When I was a teenager, my dad had a pet python we named, Kaa (yes it’s a Jungle Book reference!). One of the things Kaa used to do was stare at me a lot back then. As my expertise in snakes grew over the years, I wondered why he looked at me like that. I had to find out why snakes stare at their owners.
A snake usually stares at its owner because it wants to be fed. Other reasons include protecting its environment, sensing heat, and lacking trust. In some cases, it can be a sign of stargazing, which is a dangerous condition requiring medical treatment.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at why snakes stare at their owners and when you should be worried about it!
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Snake Staring Explained
We humans often make the mistake of thinking animals perceive the world the same way as we do. Snakes have their own way of sensing what’s around them. While we rely heavily on our eyes for non-verbal communication, snakes do not.
Snake eyesight is very poor and should be considered a secondary sense for detecting changes in the environment and assessing food up close.
The takeaway is: Your snake might not be staring at anything. It just looks like it is. It might not even be able to see you if you’re just a few feet away. And no, don’t worry if constant staring is a sign your snake is lonely, snakes are quite happy to be on their own.
There are other reasons to think that a snake is staring at you. Sometimes they actually are, and in one particular instance, it can be for a very bad reason.
1. Snake Have No Eyelids
One reason for ‘fake’ staring, is because snakes have no eyelids. They have this hypnotic open-eyed gaze that we instinctively think is the exact same as a human stare.
When a person doesn’t blink, it usually infers that they are hyper-focusing on something in front of them. This isn’t the case with snakes.
When a snake doesn’t blink, it’s because, well, it has no eyelids to blink with! They have a transparent scale that covers the eye to protect it from air and irritants.
2. Stargazing and Snake Staring
If you see your snake staring upward in its enclosure, you might think it’s a cute way of staring at you, but it could be a dangerous condition known as stargazing.
Stargazing occurs when the cervical musculature contracts, forcing the head and neck of your snack to remain in a vertical position. If you are standing over the enclosure, it can look as though they are staring up at you, but they are actually forced into that position by an illness.
Stargazing can be caused by:
- Bacterial and viral infections
- Malnutrition leading to organ dysfunction
- Blood infections
- Head trauma
- Drastic temperature changes
- Poisoning, sometimes attributed to cleaning products and other chemicals in the environment
- Inclusion Body Disease caused by an incurable reptarenavirus. This is infectious and fatal to other snakes. Most commonly seen in pythons and boas.
If your snake shows signs of stargazing, it’s essential that you take your pet to a vet for diagnosis and treatment.
3. Hunger Conditioning In Snakes
Ever heard of Pavlovian conditioning? I won’t bore you with the details, but essentially, it was an experiment that conditioned dogs to associate the ringing of a bell with food being offered.
When the experimenters stopped bringing food to the dogs but still rang the bell, the dogs salivated immediately as if anticipating the presence of food even though it wasn’t there.
I can hear you now saying: ‘What does this have to do with snake staring?’
Well, you are a big bell. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. Your snake has been conditioned just like the dogs in that experiment. They associate you as a cue for food. When you appear, food often follows.
Your snake might be staring at you because it’s waiting for a tasty treat. In fact, some snakes will move to the front of their glass habitat and sit there staring, almost trying to persuade you to give it something to eat.
4. Snakes Can Sense Heat
Remember when I said that snakes use their eyes as a sort of secondary sensing system? That it’s not as important as its other senses? The fact that your snake might not be able to see you with its eyes doesn’t mean it can’t sense you.
Many snakes, including boas, pythons, and vipers, have sensory organs in their faces for ‘seeing’ in the dark. Known as ‘pit organs’, snakes are able to sense the heat coming from other animals.
This allows them to both eat prey and anticipate any dangerous competitors nearby.
Because people don’t often cover their heads and faces indoors, snakes are aware of the heat radiating from the skull. We also expel heat from our mouths every time we exhale.
This is one of the reasons you should be very careful when handling a snake around your face. It might feel the heat and think it’s dinnertime.
5. Trust Issues In Snakes
I know you love your snake, but while it’s an amazing creature, it doesn’t think like we do. Trust is a big thing for us because we’re social animals. Most snake species, however, are solitary creatures. They’ve not evolved to have close relationships.
Your snake might be staring at you because it perceives you as a threat.
Despite this, you can slowly build a trusting relationship with your snake by:
- Handling the snake more often, if it is safe to do so.
- Ensuring that you are calm around the animal. Snakes, like many other predators, can sense fear.
- Use well-tested handling techniques. Don’t just dive in.
- Don’t overdo handling too quickly. Take your time and gently increase the amount of time you handle your snake over a few weeks.
- Be present around the outside of the tank. If you don’t often sit in the same room as your snake, try doing this more often so that it becomes accustomed to your presence other than at feed time.
Always remember that snakes have their own minds and impulses, so be careful while handling, especially in the beginning. Even a docile snake can become agitated or aggressive.
6. A Snake Protecting its Environment
Snakes are not generally thought to be territorial. While more study is required to definitively prove this, it’s a pretty safe bet that snakes in the wild move around a lot and don’t hold onto territory the way a tiger would, for example.
However, your snake isn’t in the wild. What’s fascinating about animal behavior is that animals in captivity can exhibit unique, learned behaviors that they wouldn’t normally have.
Your pet snake may become defensive of its location simply because it is the animal’s entire world. This is where it feeds. If it’s being defensive, then it will look straight at you. So this can be another reason for snake staring.
There’s great debate in the community about this behavior. The reason for this is that some snakes seem aggressive inside their enclosures, but then are docile outside of them.
If it’s not territorial behavior, then it could be a stress response in some animals from being inside a smaller space. If you see this a lot, it might be worthwhile investing in a large habitat and increasing handling times.
I hope you found this article on snake staring interesting. Snakes are amazing creatures, and they do have a powerful stare. Just don’t be disappointed if it isn’t out of love!