From checkerboard-bellied corn snakes to exotic ball pythons to chubby sand boas, snakes have been making their stamp on the domestic pet world. At first glance, these animals don’t quickly present themselves as emotional or cuddly creatures.
Still, many have found the opposite to be true, finding satisfaction and joy in caring for these incredible reptiles. But, the question remains: do snakes feel the same way in return? Can they actually recognize and remember their owners? The answer is yes…… in a way.
Snakes Recognize You Through Their Senses
Snakes have a highly developed special organ called a vomeronasal organ, or Jacobsen’s organ. This is a sensitive organ above the snake’s mouth that can detect both scents and tastes with a flick of a snake’s tongue.
In the wild, this is used to sense both prey and danger. In captivity, this is one of the ways your snake can tell who you are. They will learn to associate your scent with safety and security the more you handle it.
They are sensing a mixture of pheromones and sweat produced by your body in combination with chemical products you usually use, like soap or perfume. In contrast, snakes can sense danger through the hormones a person’s body produces when they are afraid. Snakes can sense and react with tension or even aggression toward what they see as a threat.
Although a snake’s sense of sight is not as sharp as its sense of smell, it is still a valuable tool in its repertoire. Snakes sense movement, and it stands to reason that they can recognize people who frequent their range of vision. However, this recognition is probably more to acknowledge a person as safe and not predator or prey.
Snakes do not have external, visible ears, but they do possess internal “hearing” structures. Snakes use these to sense vibrations both through solid matter, like the ground or floor, and through the air. People’s voices have different timbres or sound wave patterns, and after enough exposure, snakes may be able to differentiate, in a way, a person’s voice or timbre.
Do Snakes Remember You?
In a way, snakes can remember a person using their abilities of chemical scent, hearing, and sight; however, much of this remembrance comes through the frequency of handling.
Think of this as a kind of out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation. Snakes may come to connect your scent and vocal timbre through consistent handling and talking to it. Still, if a long period of separation occurs, it may take a little bit of time to re-establish familiarity.
Another way snakes remember their owners is that they recognize that particular person as the source of their food. Especially when owners are feeding on a set schedule, the consistent time, sounds, and procedures help the snake associate safe and care with their owner.
Boden Whitmore, the proud owner of a rosy boa, explained his experience. “I definitely think they recognize you. My rosy boa seems more comfortable being active near me vs my family members and prefers not to be held by them. I think it’s mostly due to them seeing you as the food source, though” (Nebraska Snakes and Reptiles 2020).
Some argue snakes do not recognize or remember different people. Still, there is a plethora of anecdotal evidence to support that snakes do, in fact, recognize and remember their owners.
Craig Garten shared that his CA T-pos Sunglow boa favored him over the other members of his family. “I’ve had her for 7 yrs, and she comes to the front of her viv if she sees/smells me. She loves hanging out with me; she doesn’t come to the front when my sons come in or anybody else” (Nebraska Snakes and Reptiles 2020).
Do Snakes Bond with their Owners
Because snakes have a good sense of smell and good hearing, they may recognize and remember their owners. Snake bonding looks a little different from bonding with some of the more furry pets. Some owners describe it as mere tolerance or acceptance, but others describe a far deeper connection.
Danny Ripp, a Nebraska Snakes and Reptiles member, shared her experience with one of her snakes. “My female ball python, if she realizes my boyfriend is in the room, will find a way away from me and head towards him. Her favorite spot is to be on his shoulders” (2020).
Bonding with your snake does depend on your snake’s disposition. Different snake breeds can have vastly different temperaments.
As with anything, snake temperaments or attitudes can vary among the same types of snakes, but it is good to look at the commonalities when setting your expectations for yourself and your snake. For example, ball pythons and corn snakes are generally accepted as being easy to handle and friendly. A carpet python or green snake may be much harder to bond with due to their more aggressive tendencies.
How to encourage bonding with your snake
Bonding with your snake is built on the same principles as bonding with other types of pets: time and patience, consistency, and enrichment.
Time and Patience
All animals are unique, and snakes are no different. Bonding with your snake and getting him or her to truly recognize and remember you will take time and patience. A snake is not like a dog or cat that openly shows affection or the appearance of emotion, but that does not mean they can’t experience comfort, peace, and pleasure in the company of their owners.
Come into each handling session recognizing that bonding with your snake is a slow process, without expectations. Seek to make each session a positive interaction, letting your snake set the pace. When your snake is starting to feel pressured or trapped, it can get irritated.
Dr. Hoppes, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, discusses how a snake shows a negative reaction. “A snake that is feeling aggressive may warn you with a hiss…This can occur when you are forcing your attention on the snake, and if you persist, they may strike out.
Typically snakes hiss or coil when they are feeling hostile, but most pet snakes are not aggressive animals unless threatened” (“Reptile Emotions” 2011). Hoppes goes on to explain that a short, positive experience of even a couple of minutes is far better than an extended session that leaves both you and your snake stressed and irritated.
Consistency and Repetition
Bonding with your snake will benefit from consistency and repetition. When your snake comes to expect you to pick him or her up at the same time, using the same procedure, the repetition will help your snake to make the connection to you, recognizing your scent and your movements.
An example of this is choosing to handle your snake at the same time of day or even speaking in the same tone of voice when you get them out. Consistency will also help your snake to differentiate handling sessions from feeding sessions.
When they come to expect not just food for you, it will help create comfort and ease in both of you. Repetition also helps to develop the bond between you. A snake needs consistent, repeated exposure to your scent and voice, and movements to ensure recognition and remembrance.
Although this may seem contradictory to consistency, they actually work to balance each other. Enrichment is important for your snake to live its best life in your care.
For more about snake enrichment check out our article: Does Your Snake Enjoy Music?
The Smithsonian National Zoo expounds on the importance of enrichment. “Enrichment allows animals to demonstrate their species-typical behavior, gives them the opportunity to exercise control or choice over their environment, and enhances their well-being. Enrichment is just as essential to animal welfare as proper nutrition and veterinary care.”
There are many different types of enrichment for snakes, and most won’t break the bank. Physical enrichment can be any number of new things to crawl on and explore, like clean branches, small cardboard tubes, or pegboards.
Some snake parents even make little sweater tubes for their snakes to explore.
A note of caution: If you are going to be using enrichment toys outside of a snake’s environment, be sure that you and your snake are in a safe place where your snake cannot hurt itself or escape.
Snakes are unique creatures that evoke awe and respect and love from their admirers. They are capable of recognizing and remembering and bonding with their owners after their own fashion. Still, it takes time, patience, consistency, and willingness to provide the best care and enrichment.