CARE SHEET FOR SNAKES
CARE SHEET FOR SNAKES
By Paul Hollander firstname.lastname@example.org
Each snake has various needs that must be met in order to keep it in
good health in captivity. The following is an outline of factors that are
important to the well-being of your pet.
TEMPERATURE: A reptile has the same temperature as its surroundings; it
simply moves to a warmer area to heat up and a colder spot to cool down.
Most have an "optimum" body temperature that can be maintained within a few
degrees and that generally lies between 80 and 88 degrees F. Most tropical
species prefer the top half of that range, and most temperate zone snakes
like the bottom half. A temperature gradient in the cage lets the snake
decide how warm it wants to be. A thermometer can be the herper's best
friend because a snake won't eat if it's more than a few degrees below
Snakes have a day-night temperature cycle in the wild. Some studies
indicate that if a reptile is constantly held at optimum temperature for
weeks, it suffers heat stress. Males also have the sperm killed. It is
probably best for a snake to spend the night at a temperature 5 to 20 degrees
F below its daytime activity temperature.
HOUSING: Cages should be of adequate size, easy to keep clean,
adequately ventilated, and escape proof. Aquariums with pegboard tops make
good cages. Plastic shoe boxes and storage boxes also make good cages after
enough air holes have been cut in them. Fiberglass cages up to four feet
long are available commercially from Neodesha Plastics, Neodesha, KS. Big
cages can be made of wood and pegboard, but not wire mesh or screen because a
snake can rub its nose raw on wire.
Most snakes do not need much space. Suggested minimum cage sizes are
1/2 square foot of floor space per foot of snake for those up to six feet in
length and 3/4 square foot of floor space for those six to nine feet long.
Increase the suggested minimum cage sizes 25% for each additional snake.
Cages must be kept clean because snakes can develop Dirty Cage Syndrome
when droppings build up. Cages should be cleaned every week or two with a
detergent and a disinfectant like 5% sodium hypochlorite bleach [Chlorox (tm)
for example] diluted as given on the label for woodwork. Coal tar and phenol
products, like Ly-sol (tm) and Pine-sol (tm), are toxic. Do not use them.
Some kind of floor covering makes cleaning easier. Paper (including
newspaper), outdoor carpet, and pea gravel are good. Shredded aspen, a
fibrous wood product, is also good for medium and large snakes. Sand, soil,
sawdust, and kitty litter are not good. Sand and soil don't dry well, and a
wet cage encourages skin diseases. Dust from sawdust or kitty litter can
give a snake incurable pneumonia. Cedar chips may be toxic.
Most snakes do very well in a simple cage. All require a water bowl and
some sort of hiding place. Hatchlings will coil up in the crevices in a
loosely wadded piece of newspaper. A closed cardboard cereal box with a hole
in a corner works for larger snakes. If the box is too big for the snake,
fill it with loosely wadded newspaper. Tree snakes need a branch. Rocks,
plants, and other furnishings are strictly optional.
It is best to keep one snake in each cage, particularly if it's a snake
eater like a kingsnake. But if snakes must be caged together, snakes of the
same species are more likely to get along than snakes of different species.
FEEDING: All snakes are carnivorous. They never eat lettuce, carrots,
bread, and similar items. The diet varies from species to species; check a
reference book for each one. Individuals also show preferences. Whenever
possible, the snake's natural food should be offered. Most adult snakes
should be fed every week or ten days, and younger, growing snakes should eat
more often. A snake can go for weeks without food if necessary, but it does
better on a medium sized meal once a week than a huge meal every three weeks.
Hungry mice have eaten captive snakes, so a live rat or mouse shouldn't
stay in the cage more than an hour if uneaten. However, snakes don't require
live prey. Many snakes don't care whether the food is alive or dead, and
some will only accept dead food. Frozen food can be used after it is
If your snake won't eat, it may be too cool (see TEMPERATURE). Or it
may want its food inside a hiding box for seclusion. It may want something
different, like my Burmese python that loved pigeons and hated rats or my
corn snake that loved pinky rats but wouldn't take a mouse. If a live adult
mouse frightens your snake, try a freshly killed one or a live pinky.
