It’s essential that any animal can protect itself from predators in the wild and tarantulas are no different. They spend much of their lives hiding in their burrows away from any other creature that may want to eat them. They also have large fangs and powerful venom which can be enough to knock out or even kill some possible predators. But some species of tarantula have one additional trick up their sleeve – urticating hairs.
Urticating hairs are found only on tarantulas from the Americas (“New World tarantulas”) which typically are less aggressive and have weaker venom than tarantulas from other parts of the world.
These irritating hairs are most often positioned on the abdomen of the tarantula though in some species they may also be found in other areas such as around the mouth parts.
When a tarantula feels threatened – either by a potential predator or an over-enthusiastic tarantula keeper – they kick the hairs off their abdomen which then create a cloud of prickly irritation in the air around them, allowing the spider to beat a hasty retreat.
Some species of pet tarantula seem far more likely to kick off their urticating hairs than others – with some tarantulas possessing an obvious “bald patch” on their abdomen thanks to repeated kicking of the hairs.
The Symptoms Of Urticating Hairs
Most commonly urticating hairs can get onto the skin of the tarantula keeper either during handling or routine cleaning and whilst not painful can lead to a “prickly” feeling on the skin which becomes red, inflamed and itchy.
Whilst not physically dangerous this itching can be very annoying and the effects can last for several days after contact has been made though some tarantula keepers have found that antihistamine gels have lessened the effect.
Whilst this is annoying on the hands and arms, the effects can be far more annoying if the hairs are breathed in – as can happen if ones face is too close to a tarantula. In this way the sensitive mucus membranes of the nose can become uncontrollably itchy for a period of time though once again it’s unlikely you will suffer from any permanent injuries as a result.
The greatest risk for the tarantula keeper is if the irritating urticating hairs get into ones eyes…
Urticating hairs in the eyes can lead to swelling, intense irritation and, according to some authorities, temporary blindness. As a result should you ever believe that you have managed to get these tarantula hairs into your eyes immediate medical treatment should be sought.
However I should say that after 15+ years of keeping tarantulas – and owning literally thousands during that time – I have never suffered from hairs in the eyes so with a little bit of common-sense the risks are almost non-existent.
Precautions For Avoiding Urticating Hairs
The media love to blow up stories about tarantulas and the “risks” of urticating hairs have been covered numerous times in the past. Unfortunately most of these stories are exaggerated and as stated the risks are minimal. That said, there are a number of precautions that can be taken if you have concerns…
1) Select A Tarantula Without Urticating Hairs
Hundreds of species of tarantula don’t even have any urticating hairs so arguably the easiest way to avoid the hairs is to simply not buy a tarantula has has them. Remember that Old World tarantulas – those from Africa and Asia – do not possess them and so this eliminates the risk. Equally, please be aware that tarantulas without urticating hairs are typically more likely to bite and may well have more potent venom – offering alternative risks to the tarantula keeper.
2) Minimize Handling
One of the most common times for a tarantula to kick off urticating hairs is when they are being picked up and handled as this can be a stressful experience for spiders. As a result doing your best to minimize handling will also greatly reduce the amount of hairs your tarantula kicks off. A side benefit of course is that a tarantula that sheds less hair will have little or no bald spot on it’s abdomen – making it more attractive to look at.
3) Keep At Arms Reach
As stated, urticating hairs on the hands and arms are annoying but rarely dangerous. However if they come into contact with the nose, mouth or eyes the risks are considerably higher. As a result try to keep tarantulas away from the face by holding them at arms reach and/or wearing a mask and goggles when interacting with them.
4) Wear Gloves
One final risk that is difficult to avoid is cleaning your tarantula cage. Whilst giant spiders are clean animals and need minimal maintenance they do have a habit of placing urticating hairs in and around their cage to dissuade predators. This is especially so if your tarantula has moulted recently. As a result picking around your tarantula’s substrate during cleaning can result in contact being made with urticating hairs so if this is a concern of yours wear gloves during routine cage maintenance tasks. Even thin latex gloves should be enough to protect you.