An Introduction to Snake Keeping
With there being over 2900 species of snakes across the globe, and many being available as pets, you’re sure to find a pet snake you love! Snakes are great pets because many of them are quite docile, they’re easy to hold and are simple to care for. They’re clean pets, pretty much odourless and are quiet. They don’t cost a whole lot to maintain either, because unless you’ve got one of the larger snakes such as a boa or a large python, they don’t eat much or often either!
All snakes are pretty quick when they want to be and they all have a similar body shape but they do differ quite a lot in their sizes. The smallest snake is the Barbados Threadsnake measuring just 10cm. On the other end of the spectrum is the largest snake species, the Giant Anaconda, which can grow up to 30 feet!
Neither of these are really kept as pets though, most pet snakes average around 4 to 5 feet when fully grown. Exceptions to this are some boas or pythons which grow larger than this. In terms of life spans, snakes in captivity typically live for between 15 to 20 years. Some snakes need experienced keepers but many snake species are beginner friendly.
Their aggression levels are variable, there’s some that always bite, some that occasionally bite and some that either very rarely or never bite. Typically, captive bred snakes are more calm with a relaxed nature and they’re easier to tame than those caught in the wild. Different snakes also have different feeding and care requirements.
When you first get your snake it’s a good idea to learn a bit about them beforehand to make sure the snake is right for you, and you’re right for the snake. For example if the feeding isn’t something you can manage then getting a bigger snake that requires much more food might not be for you.
Beginner snakes are typically smaller in size and are usually bred in captivity which have a more docile temperament. We’d suggest researching Corn Snakes, King Snakes, Garter Snakes, Milk Snakes and Ball Pythons. If you specifically want a python as your first snake then we’d suggest going with the Ball Python.
Snakes are typically solitary creatures and in nature they’ll only gather during breeding season or during hibernation. Other than this, they pretty much just stick to themselves which means keeping one snake by themselves is absolutely fine. It’s possible to keep two females together but they need to be fed separately so as not to compete for food and fight. Male snakes should not be kept together.
Your snake's enclosure is incredibly important because it's where they’ll be for most of their life, it needs to resemble their natural habitat and should cater to all of their needs for being secure (snakes are the houdinis of the animal world), clean and sheltered. Snakes don’t really play with toys, instead they’ll nap and rest a lot then explore their environment, so any openings or holes are fair game for them to try and squeeze through. Because of this you need to make sure that holes where wires are leaving the tank need to be covered, and sliding glass doors need to be wedged shut. Otherwise your snake will get out and you’ll have a hard time finding them.
Unlike many other pets, snake enclosures don’t follow the “bigger is better” rule. This is because snakes prefer to hide and be sneaky - being out in the open gives them anxiety and increases stress, so their enclosures don’t need to be several times the length of the snake in the same way that you’d size up something like a rabbit hutch. Typically, for snakes in the length range of species such as corn snakes or ball pythons, a four foot vivarium will be fine. If you have a large vivarium already and don’t want to invest in a smaller one, then fill it with hidey holes and things to make the space smaller whilst providing more shade for your snake.
One of the downfalls of keeping snakes is the high start up cost they need to keep, though it is often mitigated by the low cost of maintaining them. If you plan on keeping snakes then the first thing you’re going to need is their home, the vivarium. If you’re opting for a ground dwelling snake, you’ll want your vivarium to be wider than it is tall. Likewise if you’ve got a tree dwelling snake in mind then you’ll need a taller style vivarium to place the branches in. Research the particular snake you’d like and look at their tank size requirements, for example a corn snake requires a 4ft tank when they’re adults.
If you’re going for a baby snake, you can get your large tank but they would become anxious at the size as they feel vulnerable in open spaces. You can place them in a breeder box which can also be placed inside the main tank until they’re 8-9 months old, then they should be okay in the larger tank. Make sure they’re great at being fed and that they’re settled in nicely before you move them to a bigger tank.
There’s plenty of types available made of different things. They all have their benefits and their cons, so let's mention a few.
Plastic vivariums are cheap and durable - in fact they’ll be around for hundreds of years if they get no physical wear from you. They’re usually all clear so you can see exactly what’s going on in your snake's enclosure. They’re usually also pretty good at retaining heat too. They’re the cheapest option but you’ll mainly only find smaller ones built to house hatchlings.
Glass vivariums are usually the best looking ones and they’re also really easy to clean. They’ll also give you a great show of what’s happening inside the enclosure from all sides but a lot of designs especially with mesh lids will let out heat and humidity. They’re beautiful but expensive.
