Saturday 16 November 1996 (Daily
Doctor's Diary: The charm of snakes
and their bite for life
By James Le Fanu
SOME people, I suppose, are just completely fearless.
How else can one explain the extraordinary story from
Birmingham of the 5ft python who appeared in Peter
Ellam's bath? And what did he do? "He attempted to
grab hold of its head, but the snake wrapped itself
around his other hand and then bit him." Luckily,
the snakebite turned out to be harmless - but still!
This story caught my attention as I had just come across
an article describing how keeping a pet snake can be good
for one's health.
It is by now well known that, for a variety of reasons,
keeping a dog reduces the risk of a heart attack. But
there has, so far, been little research into whether
other pets - such as snakes - have a similar effect.
But the question has been investigated in some detail in
the study of a man who has kept a pet boa constrictor for
15 years. While strapped up to a cardiac monitor, he was
asked to touch and stroke his snake. The machine revealed
a markedly beneficial effect on his cardiovascular system
- his pulse slowed and his blood pressure showed a
The only other account of the salutary effect of snakes
on human health involves a 70-year-old Australian woman.
While she was recovering from a heart attack, she woke to
feel a prickling sensation in her hand.
This, she soon realised, was caused by a snake she found
curled up in the bed beside her that had obviously slid
through the open French windows into her bedroom. It
turned out to be a tiger snake, which kills its victims
with a powerful anti-coagulant venom. This works in a
similar way to the clot-busting drug streptokinase.
"I explained to the patient she had received the
most modern treatment for a heart attack, albeit by a
rather unconventional route. She did not turn a
hair," reports the doctor describing the case in The