Snakes as pets

A beginnerís guide to successful snake keeping.

      Most snakes make easy pets to keep if you follow a few simple rules. It is important that you know what type of snake you would like to keep and itís needs, before you buy one. Is it the right snake for you?

      The following guide should help beginners keep the more familiar varieties of Corn, Rat, or King snake.

Initial Care

      Most species of snake are available as captive bred hatchlings. Wherever possible always buy captive bred animals - this ensures that you have perfect, healthy, trouble free snakes and you are not adding to the pressures on the wild population. When you buy your snake it will probably be a hatchling, about a month to six weeks old. At this age security is all important. Your baby snake will only eat if it feels safe. Snakes can be agoraphobic (frightened of open spaces) so keep the hatchling in a small (20 cm x 10 cm) plastic box that is well ventilated (lots of holes) and escape proof. Place the last 5 to 10 cm of the box on a heat mat so that the snake can thermoregulate. (see Heating)

      Provide a hide of some kind, I use inverted flower pot saucers with an entry hole cut in one side. A drinking pot is also needed, one that is difficult to overturn. Finally, use kitchen roll as a substrate (floor covering) and change this as soon as it is soiled. Warning, when replacing the lid on your snakeís box always check that the head is in and that the tail is in before you snap the lid closed. This ensures that the snake has a chance of growing up, I have seen far too many hatchlings crippled with a carelessly replaced cover.

      Feed one pinkie mouse every 4 to 7 days. As your snake grows you can offer it two pinkie mice. Then a fuzzy, and finally an adult mouse. The change from one size of food to the next depends upon the growth rate of your pet, not its age. Regurgitation;- (bringing up food) is usually caused by feeding pray animals that are too large, or by overfeeding, or the temperature is wrong, or most often by being handled or disturbed when trying to digest food.

      As the snake grows it can be transferred to a larger box or allowed the freedom of the vivarium. If the vivarium has sliding glass or plastic doors check that the hatchling canít escape between the two panes.

Housing

      A vivarium should be escape proof, easy to clean, well ventilated and have a heat gradient. It should also offer a degree of security to the snake.

      Converted fish tanks are cheap and adequate but not ideal. Make sure that the lid is escape proof and has adequate ventilation. All round visibility can be a problem, causing the snake to be nervous. Offer lots of hiding places and blank out some of the side/back glass.

      Wooden vivaria, usually made from laminated medium density fiberboard with sliding glass doors, are a better option. Make sure that all the joints are sealed with aquarium silicon sealer, not bathroom sealer. 100 cm x 50 cm x 50 cm (l x w x h) is adequate for most rat snakes or king snakes. Donít house king snakes together or they may eat each other. Remember hatchlings can often escape between the two glass doors.

      Plastic cages are very useful, often providing ideal accommodation for a hatchling or smaller adult. They are very easy to clean, cheap to buy and easily movable. If you opt for this type of accommodation be careful how you position the cage on your heat mat, it can split when in direct contact with the mat. It is probably prudent to repeat the warning about replacing or closing lids, always check that all the snake is in the cage.

Heating

      Temperate snakes, like rat snakes and king snakes can overheat. The temperature should be about 30c in the hottest part of your vivarium and, just as important, not higher than 25c in the coolest area.

      Probably the best form of heating for beginners are Heat Mats, these offer a gentle form of bottom heat and if set up correctly, can do no harm to your animal. The heat mat should cover not more than 1/3 of the vivarium base so the snake can Thermoregulate. This means that the snake moves between the warm and cold areas of your vivarium to control its body temperature. Snakes generally take in heat through their ventral surface (belly scales). They will sit on the heat mat when warming up, digesting meals, before a slough and when they are gravid (carrying eggs). Make sure that you buy a low wattage vivarium heat mat, (rather than an aquarium heat mat that may get too hot). These are very reliable, easy to use and affordable. They do not require a thermostat in most applications and are available in a range of sizes.

      Light bulbs are a poor way of heating your vivarium. They often cause burns when the snake tries to climb over them. They heat all the cage, not just the small area required for thermoregulation, only use them as a last resort. Most snakes donít require any lighting.

Feeding

      Healthy snakes eat well and pass solid looking droppings (faeces).

Try to ensure the following;-

Offer food of a suitable size (overly large mice may be ignored or regurgitated.)

Make the snake feel secure (put the food near itís hiding place)

Separate your snakes at feeding time to prevent problems.

Your snake may refuse to eat if;-

It is about to shed its skin.

It is too hot/cold.

The food is too big.

It has recently been handled or frightened.

It wants to mate (males only).

It is gravid (females only).

Food is offered at the wrong time (try evenings first).

The vivarium is overcrowded.

The vivarium is too large (hatchlings can be agoraphobic).

It is ill (look for signs - open mouth, odd behavior, etc).

      Always look for a simple reason first before panicking, keep written records of times when your snake has eaten, when it sheds its skin, what the temperature has been, and record any interesting or unusual behavior.

      It is never necessary to feed live mice to your adult snake.

      Hatchlings purchased from a reputable breeder should be problem free and come complete with a feeding record and lots of free advice. Always select a healthy, active hatchling from someone you know or who has been recommended. Ask for a phone number and/or an address. Remember - It's never cheap if it dies!

 Return to Care Sheets page                     David Kershaw

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