Goodness Sakes, Garter Snakes!

Bob (the stub-tailed Tabby) is a notorious snake hunter.

We live in an old farmhouse in the Great Plains region, and the foundation, sadly, is not as tight as it once was…which means that garter snakes have often found their way into our basement. From there, our mighty feline hunter has spotted them, played with them until they were dead (or perhaps wished to be), and brought them upstairs to “share” with us.

My first encounter was at around 10 p.m., late in the spring. I wandered into the kitchen, clad in nightgown and fuzzy slippers, and discovered Bob staring intently at an oval, black and striped object  (As a horse owner, my first thought was that there was a black rubber currycomb left on the floor.) As I peered nearsightedly at the object, I was startled to find Bob was actually perusing a tightly coiled garter snake. This was not what I had hoped to find on my evening raid of the refrigerator.

My immediate response was to yell for hubby, who rescued the snake and removed it to the outdoors. Over time, as Bob discovered more snakes, I eventually grew brave enough to pick them up and remove them myself.

Garter snakes can be widely found throughout the United States. Experts, such as resident herpetologist and extension associate professor Dennis Ferraro of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, note the snakes are not venomous. However, as with all animals, the snakes have saliva glands and some animals (and humans) can be allergic to that saliva. Garter snakes also possess teeth, but they are so small as to pose little threat to any animal, furred or feathered, Ferraro said. Garter snakes are far more likely to try and escape from larger predators, although when cornered, they will strike out. Even less appealing is that garter snakes will secrete a foul-smelling musk as a deterrent.

If you can tolerate the thought of snakes on your property, they are actually a beneficial predator, consuming plenty of insects and small invertebrates. Larger garter snakes have been observed preying on amphibians and small fish.

While these snakes are harmless, it best to dissuade your animals from “toying” with them or consuming them. According to Dr. Kevin R. Kazacos, professor of Veterinary Parasitology at Purdue University, garter snakes carry a number of internal parasite larvae, including stomach worms as well as a tapeworm that specifically can transfer to felines. Eating ANY wild animal can put your pet at risk for ingesting parasites; a fecal exam by a veterinarian once or twice a year is a good plan if you suspect this is the case. And fortunately, many monthly heart worm preventatives (as well as products such as Sentry WormX or Sergeant’s Vetscription “Worm Away”) can also help.

If you’re not too afraid of handling the snakes yourself, simply relocate them to an area away from your house. (In Nebraska, state regulations forbid moving any wild animal more than 100 yards from where you found it. These rules vary by state; check on the rules in your location.)  If you don’t mind them hunting insects on your property, your garden or a rock wall is a fine place to release them.

If you’re terrified of snakes and would prefer to keep them far, far away from you – or your pets, there are a few steps you can take. Ferraro said that commercial snake deterrents are completely ineffective. However, in a recent study, Ferraro found garter snakes do not like lava landscaping rock. Use of this material around areas where you or your animals frequent should help prevent close encounters of the reptile kind.

If your pet gets any of the snake’s musk on them, there are commercially-available shampoos (such as Sergeant’s Fur-So-Fresh “Whiff” shampoo for dogs, or Fur-So-Fresh No-Rinse cat shampoo, both of which I’ve used) that can help with odor removal.

Should your pet have any reaction to the snake, or if you think your pet has tangled with another species of snake that is venomous, please contact your veterinarian immediately.  If you live in a part of the country that is likely to have venomous snakes, remove snake-friendly habitat and dissuade your pets from having contact with snakes, non-venomous or otherwise.

As for Bob, he still occasionally brings a snake upstairs. Our truce is in place:  the garter snakes are allowed to live, but are briskly moved outside.   But poor Bob just doesn’t understand why the “best toys EVER” keep getting taken away.  Sorry, fella, there’s a limit.

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