Tarantulas As Pets
Tarantulas are fuzzy arachnids most notable for their size and hairy appearance, and include over 850 different kinds found on nearly every continent. Terrestrial tarantulas burrow in the earth and spend their time on the ground, while arboreal tarantulas live in trees and make cocoon-like nests out of silk, rarely touching the forest floor.
The popularity of tarantulas as pets has grown in the past few decades. And why not? They are a noiseless creature with minimal requirements, and many tolerate handling. As the need for smaller living spaces and busier work schedules increases, tarantulas have become perfect apartment companions. Pet spiders require very little space and are easy to house and feed. You can find tarantulas available at pet stores, reptile shows, even online breeders and dealers. For those seeking a unique, undemanding pet, a tarantula is a fine choice.
Yet cautions that will accompany any animal you consider to purchase. Cats may scratch, birds may bite, lizards may whip their tails, even frogs are capable of releasing unpleasant secretions that can irritate your eyes should you rub them after handling. Tarantulas are no different from other animals in that respect. They have their limits, they have their reasons, and some may defend themselves if they feel it is necessary to do so.
When Tarantulas Get Scared...
A tarantula’s first act of defense is to scurry away from the danger in a flurry of little hairy legs. If this doesn’t work, many will actually flick hairs at their attacker. A tarantula accomplishes this peculiar feat by using one of its back legs to repeatedly rub its abdomen and shake loose the guard hairs that coat it. Because of the vigorous rubbing and the gossamer quality of the shafts, these urticating hairs become airborne in the intended direction of the enemy. This defense is enough to discourage most predators, because the hair is extremely itchy to sensitive areas of the skin. In humans, these hairs can cause an irritating rash, and if a witless person were to rub the hairs in their eyes for some reason, they would need to seek medical treatment immediately.
Did you know? Tarantula hair was once used as an actual ingredient in itching powder, a practical joke item that is still sold in novelty stores to this day!
But when it comes to spiders, everyone seems interested in only one thing: the bite. Which one has the most dangerous bite? Where do the most dangerous spiders live? How can I tell the difference between a brown recluse and a garden spider? How long can I live if I'm bitten in the eye by a black widow?? Sensationalist media and fear-mongering members of society who are content to spread misinformation and panic seem to enjoy nothing more than to talk about the potential eight-legged horrors that could be lurking just outside your front door, all the while simultaneously ignoring scientific data and simple facts.
Tarantula Bites: Fact And Fiction
The thought process in the minds of most people is that if something as small as a black widow or brown recluse can rack up the death toll in the United States, then surely a South American jungle spider that is twice, thrice, or even ten times as large would have an even more potent bite to correspond with their greater mass! But fortunately, this is not the case. The size of many tarantulas is daunting to fearful onlookers, but in actuality tarantulas have fairly weak venom, and those bought in pet stores do not pose a threat to human safety. In fact, there is not a single documented case of a tarantula killing a human being, even among the most dangerous tarantulas in the world.
Like most animals, tarantulas will give warning before actually attacking. If they feel they are unable to escape, typically a tarantula will raise its front pairs of legs and show its fangs, or it may lunge aggressively toward your hand. This is the tarantula saying "Back off, buster, I'm not in the mood right now!" But if this posture does not discourage an assailant, it may strike. So if you see your spider acting in this manner, it would be wise to give the little crankypants its space.
The tarantula does have a venomous bite, just as all spiders do, but its venom is designed to take down prey much smaller than you or I. The bite of most tarantulas is similar to that of a wasp sting, where redness, soreness, and inflammation of the bite location will occur. In the case of very large tarantulas, the mechanical puncture of their fangs into human skin may produce a minimal amount of blood, which will heal just as pin pricks do. (The tarantula may sink both fangs in during a bite, or only one.) The other symptoms fade in a few days, and it is quite rare if any other side effects are experienced (obviously not accounting for possibly serious allergic reactions, which affect approximately 2% of people when stung by bees).
Tarantulas are capable of "dry biting." A dry bite is one where an attack and a successful puncture occurs, but no venom is injected. The result is one or two holes in the skin, but no other side effect. It is just that. A "dry" bite! Some tarantulas are more likely to dry-bite than others, but it depends on each individual and what they personally feel is worth losing venom over. Some, it seems, simply don't want to waste their reserves if they don't plan on eating (venom is crucial to the tarantula's digestion process when dining on prey).
Tarantulas typically don't want to start trouble (unless you happen to buy a species that is renowned for its aggression), but let's touch on some precautions you can follow which could help you avoid bites. You should always use caution when handling your spider. Tarantulas are big babies and could easily become startled from sudden movements, large vibrations, changes in lighting, or even air flow (never blow or breathe directly on a tarantula!). When animals get scared, the "fight or flight response" occurs in their brain, and they choose one or the other. Even if the thing that scares them is not you, you may find yourself the receiver of a nervous nip, similar to the way that birds may bite on to your hand if they fear they may fall to their death.
- Picking them up. The safest way to approach a spider is by being slow, quiet, and calm. It is wise to have a tool at your disposal (I prefer reptile feeding tongs, but paint brushes work as well) which you will use to "test" the amiability of your spider before you attempt to engage it. Gently nudging the spider's abdomen or legs with your tool of choice, note the behavior that follows. If the spider turns around swiftly, rears up, or bites the tool (you will feel a hard 'scrape' and may hear a noise as the fangs contact the object), the tarantula is probably not in the mood to play. If the spider is slow to response, turns around but makes no other movement, or simply sits there, it is generally safe to continue. Before handling any of my spiders, I test them with this method. I then coax them out by gently prodding their rumps and goading them forward until I can get them to walk onto my hand. Please note that if you regularly feed your tarantula with tongs, they will associate tongs with food and will leap hungrily at them with fangs out, whether they are willing to be held or not.
