Why do snakes eat themselves? (or bite their own tails)

The ancient Ouroboros depicts a snake eating itself. In reality, it is less grandiose. Usually, it is a result of confusion, misplaced aggression, or ill health. Is it ever deliberate? Let’s take a closer look!

A snake biting its own tail is not taking a new beginning. Incidents of this are symptomatic of ill health, confusion or high stress levels. One thing is for sure: auto-cannibalism is never a good sign. If your snake is doing it, don’t just stand there—do something! If you don’t know what to do… read on.

Biting the tail: Is it common? Is it normal?

Short answer: No, this is not normal behavior. If your pet snake is exhibiting this behavior, something needs to be done!

Snakes normally recoil when they realize they’re doing it. It’s an accident, and should not recur. Anything more than a short, accidental nip is exceptionally rare. If your snake is sinking its teeth in and not letting go, take the snake to a specialist immediately.

If this behavior becomes habitual – even if it is just a tiny nip each time – there is something wrong with the snake. If this is your snake, there is something wrong with your set-up or animal husbandry practice. Scroll down to How can I get my snake to stop biting itself? below if you need answers straight away.

Causes: Why would a snake try to eat its own tail?

Short answer: Because it’s confused, ill, stressed, or extremely hungry.

Overexcitement and Confusion

A common explanation is the high level of excitement, and confusion, surrounding food. This can present in various ways:

Hunger can disorient a snake, just like in humans.

Have you ever been really really hungry? Isn’t it difficult to make decisions sensibly, or behave rationally, when you are? Well, it’s the same for snakes. A confused snake might attack something purely because it resembles food. Sometimes, unfortunately, that includes itself.

This is more common in captivity than in the wild, due to the restrictive nature of an enclosure, and the lack of hunting opportunities. Snakes are natural predators—take away the prey element, and they can feel a bit lost.

Similarly, a desperate snake might eat itself for the perceived nourishment it would gain. It is a survival mechanism.

In captivity, this is most likely a result of under-feeding, or an erratic feeding schedule. In the wild, ill health may prevent a snake from hunting, and consequently make it desperately hungry. A snake’s brain is reactive, more than proactive, so it will react to extreme hunger by eating the closest thing.

Wild snakes eat a lot in one sitting, because they don’t know when the next meal will be. This instinct can rear its head in a captive environment, causing the snake to enter a state of feeding frenzy after eating just one mouse—only, without any more food on the table.

Kingsnakes and rat snakes, which are cannibalistic, can mistake their own tail for that of another snake, and bite it for that reason. These snakes do ‘caudal luring’, or quick tail wagging, to attract their prey, which their own reactive brains can respond aggressively to.

Another cause of confusion is reduced eyesight during shedding. Snakes routinely shed their outer layer of skin, and during this time they have diminished eyesight. Keep an eye on your snake while it’s going through this process, as it might confuse its tail for a predator!

Finally, during shedding, the snakeskin might release the smell of the previous meal. Stirring up this odor might confuse it into thinking the shed skin is prey. There have been cases of a snake eating the partially shed skin, and ending up with its own tail in its mouth.

Ill Health

If a snake is suffering from a neurological condition, it might just turn on itself. Similarly, if a snake is getting towards the end of its life, and/or is in chronic pain, it may begin biting itself.

The best way to remedy this in the case of a pet snake is to take it to a vet straight away. It may be remediable, or it may not.

A wild snake biting itself should be avoided. Its behavior will likely be erratic and unpredictable, and it may be suffering from an infectious disease.

Too Much Stress

This is much more common in captivity than in the wild. In many ways, snakes are fragile. They require very precise, balanced conditions. Any divergence in temperature or humidity from what they require can lead to stress, which may cause the snake to bite itself. Factors to take into consideration include:

Terrarium/enclosure size: too small and the snake can feel cramped—it should be able to stretch out entirely within its enclosure.

Too much handling: snakes are solitary, and should not be handled too much!

Too little distinction between light and dark: this can be very disorienting for a snake, whether it is diurnal or nocturnal.

An inconsistent feeding schedule: if a snake is fed too infrequently, it will become hungry; if it is fed too often, this can also be very confusing!

An inadequate substrate: different snakes like to lie on, and burrow under, different materials—give your snake something organic and natural, and do your research into what it likes best.

Aggression

In these cases, the snake in question is generally mistaking its own tail for that of an aggressor or predator. Snakes are solitary, so the presence of an ostensibly alien reptile can automatically trigger a defensive response.

If your snake’s terrarium, or enclosure, is too small, this can precipitate acts of misplaced aggression. Snakes need enough space to stretch out to full length. If your snake has to curl or bend itself to fit, it might look at its tail and think, “Ah! Snake!”

Which snake is most prone to biting itself?

The American rat snake (pantheropis obseleta) is probably the most commonly self-cannibalistic snake. There have been at least two cases of American rat snakes biting themselves to death.

Do rattlesnakes bite themselves?

Rattlesnakes have been known to bite themselves when in a state of high excitement. Under such conditions, the rattle of its own tail could trigger a defensive response, such as aggressive biting.

Can a snake die from biting itself?

