If your tarantula is ill or weak, put it in the ICU!

This past week we had a bit of a scare with Esmeralda, our Texas Brown tarantula. Esme was very weak and tucked up against the side of her terrarium.  When we touched her she seemed unable to support her body weight on her legs.  So we went through a mental checklist of what could ailing her.

1)    She could be about to molt.  Tarnatulas often become lethargic and stop eating before they molt.  Esme is a great molter; she usually molts overnight with no fuss.  Before tarantulas molt, they flip on their backs.  Esme was not on her back.

2)    She could be severely dehydrated. Signs include a shriveled abdomen and an inability to coordinate limbs or lift the body off the ground.  This is serious for a tarantula and they can die in a few days if you’re not careful.   Esme’s abdomen was fine, but her limbs were not.  This is where our decision to play it safe and put her in the ICU came into play.  We thought it might be good to write about this trick for ailing tarantulas, since so many science teachers have these animals in their classrooms.

Esmeralda, in the ICU. Note her legs, weak and held at odd angles.

Intensive Care Unit (Sort of)

The ICU for a tarantula is not high tech. (And we didn’t make it up.  It comes from a great book, The Tarantula Keeper’s Guide: Comprehensive Information on Care, Housing and Feeding by Stanley A. Schultz and Margaret J. Schultz.) Basically, it’s a clean, plastic container with air holes and a tight fitting lid. You place paper towels, saturated with warm water, on the bottom and place the tarantula in it. Take care there’s no standing water, as tarantulas breathe through book lungs on the underside of the abdomen. The point of ICU is not to drown; it’s to revive. The idea is that by raising the ambient humidity, tarantulas won’t further dehydrate through their book lungs and intersegmental membranes. Some keepers suggest that the spiders can drink the liquid from the paper towel and this helps to rehydrate them.

*A little about Tarantula morphology:  People mistakenly think that spiders suck liquid up through their fangs.  This is not true.  Spiders have a mouth opening behind the fangs and they imbibe liquids that are filtered through hairs that strain out larger, solid particles.


Holding a tarantula upside down provides easy access to the mouth.

Holding a tarantula like this can be a harrowing experience.

Before we placed her in ICU we decided to offer her some water in a more direct way by holding her upside down and placing a pipette of water at her mouth opening. Many tarantula keepers will take this step of offering water directly when there is fear of dehydration.  So we went with it. Begrudgingly.

We usually don’t never pick up our tarantulas this way.  We’re more of the tap-the-back-legs-and-let-them-walk-on-our-hands-if-they-feel-so-inclined kind of tarantula wranglers, so this was a nerve-wracking endeavor. Esme was still moving and definitely fought back against the pipette, however we were successful in getting some water into her mouth.

We placed Esme into the ICU on a heat pad and crossed our fingers that she would be ok.  Four hours later, we returned from teaching and she had molted and was looking much healthier!  Thankfully, she was just pre-molt and not gravely ill.  There’s no telling if the ICU helped in this situation, but we will try it again if it’s ever needed for any of our tarantulas. Phew!

Esme after her molt. On her abdomen, you can see the carapace of her exuvia still attached. We peeled it off.
















This original post can be found on Science Friday.