Are Milk Snakes Venomous? The Complete Guide


Often in nature, bright colors in animals are a clear warning sign of danger. Of course milk snakes are extremely brightly colored, and so it is a natural question to ask, are milk snakes venomous?

Milk snakes are not venomous. Milk snakes are an extremely safe pet, and are not going to pose any problems to humans. Milk snakes catch and kill their prey using constriction. They do not have fangs, or any poison as part of a bite.

Of course there are lots of different types of milk snakes, and also there is a lot to understand about any dangers they may pose. In this article I’m going to take a deep dive into everything you need to know about milk snakes, venom (or the lack of), how they hunt, how they kill prey, and anything else that it’s important to understand in this area.

Are milk snakes venomous - a milk snake in a tank

Milk Snakes Are Not Venomous

The milk snake is generally found throughout North and South America. There are also 25 different sub-species of milk snake, and all are going to be suitable to be kept as pets. None are dangerous to humans. 

No milk snakes are venomous.

The different sub-species have various markings and color bands that make it easier to distinguish between them. Some are not even as bright as the red, orange, and white banded species that’s one of the most popular to be kept as a pet. Others can be a dull brown color, and that’s where they can start to be mistaken by some people for a copperhead snake, which is venomous. But more on mistaken identity later on.

The milk snake is from the King Snake species, and they are all viewed as being non-venomous to humans. A milk snake can grow to around 3 feet in length, and some have grown a bit longer. However, they are relatively thin when it comes to their width.

Also, they are viewed as being one of the least aggressive snakes out there, and that’s one of the reasons as to why they are such a popular breed of snake to have as a pet. Over time, they will become very easy to handle, even for people new to owning a pet snake. 

Finally, their needs are relatively minor, so they won’t need too much attention should you go ahead and have one as a pet.

How a Milk Snake Protects Itself

As a milk snake does not have any venom, how does it protect itself? Well, it’s coloring is one way of doing things, but we will cover more of that later.

Also, the milk snake has a tendency to go into a defensive pose. That means it’s going to hiss and also strike out. It goes on the offensive to a certain extent.

In this sense, it does a fantastic job of trying to copy the moves of the coral snake. Once again., we will go into more detail later about the coral snake and why it’s such an important part in this whole story of the milk snake.

The act of trying to trick a potential predator into thinking you are a venomous snake is called Batesian Mimicry, and it’s a common approach that is used by different breeds of animals throughout the animal world.

The milk snake knows that it’s going to be no match for so many possible predators out there, so it’s a great method to protect itself.

Why the Name Milk Snake?

But next, let’s clear up something, and it’s connected to the name ‘milk snake’, as it seems a bizarre name to give. Apparently, it all comes from a story that someone saw a snake going into a barn and drinking milk from cows. [Source]

Now, that’s all impossible since snakes do not have lips, but the name has stuck from this folk-tale, so who are we to judge, as it’s actually quite a cool name.

In reality, while people may indeed have noticed a milk snake coming out of a barn, it would have been after the rats that would be running around in there rather than anything else. However, it’s still quite cool as a story.

Why Do Some People Think a Milk Snake is Venomous?

But let’s move onto the reason as to why some people think a milk snake is going to have venom. It’s thanks to its appearance, and people being unaware of what they are looking at. With snakes, the way they look and their eyes will be the main way of identifying which snake you have, and whether or not it’s safe.

Now, their appearance is quite distinctive with the way in which they have bands of color, and that’s where the problem starts to develop. You see, some people, with not such a keen eye on distinguishing between snakes, will start to make the mistakes of thinking that they are looking at species such as a coral snake.

The reason why people make this mistake is that they too have these sorts of blotches of color markings on their body. Also, the coral snake is highly venomous, but the colors that appear on their body are completely different to the milk snake.

But the coloring on both a coral snake and a milk snake is different. You are generally looking at a coral snake having dark, almost menacing colors along with red and yellow bands together, whereas the milk snake is brighter and more orange bands are included.

This does change slightly, which is thanks to the number of sub-species of milk snakes out there, so that does mean if you are unsure, then you need to turn your attention to a different part of the body to simply double check you do indeed have a milk snake.

It’s In Their Eyes

Aside from their markings, you also need to look at their eyes to see that the milk snake is not going to be venomous. Their pupils are round, as opposed to their pupils being vertical when they are poisonous. 

That is one quick way to determine if the snake you are looking at has venom glands that could end up being dangerous to us. However, that’s only if you are able to get close enough to see their eyes in such detail.

Evolution Has Made Them Look Like this

You may wonder why a milk snake would look so similar to one that is deadly, and it’s all to do with the art of self-preservation. 

The milk snake knows that it doesn’t have the same fear factor to potential predators as the likes of the coral snake. It doesn’t have the venom to protect itself, so it has to do what it can in order to survive.

So evolution has been quite clever here. It has led to the markings on the milk snake developing into something that is similar to the coral snake to make it harder for a possible predator to distinguish between the two. 

When you think about it, that’s a brilliant way of trying to ensure your survival. However, it is easier for us as potential pet owners, as you would never want to own a coral snake as a pet.

Are milk snakes venomous - a milk snake on some rocks outdoors

A Milk Snake Doesn’t Have Fangs

Another important point to keep in mind is that the milk snake doesn’t have fangs. Actually, it doesn’t have any teeth that are really able to be recognized.

What this means is that a ‘bite’ from a milk snake is going to do absolutely nothing to us humans. They have nothing that can break our skin, and they are aware of this fact, so they won’t even try.

