Keeping snakes as pets has gained popularity in recent years, but how safe is it to keep snakes around children, especially babies? There are differing opinions on whether it is safe to have any kind of snake around babies, but what do the experts say?
Are snakes safe around babies? No, all reptiles carry serious illnesses like salmonella and botulism on their skin. Experts recommend not having a snake in a house with children under five years of age.
Nevertheless, some parents choose to keep snakes as pets against the advice of experts. Those parents follow strict rules for raising snakes in homes with children, and they feel that their kids, even their babies, remain safe. Is the safety protocol for housing snakes foolproof enough to justify ignoring the experts’ advice?
Reasons to Keep Snakes Away from Babies (And Children)
In most cases, snakes that are kept as pets are non-venomous. Therefore, most people that claim snakes are safe to be around babies see no issue with the house pet because, without venom, they believe it cannot harm the baby.
They insist that the snake was bought at the pet store, and it has been tamed. They say that all you have to do to keep your infant safe around a pet snake is make sure to wash your hands.
They are wrong.
The first four reasons experts list as proof that snakes are not safe to be around babies are the four diseases that all reptiles, including snakes, carry on their skin. One of the bacteria that snakes can carry is life-threatening to humans, and the others are life-threatening to infants.
The four zoonotic diseases present on all reptiles are:
Each of these diseases has its own level of danger and list of symptoms.
Salmonella is a bacterial illness that can be passed from reptile to human if something that has encountered the reptile’s feces is placed into a human’s mouth. One way that babies can contract salmonella from a pet snake is if their formula, bottles, or teething objects are contaminated by the snake’s feces.
Symptoms of salmonella include diarrhea, fever, headache, and severe stomach cramps. Severe cases of salmonella (or cases that remain untreated) can result in septicemia, or blood poisoning. Dehydration is also a symptom of salmonella. It’s important to note that dehydration is very dangerous for infants.
Botulism is a critical, life-threatening sickness that is caused by a toxin that is released from a bacterium called Clostridium. This bacterium is extremely dangerous because it exists as spores that can travel through touch and air. It exists on reptiles that live close to the ground and contaminates soil and mud.
Clostridium causes paralysis and death. It is tremendously dangerous for babies because they have not been exposed to bacteria that can help them build up immunity protection to the sickness like adults and older children have.
Campylobacteriosis is a bacterial illness that is spread through food and water that is contaminated with the bacterium. Not only is this bacterium found on the body of snakes, it is one of the most common causes of bacterial infections in humans.
Symptoms include fever, pain in the abdomen, and diarrhea beginning within 2 to 5 days of ingesting the bacterium. Diarrhea is a high-risk sickness for babies because they can become dehydrated extremely fast.
Leptospirosis is not only found on the skin of reptiles; it is also found on various wild and domestic animals, even cats and dogs. This sickness is spread by the contaminated urine of the animal carrying it. Contact with contaminated urine can occur through cuts on the skin and through the lining of the mouth, throat, and eyes.
Not only do you have to worry about Leptospirosis contamination through your skin, but the animal urine can infect nearby water and soil in addition to leaving tainted urine residue in places on your floor. This bacterium can survive for weeks and months outside of a living body.
Symptoms of Leptospirosis mimic influenza and are worsened with a very painful and unrelenting headache. Imagine a baby with flu symptoms; it would be heartbreaking.
Protecting Your Family from Bacterial Illness Carried by Snakes
The illnesses that can be carried by snakes are referred to as zoonotic diseases, which are diseases that can be passed from animal to human, namely diseases that normal exist in animals and can infect humans.
The first defense against all sickness is proper hygiene. If you have chosen to have a snake as a pet, encourage all your family members, especially young children, to wash their hands diligently and thoroughly every single time they handle the snake or take care of its cage.
Again, because of how tedious constant handwashing is for children and the fact that they will not always wash thoroughly, experts strongly recommended not having a pet snake in a home with any children under the age of five.
A Definitive List of Required Safety Precautions When Snakes Live in a Home with an Infant
If the reptile-borne bacteria that could potentially infect your infant and other children was not enough to dissuade you from purchasing a pet snake, always make sure to follow this list of guidelines to protect your infant.
