Garden Snakes: Are they Poisonous Or Dangerous?

The garden snake, more properly called the garter snake, is not a single species but is actually many subspecies, and many of them are quite common throughout the United States, often encountered, as you might guess, in the garden!

garter snake
garter snake

That is bound to upset some people, but since these snakes are so common we had better learn whether or not we have anything to truly fear. Are garden snakes venomous and are they dangerous?

Yes, garden snakes are mildly venomous. Bites are rare, and serious side effects are even rarer, but these snakes should be approached with caution all the same.

To clear things up before we go any further, the term garden snake is sort of a broad categorization of all the many species of garter snakes.

Nonetheless, many of these snakes are common in and around farms and gardens, so lots of people just call them garden snakes because that’s where they’re usually encountered!

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll be referring to them as garden snakes going forward, so don’t let that bother you. But do keep reading because there is a lot to learn about them just below…

EVERYTHING you need to know about Garter Snakes!

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What Does the Garden Snake Look Like?

There is no single description of a garden snake because, as I just explained, this actually encompasses many different species of snakes.

Even among these many different species, there are regional variations that further complicate the matter!

The size of garden snakes is highly variable, with some species being quite small and slender, less than 1 ½ feet (45 centimeters) in length, while others are impressively long and stout, some reaching nearly 5 feet (1.5 meters) from tail to snout.

All, however, have slender, sharply pointed heads, a roundly blunted nose, and big round eyes with round pupils.

But, most of these snakes are typified by one primary scale color, often brown, black, or gray, with thin stripes running along the length of the body beginning just behind the neck.

Even so, some have other additional markings that can produce wildly differing patterns, such as borders, spots, patches, and more.

The underside of these snakes is usually a contrasting color, but belly colors can again vary widely.

Where are Garden Snakes Found?

Contrary to what the name might have you believe, garden snakes don’t just turn up in people’s gardens.

These are among the most common species of snakes found all over North America and they are extremely common in the United States, although most typically dwell near the water.

Other than that, their behavior, like everything else about them, is diverse.

Some species of these snakes are active during the day, others are active during the night, and some are active during both at whim!

Most are decent swimmers, all are dependably good climbers and they can live absolutely anywhere from forests and plains to suburban areas and dry, scorched deserts or badlands.

All species of garden snakes typically subsist on a diet of tiny critters that one would, as you might expect, be found in the garden and this is yet another reason for their colloquial name.

Worms, insects, small reptiles, rodents, slugs and other small creepy crawlies that you can expect to see in your garden are on the menu for garden snakes, and as with all predators anywhere their typical food can be found you’ll find them.

Are Garden Snakes Venomous?

Yes, in the strictest technical sense garden snakes are indeed venomous contrary to the assertion of some folks on the net.

To be specific, not all species of garden snake produce venom but many do, and to be entirely fair these snakes were long thought to be entirely non-venomous.

However, it should be pointed out that this venom is truly nothing to be afraid of, though that is no excuse for you to handle or provoke a garden snake!

Garden snakes produce a neurotoxic venom, but one that is very mild and optimized for taking their usual prey- not necessarily for self-defense against larger creatures like you and me.

Garden snakes are extremely common and because they are so common close encounters with humans are likewise common, and so bites can and do occur.

That being said, I have not found any examples of anyone being significantly harmed or killed by garter snake venom.

Can the Garden Snake Kill Pets or Domestic Animals?

The vast majority of pets and other domesticated animals don’t need to worry about garter snakes at all, even though they are mildly venomous as discussed.

However, there are two notable exceptions, specifically ducklings or chickens and the eggs laid by either species.

Chicks are just small enough when newly hatched to be highly vulnerable and enticing to garden snakes and, though they don’t make the eating of eggs a habit, if they have live prey they will eat the eggs that they can reach.

Your dogs, cats, goats, sheep, horses and cows don’t need to worry about garden snakes, but you should be aware that the sudden appearance of a garden snake, or any snake, could spook larger animals, and cause accidents.

Will Garden Snakes Attack Humans?

Garden snakes are generally easy-going and very unlikely to attack humans unless thoroughly provoked or grabbed.

There have also been reported bites when the snakes are surprised during sleep or otherwise startled at close range.

But, typically as an alternative to biting, garden snakes will engage in other defensive behaviors such as the spraying of a nasty anal discharge, the flailing of the tail and posturing to bite.

Finally, if none of this works a garden snake may actually bite.

Will a Garden Snake Bite Hurt You?

Yes, it is highly likely to hurt and can hurt a lot. Garden snakes don’t have large frontal fangs like most other venomous snakes, and instead have smaller ones at the back of their mouth.

Because of the geometry involved, these fangs may or may not pierce your skin and the venom may or may not get into your body.

Even without the venom, the razor-sharp teeth of the garden snake are probably going to give you a fairly nasty laceration.

However, if you are envenomated by a garden snake you’ll probably experience some fairly significant pain at the site of the bite along with swelling, bruising and throbbing.

This combined with the likely infection that will result in the aftermath of a snake bite means that it is in your best interest to have the bite checked out by a competent medical team.

Even though complications from the venom are quite rare an allergic reaction can never be ruled out, so you don’t want to treat the bite from a garden snake lightly even if you are 100% sure that it is a garden snake and not some other nastier one.

Is it Best to Kill Garden Snakes When You Can?

No, generally. Garden snakes are not aggressive, not truly dangerous to people and most pets or livestock and won’t act aggressively even when encountered.

A garden snake that is taking up residence somewhere on your property is going to go a long way toward keeping harmful pests under control, so if you can live and let live that’s always the best option.

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