How To Care For Milk Snakes
Some of the most beautiful subspecies of snakes are found within the horizons of the milk snake. This in addition to how easy they are to keep in captivity is what makes milk snakes incredibly popular choices for new snake keepers. When we talk about milk snakes, it’s not a specific snake, they range in appearance and care needs. This is down to the fact that milk snakes come from a range of different environments, be it grasslands, farmlands and forests.
Because of this, they range in adult sizes anywhere from 2 to 5 feet. For these reasons it’s quite difficult to really pinpoint a care guide towards them, but here is our basic outline of what you should be providing your snake with, and how to look after them.
If you get your milk snake while it’s a baby then you’ll be fine in a set up as small as 10 gallon, or 20”/just under 2ft wide. As they grow into adults however you’ll need a larger set up for them and depending on how large they grow, this could be anywhere from 20 to 70 gallons. Typically we’d say a minimum is 10 gallons per foot of snake, but you should go slightly larger to give them some wiggle room, or slither room. This also means you get to add more decorations to the tank to keep them entertained. So if you’re going with a 3 foot snake but want to get a 70 gallon enclosure, that’s fine, but fill it with hidey holes and things it can inspect and climb around.
Milk snakes are like most snakes in that they are escape artists - make sure the enclosure is well sealed and the screen top (if you have one) is secure. There are incidents of snake owners losing their snakes, somewhere in their house, for several months at a time. Never house more than one milk snake in a single vivarium - the only time they should ever be kept together is if they’re breeding.
Baby snakes can be kept on paper towels or similar products until they become juveniles, when they should be given something such as Aspen bedding. Some keepers also opt for Repti Bark or Zoo Med Eco Earth. Whichever you decide with your snake, stick to well known brands designs for use with reptiles as these will be safer. Some commercial aspen brands may contain high amounts of dust and other contaminants that can be harmful for your snake.
In terms of heating, heating mats are the best way to heat a vivarium. Milk snakes don’t require UVB light so all you will need is a heat mat placed under one side of the vivarium, set to between 80 degrees F and 86 degrees F. By placing the heat mat on one side you create an internal heat spectrum within the vivarium, meaning you get a hot side and a cool side. This allows your snake to heat up or cool down, depending on their needs. Place a hide on each side so that they still have that sense of security.
For snake shelters, we recommend having 3 hides. Usually it’s recommended to only have two - one for the warm side of the vivarium and one for the cool, but with our snakes we keep a third in the middle that contains moss, which we spray with water every couple of days. The reason for this is that humidity helps with shedding - by providing them with a place to lay and soak up all the humidity it makes it a lot easier for them to successfully shed and minimises incomplete sheds, which can be dangerous, particularly if they suffer from retained eye caps (guide on that, here).
You should be opting for around a 60% humidity level in your vivarium, which is easier achieved with the use of live plants and like we mentioned, the moss hide. Keep in mind that glass terrariums especially with mesh tops are terrible at keeping in humidity. Opt for a wooden vivarium instead (they’re also cheaper than glass). If you do have a glass vivarium already and can’t afford to replace it, cover the mesh top around 75% of the way, and spray the substrate with water daily. You can also create a waterfall feature if you have the space.
When shedding, your milk snake’s eyes will turn a blue colour first - this means they’re getting ready to shed. During this time they may refuse food, which is normal as their efforts are focussed on getting the old skin off. Snakes will shed their skin multiple times during their life, more regularly with smaller snakes. They do this as they grow so that they have space in the new skin to grow wider and longer. As they reach full maturity, shedding will be a lot less common.
If your snake does suffer an incomplete shed, check your humidity levels and increase them if necessary with the steps we’ve provided. You can also place a damp (not dripping wet) paper towel with slightly warmer than room temperature water in a tupperware box, and see if your snake wants to soak on it for a little while. If you aren’t sure how to get the skin off yourself and your snake is struggling on their own, take them to a vet for help.
On the other side of the spectrum, if you notice that your snake has a rash or blisters, this could be an indicator of what’s called scale rot. Scale rot is typically due to the humidity being way too high. First, place your milk snake into a completely dry environment and we would suggest using paper towels as a substrate as you can change it frequently to keep the enclosure dry. Wait a day or two before placing a water dish back into their enclosure. Once you place a water dish back into the enclosure, if you notice that the water dish has spilled onto the paper towel make sure that you change it. Make sure to clean up immediately if your snake has urinated or defecated. Finally, visit the vet in order to start a course of antibiotics to help heal your snake.
Water is really important for snakes and it should be in their enclosure at all times in a water dish. Place it on the cool side so the water doesn’t evaporate. Make sure you aren’t using distilled water - if you aren’t sure your tap water is safe then you can buy an additive such as Reptisafe Water Conditioner, or water conditioners for aquariums such as Seachem's Prime which will ensure the water is safe for your snake. Another option is to buy bottled spring water too. This is more viable for snakes than it is with aquariums as you obviously won’t be needing as much of it.
In terms of feeding, opt for mice. You can feed live or frozen/thawed mice to your snake but be aware that if you’re feeding them live mice you will need to supervise the meal to ensure they are safe from the mouse’s attacks. Mice sizes range and you should be feeding your snake a mouse that’s the same width as the middle of your snakes midsection. For young snakes, they should be fed between every 4 to 6 days. As they age you can reduce this to once a week up to once every 10 days. If you’re using frozen mice, defrost them overnight and place them in warm water for a few minutes before feeding them. Don’t microwave your dead mice. Nobody wants that in their house, least of all your snake. Once your milk snake has eaten, leave them alone for 48 hours to digest their food. If you handle them too quickly afterwards, they can regurgitate their meal which is bad news for your snake, and pretty horrific for you.
Snakes are extremely sensitive to regurgitation. If for whatever reason your milk snake regurgitates, make sure to wait about a 1.5 weeks before feeding again and give smaller meals for about a month before offering a regular meal. If your milk snake regurgitates a second time, please visit a vet.
If you’re wanting to go full on with the vivarium, you can create what’s called a BioActive Vivarium, which is where you set up a natural living space that features plants and a suitable substrate, as well as living organisms that can act like a clean up crew for your snake. Our number one recommendation for these living organisms is springtails.
Spring tails are tiny hexapods averaging around 0.5 mm in length. These little guys will live in the topmost layer of your bioactive substrate and consume any waste that they come across. When they themselves have taken what they need from this food source they excrete the excess nutrients which goes back into the soil to be used by any live plants you might have in the enclosure. They are very efficient and once a colony is established should work fairly quickly to keep the cycle moving. There are foods available you can add to your substrate for the spring tails but usually they are pretty self-sufficient. By doing this you’re keeping the tank clean(ish) from snake waste, while also feeding your plants too!
If you aren’t wanting to opt for a BioActive vivarium, just spot clean your bedding for snake waste whenever you notice it. Change bedding every couple of months unless you’re using paper towels, which should be replaced every week.
Lastly, in the wild milk snakes hibernate during the winter months. This shouldn't be replicated in captivity however, so maintain that heat all year round. A general reduction in feeding behavior is normal during winter months due to temperature fluctuations in your house. As long as they keep fairly consistent weight it is generally not an issue and normal feeding typically resumes in the spring.