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Handling and working around a pet tarantula

Handling and working around a pet tarantula

To the non spider enthusiast, the idea of handling a tarantula is probably right up there in the desirability rankings with the idea of pulling their own eyelashes out, but plenty of spider enthusiasts and arachnid owners happily hold and handle their pet tarantulas every day. There is much debate as to whether or not it is actually safe and appropriate for a tarantula owner to pick up, hold and handle their pet, and the standard advice given for any arachnid owner is actually not to ever handle or pick up their tarantulas at all, unless this is absolutely necessary and unavoidable.

Whether or not any owner or handler should handle their tarantulas and if this can in fact ever be done completely safely is not a question that we can answer definitively, and is a decision that can only be taken by the owner or handler themselves. However, one rule that all responsible arachnid owners should follow, is never to allow or encourage a child or minor to pick up or handle a tarantula in the home environment, nor to open the spider’s tank or enclosure or interact with the spider other than looking at it while it is safely caged.

Cleaning and working in your tarantula’s enclosure

One very obvious question from the first time tarantula owner is “How is it possible to clean the tank and work in my tarantula’s enclosure without handling them?” And this is of course a very valid point! It is important to clean out your tarantula’s tank, give clean water, remove uneaten food and any carcasses on a regular basis, and sometimes, to clean the glass, replace the substrate of the tank, and perform any other essential maintenance that is required. Tarantulas can be very territorial, and working around your spider when they are in their tank can lead to a range of potential risks and problems, from getting bitten, being targeted with urticating hairs, and even, watching your usually sedentary spider make a break for freedom via the open lid!

The best way to perform maintenance or do anything else to your tarantula’s enclosure that involves moving things in the tank or putting your hands inside the tank, is to find a way to secure your tarantula and isolate them from the area that you are working in.

This can mean either removing them from the tank altogether while you work, or partitioning the tank off into sections that can contain your spider while you do what needs to be done.

It is often preferred to remove the spider to a temporary holding enclosure altogether while working in the tank, as this way you can be sure where your spider is and that they are secured. However, this can prove stressful to your spider, and many owners find it greatly preferable to work carefully around their tarantula while they are still in the tank. It is possible to remove a tarantula from their enclosure without making contact with them by cupping or nudging them into a suitable container and then securing the base to lift them out, but you should always do this carefully and avoid making your spider feel threatened or defensive by pursuing them around the tank.

One rule to follow at all times when caring for your spider and maintaining their enclosure, is that you must keep yourself appraised of where your tarantula is at all times. Spiders are incredibly good at concealing themselves (even large spiders)! And this is particularly true of burrowing spiders who may have a network of burrows underneath their substrate. If you are not sure where your spider is, do not work in the tank; they may surprise you by appearing right in front of your hands and biting your fingers (which can look a lot like live pinkie mice)! Or by making a break for freedom through the open lid.

Picking up and handling tarantulas

If you want to or need to pick up your tarantula, this must of course be done very carefully, both for your own protection and that of your pet. While tarantulas are often viewed as hardened predators and can of course bite if threatened, they are also very fragile, delicate creatures that can very easily be hurt by rough handling, falling or being dropped.

Always use caution when handling or approaching your tarantula, and back off and abort the endeavour if your spider is particularly active or becoming stressed or defensive. Pursuing your spider around the tank and then making a grab for them is a recipe for disaster, and can easily lead to being bitten or hurting your tarantula.

The most commonly recommended way to pick up a tarantula is as follows:

  • Always wait to pick up your tarantula until they are still, calm, and not hungry!
  • Wear gloves to protect yourself from urticating hairs.
  • Take hold of your tarantula using your thumb and forefinger around their body between their second and third pairs of legs, supporting the abdomen underneath.
  • Once you have a secure but not pinching hold on your tarantula, pick them up smoothly. Tarantulas will instinctively stop moving once all of their legs have lost contact with the ground.
  • Once you have your tarantula in your hand, place it gently down on your other hand and carefully monitor its responses. If your spider is frightened, skittish, or raises its front legs in a defensive posture, place it back in its enclosure as quickly and smoothly as you can.
  • If your tarantula is still calm and not phased at this point, it will be able to walk over your hand and arms. You should move your free hand with your spider to make sure it doesn’t come close to falling off the edge of one hand. Always keep your spider restricted to moving over your hands and lower arms rather than ranging all over your body, so that you can always see where your spider is, protect them from any falls, and gauge their reactions.

Tarantula defences

If you are nervous or frightened of your tarantula, do not handle it without help from an expert. You should be calm and confident when handling your spider, in order to keep both of you safe and avoid causing stress or defensiveness in your pet.

It is important to keep an eye on your tarantula and gauge their reactions to being handled, to avoid a potential injury.

  • The stressed spider in pre-defensive mode will generally attempt to hide or retreat. This is the point at which you should abort the endeavour and put your spider back into its tank!
  • The second phase involves kicking hairs from the abdomen in the direction of the perceived threat; these hairs can cause itching and irritation which can sometimes be fairly pronounced but is generally localised and not dangerous. These irritating hairs from the abdomen are called urticating hairs, and are present on most types of tarantula.
  • If your spider is significantly distressed or trapped, they will often raise and wave their front legs at the perceived threat and show their fangs, in an attempt to make themselves appear larger and more threatening.
  • Finally, the spider will possibly eventually bite; this rarely happens without an escalation through the prior stages of warnings, or for no reason.