Keeping snakes can be fun and rewarding in so many ways. To maximize your rewards you will want to care for your snake properly to give them a happy and healthy life. There are many species of snakes, and they all require different heating, environments, food, lighting, and humidity levels. In this care sheet we are explaining basic needs, but please make sure that you research your specific species thoroughly before bringing home your new scaly friend!
Picking Out the Right Pet:
Bringing home a new pet can be so exciting! But you have to decide which species is right for you. With over 2,500 species of snakes, there are a lot to choose from! If you are looking for a snake that you don’t handle much but is very pretty to look at start researching Emerald Tree Snakes or Amazon Tree Boas. If you are wanting a snake that is normally placid, not crazy active, comes in many colors/patterns, and doesn’t get too big look into Ball Pythons or Corn Snakes. If you are wanting a smaller snake that burrows and has an adorable face maybe a Kenyan Sand Boa or a Western Hognose would be good for you! If you are an experienced snake keeper, can afford to feed bigger meals, and have the space, you may consider a Burmese Python or a Red-Tailed Boa. The coolest thing about snakes is that there are so many different kinds.
Before you go out and buy an enclosure, you need to know what kind of snake you are purchasing. Is your snake an arboreal species (meaning lives in the trees) or is it a terrestrial species (meaning lives on the ground)? If your new pet is a terrestrial species then you are wanting an eclosure that is longer than it is tall. Terrestrial species are minimal climbers, meaning they may live mostly on or inside of the substrate you provide. With terrestrial species, you also have to identify if they are a burrowing species or if they are more comfortable in snake hides.
If you have identified that your snake is an arboreal species. You will want to purchase a taller cage, either a glass tank that has doors that swing open or a PVC enclosure that also has doors that are easy to open. One cool thing about PVC is that you can custom order them with built-in lights, vents, and branches. Glass tanks usually have screen tops that you can set up misters and lights on top of. If you have an arboreal snake you will want to give your pet many branches and ledges to climb and rest on.
But what if your pet is a terrestrial species? If your snake is more of a hider instead of a burrower, you will want to provide many appropriate-sized hides. Make sure that your pet can comfortably fit under the hide, and that if it has any holes in them that your snake is not too big to fit. Snakes have a funny habit of getting stuck in hides as they can fit their heads and necks through but not the middle of their bodies and then can’t get back out. Hides can come in many shapes like skulls, castles, rocks, trees, or even spaceships! You can have so much fun decorating your snake's tank making it fit the theme of your home. If your snake is a burrower they may still enjoy a hide, but they are more likely to be under your substrate than sitting under a log. Giving a burrowing species a deeper substrate will help enrich your pet's life and make them feel safer.
Your enclosure will be the most expensive part of your supplies, but it can also be one of the most fun. Getting to customize it to your home, your theme, or look as naturalistic as possible is just a blast. Depending on your pet’s needs you can use many different substrates. The most popular is coconut husk or chips, but you can also use aspen wood chips made specifically for pet bedding, organic topsoil, sand, or different mixtures made for snake substrate. If you decide to do a bioactive enclosure you will need substrate and live plants along with rocks, tree branches, and realistic hides. The enclosure is your chance to get creative!
Heat and Lighting:
Great now we have the species and the enclosure. Now we need to make sure that we have proper lighting and heat. Studies are starting to show that snakes benefit from ultraviolet bulbs (UVB) and it is suggested that you use them. Arboreal snakes need a higher UV index vs terrestrial as they get more direct sun and in turn absorb more UV rays.
There are a few ways to heat your snake's enclosure. The first is a heat bulb. Heat bulbs come in red, blue, or white light. The red bulbs are meant to run all day and night but some people can find the red light irritating. The blue is for nocturnal species but it can also be difficult for humans as it's meant to run at night. Depending on where your snake's cage is these lights may not bother you. Many people use a heat and light combination bulb that runs during the day and then a red/blue bulb or ceramic heat emitters at night. Ceramic heat emitters are a lightless heat bulb that is good for 24 hour use.
The next option is to have a heat pad placed under the tank. Heat pads are a great option if you worry about lamps getting knocked over. Heat pads do come with some concerns though. You need to make sure that you place the pad on a surface that can not become flammable as they do get very hot. And with them getting that hot you do run the risk of burning your snake’s belly as they do not register temperature the same way that humans do. When you touch something hot you instantly register that it is hot and pull your hand away. Snakes do not register heat that quickly and get severely burned. If you are going to do a heat pad it is strongly advised to use a thermostat with it. You will plug the heat pad into the thermostat and the probe will tell the thermostat when to turn on and off so that it will not overheat and burn your pet.
