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Critterguy / Care / Snakes
Care: Snakes

eastern garter snake
eastern garter snake
Basics of Captive Care

Although it is always best to study wild animals in their natural habitats, the keeping of common, non-protected snakes in captivity may provide some benefits to science educators and amateur naturalists. The following care suggestions are offered with the recommendation that wild specimens be taken only for well-planned educational purposes, and that only captive-bred snakes be purchased from pet dealers.

Recommended Species:
These species are fairly hardy and relatively common.
  • garter snakes are the best choice for beginning snake keepers
  • brown and red-bellied snakes are hardy, but spend much time in hiding
  • captive-bred rat snakes, corn snakes, and king snakes are also good choices for educational purposes

Protected Species:
The following are fully protected in Michigan and may not be collected or possessed.
Note: It is illegal to collect or keep these snakes. Check with the Department of Natural Resources website (visit their website...) for current rules before collecting any reptile!


Species Not Recommended:
These species are more difficult to keep, potentially dangerous, or grow too large.
  • Water snakes, milk snakes, and racers are nervous and prone to bite
  • while hognose and green snakes require special foods and are hard to feed
Note: Never keep venomous snakes (rattlesnakes, etc.) in schools or homes!


Your Snake Needs

Warmth (75-85°F), a clean dry, escape-proof terrarium or cage, water (for drinking and soaking), proper food, light, and a shelter to hide under.


More Detailed Information

Housing

brown (Dekay's) snake
brown (Dekay's) snake
A glass aquarium or large plastic storage container with a tight-fitting, ventilated cover makes a usable snake home. Cages can also be constructed of smooth wood but avoid wire screen on sides or front, as snakes may injure themselves by rubbing on it. Special snake cages are also available from some pet suppliers. Snakes are excellent escape artists, and will exploit any weaknesses or cracks in their cages. The trick is to provide proper ventilation without encouraging escapes!

Bottom Substrate must be dry and easily cleaned or replaced. Newspaper is good; commercial "reptile bedding" (aspen shavings, cypress mulch, etc.) or plastic "turf" grass is also usable. Do not use sand, dirt, cedar shavings, corn cob, or clay-type "kitty litter". These can cause health problems.

Shelters ("hide boxes") can be purchased (usually plastic) or made from wood or bark pieces. Most species need a place to hide, and some snakes won't feed unless shelter is available.

corn snake
corn snake
Some species, such as the rat and corn snakes, will appreciate a small tree branch to climb on.


Water

Water should always be available, in a heavy, tip-proof container. (Damp bottom substrate can lead to diseases in snakes.)


Lighting

Light and heat can be provided by an incandescent bulb over one end of the cage, protected so that the snake cannot burn itself. Also useful are commercial undertank electric heat tapes or heat pads. Full-spectrum fluorescent lighting (available from pet shops) may benefit long-term captives.


Temperature

Butler's garter snake
Butler's garter snake
Temperature for most species should be kept between 75 and 83°F. (Proper feeding and digestion will normally cease below about 70°F.) Use a thermometer; check daily. It is okay if the temperature drops at night as long as daytime temperatures are sufficient.

A temperature gradient from one end of the cage to the other is also advisable to give the snake a choice of temperatures. Use thermostat controls with heaters or pads to avoid overheating. Use automatic light timers to turn lights on and off to simulate natural daily and seasonal light cycles. (Latter is important if you wish to breed snakes.)


Handling

Don't over-do it; snakes like their privacy. Never pick up a snake by the tail or allow it to dangle unsupported. If snake is likely to bite, gently grasp it just behind the head and support its body with your other hand. Never pick up a snake unless you are certain that it is a non-venomous species.


Feeding

Each species has particular dietary preferences. Check a good herpetology reference (see below) before obtaining a snake, so that proper food will be available. General guidelines for a few species follow:
    garter snakes prefer earthworms, frogs, small fish

    brown and red-bellied snakes prefer earthworms, slugs

    rat and corn snakes prefer small rodents (mice, very young rats)

    king and milk snakes prefer small rodents, reptiles (including other snakes!)
Snakes can swallow objects larger than their heads, due to movable jaw bones, but don't over-tax this capability; two smaller items are better than one huge item. All snakes are totally carnivorous. Some snakes will eat only living, moving prey. Never leave a live rodent in with a captive snake—the rodent may injure or kill the snake. Most rodent-eating snakes will learn to take dead food, and many pet shops sell humanely killed, frozen rodents. (Thaw these completely before feeding!)

northern red-bellied snake
northern red-bellied snake
Feeding Frequency: It depends on the specimen. Young or very active snakes may eat several times per week, while older specimens may need only one meal per week. Snakes may go "off feed" if they are cool, or sometimes for other reasons (such as prior to shedding or egg-laying). Check for health problems if a snake refuses food for more than two or three weeks. New captives that refuse food should be released in their original habitat before they become ill.


Skin Shedding

This may occur at least 3 or 4 times per year (more often in young, fast growing animals). Skin should be shed in one piece; difficulties in shedding indicate health or environmental problems. A snake's eyes will turn opaque (bluish) a few days before shedding—this is normal. A snake may want to soak in water at this time to soften the outer skin layer. If a snake has trouble shedding (skin shreds or sticks), try soaking it in warm water while holding the head so that it can breathe. Do not pull skin pieces off by hand!


Health Problems

In captive snakes these are usually caused by stress, in turn often resulting from a poor cage environment or an inadequate diet. A damp cage can lead to sores on the lower scales. Swelling or redness in or around a snake's mouth ("mouthrot") can be serious. Gasping or fluid coming from the mouth or nose could be pneumonia. These and other snake diseases usually require the attention of a veterinarian trained to deal with reptile problems.


Exotic Species

boa constrictor
boa constrictor
Boa constrictors, pythons, and other non-native species are often available from pet dealers. These are often purchased by people unfamiliar with the specialized care needed by such animals. Most are from tropical climates and thus require warmer temperatures than native species. Consider the potential problems before you buy. Some of the larger pythons and boas are potentially dangerous to humans and, though not venomous, can deliver a nasty bite! Note that some pet dealers are very knowledgeable about what they sell, but many others are not. (As mentioned previously, the purchase of wild-caught snakes is discouraged, as pet trade collecting can damage natural populations.)


Releasing Captive Snakes

Never release any snake in a strange or unsuitable environment, or if it is in poor health. It is best to release snakes only into the area from which they came.


For More Information

Check out our Critter Field Guide or obtain a good written field guide. Also, many zoos, nature centers, and museums have personnel who can help with questions about captive or wild snakes, or can refer you to proper resources.


Recommended Books

Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region by J.H. Harding. 1997. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America by R. Conant and J.T. Collins. 3rd Ed. (1998, 1991) Houghton-Mifflin, Boston.

Michigan Snakes: A Field Guide and Pocket Reference (1989; rev. 1998) by J.A. Holman, J.H. Harding, M.M. Hensley, and G.R. Dudderar. It can be ordered from the MSU Bulletin Office, 10B Agricultural Hall, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824-1039. Ask for Extension Publication E-2000.

Snakes of North America: Eastern and Central Regions (2000) by A. Tennant and R.D. Bartlett. Gulf Publishing Co., Houston, TX.


eastern king snake
eastern king snake
Acknowledgement

James Harding
MSU Museum
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 353-7978
hardingj@msu.edu

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