Garter Snakes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) with tongue out,

If you live in North America, the chances are that you have seen a Garter snake at some point in your life. Garter snakes are some of the most common varieties of snakes. 

Garter snakes are harmless. In fact, many people keep them as pets. Let’s talk a bit more about this fascinating animal.

At Environmental Pest Management, we respect and care for all aspects of nature. We understand that every creature has its place in the fabric of nature, even the ones that aren’t’ cute and cuddly. 

A juvenile Plains Garter Snake lies coiled in a gravel opening

How do I know this snake is a Garter snake?

Garter snakes are not the easiest to identify. They come in a wide variety of colors, but most have three stripes running down their bodies. The color of each individual snake and its stripes depends on its species. 

Some species have intricate patterns as well as stripes, making each one unique. 

Garter snakes are small, between 23 to 30 inches in length. They have been known to reach lengths of five feet in rare cases. They are often stout-bodied with a ridge down the center of their back. 

One more defining characteristic of the Garter snake is its dual-colored tongue. Some of the species of Garter snake possess a mild neurotoxic venom, but even those bites are not dangerous to humans.  

There have been some cases of mild swelling and itching in humans after a bite. Allergic reactions are rare, but they can happen. If you are bitten, you need to clean the bite immediately and thoroughly. 

Where do Garter snakes live?

The answer is, almost anywhere. Garter snakes are not picky in their preferred habitat. You can find them in meadows, woodlands, grassy knolls, and anywhere that is close to a source of water. 

The Garter snake can be found all across the North American continent. The largest population concentration of this snake can be found in the Eastern United States. In fact, it is the state reptile of Massachusetts. 

Interestingly enough, Garter snakes have been spotted in the Northernmost US state, Alaska. Alaska has no native snakes, so these appearances are a bit of a mystery. 

A Common Garter Snake coiled up on a boardwalk.

Garter Snake Habits

Garter snakes are shy. They will generally avoid humans and animal contact and prefer to be left alone. If you have Garter snakes in your yard or garden, chances are you may not even know. 

Garter snakes are incredibly active. They come out both night and day. They are typically ground-dwellers, but they may also climb shrubs, vines, or trees to escape predators. 

Some species of Garter snakes are even proficient swimmers. 

Whenever a Garter snake feels threatened, they produce a foul-smelling musk. They use this odor to defend themselves against predators. This musk comes in handy because the Garter snake has many predators.

Some of the common predators of the Garter snake include-

  • Hawks
  • Crows
  • Bears
  • Bullfrogs
  • Snapping turtles
  • Foxes
  • Squirrels
  • Raccoons

The species of Garter snake that live in colder climates spend their winters in hibernation. They gather in large groups and hibernate together in hidden dens. These clusters of Garter snakes can number into the hundreds.

Garter snakes will travel great distances to hibernate in their particular communal den. Some dens in Canada can contain thousands of snakes.

Garter snakes make excellent pets. Their small size and daytime activity level make them the ideal pet for someone who wants a snake. They are small enough that even children can hold them with an adult nearby. 

If you are considering adding a Garter snake into your family, don’t catch one from the wild. Depending on where you live, that practice might be illegal. 

Instead of facing the potential backlash that can come with the dangerous and potentially illegal catch, contact a pet store or breeder. You can even try to find a rescue organization. 

You can feel good in the knowledge that you have given a second chance to an animal that probably needed it. 

For your new pet, you will need a 40-50 gallon aquarium. Make sure it has a lid that can be secured. Your snake will need fresh water, and you will need to keep the tank in a warm place. 

Consider purchasing a heat lamp to keep your new critter warm. It would be best if you fill your new pet’s habitat with rocks and a bed of shredded paper. Just make sure you change the paper frequently. 

Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) basking

Garter Snake Diet

Garter snakes feed on all the pests that you would like to disappear. Some of the principal sources of food for a Garter snake include-

  • Slugs
  • Snails
  • Grasshoppers
  • Small insects
  • Small rodents
  • Worms
  • Frogs
  • Salamanders
  • Fish
  • Tadpoles

The neurotoxin found in the venom of Garter snakes can cause paralysis in their prey. They use their quick reflexes and sharp teeth to help them catch their prey. Like most snakes, Garters swallow their food whole. 

Garter Snake Reproduction

Peak Garter snake mating season occurs congruently with the hibernation period. Large concentrations of Garter snakes emerge from their communal dens. They also gather together in large numbers right before the hibernation period begins. 

For Garter snakes that live in warmer climates, they don’t hibernate. For those species, instead of a mating season tied to hibernation patterns, they rely on pheromones to find mates. 

