Many of us have an innate fear of tarantulas, seeing them as scary, dangerous or even deadly.
But how much truth is there behind the myth?
Is a tarantula dangerous to humans?
Can a tarantula kill you?
Or is the reality really rather different? Let’s find out…
- 1 Tarantula Defences
- 2 How to Minimize Your Risk of Danger
- 3 Conclusion: Can a Tarantula Kill You?
Tarantulas might look scary to many people, but to survive in the wild they need to find and kill prey, while avoiding becoming dinner themselves for larger animals.
Don’t forget that to many larger animals a tarantula can represent a large and juicy meal.
In order to achieve these goals tarantulas have two defences – both of which have the potential to affect you.
Firstly many tarantulas have urticating hairs that they kick off. These float in the air, turning into a cloud of irritating hairs. Contact with the skin can lead to intense itching and, while not deadly, is far from pleasant.
Secondly, and even better known, is the venom that tarantulas can produce when they bite. Tarantula venom can vary in chemical make-up between species, but generally acts both to incapacitate a potential prey item such as an insect, and to begin the digestion process.
So, can either these urticating hairs or tarantula venom kill you? Let’s look at each of these in turn…
As far as we know, only New World tarantulas (those from the Americas) have urticating hairs. They are generally (but not always) located on the tarantula’s abdomen.
If the spider feels threatened they can be rubbed off by the back legs.
They may also be built into the entrance to the spider’s burrow or included in the outer surface of eggsacs.
All this is designed to dissuade potential predators from attacking them.
The general effect of coming into contact with these hairs is an intense tingling, irritation and itching, which results in you scratching your skin for some hours or even days afterward.
The urticating hairs of some species is considered more potent than others, with species like the Goliath Birdeater (Theraphosa species) being particularly irritating. Personally I find the Salmon Pink (Lasiodora parahybana) pretty bad too. For this reason many tarantula keepers wear latex gloves when carrying out routine tank maintenance, so as to avoid coming into contact with these hairs.
So can urticating hairs kill you? Honestly, the likely answer is no. They might be annoying but the itching soon subsides. The effect can be rather more serious if you actually inhale them or you get urticating hairs in your eyes, in which case you are advised to seek medical advice.
All the same, urticating hairs are unlikely to kill you. So what about tarantula bites?
Just as some tarantulas have urticating hairs that are worse than others, so tarantula venom can vary between species.Generally speaking the Old World tarantulas seem to have the most “spicy” venom, and to be more aggressive or defensive in overall attitude.
This is in contrast to the New World tarantulas that, on average, are far more passive yet possess urticating hairs.
A good “contrast” would be between a Chile Rose tarantula – slow moving, quite unlikely to bite, and with only a weak venom – and the much-loved Orange Bitey Thing (OBT) which is fast-moving, aggressive and has far more potent venom.
So can a tarantula bite kill you? Most people who have been bitten by a New World tarantula describe it as feeling like a bee sting. There’s a small amount of discomfort and perhaps a little burning or swelling but this soon subsides.
Old World tarantulas can do rather more damage. Some verified stories in medical journals talk about intense pain for some days after a bite, joint stiffness and the entire limb that has been bitten swelling up. Even then, however, the unlucky recipient of the bite still survived.
Generally speaking, therefore, no matter how unpleasant a tarantula bite might be for a few days, it’s generally not going to kill you.
There is, however, one important proviso here. And that is anaphylactic shock. This is where your immune system goes into overdrive; essentially where you have an extreme allergic reaction to something. It can be dangerous because the airways can swell up, making it impossible to breathe.
Now it is possible to suffer anaphylaxis from a wide range of sources. Some people have nut allergies. Others are allergic to bee stings. And so it follows that there’s a chance you could be allergic to tarantula venom. Of course, tarantula bites are so rare that none of us will ever know if they will cause us an anaphylactic shock.
If in doubt, I would suggest you seek medical attention after a tarantula bite, especially if you feel the symptoms of anaphylaxis.
In general, however, unless you’re unlucky enough to suffer an anaphylactic shock, then a tarantula bite – while painful – is unlikely to be deadly for the vast majority of us.
How to Minimize Your Risk of Danger
So we’ve established that a tarantula can’t kill you. But it still makes sense to avoid unnecessary danger to your health. Fortunately there are some simple steps you can take to avoid danger.
Don’t Provoke a Tarantula
If you spot a wild tarantula then just let them go about their business – don’t prod and poke them or they may feel the need to defend themselves. A passive tarantula is perfectly safe and could walk across your bare foot without risk.
Keep Tarantulas at Arm’s Reach
If you’re a pet keeper with a New World tarantula then don’t let them get too close to your face. In this way, should they kick off urticating hairs they stand less chance of going in your eyes or up your nose.
When carrying out tank maintenance, for example, don’t get “up close and personal” with your pet, instead maintaining a reasonable distance and backing off further if you see your spider kicking off hairs.
Wear Gloves During Maintenance
If you’re particularly susceptible to irritating tarantula hairs then wearing latex gloves during cleaning and maintenance makes sense. Buy a box off Amazon and dispose safely after use.
Use Long Forceps
I’ve been keeping tarantulas for roughly 25 years and to this day I have yet to get bitten. That’s how unlikely bites are when you do things properly.
One of the most effective strategies here that has kept me safe is to invest in one or two long pairs of forceps. Mine are roughly 30cm long.
These forceps allow me to remove uneaten food, sloughed skins and so on without actually needing to put my fingers anywhere near to a live tarantula.
Get To Know Your Tarantula
Each species of tarantula is different, with some being far more prone to biting than others.
If you want to minimize your chances of getting bitten then get to know your tarantula properly. Figure out how fast-moving it is, and how likely it is to bite. You can then use this information to make informed decisions about their management.
Keep an Eye on Your Tarantula
Lastly, keep an eye on your tarantula when there is a chance of direct contact.
Check the cage before opening it, to avoid the chance that your spider is sitting right next to the lid.
Then when carrying out tank maintenance remain vigilant, as many spider bites simply come from keepers not even noticing how close the spider was to their hand.
The combination of intense concentration and long forceps have, so far, kept me from danger.
Conclusion: Can a Tarantula Kill You?
The answer to this question is quite simple: no, tarantulas cannot kill you.
That is, unless you’re unlucky enough to get bitten and suffer an allergic reaction. But you could get that from eating fish, or coming into contact with a pistachio nut, so it’s hardly the tarantula’s fault.
All the same, while not deadly, I still think it makes sense to take some reasonable precautions to avoid any danger to yourself. While not deadly, tarantula bites aren’t always nice, and so are best avoided if possible.
Fortunately after 25 years of tarantula husbandry, and having never suffered a bite, it’s clear that just a few basic precautions can help protect you from harm.
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