- Holding them. Always make sure the spider has all legs supported when you hold them. Some tarantulas like to crawl—a lot—so just keep switching out hands so the spider can move across them. It is recommended to keep a tarantula on your hands only, unless you are quite confident in yourself and the behavior of your own spider, in which case it may be all right to allow the spider to roam elsewhere. Remember to hold the tarantula over a surface or while sitting down. If a tarantula falls from a height of just three feet, the impact could break the poor spider's abdomen apart, which could lead to instant or painfully slow death. If you are hesitant about handling your tarantula, it's best to refrain from doing so.
When A Bite Occurs...
In the unlucky event that you are bitten by your tarantula, hastily clean the wound with hot water and soap. In most cases the bite may be uncomfortable for a few hours, and it may remain itchy for up to a week, but this is normal and is the body's natural response toward recovery. Cold compresses are often recommended for bee stings, and over-the-counter pain relievers such as Ibuprofen have proven to reduce some discomfort. There are some individuals who swear by the method of running bite sites under scalding water, the heat of which is said to help neutralize or inhibit the spread of venom. Medical evaluation is rarely necessary for a tarantula bite incident
Anaphylactic shock can occur when certain proteins in animal venom spark a severe reaction from the body, causing a flood of histamines and other inflammation-inducing cells to surge through the bloodstream. This causes inflammation of the skin, constriction of airways, and even cardiac arrest in severe cases. Allergies to bees and wasps are typically very rare, but since the venom of wasps in particular is similar to that of tarantulas, it is safe to assume that anyone allergic to bees could be allergic to spiders, and should probably avoid tarantulas as pets.
When is Hospitalization Wise?
As mentioned above, mild itchy symptoms are normal. But, if you feel trouble brewing in places other than the localized area of your bite wound, be on the alert. Symptoms to look out for:
- increased heart rate
- aches in the joints or limbs
If your mild symptoms continue for longer than a week, or the itchiness and redness spreads, this may also be cause for concern. If you are bitten and are afraid you may be having an allergic reaction, or the venom is having a potent effect on you, make sure you receive medical attention as soon as possible.
The good thing about pet tarantula bites is that identification of the culprit is confirmed (identification is paramount with antivenin treatment). Unfortunately, this knowledge is relatively useless seeing as how there is no tarantula antivenin available anyway. This is because tarantula bites are typically nothing to worry about and are not common. However, in the case of more potent species of tarantulas (ones you are not likely to find in pet stores), some bites may require hospitalization, if only to acquire pain medication.
Types of Tarantulas and Their Respective Bite Reports
These are the most commonly kept tarantulas, and the most commonly found in pet stores. Though they are marketed as being the friendliest of all tarantulas, they actually can cop quite the attitude in comparison to some other more docile species (such as Grammostola pulchra). But rose-hairs are known for their harmless bites which cause mild symptoms that fade within a few days. Least concern.
This is another common tarantula that can be located at nearly any Petco. They are very unwilling to bite, and when they do bite the symptoms are minimal. "No worse than a bee sting" is the adage that you will hear from the privileged few who have experience with the bites of this species. These spiders also do not kick hairs. Least concern.
Mexican Red-Knee Tarantulas
Another common tarantula found in pet stores, with similar bite results as the two species listed above. Simple, non-damaging, easy to live with. The real concern with these guys is their love of kicking hairs. Their hairs are itchier than those of other tarantulas. Least concern.
These tarantulas are the largest spiders in the world, but the symptoms from their bites are no worse than those from the species listed above, with the only difference being the mechanical pain resulting from this spider's large fangs piercing the skin during an attack. Theraphosa blondi can attain fangs approximately 1 inch long. Pain, though it can be sharp, lasts no longer than a few days and is not usually anything to be medically concerned about. Some concern.
King Baboon Tarantula
Bite reports for this species vary, and can be as innocuous as mild pain and slight bruising at the bite wound, to nausea, fever, and muscle cramping in the affected limb. One case even documented a hallucinatory episode. Some people seem to be much more sensitive to the venom than others. It is also plausible that the amount of venom being injected by each individual spider differs in big or small ways, which may account for the gradient of severity. Fortunately for the safety of irresponsible impulse buyers everywhere, this spider is not sold in stores. Some concern to high concern.
Poecilotheria is a genus of very attractive tarantulas which include the Indian Ornamental, Fringed Ornamental, Gooty Saphire, and many more. These are not spiders you will find in your everyday pet store, and for good reason. Though not terribly aggressive, they are impeccably fast and will not hesitate to bite if they feel cornered. Their venom is arguably among the most potent of all tarantulas kept as pets, with reports typically including nausea, vomiting, and severe muscle cramping. Increased heart-rate can also occur at random intervals, as can fever, dizziness, and body aches. When bitten by these animals, most people will visit the hospital for muscle relaxants, analgesics, or cautionary monitoring. This is not a spider for beginners! Most concern.
Tarantulas as a whole should be treated with respect, not fear. They may bite to defend themselves on occasion, but unless you own a particular group of tarantulas with reportedly potent venom, even if you are tagged you have little or nothing to stress over. Many people have been in the business of tarantula keeping and breeding for decades without getting nicked once. Bites shouldn't be dreaded; they are a very small part of animal care in general.
So if you are concerned about buying your child a tarantula, or nervous about getting one for yourself, just know that the worst you or your kid will ever feel if bit by one typically found in pet stores is the initial surprise of the attack. Assuming you are not allergic, effects are not long lasting and the minimal pain will subside. I promise. It's no worse than a bee sting.
More About Tarantula Bites