But when we say they don’t have teeth, we are talking about teeth that could even leave us with a scratch on our skin.

The milk snake does have teeth, and they point backwards in their mouth. They are small, but they are effective when it comes to dealing with prey. 

You must remember that our skin is pretty tough, so having tiny teeth that are set back in the mouth is only going to lead to, well, nothing happening. However, the same cannot be said to mice or anything else that the milk snake will eat. Those little teeth will help the milk snake to swallow their prey, but how do they catch their prey in the first place?

How a Milk Snake Catches its Prey

So, this then makes you wonder how a milk snake is going to catch its prey, and it only leaves us with one option, constriction.

Now, when someone thinks of a snake constricting its prey in order to kill it, there’s a tendency to think about a python wrapping itself around something large and the prey is unable to escape. Well, this is the same thing, but on a smaller scale. 

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about a milk snake is that they are actually very powerful constrictors. When you look at their size, you would think that they are lacking in muscle, but this is not true.

In the snake world, they have one of the most powerful grips, in relation to their size and dimensions, so small prey that is caught up won’t stand a chance.

Also, once the prey is dead, the milk snake will open up its jaws and swallow it whole. That is why they will only ever attempt to kill something that they have judged can be eaten in this way. They have no interest in the concept of chewing something to then eat it. They prefer to allow their digestion to deal with it once the prey is inside their stomach.

But catching their prey is going to involve the art of surprise. They cannot use venom to paralyze prey to then give them time to devour them. Instead, they need to use speed and stealth to come up to prey, and to then quickly wrap their body around them to stop them from going anywhere.

This really has to be done at amazing speed, and the milk snake is a real expert at it. 

The Way Constriction Works

The way that constriction works is very easy to understand. Your milk snake would see its prey, attack by surprise and speed, wrap its body around the prey, and then start to squeeze. They then squeeze tighter and tighter, with the prey unable to breathe, and their heart stops.

As long as they can get into this correct position, then it’s a very effective way of doing things, and the milk snake is pretty darn good at it.

Of course, you are not going to be feeding your pet milk snake any live feed. In this instance, it’s going to be food that has been pre-killed. However, that’s not going to stop them from doing this entire motion. Instead, their natural instinct will take over. 

Helping Your Milk Snake to Hunt

As a milk snake is going to partly use the art of surprise when it comes to catching prey, it makes sense for you to help them out with this part of the entire process.

To do this, you need to look carefully at their home. A milk snake is going to love to have places where it can hide away, as they do like their privacy. Small hide holes where they can curl up and relax will be perfect for them.

When you drop prey into their tank, do so slightly away from them instead of right in front of wherever they are hiding. 

What a Milk Snake Eats

A milk snake is a carnivore, so it does eat meat. Its main source of food is going to be the likes of mice, voles, rats, and even small birds. They do also sort of love eating bird eggs, and they have been known to eat coral snakes as well, which is pretty amazing. [Source]

That does mean you need to feed them some small rodents, but they should be dead, as it has been shown that they will still go ahead and work through the constriction process. In fact, research showed that milk snakes will do this even when the mouse is frozen solid. They just see potential food and are only capable of thinking one way about it all.

Some people may wonder about us saying the food should already be dead, as that’s not how they would come across them in the wild. So, let’s quickly explain the logic behind this approach.

Going through the act of killing the prey could bring with it a few problems for the owner. First, there’s always the potential of the live prey inflicting a certain amount of damage on your snake, and you want to avoid that.

The second point, and this is the most important one, is that it can build aggression in your snake. You don’t want that to happen either. 

A milk snake is relatively placid by nature, so doing something that could upset that should be avoided, even though you need to remember that they are not going to do anything to you when it comes to attacking you. They know they are up against something too big for them to handle.

Feeding Your Milk Snake

So, how do you feed your milk snake? Well, we just discussed what they like to eat, and how often they eat, is going to depend on how old they are.

If you are dealing with a baby milk snake, then they should be fed on baby mice once a week. This will help them to grow and develop into a normal, healthy snake. But be warned, this changes when they become an adult.

With a fully-grown milk snake, you need to feed them a large mouse once every two weeks. This will be sufficient for them, even though it may not sound like much to us.

Please do not go ahead and feed them more often than this. It’s very easy for a milk snake to become overweight, as they will see other food dropping into their home and go ahead and consume it. They will push their digestion as much as they possibly can, and the next thing that happens is you have a milk snake that’s too heavy. That alone is going to mean a few health problems could potentially develop.

So, In Summary

A milk snake is certainly not venomous in any way. They are completely harmless to us humans, and there’s no way they can cause damage. The only thing you will have to deal with is getting a bit of a shock if they do make an attempt at biting you. However, keep in mind that they cannot hurt you, and that should make a difference.

Instead, a milk snake will rely on constriction to kill its prey. But, for us, they are too small and not strong enough to do any damage, so just enjoying owning them as they are non-aggressive and a pleasure to keep.

These snakes are placid, require minimal care, and are viewed as being the perfect snake to keep for anybody who is venturing into having a snake as a pet. They tend to remain relatively small in size, and as long as you provide them with a comfortable place to live with places to hide away, then they will be more than content to live with you.

Barry Gray

Barry is a freelance writer from Scotland. He has written about pets for over a decade, and his work has been turned into a range of ebooks, courses, and material for diplomas. Barry is passionate about all animals, but particularly dogs, fish, rabbits, birds and spiders. You can find out more about Barry at https://mercurypets.com/our-writers/

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