Snakes as pets? Expert advice for parents

Parent24 asked local expert Arno Naude a few questions about the dos and don’ts of keeping snakes. Here are his helpful tips on whether your home and family are suitable for snakes as pets, and, if so, how to go about it:

Why do you keep snakes instead of, say, cats or dogs?

Some people would prefer to keep a pet which is a low maintenance animal and does not require constant attention. People who are allergic to hair also rather get something like a snake or lizard to look after. Many of us cannot get out into the wild as often as what we would like and would like to bring a bit of it home although we do not collect from the wild.

What kinds of snakes would you say do not make good family pets?

Any venomous snake, especially an exotic snake because we don’t have antivenom for those if you get bitten. Any constrictor that gets to over 2.5 metres would also fall into that category. If someone wants to keep these they need to dedicate a room to these animals and make sure that all access is controlled by them and also that the room is escape proof. This will mean self closing doors and possibly even a double door system. Common species such as Corn snakes and small pythons like Ball pythons make excellent pets. They can be fed dead defrosted rodents and do not require massive cages. Live feeding of rodents is frowned upon by the reptile community.

Do you read up on your pets or chat to specialists about them before acquiring them?

If you do not then you are destined for heart break. Research any pet that that you intend buying and join local forums who can advise you about what would be suitable. Attend expos and go see what accessories are also for sale. Usually the cages are designed specifically for these snakes and as such have everything the snake requires.

If any of your snakes are potentially dangerous, how do you make your home safe for your family (and for the snakes)?

As mentioned above any snakes which could be potentially dangerous need to be isolated. Even the non venomous and harmless ones require proper caging which should preferably be lockable. An old fish tank with a plank for a lid is never going to be adequate.

Would you say venomous snakes or constrictors are suitable as pets?

Using the word “pet” is not really correct. They should be pets in the same way a fish is a pet. You do not handle your fish so don’t handle your venomous snakes unless you absolutely have to and then only when someone else is around in the event of an accident. Cages can be designed so that the snake never has to be handled which is safer for all concerned. Just remember even house snakes are also constrictors but they pose no threat to humans.

Ever been bitten?

We all make mistakes however in 40 years of dealing with deadly snakes on a daily basis I have never needed antivenom. The bites were not serious. I have had stitches from dog bites, cat bites, parrot bites and once a warthog broke my thumb. If you follow the golden rules your chances of coming off unscathed is very high.

How do you cope when people visit who have a fear of snakes?

Never ever rush them or scare them. That is just plain stupid. Let them observe from a distance and when they are ready they will go closer and eventually ask to stroke one or hold it. Somebody who has a proper full blown phobia will never get to that point. Just like I am scared of heights I don’t go walking on ledges or bungee jump and nobody bothers me about that, why should I pester someone who has a phobia about snakes.

What would make a living environment unsuitable for a snake?

Snakes react the most to loud noises (actually the vibrations) and sharp smells. If you spray paint in that area or have a teenager that plays pounding music then a snake (or possibly any pet) is probably a bad idea. You also need to be aware that furniture polishes or deodorants do affect the snake and they will stress so avoid this in the area where the snakes are. The cages should also not be in an area with high traffic as snakes do not take kindly to being disturbed all the time.

What advice would you have for kids who are interested in getting snakes as pets?

Unless the parents are just as clued up as the child then getting a child a snake is not a good idea. Most children lose interest in even silkworms that only need attention for a month or two so if that is happening then don’t buy them a snake. If the child is really interested get him or her involved in a local herpetological society and see how long the interest lasts. Possibly he/she can volunteer at a pet shop or snake park where reptiles are his responsibility and where he/she can be mentored. Children should not start with a baby snake as they are far more finicky. Rather get a snake that is a year or two old already and does not have the flight or fight mentality that baby snakes are known for.

Arno adds:
P.S. To date nobody in South Africa has died from the bite of an exotic venomous pet snake and nobody has been killed by a large constrictor. The reason is possibly because we live in a country where we could find a venomous snake on our next journey into the bush and we have pythons living naturally in the country. We are thus more in tune with being careful than people who only see the snakes in pet shops and think they are domesticated. We know they are wild animals and probably give them the respect they deserve.

Arno Naude, Vice Chairman of SAPTA and lecturer at Tuks, was born in Harare, Zimbabwe and has kept snakes from the age of 12. He is the Chairman of the Transvaal Herpetological Association and with his extensive knowledge of snakes he has drawn up a number of courses on reptile husbandry and assists with snake removals and provides training on snakebite identification and treatment.

Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on Parent24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of Parent24.

Would you help your child to keep a snake?
We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
The ANC's leadership race is heating up. Who do you think will be elected party president at Nasrec in December?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has got it in the bag
7% - 828 votes
I foresee a second term for Cyril Ramaphosa
83% - 9513 votes
Don’t discount a Zweli Mkhize win
10% - 1114 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.