Methods for the Captive
Care of Corn Snakes
guttata) and Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis
Note: These methods may also be suitable for certain species of Milk Snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum ssp.)
Pictured above: This is my Corn Snake, Nagaina (left) and my wifes' California Kingsnake, Sylvia (right). Nagaina coloration is known in herpetocultural circles as a "snow corn" (because of her coloration, the reasoning behind this name should be obvious). Check out that cool spot on the back of Sylivas' head! Here they are consuming freshly thawed "pinky" mice.
In my mind, there is no better starter herp (snake, lizard, turtle, you name it) than the Corn Snake. However, Kingsnakes and Milk Snakes are a close second (or probably first in some peoples' minds). They are all beautiful snakes that grow to a decent size and can deal with frequent handling. I know you might see that Red-tailed Boa in the pet store and in your mind you picture yourself as that cool tough guy/girl walking around downtown LaCrosse with your monstrous snake hanging around your shoulders, but don't kid yourself. Big constrictors are not the way to start out in herpetoculture. It can take a lot of work, space, money, patience, and maybe even a little pain on your part, to keep them. Now, I'm sure I'll get people saying things like: "The first pet I ever owned was a Green Anaconda and it was the nicest, easiest pet imaginable." Well, that's great! However, we are not all so lucky. Besides, many of the large constrictors (boas, pythons, etc.) are wild caught and by owning one, you are helping diminish their numbers in nature (which is where they belong and not in your house).
So, I'll state my beginner rules of thumb again:
1)Start small and manageable
2)Do extensive research of your desired pet (i.e., make sure you know its adult size, what kind of habitat it likes in the wild, etc.)
3)Make sure that the pet-shop employee you are talking to is knowledgeable about herp care. Many of them are great, however, some don't know a salamander from a lizard ( let alone how they should be cared for in captivity). You will generally get much better information from employees in small (non-chain) pet stores that specialize in herps.
4)Avoid wild-caught herps.
OK! Now, on to the cool stuff! Corn Snakes!
Adult size: 4 to 5 feet!
Cage requirements: At least a 20g aquarium for adult Corns and Milks (Kingsnakes may need even larger)! Pictured below is my Corn Snake setup, which is similar to our Kingsnake setup. Because my Corn Snake is only a juvenile, I'm able to keep it in a 10g tank. However, as it grows, I will have to upgrade.
Heating requirements and devices: An under-tank reptile aquarium heater, placed on the bottom of one end of the tank. Or a 50 to 75 watt heat lamp placed on one end of the tank (preferably over a rock). Hot rocks are not recommended. Corn and Milk Snakes need an overall cage temperature of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit and a "hot spot" (located on one end of the tank) that reaches about 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Kingsnakes, however, like it a little warmer (80 to 90 degrees in the hot spot. At night, these temperature can be allowed to drop to around 64 to 68 degrees. Buy a thermometer and check the temperatures of different spots within your cage (even under rocks, etc.) to make sure the temperature of the entire cage is suitable. Because they are ectotherms (cold-blooded) and poikilotherms, they must move in and out of hot spots to keep their temperature constant. This activity is called "thermoregulatory shuttling". For example, say your snakes' body temp is about 60 degrees and it wants to be at about 70 degrees. The snake will move into an area of its cage that is greater than 70 degrees until its body temperature rises to where the snake wants it to be. At this time, if the snake feels its body temperature rising too far above 70 degrees, it will move out of the hot spot so that it doesn't over heat.