All snakes need heat of some sort as they are cold-blooded and can not create their own. You will need to provide a “cool side” and a “warm side” of the enclosure as snakes will thermoregulate, meaning they will move back and forth to lower or raise their body temperature. The needed temps range depending on what species you have, but the warm side should be around 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit while the cool side should be 65-70 degrees F. Please research your species of snake and see what temperature requirements they have.
Food and Water:
Snakes are strictly carnivores, meaning they only eat meat. The prey for snakes can vary; from eggs, mice, birds, fish, rabbits, insects, and even frogs. Knowing the diet of your species is very important so that you can provide proper care and nutrition. You also need to decide what prey you are comfortable feeding to your pet snake. Some people find it very hard to feed rodents to their pets, even when they are frozen and then thawed out. If you feel this way maybe an insect or a fish eater would be better for you. Garter snakes are a great option for insect eaters. Food comes in two options, frozen-thawed (F/T) or live. It is always recommended to feed F/T as it is safer for your pet and less traumatic for the prey. It is also more convenient to have the food tucked away in your freezer instead of having to run to the pet store every week!
Snakes typically eat once a week but this can also vary. The factors can include the age of your pet, their weight, and what size of prey you are feeding. The rule of thumb is to feed something that is no bigger than 2.5 times the size of the biggest part of their body. Snakes are incredible and can eat food that is much bigger than them with a jaw that is hinged in the middle. They have very stretchy skin on their bottom jaw that helps their mouth expand. One of the coolest things is to watch your snake maneuver their food and swallow it.
Snakes need daily access to water. You can do this with a simple dog bowl, create a pool with your bioactive terrarium, or have a water bowl that looks like a rock. Some of them even have waterfalls! There are many options. A good guideline is to make sure that your snake can fully soak in it as it can aid in shedding and thermoregulating. Snakes do tend to poop in their water dish, so making sure it stays clean is very important.
Snakes need humidity in their enclosure as well. How much depends on what species you have. Desert dwellers need less humidity while tropical species are going to need much more. This can be achieved by installing misters, foggers, or using a spray bottle. Getting a temp/humidity gauge to stick in your enclosure is very helpful.
Health and Safety:
It is very important that you have the proper safety set up for your snakes. Snakes are escape artists so making sure that your tank is escape-proof and has locks on the doors is recommended. Some people find a snake hook to be very helpful. A snake hook is a long piece of metal with a hook at the end that is used to pick up the snake and move them. This can be very helpful if you have a bigger species or a species that is known to be a little feistier. They are a good tool to have around as they become an extension of yourself.
Snakes can have several health conditions that are common but preventable. The most common is a respiratory infection or an RI. RI is a snake’s version of pneumonia and seeing as snakes only have one lung it can be very serious. You will want to take your snake to the vet for antibiotics. An RI has several tell-tale symptoms. Open-mouthed breathing, mucous strings in the mouth, bubbles around the nostrils, and wheezing while breathing. If you see these symptoms it is very important to get medical treatment. RI’s are usually caused by your snake’s environment getting too cool consistently. Making sure your temps are correct will prevent this.
The next common one is mites. Mites are little black bugs that will suck your snake's blood. They get under the scales, in the eyes, and under their jaws and are very itchy. You will see them crawling on your pet and your snake will be soaking in its water bowl often to try and drown them and get relief. You will want to take your pet to the vet for treatment.
Burns are very common and this is prevented by having a thermostat on your heat pad. Heat rocks are never recommended as they do not have an internal thermostat and can cause very severe burns to your snake. You also want to make sure that your snake can never touch your heat lamps or daytime bulbs as that will also cause burns.
Scale or mouth rot is the next common. Scale rot is normally caused by your pet sitting in too damp of an enclosure or a dirty enclosure. Bacteria will attack their scales and cause infection. If this gets out of control it can cause large lesions. Mouth rot is normally when there is an injury and then bacteria sets in. You will want ointments and antibiotics from your vet to treat this.
Injuries are also common. Either from live prey items biting or scratching your snake or a piece of decor falling on your snake, you want to try and prevent injuries at all costs. But encase they happen it is important to have a vet that you can take your animal to.
Owning a snake can be a very fun adventure. From feeding your pet to decorating it’s enclosure as long as it is done properly, you can have 10-20 years with your pet! Keeping a snake is a long-term commitment, so making sure you have the correct snake for your family is very important. Always do your research!