The other day I found myself at the home model and eccentric Jessie Lynn shares with third-generation coffin maker Jack Bennett — Jessie and I were planning to spend a few hours watching bad horror movies and drinking wine, but she also had new pets I was itching to take a peek at: hirudo medicinalis or, in common parlance, leeches. The vampiric triad, Louis Jordan, Louis Armstrong, and Louis Prima, came from an online supplier of medical leeches and lived in an old glass apothecary jar filled with water from the apartment complex’s courtyard pond as well as moss and some rocks. Thin and black, they swum through the water like little eels or weird fishes. I was fascinated.
“My desire to own leeches as pets probably started with having a pet snail named Willy, who resided in a gold gilded terrarium on my dining room table,” Jessie told me. “When Willy passed into the Great Mollusk Beyond I wondered what could possibly fill the space in my life and on my table. Clearly the best option to match the Haunted Victorian Brothel-esque decor in my home was a fancy glass jar full of tiny Lochness Monsters. They are magic to watch as they slither through their mossy water like speckled black ribbons. Even if I don’t choose to apply them topically they have certainly done wonders to relieve my anxiety as I stare into their miniature murky depths. Consider me a Leech Lady for life!”
Several weeks later I have two pet leeches of my own, who I christened Jack and Jessie after their reluctant godparents. They arrived in a plastic water bottle containing some “hirudo gel” which I imagine kept them moist during the transport and I quickly moved them into my own apothecary jar, already filled with water from the same pond. (Fetched via measuring cup since I live in a house next door, which I am sure made me look very normal as I cautiously walked the overflowing cup home.) Leeches do not require any aquarium pumps or filters and eat rarely, which makes them perfect low-maintenance pets. Jessie feeds hers raw liver, while the owner of the tumblr Leech Queen — one of the few available sources of information on leeches as pets — fills sausage casings with blood special-ordered from a butcher. I decided to try feeding mine on myself. Leech therapy, right?
Though hirudotherapy dates back to 800 BC, what usually comes to mind when we picture it is the practice of “balancing the humors.” (The four humors, by the way, are blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Totally legit.) In 1831, Manchester Royal Infirmary used 50,000 leeches to treat ailing patients! Just because the theory behind blood-letting was debunked, however, doesn’t mean the practice holds no modern medical value. Leech bites encourage circulation and along with anesthetics, leeches inject anti-coagulants when they feed — this means leech therapy can prevent blood clots and help reattach partially-amputated fingers. Pharmaceutical drugs treating hypertension, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and arthritis have been made using chemicals from leech saliva.
With a pair of forceps, I plucked one of my leeches out of its jar and set it on my forearm. I had read that they seek out pressure points and, sure enough, it quickly latched onto one of my arm’s trouble areas. Though I’m a skeptic, my personal philosophy leans very yolo; why the hell not, I figured. Better circulation and no trip to the grocery store to interact awkwardly with a confused butcher! The bite itself did not hurt much. There was a slight burning, and it felt like something between a bug bite and the first second of a flu shot. After feeding for thirty or forty minutes the previously thin, eel-like leech had plumped up to the size of a small slug and detached, rolling off onto my bed. I plopped it back into its jar and quickly dabbed the wound with a tissue.
The tissue wasn’t enough; I eventually rubber-banded folded paper towels to my arm, changing them out every half an hour until finally, maybe six hours later, I was able to keep the blood-flow contained with a mere bandaid. I attempted to feed the second leech as well, but it wasn’t hungry and crawled up and down my arms and legs, curious but unenthused about the Vatomsky buffet. Its movements were wormlike, which isn’t what I expected but makes perfect sense as leeches are in fact a type of segmented worm: the back sucker would stay in place while the “head” and front sucker explored almost like a snake, stretching out to several inches. If it found a place it liked, the front sucker went down and the back sucker came up to join it.
Back in their apothecary jar, the two leeches cuddled. Though the unfed one still swam around, the fat one lounged lazily. Occasionally, they twined around each other which, while sweet, also worried me since I knew hungry leeches could cannibalize fed leeches when kept in the same tank. Two days later, the second leech finally fed. The spot it chose was by my elbow on the outside of my forearm, and the feeding took over an hour before it detached, causing me to miss brunch. I texted a photo of the leech to the friend I was meeting along with the text “running late.” “WTF,” my friend replied. This time, the blood-flow was significantly less dramatic; I soaked through only two or three strips of paper towel before switching to a bandaid. I’m guessing both the suck-length (official term I just invented) and bleeding were due to that area having poorer circulation.
Currently, both leeches are nestled safely in their jar. I switched out their old water for new pond water, as it can grow murky when they shed their skins or are stressed. Leeches can be reused for hirudotherapy as soon as 5 days after, though they can live up to a year between meals. I will probably feed mine once a month, which is what Introverted Biologist, one of the few other leech-owners I could find online, does with her leech Vlad. Since leeches are hermaphroditic it’s possible mine will produce a joyous bundle of bouncing leech babies in the spring, though breeding is unlikely in captivity. In either case, I’m delighted to welcome them into my home.
Note: if you are interested in procuring leeches as pets, please, please do your research and plan to take care of them. While they are low-maintenance, they are living creatures and deserve to be treated well for the duration of their life. Not all leeches will feed on liver or other purchased meats, and feeding them on yourself poses a risk of infection, irritation, or allergic reaction.