Cutting open the belly of a dead mouse produces a blood smell and a wet area
that help to stimulate feeding. If nothing works, try to find an experienced
herper for help. Force feeding is traumatic and only a last resort.
SKIN SHEDDING: Every one to three months a snake sheds its skin. The
eye is cloudy for a few days, then clears, and the skin is shed a few days
later. Shedding takes only a few minutes, once the old skin is rubbed loose
at the lips. Most snakes refuse food during this period.
Sometimes not all of the skin is shed. This seldom happens if the
humidity is kept at the proper level of 40 to 70 percent. Daily spraying
with water after the eyes clear helps to prevent problems. If some of the
skin remains unshed, the snake should be soaked in a container half full of
water at 70 to 85 degrees F for an hour or so. Then the old skin can be
gently peeled off.
PARASITES AND DISEASE: Snakes can suffer from many ailments - mites and
ticks on the skin, worms in the gut, and protozoa, bacteria, or viruses
attacking the mouth, skin, and internal organs. Even cancer has been found.
New specimens should be quarantined for at least two weeks so that they can
be checked for parasites and disease. If the owner is not equipped to treat
any diseases that occur, the snake should be taken to a veterinarian who is
experienced in treating reptiles.
Ticks are arthropods an eighth of an inch long or more that suck blood
and carry disease. They can be gently pulled off with forceps and dropped in
a vial of alcohol. Try to avoid leaving the head in the snake's skin.
Mites are pinhead-sized, blood sucking arthropods closely related to
ticks. The common snake mite almost always arrives on a snake from a pet
store or other infested location. They are seldom found on freshly caught
snakes. Putting a two inch square piece of a Shell No-Pest Strip or
equivalent (active ingredient = 2,2-dichlorovinyl dimethyl phosphate) in the
snake cage over night kills the mites. Put the Strip in a cardboard or
plastic container with holes in it. The insecticide can come out, but the
snake can't touch the Strip. Don't give water at this time. Afterwards,
clean the cage well. This treatment should be enough if the mite-carrying
snake has just arrived. If the mites aren't detected immediately, they
spread. The treatment may have to be repeated once a week for a month to
catch them all.
Worm parasites are often present in the gut where most do little harm.
They are detected by fecal examinations and killed with commercial wormers.
SEXING AND BREEDING: A snake's sex can be determined in several ways.
1) Probing. This is the most reliable, but it should only be done by an
experienced person. In this method, a metal probe is slipped through the
vent to check for the presence of a hemipenis, the male copulatory organ.
Every male has two hemipenes in the base of the tail. 2) A simple visual
examination of the tail's length and thickness. The hemipenes make the tails
of males longer and thicker than the tails of females of the same size. When
looked at from the side, male tails are generally half as thick at the middle
as at the base. Female tails are usually half as thick a quarter of the
tail's length from the base. While learning, look at adult snakes of known
sex before trying it on juveniles and adults of unknown sex. 3) Spurs. Male
boa constrictors and pythons have spurs on either side of the vent that are
longer than those of the females.
In general, breeding snakes requires closely copying their natural
conditions. This may include a seasonal day-night light cycle with a full
spectrum light like Duro-test's Vita-lite, winter cooling, and other factors.
Although captive breeding should be encouraged, it requires more dedication
than simply keeping a few snakes.
RECORDS: Records of origin, feeding, shedding, and breeding should be
kept. These keep track of feeding schedules and enhance a collection's
value. Federal and state permits often require some form of report.
FURTHER READING: The following are among the most useful books.
Conant, Roger. 1975. A field guide to reptiles and amphibians of eastern
and central North America. Peterson Field Guide Series, No. 12.
Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. Second ed., 429 pp.
de Vosjoli, Philippe. 1991. The general care and maintenance of Burmese
pythons. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Lakeside, California. 44 pp.
(This is one of a series of manuals from AVS covering the care of
various reptiles and amphibians. All are excellent and inexpensive.)
Kauffeld, Carl. 1969. Snakes: the keeper and the kept. Doubleday, Garden
City, New York. 248 pp.
Mattison, Chris. 1987. The care of reptiles and amphibians in captivity.
Blandford Press, New York. Second ed., 317 pp.