4 Reasons Why Snakes Hiss

Corn snake in hand
If your pet snake is hissing, it's best to stop handling it.

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The sound of a snake hissing is unmistakable and usually makes you freeze in your tracks. If your pet snake is hissing, you might wonder why. Humans don’t “speak snake,” but understanding the reasons why your snake hisses can help make it feel safe and comfortable—and protect you from a potential snake bite.

All creatures in the animal kingdom communicate, either through sound, body language or both. Similar to a dog’s growl, a snake’s hiss generally means “back off!” Snakes usually hiss when they feel threatened, angry, or annoyed. 

How Do Snakes Hiss?

Snakes are able to hiss thanks to a structure in the throat called the glottis. The glottis is a hole at the bottom of the snake’s mouth that connects to its windpipe. The glottis allows a snake to continue to breathe when it’s swallowing a large prey meal. Inside the glottis is a small piece of cartilage. If a snake exhales forcibly, that small piece of cartilage in the glottis vibrates, making the hissing sound we are all familiar with.   

Why Do Snakes Hiss?

All species of snakes can hiss, but some snakes naturally hiss more than others. Snakes living in the wild tend to hiss more readily than snakes in captivity. This is because wild snakes typically find themselves in danger more frequently than pet snakes, so they are used to reacting to uncertain or dangerous situations with a hiss. 

Fun fact: Snakes don’t hiss at other snakes to “talk” to each other. Hissing is only intended to be heard by potential non-snake predators. In fact, snakes can’t even hear other snakes hissing. This is due to the frequency of the hissing sound, which is too high for snakes to hear.

Here are some reasons your snake hisses.

Your Snake Is Afraid

A pet snake might hiss of you catch it off guard, for instance, picking it up when it did not realize you were about to do that. To avoid startling your pet snake, always approach it unhurriedly, and use slow, obvious hand movements that indicate to the snake that you are about to touch it. Baby snakes may hiss more than adult snakes because they are still getting used to being handled by humans. 

Your Snake Is Annoyed 

Snakes are not always happy about being handled, and a snake will let you know—with a hiss—that it is not in the mood to be held. If you have been handling your snake too much recently, it might hiss to tell you it needs a break from being touched and held. In this case, simply leave your snake alone for a while before attempting to touch it again.

 Your Snake Is Digesting its Meal

There are some specific times that experts recommend you should not handle your snake. For instance, if your snake has just consumed a large meal, it will want to be left alone while it digests the food. Avoid picking up your snake after it has eaten until you know it has finished digestion. This may be days or weeks depending on the species of snake and how large a meal it consumed.

Your Snake Is About to Start Shedding 

Another time experts recommend leaving your snake alone is when the snake is about to start shedding. Snakes shed their skins several times a year (usually three or four times annually). During its shedding time, a snake may feel upset or nervous, especially since its vision may be obstructed from the shedding process. If you know your snake is about to shed its skin, or if your snake is in the process of shedding its skin, give it some time off from handling to avoid upsetting your snake.

What to Do if Your Snake Is Hissing

As previously mentioned, hissing is a form of communication. If your snake is missing at you, it means it’s feeling afraid, upset or annoyed. Any time your snake hisses at you, stop handling it and give it some time alone. If possible, try to identify the reason your snake is hissing so you can remove the trigger and help your snake feel comfortable and happy.