The large and hairy tarantula has a fearsome reputation. You’ve probably heard tales of the highly venomous spider that delivers a venomous sting strong enough to knock a man out cold. Yet, despite the notorious reputation of this spider, it is becoming increasingly popular as a household pet in many countries worldwide. If the tarantula is so venomous, why do people still keep it as a pet? That’s probably because tarantula venom is not as terrible as rumors say.
In fact, you may be shocked to find out that tarantula venom is not as harmful to humans as it is fondly touted. Read on to find out whether tarantula bites can kill you and if the myth of their deadly venom is true.
Are Tarantulas Venomous?
Yes, tarantulas are venomous. All species of this spider have an appendage close to their mouth called “chelicerae.” The spider uses this fang-like appendage like a hypodermic needle to inject its prey and deliver potent venom.
Tarantulas are carnivores, and they need their strong venom to take on prey. Although they mostly eat insects and smaller spiders, some species are large enough to take on bigger prey, such as lizards, rodents, birds, and even snakes. They can also defend themselves against bigger animals that may try to prey on them. To do all of these, tarantulas rely on their potent venom.
To kill prey, they inject a venom strong enough to immobilize the prey as quickly as possible to prevent it from getting away. The tarantula’s venom is a type of nerve poison. It attacks the electrical signaling system of their prey’s nerve cells, immobilizing the animal instantly. This way, the tarantula can secrete digestive juices that liquefy the envenomated animal from the insides, making it possible for the spider to suck it out.
Can a Tarantula Bite Kill You?
Although the thought of a tarantula biting you is horrifying (and you should avoid it as much as possible), you should know that claims about a tarantula venom being strong enough to kill a man is just a myth.
Put simply: the tarantula venom is not strong enough to kill. The toxin itself is relatively harmless to humans. Of course, a tarantula’s bite is quite painful, and being bitten by one is not a pleasant experience. Many have compared the pain to getting stung by a bee.
For most people, the effect of a tarantula bite rarely goes beyond localized pain and redness. However, a few people can experience severe allergic reactions due to the venom. This may be life-threatening, especially if no medical attention is provided. In rare cases, some victims have reported hives or contact dermatitis. These side effects are more of allergic reactions to the toxin rather than a direct effect of the venom. Gangrene has also been reported in extreme and rare cases.
So far, there’s no record of a tarantula stinging anybody to death. They don’t deliver multiple stings, and they’re primarily solitary. That’s not to mention the fact that many tarantula species are pretty docile. A few species are aggressive and will attack any intruder on sight. However, most of them won’t attack humans unless they feel threatened—in which case, get ready for an excruciating bite. The potency of the venom also varies from one species to the other. Tarantula species from Asia and Africa typically have venom toxic enough to send you to a hospital and are often quite aggressive.
What Happens if a Tarantula Bites You?
Although a tarantula bite will not kill you, it’ll definitely leave a mark. Depending on the spider species, you may experience mild to severe pain. The site of the bite will also be red, warm, and swollen for a few days. Victims sometimes experience itching, bumps, or blisters at the bite site.
People who are allergic to tarantula venom will experience more severe symptoms. This may include:
- Troubled breathing
- Skin rashes
- Puffy eyes
- Swollen throat and lips
- Low blood pressure (hypotension)
- Rapid heart rate
What Should You Do if a Tarantula Bites You?
Most victims of tarantula bites recover well with home treatment. Itching and irritation often subside quickly, but the pain may last several hours. Only in rare cases do spider bites result in hospitalization.
Bleeding may occur at the site of the bite. In this case, immediate wound care should be administered to stop bleeding and reduce pain or inflammation. Some of the things you can do include:
- Wash the site with water and soap
- Place ice on the area to relieve pain and swelling (anti-inflammatory)
- Keep the affected limb in an elevated position
- Use topical steroids and anti-allergy drugs to alleviate itching
- For severe pain, use pain relievers.
Although tarantula venom will not kill you, a bite can be extremely painful. If you keep one as a pet, you should handle it carefully. They’re mostly docile but will attack if they feel threatened.
Aside from the venom, another reason to handle tarantulas with care is due to their hair. In addition to contributing to their fierce appearance, the hairs on the tarantula’s body are a potent defense mechanism. When threatened, many species of this spider fling their hair at an attacker. Although it contains no venom, it can irritate the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes, causing itchiness, hives, and other side effects. The hair can also cause severe allergic reactions in some people.
Finally, keep tarantulas away from pets and babies. Although a bite from this spider will not kill a full-grown man, it can kill your dog. Dogs are susceptible to tarantula venom. The effect is rapid, and the dog may die within 30–120 minutes of a bite if proper care is not administered.
Tarantula bite can also be fatal for babies. Keep your little one away from the spider. For people with a history of allergic reactions, you should be particularly careful with this spider and avoid contact as much as possible. In case a bite occurs, you should seek medical attention immediately.
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- MedicineNet (1970) medicinenet.com/are_tarantulas_harmful_to_humans/article.htm
- Scout Life, Available here: https://scoutlife.org/outdoors/wilderness-first-aid-qa/37890/are-tarantulas-dangerous/