snake’s eyes will appear blue or cloudy during shedding (commonly referred to as blue phase) when liquid forms under the spectacle before it is shed. This may happen before or after the rest of their skin starts to get saggy and loose. During this time vision is compromised and snakes will depend on other senses and may be more sensitive to changes in their environment. Here is a video showing the cloudy eyes of a rat snake:
Reason 3: Your Snake May Be “Seeing” Heat From Your Body
Some snakes have a pit organ on their face where they “see” infrared radiation or heat from objects. This is important not only for detecting their next meal, but for protection against identifying predators.
Snakes are also ectotherms, meaning they are dependent on external sources of heat to maintain their body temperature. Having a sense that detects heat would sure be helpful if you are seeking a warm environment to thrive in. If a snake is able to detect your heat, they may lick to smell you to see if you are a predator, prey, or a comfortable place to keep warm.
Your Snake Isn’t Licking You to Taste You
Snakes do not have “taste-buds” or receptors that signal taste. Instead, when snakes lick or flick their tongue, they are gathering those chemicals from the air and depositing them on the roof of their mouth which is where the start of the VNO is located. A snake’s forked tongue allows them to retrieve information on two areas of the tongue to deposit onto the pad of that super-smelling organ. You will see this forked tongue that fits perfectly into the area on the roof of their mouth when a snake licks you.
Why Do They Use Their Tongue To Smell If They Have a Nose?
You are probably wondering why snakes don’t use their nostrils. They do use them to breathe and to smell, but as you can imagine the sense of smell and the information processed through the VNO is far superior, so that is why they use their tongues to smell instead.
Is Your Snake Going to Bite You When They Licks You?
Snakes will use tongue flicks and licking to detect prey. As their dominant sense you may have seen them licking before ingesting their meal. If a snake licks you, it doesn’t mean they are sizing you up as their next meal, but you cannot rule out that they may strike or bite if they are confused or interpret your smell as prey.
When holding your snake, it is always a good idea to wash your hands, especially if you are handling other pets or even your snake’s food. When a snake licks you and your smell is like prey, they may bite on instinct. This does not indicate aggression; this is second nature and a natural response to the smell or similar smell to that of prey. If a snake is fearful, aggressive, or biting, they will typically strike without first licking or gathering more information beforehand- some species may give a warning hiss first but that’s not true of all snakes.
Is Your Snake Licking You Because They Love You?
We like to think that our pets (including the ones with scales) are as attached to us as we are to them. The truth is that a snake is probably not licking you because they are showing affection. Many snakes appear comfortable and tolerate human affection (to a point).
They may also understand and trust their food source or warmth, but snakes lack the capacity or intellect to understand or express emotions. Regardless of if they are showing affection at times, licking is not a sign to look for when trying to understand if they can process feelings because the use of the tongue to process smell through the vomeronasal organ is well studied and documented.
Should You Ever Worry If Your Snake Is Licking You?
In short, no this is a normal behavior in snakes. However, if your snake’s behavior ever changes dramatically and you notice them licking and tongue flicking more often without an explanation such as a change in their environment, temperature, or seasonal changes you may want to check in with a qualified reptile veterinarian.
You can find a board certified veterinarian that specializes in reptile and amphibian medicine by visiting the “Find a vet” tab on the website for the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians (ARAV).
Should You Let Your Snake Lick Your Face?
Snakes and other reptiles are carriers of Salmonella bacteria; thus, it is really never a good idea to have them in your face or near your mouth- and that includes kissing. Also, in the cases where a snake may lick you and smell a predator, prey, or a confusing scent you may get bitten in the face accidentally (even if your snake trusts you and you trust your snake). So, even though this is a natural behavior, it is best to refrain from allowing a snake to “kiss” your face.
In general, your snake is licking you to smell. This is part of a more complex olfactory (smell) process where they use chemicals in the air to learn more about their environment. Typically, this is completely normal behavior and should not warrant concern.