The female Garter snake puts off a strong-smelling pheromone, which will attract dozens of males. After the mating is complete, the female snake carries the sperm inside her body until she is ready to fertilize her eggs. 

She will give birth to anywhere between 20 to 40 babies at a time. Garter snakes birth live young. The baby snakes are pretty much on their own right away. 

A garter snake crosses across rough pavement.

Garter snakes are incredibly common, but thankfully they are not dangerous for humans. Humans and Garter snakes can live in relative harmony together. 

If you have questions or concerns about Garter snakes or any other pests, contact Environmental Pest Management. We will make your pest problems our pest problems, and taking care of pest problems is our business.

21 Replies to “Garter Snakes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”

  1. I have a garter snake living outside of my patio door behind the single step that descends to the patio. I am afraid of accidentally stepping on it . I wouldn’t want to hurt it, or worse yet, have it bite me. I am also worried about it giving birth behind that step. Is there any way to discourage it from being there?

  2. Im in Georgia, about 20 miles north of Atlanta. There has been a juvenile Garter snake in my yard and basking in the sun in a big clay pot next to the garage. He is a black and grey base with 2 brown stripes on either side and a yellow stripe in the middle of his back. Actually a very cool looking snake. And of course that red tongue with black tip. Ive named him Enzo (Ferrari) due to his coolness and speed. I have no plans to relocate him. He’s welcome here 🙂

  3. I just caught a garter snake today, he left that foul smelling substance than was mentioned here it was bad. But the he kept striking at me so I named him striker. Of course I released him into the wild once I was done handling him. He actually bit me and drew blood. Dont worry garter snakes bites do not hurt. Their teeth simply feel like sand paper

  4. We found a garter snake and it was bigger than a normal garter snake but it was a garter snake also we have been seeing a lot lately I live in crescent springs,Ky and I don’t have a garden but the neighbor next door has one and a small pond she found one on her hanging plant on her porch and it also was bigger than normal

  5. We just moved to a new house, we are in Nebraska and in drought, so the crickets have been thick.. we’ve eliminated the crickets from the basement and sealed all cracks but still find tiny garters in the basement.. is it likely that babies were born down there and are hiding down there? Or did we miss a crack somewhere? Can they come up through the floor drain? They are usually very small, 5-6 inches and smaller and we only found one larger one before we sealed cracks.. that one was over a foot. There is no food down there, it’s been warm here.. did we seal in a bunch of babies?? My hubby picks them up and takes them to the creek across the street.. I am so fearful of any snake.. but I wouldn’t kill them.

    1. I actually have seen a Blacksnake aka. Racer or Rat snake eat a whole large Gartner snake in my back yard so I think the Copperhead would probably eat the Gartner instead

  6. Thanks for this! My husband found a baby garter snake stuck in a spider web in our basement and we purchased items to make a habitat for it so we could nurse it back to health. He seems to be doing okay now. I didn’t consider that it might be illegal to even catch it, but after reading this, found out that it’s completely legal here in Iowa. I also noticed that after we added some eco earth to his enclosure this morning, he’s been opening his mouth a lot more. I was worried and thought he might be sick, but now I feel like he’s probably just checking out this new addition. We’re hoping to be able to return him to the wild at some point, just wanted to help him survive (he was so cold we were afraid he wouldn’t make it). Who knows, we might end up with a new pet out of this!

  7. We have found 10 dead garter snakes of different sizes near each other and the area they hibernate/live. They were found the week of may 17, 2021 in a nature preserve in Chicago. What could be the cause? They did not appear to have been injured by any birds. Thank you, Kathy

  8. I was out back watering plants, and saw a yellow/black/green striped snake slithering between the fence slats. I checked online, and found that it’s a harmless Garter Snake. We respected each other, and left each other alone.

  9. Recently we have noticed a 20” garter snake, the hole is by our front step and it tends to lay in the black mulch of the flower bed to the side of the porch w/in 2 feet from the front door . We have seen him out every morning and evening for the last week, sometimes on the other side of the front walk periscoping out of the ground ivy.
    He/she doesn’t seem too bothered by all our activity and we use the front door constantly with our 3 teenagers.
    My concern is that we have two small dogs, one is only 5 pounds and very inquisitive. Is it dangerous if the snake bites the dog? What do we need to do?

  10. found a large garter snake in the chicken coop, along with eggs shells, dig the garter snake break the eggs and eat the yokes?

  11. Where the Garter snakes freely roam on my property, the mice do not! They are great neighbors to have along with the King snake.

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