Lighting: It is probably not necessary to supply UV-lights for your snakes (unless perhaps you are attempting to breed them). I usually try to set my snake lights (heat lamps, etc.) on a 12 h light and 12 h dark schedule. Perhaps in the winter, this can be switched to a 8 h light and 16 h dark regimen. If your heat lamps turn off at night, make sure the snakes cage temperature does not drop below 64 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
Food: Snakes should be fed pre-killed rodents that have been frozen and then thawed. I know this may be disappointing for some of you that want to see your snake constrict its prey, however, pre-killed rodents don't fight back. Live mice don't particularly care to be eaten by a snake. They may claw and bite, possibly injuring your snake. In addition, freezing your rodents will probably kill any parasites that the mouse was carrying. This spares your reptile from contracting some unwanted tapeworm or trematode that could eventually kill it! Don't think so? Well, believe it! My first monitor lizard died from hook worms (but only after several hundred dollars in vet bills, several weeks of painstaking treatment, and worry). In addition, it is much easier to keep a supply of frozen rodents in your freezer, than a colony of live mice in your basement (besides; mice stink!). Ask the folks at the pet store if the snake you want to buy eats pre-killed rodents. If not, you may have not choice but to feed it live mice. But be fore warned!
Feeding schedule: Because juveniles snakes are growing, they should probably be feed pinky (newborn) mice twice weekly (when my corn snake was 25 to 50+ cm total length, I feed it 1 to 2 pinkies per sitting). As the snake grows, they can be feed larger prey items and less frequently. Adult snakes can be fed 1 to 2 adult mice or juvenile rats only once per week. Fresh water should always be supplied.
Try to avoid handling your snake immediately after it eats. Give it 4 to 6 hours to digest its meal.
Feeding strategies for pre-killed rodents: Try dangling the mouse with a tweezers in front of the snake (watch your fingers!). If this doesn't work, put your snake into a container (with air holes) and add the food item. Sometimes, snakes get nervous and wont eat when there are people around. Placing them into a container helps the snake focus on the food item. I have also found that placing the food item on a flat plastic lid (like those for margarine tubs) next to your snake in its' cage, may also entice it to eat.
It is interesting to note that our Corn Snake will eat a thawed mouse placed next to it with no "wiggling" required. The Kingsnake, however, wont even look at a thawed mouse unless we wiggle it with a forceps. She then immediately strikes it with her mouth and if we keep wiggling it, she'll constrict the already dead mouse. This may help the snake feel more "natural" or at home. On the other hand, our corn snake seems afraid of the mouse if we wiggle it. These are the sorts of individual behaviors that you will need to become aware of if you are to keep herps as pets.
Substrate: Shredded reptile bark, newspaper, artificial turf are all suitable. I use reptile bark because it allows the snake to burrow. NOTE: if keeping your snake on bark, be certain that it does not accidentally ingest small pieces this substrate while feeding.
Pictured above: (left) Cage decorum and substrate in my Corn Snake's cage (note the many stacked rocks and pieces of bark). It is similar to our Kingsnake setup. The water dish is in the lower right-hand corner. (Right) Resting in her cage.
Cage Decorum: These snakes are sub-fossorial in the wild. This means that they like to hide under rocks and pieces of wood or bark. Therefore, it is advisable to have, at least, several large items for the snake to retreat to and feel secure. If the snake does not feel safe, it may become stressed and not eat. I use multiple rocks and large pieces of bark arranged in such a way that the snake can easily hide underneath, if it desires. It has been reported that these snakes are also found climbing among bushes in the wild. Therefore, it may be beneficial for your cage to have nice sturdy sticks propped up for your snake to climb on. Remember, however, to make sure that these items are secure. You do not want your snake to accidentally knock them over and hurt itself!
Cage Top: Screen tops designed for terrariums are fine, however, remember that snakes are amazingly strong! I have no faith in the cheaply made "lock" that accompany these screen tops, which are supposed to keep your snake in its cage. I usually place large rocks or bricks on two corners of my snakes' enclosure (see above picture). Perhaps you don't think this is necessary. Well, beware! I have had several Garter Snakes and my monitor lizard escape from these "escape-proof" cage tops.
Remarks: These are wonderful and easily manageable pets. If possible, acquire them young and handle them frequently so they become used to human contact. When initially brought home from the pet store, allow your snake several days to get used to his/her surroundings before extensive handling. It may also be advisable to make sure that the snake is eating before you begin handling it.
HINT: Keep a log of your snake's activities. For example, keep a sheet of paper by its cage and record the time and date each time it eats, sheds, or when you measure it.