Are Milk Snakes Poisonous: A To Z About The Hunting Style Of The Colubrid

Milk snakes are often confused with coral snakes. They look quite similar with red, black and yellow bands on their body, both being of the same length too. However, only one of them is dangerous. Are milk snakes poisonous? That’s exactly what we will explore in this article.

Milk snakes are found all over the forests and grasslands of North, Central and South America. They are quite shy by nature and hide within rock crevices most of the day. But do they bite? Are their bites dangerous? Without further ado, let’s find out the answers to these questions.

Are Milk Snakes Poisonous: Hunting And Defense Techniques

Do milk snakes hunt and defend themselves by using venom? This is a question that most pet-lovers ask enthusiastically when they are looking to adopt a milk snake. Let’s find out!

Milk Snake Hunting and Defense Techniques

Source: @nkfherping

Are Milk Snakes Poisonous?

Milk snakes are non-venomous snakes that belong to the large family of serpents by the name Colubridae. This family consists of non-venomous or mildly venomous snakes only. Milk snakes do bite but their bites do not cause any harm, with fatality out of the question. They are completely harmless and quite docile by nature, the reason why they are popular as pets.

You may have heard of Black milk snakes or Andean milk snakes that do look intimidating because of their surprising body length between 6 and 7 feet! This is quite unexpected in the milk snake genus since most milk snakes do not grow longer than 4 feet. Yes, it is true that most milk snakes do resemble certain venomous snakes, but they are not venomous themselves!

How Do Milk Snakes Look Like?

Milk snakes have the scientific name Lampropeltis triangulum, and this name gives a lot of information about their appearance. Both the words in the scientific name share Greek origin and they basically mean “three bright shields”, referring to the three colors of crossbands or scales that are present on a milk snake’s body. The scales act as a protective shield.

The three colors that decorate the body of Lampopeltis subspecies are red, black and white, where the red coloration may manifest as different shades on different milk snakes. They usually have a glossy black snout and black tips, with stark white marks present (or not) on the neck regions. The bellies of milk snakes have a checkerboard look with black and white marks.

It is owing to the tri-banded glistening appearance of a milk snake that it is often compared to some similar looking venomous species of serpents. However, milk snakes are totally harmless and we will get to know in the upcoming segments how we can differentiate a venomous snake from a non-venomous one. This distinction will come in handy if ever you need to identify one.

Which Venomous Snakes Look Like Milk Snakes?

Coral is Venomous Snakes Look Like Milk Snakes

Unfortunately, there are a bunch of venomous snakes that closely resemble the harmless colubrids in question. Because of this unlucky fate many milk snakes lose their life to persecution by humans. Coral snakes, for instance, of the family Elapidae, are venomous snakes that have a similar tri-banded appearance of the same colors as milk snakes!

Copperheads, of the genus Agkistrodon, are another species of serpents that resemble milk snakes. They are not as bright as milk snakes but they do have the infamous reddish appearance with brown or maroonish saddle-shaped blotches all over the body. They are of the same size as milk snakes ranging between 2 and 3 feet in body length.

The story does not end there. White cobras and black cobras resemble certain subspecies and morphs of milk snakes. Yes, we are talking cobras, the giant venomous snakes of the Elapidae family! Black milk snakes look completely black just like the black cobras. On the other hand, the completely white albino cobras resemble the albino morphs of milk snakes!

It is for this unfortunate resemblance that many people assume milk snakes to be poisonous, when in fact, they are totally harmless. But there is no need to worry as below are listed some ways that can help you identify a milk snake from a venomous snake.

  • Venomous snakes hiss and bare their fangs when they are ready to strike. Milk snakes do not possess any fangs. They have uniformly sized, small aglyphous teeth only.
  • Cobras are infamous for their “striking position” where they assume a raised posture with their neck vertebra all puffed up, resembling a hood. They also have large fangs and they hiss. Milk snakes do hiss but they do not establish a striking position as cobras do.
  • Venomous snakes are usually very aggressive and restless. When held by a snake handler, they constantly wiggle their body in a wave-like movement which exerts a lot of force. Milk snakes, on the other hand, are extremely gentle and do not hiss or bite unless persistently disturbed.
  • As far as coral snakes are concerned, though they have the same black, white (or yellow) and red crossbands on their body, they look more black overall, whereas milk snakes appear more red. There is a famous rhyme that may help you further: “Red to yellow, kill a fellow. Red to black, friend of Jack”. If the red crossbands touch the yellow ones, it is a coral snake. If red crossbands touch the black ones, it is a milk snake.

How Do Milk Snakes Hunt Their Prey?

