How Do Snakes Breathe?

Do you wonder if snakes breathe like us?

Are you curious about how your pet breathes?

It’s obvious snakes and humans are two very different types of animals. 

However, just like us, snakes also need to breathe. 

This may leave you wondering: how do snakes breathe?

Snakes can breathe via their nostrils or glottis, a small opening located just behind the tongue, which opens into the windpipe. The air travels through the windpipe and into the snake’s lung(s).

Although both snakes and humans need to breathe, there are some precise differences in how we do it. 

Keep reading if you’re interested in learning more about snakes and how they breathe.

how do snakes breathe

What Makes Up A Snake’s Respiratory Tract?

There are several components to a snake’s respiratory tract. 

The external nares are the nostrils you see on their snout connected to the nasal cavity and internal nares. 

These lead into the glottis, closed when a snake isn’t inhaling, then the windpipe, and then to the lung. 

Most snakes only have one functioning lung, with the other usually small and non-functional or entirely absent. 

The functioning lung is elongated and extends through the snake’s body, taking up most of its torso. 

Unlike humans, snakes do not have a diaphragm to assist with breathing. 

Instead, they contract and relax the muscles around their rib cage to inhale and exhale. 

This technique allows them to fill up with oxygen adequately.

Can Snakes Breathe While Eating?

Yes. Snakes have an interesting mechanism to continue breathing while they’re ingesting large prey. 

Think about it: 

When a snake unhinges its jaw to consume prey, which takes up the entirety of its mouth, it seems to block off its airway. 

While snakes do have the ability to hold their breath for more extended periods, ingesting prey can take quite some time. 

They don’t chew their food and instead swallow it whole. 

They’ve had to develop ways to continue breathing and supplying oxygen to their body while eating so they don’t suffocate. 

This relies predominantly on their glottis, a small opening usually located behind the tongue, which actually migrates during ingestion. 

It moves over to the side of the mouth, elongating the entire respiratory tract in the process. 

This allows the snake to continue breathing as it eats. 

When it’s done, the glottis moves back to its normal position.

Can Snakes Breathe Underwater?

Not in the traditional sense, no. 

Fish can breathe underwater using their gills, which process water to extract oxygen from their surroundings. 

Their entire system depends on being in the water, as they cannot breathe air. 

Snakes do not have gills. 

However, they are excellent swimmers and can hold their breath for long periods, allowing them to stay underwater for longer than humans. 

Certain species, like sea snakes, have adaptations which allow them to survive underwater for even longer. 

These snakes live in the water but still need to resurface now and then to breathe air. 

They’re generally able to stay underwater for up to two hours before needing air. 

More recently, scientists have discovered a network of vessels on their forehead, which allows them to exchange some oxygen from the surrounding water in a process called “cutaneous respiration.” 

The word cutaneous refers to the skin. 

Sea snakes also have a longer lung, which extends throughout their entire body, allowing them to store more oxygen for use later.

Can Snakes Breathe Underground?

If you own a burrowing snake, you may have noticed they spend a lot of time underneath their substrate. 

Plenty of snakes out in the wild do this as well, choosing to bury themselves for extended periods. 

How can these snakes breathe when they otherwise look suffocated? 

Snakes are generally smart enough to burrow into areas which are shallower and allow sufficient space for themselves to move around. 

This means they allow enough room around their heads for breathing purposes. 

Additionally, they can extract oxygen from the space within the substrate itself, as soil and other ground alternatives are usually pretty airy and less compact.

What If My Snake Sounds Like It’s Having Trouble With Breathing?

Owning a snake means understanding which behaviors are normal versus behaviors which may indicate concern. 

Firstly, if you are concerned at all about your snake’s health, you should take it to the vet for proper evaluation. 

It is often difficult to diagnose a snake’s condition without the input of a trained professional. 

Regardless, if you notice your snake has some difficulty with breathing, including wheezing or making noises, you should consider a few things. 

Labored breathing with wheezing or discharge could mean your snake has an upper respiratory infection, which requires treatment. 

This can occur if your snake is in contact with another sick snake, or if its immune system has been overwhelmed in the case of severe stress or environmental changes. 

Parasites, like Rhabdias and Pentastomids, can infect snakes and live in the respiratory tract, causing issues.

A less concerning cause of wheezing is shedding.

Your snake may be struggling to shed, causing a more difficult time with breathing, though this will resolve after the shedding is complete. 

It’s helpful to soak your snake if this is happening, as it facilitates the shedding process. 

However, if your snake is wheezing for longer than a day or two after shedding is complete, you should consult a veterinarian.


Understanding how snakes breathe is essential for snake owners, especially regarding knowing when to be worried. 

It’s also fascinating information for anybody who likes learning about snakes and the qualities which make them unique. 

Hopefully, you were able to learn something new about your favorite reptile!

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