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Garter Snake information

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Housing and Keeping

Housing requirements for a garter snake are surprisingly easy to set up and maintain, if you do it right. To give your pet a proper environment, you'll need to know a few things about its biology. But before we get to that, I'll break down an ideal snake setup part by part.

The tank itself: Most people who keep one or two snakes will use a standard aquarium. Others keep their snakes in plastic tubs with holes drilled in the sides, sweater boxes, and custom-made racks and shelving units. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages. I find glass aquariums to be the best way to view and keep track of your animals. Many professional breeders go with tubs and racks because of their ease of use and cleaning. Take a look at your options and decide what's best. In any case, each adult garter should have 10 gallons of space to roam at the very least. The ideal situation would be for a snake to have a tank large enough so that the snake can stretch out completely in at least one direction. All setups must have a secure cover. For plastic tubs, lids must be weighted down. Glass tanks can have wire mesh screentops with metal clips to secure them. Custom cages often have sliding side doors, and these must be secured as well. Garters are excellent escape artists, and will squeeze through unbelievably small holes. Set up your tank accordingly.

Light/Heat: These two go together because light often provides heat as well. Garter snakes are diurnal, which means they are active in the daytime and sleep at night. Their light and tank temperature should fluctuate to reflect that. In simple terms, turn the light and heat on in the daytime, turn it off at night (or lower the heat). There are several methods to light a cage, be it a nearby lamp, a florescent tank strip, or a metal reflector cone. Unlike lizards and some other snakes, it is not neccessary to provide a UV light for your garter snake, as doing so has no significant benefits to the animal. In any case, make sure your snake cannot come in contact with the bulb, or it will  burn itself! Heating can also come by various methods, such as an under-the-tank heat pad, a heat rock, or a ceramic lamp fixture. Again, don't allow direct access to a ceramic fixture. Heat rocks should be monitored carefully, as old ones can overheat or develop hotspots, and burn snakes. Pads should be placed under the glass, not in the tank itself, also to prevent burns. Most heating elements will create a generalized 'heat zone' that hovers in the 90s. Make sure that this temperature isn't present throughout the entire tank! What your snake requires is a temperature gradient, with a warm area and a cool one. To create a gradient, make sure the heat source is concentrated on one end of the tank. For instance, do not place a heating pad under the entire tank or your snake will bake to death. Only put it in a corner or edge, so your snake can choose when it wants to warm up. Never extend a heating element's range over more than half of the tank. Also make sure that your snake's water dish is not included within the heated range. Daytime tank-wide temps should never go over 75 degrees, nighttime temps never below 60. That's a pretty wide range for a reptile. Room temperature will often suit your animal at night. For convenience, install a thermometer inside your tank. You can also plug your light and heat sources into a timer to turn them automatically on and off.

Water: Snakes must always have access to fresh water. The water dish should be large enough for the snake to immerse itself entirely in. Garters enjoy water, and often need it to help them shed their skin. Anything from a pet store water container to a simple tupperware dish will do fine. Make sure it's not too deep for the garter to climb out of.

Humidity: Those familiar with keeping lizards from tropical environments know that it can be a headache to meet the humidity requirements of these delicate animals. Expensive equipment such as foggers are often required. However, the humidity needs for a garter snake are very much like our own. If the air is too dry, we suffer from itchy skin and nosebleeds. Too moist, and we feel stuffy and groggy. This is also true of a garter snake. Their tank should be mostly dry, but they should have a water dish to soak in, and their humidity requirements can be met by the simple combination of air in the room and water evaporating from their dish. It is not recommended that garters be kept in an aquaterrarium, or a half-dry and half-aquarium tank. The overly wet environment can cause bacteria and sores on wounds to grow.

Cover: Garters should always have access to shade and a place to hide from view. They need something in their tanks to help them feel secure. These items can include branches, real or artificial plants, rocks, and hide boxes. Hide boxes can be built out of cardboard or an overturned flowerpot with a plugged hole, or can be storebought. I would recommend artificial plants over real ones, as soil can carry bacteria. Artificial plants should be watched for rust along the wire stems.

Substrate: There are a lot of choices here. Low-cost substrates include newspaper lining and shredded paper towels. These are ideal for baby garters who often need their enclosures cleaned. Carpet substrates such as dried moss sheets or astroturf need very frequent and through replacement/cleaning. Other substrates include paper 'pellets', coconut shreddings, aspen shavings, and bark chips. Never use bark chips that are intended for outdoor gardening! Garters have sensitive smelling organs that are highly irritated by pine resin. Only use bark chips sold specifically for reptiles. I prefer bark chips because my snakes like to bury in them. Also try to avoid using sand or fine-grained substrates, particles are so small that they often stick to food and are ingested. Avoid using soil completely, as it carries bacteria and is not easy to clean.

Habitat Placement: Now that you have your tank set up, where are you going to put it? Pick a spot away from drafty areas such as windows and outside doors. Also make sure the enclosure is not exposed to direct sunlight for long, as this can quickly heat the air inside of the tank. Make sure it's an area with good air circulation as well. And if you're worried about how other pets might react to the snake, put the tank out of their reach. To help the snake become accustomed to you and reduce stress over time, try to place the tank in an area of moderate foot traffic, and around eye level. This way, snakes will become used to having you around, and not feel disturbed by your presence in the area.

Cleaning and Upkeep: This is the most important aspect of keeping your animal healthy, aside from diet. If your snake lives in a dirty tank, it is much more likely to get sick or have a shortened lifespan from it. Maintaining a healthy enclosure does take work, but if you keep it to a schedule it is not difficult or too time consuming.

Some parts of the tank need to be cleaned more often than others. The tank itself, for example, will only need to be completely emptied and washed about once a season. Place your snake in a secure container, then remove everything from the tank, take it outside or into a bathtub, and give it a good scrubbing with high water pressure. Rinse in a solution of bleach or antibacterial unscented soap, thoroughly rinse with clean water, and leave out to dry, preferably in direct sunlight, to kill any remaining bacteria. When you clean out the tank, you should also clean everything that goes back into it. The sides of the tank get dirty far more often, and can be cleaned with watered-down glass cleaner. Remember to avoid heavily scented products, as your snake has a very sensitive tongue!

The water in a snake's tank should be replaced every two days at most, whether or not it looks dirty. Would you want to be drinking from the same glass of water for much longer than that? Snakes will often defacate into their water dishes, which should prompt immediate water changes. Water bowls can be cleaned by rinsing with antibacterial soap or bleach, or putting them through a cycle in the dishwasher.

Your cleaning requirements for substrate depend on what type you use and the age of your snake. Young garters will need their paper towel or newspaper substrate changed every two days at most. Carpet substrates should be cleaned at least once a week. Bark substrates should be spot cleaned every one or two days to prevent a buildup of waste.

Tank decor/heating rocks should be cleaned whenever they looks soiled, by a thorough washing and scrubbing with bleach or antibacterial soap. Make sure the items are dry before you place them back in the tank.

If you provide your snake with a good setup and stick to cleaning it, you can be sure that your snake will be more happy and healthy!

My tank setup: For my two garters I have:

1 long 20 gallon tank with wire mesh cover and four clamps (two on each long side)
A ten-gallon size florescent strip light (will upgrade to larger as the animals age)
One 20-gallon plastic fishtank divider, cut to size and dividing the tank to 2/3 and 1/3 portions
One small heat pad placed along the divider
Two tupperware water bowls, one in each edge of the tank
One cardboard hide box, one slate-roofed shade area, artificial plants in three corners of each enclosure, a large branch in each enclosure, and rocks scattered throughout

Good luck with your personal setup!

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