Does a Snake Really Eat Itself?
This is not believed to be a common occurrence, but it does happen more often than one might think. While it may seem that stories of this happening are becoming more frequent, that is likely only because people now are more likely to have the means of recording the phenomenon. Also, more people now own snakes as pets, and any rise in the actual occurrences could be due to this fact, as it is hard to keep an artificial habitat exactly the way a natural one would be, leading to overheated, confused or stressed out snakes.
Though the idea of an animal eating itself may seem horrifying, the facts are that snakes aren’t the only animals that do it. Eating oneself is quite common—and disturbing—in birds with injuries. However, the way snakes do it and why they do it is what makes them unique.
Why Would a Snake Eat Its Own Tail?
No one knows for sure what causes a snake to eat itself, but there are several highly plausible theories. The following are a few reasons that veterinarians suspect can cause this to happen in snakes.
Stress / Temperature
One problem that animal experts say can cause snakes to eat itself under stress is that its body temperature rises too high. If you didn’t know, snakes are cold-blooded and their bodies match the temperature of where they are. That’s why they sunbathe on rocks in the wild. Have you or someone you know ever had trouble biting your nails when you were stressed? Snakes don’t have claws, so they have to find other ways to relieve their stress. When exposed to stressors, such as when they overheat or they encounter another animal unexpectedly, they sometimes bite their tails and even try to swallow them whole. This can be harmful and even fatal to the animal, so if this happens to your pet, it must be treated immediately.
Metabolism / False Hunger
Or when a snake’s metabolism ramps up for some reason, they may mistakenly believe they are ravenously hungry when they are not. If no other food source is available, which it generally isn’t when dealing with a pet snake, they may eat the only thing available: their tail.
Confusion / Disorientation
A final cause of this behavior may be simple confusion. If a snake becomes disoriented, it may think its tail is prey and try to consume it. The confusion itself may be caused by stress or temperature control issues.
Can I Prevent My Snake From Ever Eating Its Own Tail?
To try to avoid this behavior, the best thing to do is learn everything you can about the care and feeding of the breed of snake you have or want to have. The most important facts to consider are: What is the snake’s optimal habitat temperature? How large does the snake’s enclosure need to be? What does my snake eat? How often does my snake need to eat? How much does my snake need to eat?
What Should I do if I Find My Snake Eating Itself?
It can be very frightening to see your pet snake biting its tail. Though it may not be, this can be a very serious and even life-threatening event if it continues for long enough that the tail reaches the digestive juices. If you find your snake this way and more than the very tip of its tail is inside its mouth, it should be considered an urgent situation.
If you are there when it first starts biting its tail, you should first make sure the animal’s teeth are not embedded in its skin, then try to gently extract the tail from its mouth. With many snakes, this can be done by simply pulling its head away from its tail. However, with some breeds that may have hinged jaws, this method alone will not work. In this case, you will have to tap it on the nose, possibly several times, to get it to let go before you can pull the tail out of its mouth.
If you are unable to successfully remove the tail from the snake’s mouth, get the pet to an emergency vet immediately. If possible, find a follow-up veterinarian that specializes in snakes, but getting the pet to a medical setting is the top priority regardless. The vet should be able to assist with extracting the tail from the snake’s throat, assuming it has not gotten too far along. The vet should also be able to tell you what steps to take to keep the behavior from happening in the future.
If you are successful in extracting the tail from its mouth on your own, it is important to take other steps immediately to stop the tail-eating behavior from recurring. To begin with, you will need to cool the snake down right away. You can take it to a cooler area, turn off its heat lamps and also spritz it with cool water to help reduce its body temperature.