The threat of rattlesnakes to people who are active in the outdoors is real. If you ever come across a rattlesnake in the wild, it may try and bite you if certain events transpire.
Why Do Rattlesnakes Bite People?
Rattlesnakes bite people mostly out of self-defense when they feel threatened.
Even pet rattlesnakes or ones that have lived near humans and farm animals will bite under provocation. Even rattlesnake breeders can be bitten if they get too complacent when handling them. In the outdoors, most people are bitten when they accidentally step on a rattlesnake or get too close when it is hidden in the brush. A rattlesnake could also not try to bite, but only to scare the would-be attacker.
Rattlesnakes also have small brains and respond to heat signatures of human feet, so they may think it is actually a meal. This is especially true if you try to pick it up with your hands.
If you have a pet rattlesnake it is less likely to bite because it will have become more comfortable with humans.
A stressed rattlesnake that is hungry is more likely to bite or flee than one that is full of food and relaxed.
Even though rattlesnakes are dangerous to humans, it’s important to remember that people are much bigger than they are, so it is expected that one to feel threatened when a human approaches.
Rattlesnakes are excellent at remaining hidden and camouflaged which helps them ambush prey and avoid predators. They can blend in well in tall grasses and rocky landscapes. Most likely, the snake wants to be left alone and will only become aggressive towards a human when threatened.
Does a Rattlesnake Strike When It Sees You?
It is believed by many people that rattlesnakes do not see very well, and this is in fact true. Rattlesnakes are night-time hunters and respond mostly to body heat signatures, smell, and sounds. The eyesight is just good enough to pick out general shapes, but not fine details.
Rattlesnakes have pits on the sides of their face near their eyes (hence the term ‘pit vipers’) that pick up heat signatures of animals. This has an overall field of reception of about 100 degrees in front of them. This gives them an almost ‘night vision goggle’ ability.
The information received by these pits helps create the image of an animal in the rattlesnake’s brain. Once they interpret this as prey, they can then plan their strike. These pit membranes are so sensitive they can even tell the difference between live stationary plants and moving prey at night. The eyes of animals, which are the hottest part of their bodies are easily spotted by these pits.
What Makes a Rattlesnake Bite Versus Flee?
Generally, rattlesnakes will bite when cornered, surprised, grabbed or stepped on. Unless the snake is actively hunting and mistakes your foot or hand for a meal, they will only bite out of self-defense. This is when you will see the rattlesnake coil up, stand its ground and strike.
In comparison, a rattlesnake that detects you coming and has an easy escape route will flee rather than bite. Making lots of noise, rattling trees and bushes, and walking slowly but noisily will generally scare snakes off before you arrive. Rattlesnakes depend on stealth for their survival and hunt smaller animals that don’t make a lot of noise and vibration. Any other animal is likely to be a threat, so they will slither away and avoid a conflict.
Do Rattlesnakes Want to Bite You?
Rattlesnakes do not want to bite you if they sense you are not food. Rattlesnakes want to preserve their energy and venom for prey.
They may actually bite only with their fangs to get rid of you, then attempt to flee. Many victims only recieve a “dry bite” where no venom is injected. This is why few people get extremely sick or die from rattlesnake bites.
Rattlesnakes will only choose to bite when all other options have failed. If you try to kill or capture the rattlesnake, it will bite you to survive. Children are especially at risk because they get curious about snakes and try to pick them up or poke at them.
Does a Rattlesnake Give Warning Before Striking?
Unless a rattlesnake is grabbed or stepped on they will send multiple warnings to fend you off:
- #1 Rattle their tail
- #2 Expose their fangs
- #3 Lift their heads above the ground
- #4 Hiss
- #5 Shake their body and coil
A rattlesnake will generally rattle its tail and coil up before it strikes, but not always. It may skip the rattling and just strike if it feels threatened or trapped. Baby rattlesnakes may not have grown rattles yet and will strike readily if threatened.
Can a Rattlesnake Strike If It’s Not Coiled Up?
Yes, rattlesnakes can strike without coiling up. This usually happens when they are stepped on. If they have no time to prepare, they will strike in fear and then flee.
Coiling allows the rattler to make a warning and also get the best body position to launch an attack at an animal.
Rattlesnakes cannot jump, so they rely on their forward lunge to strike. This may appear as if the snake is jumping, but this is not so.
A rattlesnake can strike between 1/3 and 1/2 of its total body length. Rattlesnakes are also the fastest striking venomous snakes, so you may not even see them bite you.
Will a Rattlesnake Bite Without Rattling Its Tail?
Yes, a rattlesnake will bite without rattling first. If the rattlesnake is ambushed, grabbed or stepped on, it will make a quick strike with no warning.
A fast-moving hiker or dog that comes upon them with no warning will alert them with their vibration. The rattlesnake will possibly bite if it cannot make a quick escape.
Rattlesnakes that are shedding will lose their rattle and can bite without it. Baby rattlesnakes will also not have time to grow a rattle, as they are not born with one. Rattlesnakes that are pregnant or wet (such as while swimming) may not be able to rattle effectively.
The ankles are prime targets for “no rattle” rattlesnake bites, so you need to look carefully when walking through tall grasses.
Do Rattlesnakes Get Angry?
Nobody knows if rattlesnakes feel anger. Most likely, their angry appearance and behavior is due to fear.
A rattlesnake that is aroused and in a fully coiled warning position may have a different quantity and toxicity of venom that it injects than one that bites quickly and flees. You may receive a little or a lot of venom, or only a dry bite. So, it is best not to push your luck.
What Time of Year Do Rattlesnake Bites Happen the Most?
Most rattlesnake bites occur during the months of April and October, when the weather warms up. This time coincides with snakes coming out of their cold weather lethargy and becoming more active. Humans also become more active in the outdoors — especially around water — during this time.
If you hear hissing or rattling nearby, just turn around and go the other way. If you keep your eyes open and stay on the path in front of you, you are likely safe from rattlesnake bites.
Nick Klamecki is a certified Fire and Workplace Safety expert with 15 years experience in product research and testing. He has a degree in Economics from U.C. Davis, is an active outdoorsman and spent years ensuring the safety of special needs children. Nick researches and tests workplace, industrial and safety products and provides advice on their safe use.