Wooden vivariums are great for retaining heat, they’re usually cheaper than glass vivariums and large ones are typically easier to find. They’re more resilient than glass as they can withstand being dropped. You won’t be able to see the action from all sides but they’ll help your snake find hiding places where they aren’t feeling as though they’re out in the open.
On the base of your vivarium you’ll want to place heat mats. These should go down before the substrate. If you're using a glass vivarium you can either put these inside the vivarium or underneath, and the heat will travel through the glass into the aquarium. If you’re using a wooden vivarium the heat mats must go inside. You’ll do well to have 2 heat mats - one for a “hot” side and one for a “cool” side, the cool side is still probably higher than room temperature especially in winter.
A lot of people only use one heat mat and this is fine, the snake still gets a warm and cold side. Place heat probes next to the mats to make sure they’re within an ideal range. You can turn down the heat slightly at night - this will mimic their natural environment. Check out the specifics for your snake breed, but most will be fine with a cool side of 68F to 74F, and a warm side of 80F to 86F.
Next up you’ll need to add a substrate. For a snake substrate we typically use Aspen Bedding, but bark is also available and some people just use newspapers. We prefer not to use newspapers because although it’s much cheaper, it doesn’t really mimic their natural environment which is what you should be aiming for. Clean up your snake's messes as soon as you spot them, and replace the substrate every 5 weeks.
What about lighting? Most snakes do not require UVB lamps, some owners do include these lamps but the science says snakes do not need UVB, as they are nocturnal and wouldn’t be out in the sun in their natural habitat. However you might want to add a regular lamp to your snakes vivarium to help simulate a day and night cycle.
You’ll need at least 2 hides, but we opt for 3. One hide on the hot side, one hide on the cool side, and our third hide we have in the middle filled with moss that we keep damp - this really helps them shed their skin when the time comes.
For decorations you’ll need a climbing branch even if your snake is ground dwelling, this will help them feel more at home in a natural habitat and they will use it for climbing. Some rocks would benefit them but only opt for smooth ones - snakes rub against things when shedding and sharp rocks would injure them.
You’ll also need a water bowl, short but wide and preferably heavy as your snake will go for a bath occasionally.
These pets are generally recommended as great snakes for any beginner. They are small to medium in size, usually available as captive bred specimens. They are also easy to care for, have a more docile temperament, and generally they’re easy to handle. Many good beginner snakes are relatively inexpensive to buy and maintain. Some popular starter snakes of this sort include:
The corn snake is one of the most popular pet snakes and one of the top choices for a beginner. They are small, easy to care for, and because they’re so popular with many breeders keeping them, different morphs are available in many colors and patterns.
There are a number of popular king snake species such as the Desert Kingsnake. They make excellent pet snakes and with regular handling they are gentle and docile, as well as easy to feed and very hardy. However this species doesn’t play well with others, so must be housed separately.
This a very popular and favourite snake renowned for being docile, and handleble. They are also easy to feed and very hardy. Milk snakes are very good looking, and due to selective breeding they come in many colour variations of these snakes. Like other members of the Lampropeltis genus, they too are carnivores that will eat other snakes, so must be housed separately.
Garter Snake - Thamnophis sirtalis
Garter Snakes are one of the best, first snakes for a beginner. They are small, attractive and inexpensive. Being docile and even-tempered, they are very tolerant of frequent handling.
Rat Snake - Elaphe obsoleta
Though a little more skittish than a King Snake, the Rat Snake is a common favorite. With regular handling they will quickly become docile and even tempered, There are a number of varieties of Rat Snake available due to successful captive breeding.
Ball Python - Python regius
Ball Pythons are a very popular constrictor due to their small size, docile temperament, and being reasonably priced. They typically don't bite, but instead choose to coil tightly into the ball, which leads to their common name. They can live 20 to 30 years in a good home.
To hold your pet snake, approach the cage slowly as this is the snake's home and it may try to defend it. If your snake is tame then reach in and grasp it behind the head and at the middle of its body to keep it supported, don’t grab too tight - you’re merely supporting them rather than holding them.
Don't handle a snake after handling its food, it can smell the food on your hands and may mistake your hand for its supper. Also, don't handle a snake for two days after you've fed it as it needs time to digest its meal. Handling it too soon may make it regurgitate its food which is an awful experience for everyone involved.
Note: Always wash your hands before and after handling!