- Do not, under any circumstances, bring home a venomous snake with any children in your home, especially an infant.
- Do not, under any circumstances, “catch” a wild snake outside and bring it home to keep as a pet.
- Do not, under any circumstances, bring home a large snake like a ball python or boa constrictor with an infant or any small child in the home. These snakes can easily kill babies and small children if they get out because they are predators that squeeze their prey to death.
- Wash your hands thoroughly every single time you handle the snake or the snake’s living quarters. Do not touch your infant before scrubbing your hands and lower arms clean. Be mindful also to scrub all other places the snake touched on your skin and take off any clothes it touched before handling your infant. These same cleaning rules apply to older children who handle the snake as well.
- Keep all infant supplies that will contact the infant’s skin, especially those that will be put in the infant’s mouth, in an area that cannot ever be infiltrated by your pet snake if it gets out of its cage.
- When buying your snake’s cage, purchase one that is built specifically for reptiles.
- Under no circumstances should you ever build a homemade snake cage.
- Make sure your snake is properly housed with a sturdy cage, a heating device, and things for the snake to hide under and climb on, so it does not try to leave its cage.
- Make sure there are no holes or open areas in your snake’s cage. A snake can fit its entire body through a hole big enough for only its head.
- Purchase a highly secure container for holding the snake during cage cleanings. Do not let your snake run free while cleaning its cage.
- Do not allow children to feed the snake to prevent them from leaving the cage open or not closing the cage completely.
- If your snake gets out of its cage, place your infant in the safest place, you can find that the snake cannot get to and find the snake immediately.
This is quite a set of rules to follow. With this laundry list of safety precautions, does having a pet snake in the house with an infant seem like a good idea? Is risking your infant’s life in order to own an exotic pet worth it?
And Yet Another Case Against Infants Being Exposed to Pet Snakes
Have you ever wondered why most people run away in frantic fear when they see a snake? Most of us have feared snakes for as long as we can remember. Have you ever stopped to think about why we have that fear? Have literally all of us had bad experiences with a snake during childhood? I doubt that.
National Geographic has its own theory about our fear of snakes and discusses it in the article “Are We Born Fearing Spiders and Snakes?” According to the article, a study that included 48 six-month-old infants concluded that humans are, in fact, born with a fear of snakes and spiders.
The Experiment, Findings, and Conclusion
So, how did they test six-month-old babies and get actual, recordable results?
First, the infants were sat onto their parent’s laps. Then, the parents were given fully opaque sunglasses so they could not see what was being shown and influence the reaction of their child. Next, the infants were shown images of snakes and spiders on white backgrounds.
The researchers then recorded the reaction of the babies’ pupils. The findings showed that, when the infants saw the images on snakes and spiders, their pupils became noticeably large. To validate the findings, a control group of images of flowers and fish was shown to the infants as well. Their pupils did not react by growing larger with the control images.
Enlarged pupils indicate stress, both mental and emotional. This is how the researchers reached the conclusion that we are born with a fear of both snakes and spiders.
For a full explanation of everything involved in this research, you can consult the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Opponents of the Theory of Our Innate Fear of Snakes (and Spiders)
The lead researcher of the study, Stefanie Hoehl, opposed the accepted conclusion. She agreed that there was a pupillary response and that the response was that the pupils grew larger. However, she explains that enlarged pupils can also indicate arousal and mental processing. She states that she believes the pupil growth in this study indicates intense focus.
Other studies contradict the findings of this study. One study focused on seven-month-old infants’ reaction to snakes and found that they noticed the images but didn’t show fear.
Perhaps we are both with an innate fear of snakes, and some of us are lucky enough to get over the fear as we get older and learn about the world. Perhaps the babies were just intensely looking at pictures they couldn’t identify in their brains. Only further studies will show which fear of snakes we have – innate or learned.
Sure, in a perfect world with absolutely no mistakes, maybe infants could cohabitate with pet snakes. As of now, there is a strong argument backed by medical experts against bringing a snake into a home with children under the age of five, period.
There are other, less dangerous “unique” pets that a household with children and infants can safely enjoy. A little bit of research can make the entire family happy!