Milk snakes, like all other snakes, have an acute sense of smell and a very interesting mechanism that helps them to smell. They do have nostrils but most of the smelling is done by their flicking, fork-shaped tongue. Whenever they encounter a foreign environment, they flick their tongue to pick up air-borne chemicals. The tongue is then brushed against Jacobson’s organs, a pack of chemoreceptors, located at the base of their nasal cavity to detect the odor.

Surely, snakes do not have ears like a caracal but they do possess inner ears that pick up sounds at low vibrations, especially the ones coming from the ground. In this way milk snakes can sense a predator approaching or a prey scampering away. Milk snakes are also quite sensitive to touch or pressure. A subtle brush from a leaf blade can make snakes highly alert.

Milk snakes are mainly nocturnal or crepuscular so they have slit pupils that allow them to have a good night vision. They are basically ambush hunters, meaning they remain hidden or motionless under, for instance, leaf litter or mulch, and strike as soon as the prey comes too close. The slit pupil helps focus their prey and make the vision sharper to increase efficiency.

Milk Snakes Subdue Technique

Source: @il_mayne

How Do Milk Snakes Subdue Their Prey?

As they are non-venomous, how do they kill their prey? That’s an incredible question since that would mean the subduing method would be quite arduous and time-consuming. That’s exactly the case with milk snakes. Milk snakes use the method of constriction where they form coils around the prey’s body, gradually tightening the pressure, to suffocate prey to fatality.

Milk snakes do not have fangs. They have only aglyphous teeth, which are small and slightly pointed, with the help of which milk snakes grasp their prey so that they cannot escape while the constriction process initiates. The skull and ribs of milk snakes are super expandable that make space for a large prey being pushed down the gut in one whole piece!

How Do Milk Snakes Defend Themselves From Predators?

Milk snakes, thankfully, possess plenty of self-defense techniques that they use when they feel uncomfortable or threatened. The first tactic is effortless because their body color and pattern has something to do with the way they defend themselves from predators. As previously mentioned, milk snakes look like coral snakes and copperheads. Though it might play out to their disadvantage at times, predators think twice before attacking a venomous snake!

Milk snakes are also notorious for mimicking the venomous rattlesnakes. These harmless colubrids, in order to intimidate predators, beat their tail-ends swiftly on dry leaves so as to make a rattling noise that closely resembles the sound that rattlesnakes make. Mimicking or looking like venomous snakes work both to a milk snake’s advantage and disadvantage.

Yes, milk snakes do hiss and bite, besides looking like venomous snakes. Their bites are, however, non-venomous and they do not have fangs that can tear through the tissues of the prey. Milk snakes are also known to emit a musky-scented substance from their cloaca, which is sometimes termed as milk snake poop, that deters predators and humans too.

Why Do Milk Snakes Not Poison Themselves When They Eat Other Snakes?

Milk snakes maintain an ophiophagous diet, otherwise known as cannibalism, where they do not hesitate to eat other snakes, including venomous snakes. So the question arises– doesn’t the venom of the victim snake affect a milk snake adversely? Milk snakes produce a venom neutralizing antidote in their body that prevents the venom from getting into their bloodstream.

Secondly, when a milk snake swallows a venomous snake, the venom from the venom gland of the prey enters the gut system of the milk snake. In the stomach of milk snakes, the strong acids and enzymes break down the venom into amino acids that get used up by the milk snake’s body. Venom is particularly harmful when it gets injected straight into the bloodstream.

What To Do If Milk Snakes Bite Me?

No snake bites should be taken lightly. Even if milk snakes are not poisonous, their bites, if strong enough to have torn your skin, may become infected if left untreated.

Wash the affected area thoroughly with soap and water, then dry it completely with a clean towel. Apply an antiseptic ointment to avoid any chance of infection.  If you see pus draining out of the affected area, accompanied with pain or itchiness, do not hesitate to visit the doctor.


In conclusion, we can safely say that milk snakes are not poisonous. They are harmless colubrids that hunt using their acute vision and smell organs, and subdue their prey by constriction. They are independent from the time they hatch, and remain just as ruthless.

They are beautiful to look at, with white, black and glowing red crossbands, as if hand-painted,  dancing on their glistening bodies as they wriggle about within dense vegetation or climb up trees. They are popular as pets mainly because they are non-venomous and gentle-natured.

Hi dear readers! This is Rebecca, the lead analyst and blog writer for Snake Insider. Following in the footsteps of David’s guided path, I feel highly encouraged to make the most interesting snake-facts to a mass audience! In due time, I believe we’ll be able to present some jaw-dropping insight on snakes that’s sure to leave you begging for more! Personally, I’m a strongly motivated person to explore the most extreme environments should my work demand it. In many cases, I’ve ventured deep into territories that were never considered certain snake habitats and brought back necessary information. Rest assured I’ll surely be sharing them with you over the course of time.

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