Short answer: Yes, but it’s very rare.

Most snakes have a resistance to the venom they produce, but not all have complete immunity. At any rate, it is rare that a snake will release enough toxins to do itself serious harm.

There is also the puncture wound to consider. This can be more serious than the toxin itself, especially if a snake receives a bite from a closely related subspecies, to which it has a resistance. Deep punctures can result in serious bleeding. Loss of blood is a risk; for this reason, captive snakes should definitely not share an enclosure.

You may think that your pet snake would like some company, but chances are it wouldn’t appreciate it. A happy snake is one that has tunneled out of view, or is concealed in its den.

Typically, if a snake does bite itself, it will realize its mistake immediately, and refrain from repeating the action. So, incidents of snakes eating themselves to death are actually incredibly rare. However, if it has a neurological condition, this barrier of self-preservation can be bypassed, and they can keep biting.

How much pain do snakes feel? Do they even feel pain?

Short answer: Yes, snakes feel pain.

Snakes’ brains warn them of danger, much as our brains do. Snakes are very instinctual animals—acting on innate impulses which have developed as survival mechanisms for millions of years. Remember, snakes have been around for a lot longer than us.

Snakes feel pain from overheating, too much pressure, unsuitable humidity, and skin punctures. So, if a snake bites its own tail more than once within a short space of time, it is particularly worrying. Their brains are supposed to tell them to stop!

Do snakes eat their own eggs?

Yes!

Why?

Short answer: Because they’re really hungry.

They do this to for nutrition, but only if they are desperate. If they are very hungry and require immediate nourishment, for example after reproduction, then they are more likely to eat their own eggs. Exhaustion and laziness can also lead to oophagy (or ovophagy), which means ‘egg eating’.

If the eggs are the nearest source of nourishment, and the snake needs nourishment, it will eat the eggs. It is a matter of survival.

How can I get my snake to stop biting itself?

Short answer: Make sure you’re looking after it right!

Snakes are particular. Make sure you’re providing the optimum conditions for your snake. Every breed requires slightly different conditions. If problems persist, consult a specialist.

As a rule, there are a few things that you can adjust or change.

Temperature

Snakes are ectothermic, meaning cold-blooded. They do not regulate their body temperature internally, so it needs to be regulated externally. This is why they slither into cool, shaded places in the wild when the sun is high in the sky.

If your snake’s enclosure is too hot or too cold, this can adversely affect its wellbeing and mental health. It can become disoriented and confused. If in doubt about your particular species/subspecies, check online or consult a specialist. Place your heat pads, or other heat regulators, in different places to ensure optimum temperature levels!

Overheating can also increase a snake’s metabolic rate, making it feel hungry when it’s not, and giving it the desire to eat whatever is available.

Self-cannibalistic snakes can be helped by reducing the temperature—turn off heat lamps and spray the snake with cool water. This might lower stress levels and help the snake see the light.

Light

Snakes need to know when it’s daytime and when it’s night time. An easy way to organize this is to place your enclosure in a room with a window. If that isn’t possible, or if you live somewhere with exceptionally long/short days, use artificial lighting to emulate the day-night cycle.

Substrate (the material lining the base of the enclosure)

Different snakes like different substrates—check online or ask a specialist for advice on which substrate is best suited to your snake.

Noise level

Many snakes like quiet conditions. If your enclosure is in a room with a lot of noise, consider moving it to a quieter space!

Remember: snakes’ jaws and teeth have evolved in such a way that they are very good at guiding food in, but not good at guiding it out. They are not evolutionally wired to ‘let go’. If you have a self-cannibalistic snake that will not release, rush it to a veterinarian immediately.

Should I pull its jaws apart?

Short answer: It’s probably best not to.

Importantly, if your snake is biting its tail, do not get physically involved. Do not attempt to separate the snake’s jaws from its tail. Wait for it to stop and adjust its conditions. If you involve yourself physically, you could further agitate the snake, and it may well transfer its aggressions to your hand. Or, it might stop momentarily, but it’s stress levels could remain very high.

What is Ouroboros?

You may recognize these symbols showing snakes eating themselves. The ancients depicted a serpent eat its own tail, called the ouroboros.

Ouroboros is a Greek word which translates to ‘tail eater’, but its mythological meaning relates to the cycle of life—creation out of destruction.

This image dates as far back as 1600BC, in ancient Egypt, and has to do with the partnership between two gods, Ra and Osiris – of the sun and of the underworld. There is also the great Norse serpent-god Jörmungandr, a sea beast so gigantic that it encircles the entire world, and holds its own tail in its mouth.

In real life, however, a snake biting its own tail is not mythical, or godlike—it is an issue that needs to be solved!

Conclusion

To repeat: if your pet snake exhibits this behavior repeatedly, speak to a specialist. Something needs to change, as soon as possible!

It is uncommon for a snake to bite itself, but is only a cause for real concern if it bites itself over and over again, or if it is actually eating itself. There are some videos online which illustrate how severe this problem can be. But be advised, they are not for the faint-hearted!

Remember, you have a duty of care for your snake. You are responsible for its wellbeing. If the problem persists, you need to do something—do not just wait for it to fix itself.

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