April 13, 2005
Common Snakes FAQ
With proper care, most common snakes (Kingsnakes, milk snakes, rat snakes, etc.) can be maintained with great success, and will live many healthy years in captivity. Without a good understanding of the needs of these animals, however, even the most w ell intentioned beginning snake keeper is doomed to failure; an experience disappointing to the keeper as well as unfair to the animal.
Generally, snakes do not require enormous amounts of space. A cage size of one half to two thirds of its body length is sufficient for most adult snakes. Glass aquariums or plastic sweater boxes provide the most secure and sanitary means for housing your snake. Lids can be or screen or pegboard, and care should be taken at all times to ensure that the cage is escape-proof as snakes are great escape artists (caution must be used with a screen lid, as snakes tend to rub their noses raw on the mesh). A place to hide is essential for many snakes, and this can be provided by something as simple as a cardboard box, turned upside down in the cage, with a hole cut in the side.
There are many substrates available for your cage, with newspaper or paper towels being the most economical and sanitary, as they are absorbent and easy to clean. Shavings, ground corn cob, and gravel are generally not good choices as skin infections can be caused by these beddings, and injestion of particles during feeding is almost unavoidable. Ingested substrate can cause severe impaction, and the vapors from the shavings, such as cedar, are toxic to snakes.
Moderate lighting is essential during daylight hours, and can be provided by either incandescent or fluorescent lighting, which should be off at night to provide day/night cycles.
One of the most important, and most commonly ignored necessities in the care of snakes is proper temperature and humidity. A hot rock or heating pad is not sufficient to heat the cage. Instead, an incandescent red light should be used to heat the cag e to a temperature of between 80 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit (red bulbs cause less stress to the animal), and this light should be left on at all times. A thermometer must be used – Don’t Guess! A bowl of clean drinking water will provide sufficient humidit y for most snakes.
Possibly one of the most annoying problems you may have with a new snake is getting it to feed. In many cases, all other considerations (i.e., heat, humidity, hide box, clean home, etc.) must be taken care of before your snake will eat. Once all of t hese parameters are achieved, however, feeding should be easy.
When you first get your snake home, it is best not to feed it for a few days to give it time to adjust to its new surroundings. When the time comes to feed it, you must first determine, if you don’t already know, what your snake eats. For example, ga rter snakes eat nightcrawlers, fish, or frogs; water snakes eat fish; milk snakes, kingsnakes, at rat snakes eat mice and other appropriately-sized rodents (milk and kingsnakes are also known to eat other snakes and lizards); hognose snakes eat toads almo st exclusively; and green snakes eat insect larva and crickets. After deciding what to feed, you must then decide how often. As a general rule, hatchlings and young adults may be fed once a week, and mature adults can be fed every ten days to two weeks. A s you become more familiar with your particular animal, you will know when it is ready to eat. It is best not to handle your snake for several hours before feeding and it definately should not be handled for 1-2 days afterward, as this may cause it to reg urgitate.
For those snakes that eat rodents, NEVER place a live food animal in with your pet, as it only takes one bite from a rodent to seriously injure a reptile. With a bit of patience, your snake will eat dead rodents as readily as live ones. For those sna kes that feed on relatively harmless animaly such as insects, fish, toads, and other rodent pinkies (newborns), killing the prey is not necessary.
Periodically, a snake may not eat. There can be many reasons for this, and should not, at first, be cause for alarm. Snakes normally do not eat right before shedding, during mating, and when gravid (pregnant). If none of these is the reason for your snake’s apparent lack or appetite, first chech to make sure that the temperature in the cage is high enough. After this, there are a number of things you can do to simulate the snake’s appetite. Try offering a different type of food, isolating the snake a nd feed it in total darkness, or try a live pinkie. If none of these things work, solicit the help of a knowledgeable herpetologist.
Health and Reproduction
A saying that comes to mind in this section is “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. This is especially true with reptiles, as “cures” may be hard to come by. Providing your snake with a clean, warm, stress-free envir onment, and providing proper food will keep your snake healthy in most cases. Though there is no guarantee that your animal will never become ill, its chance of recovery is much greater if it is healthy to begin with.
A good indication of illness is a drastic change in behavior. Examples or this include refusal to eat for an extended period of time, and changes in physical appearance (such as the presence of mucous around the nostrils or mouth). Any changes such a s these warrant the immediate isolation of the animal to prevent the spread of infection to other reptiles. Several common ailments are listed in this section, the purpose of which is not to make you an overnight veterinarian, but to help you to recognize illness whin it arises, and to get the proper help. Various bacteria may cause respiratory infections in snakes. Some symptoms include wheezing, sneezing, and excess mucous around the mouth and nostrils. Sometimes the mouth will be kept open and the snak e will hold its head in an upright position in order to keep air passages clear. These problems are often caused by improper environmental conditions. Many times if the animal is moved to a warm draft-free but well ventilated area, problems will correct t hemselves. If not, further help should be solicited from your veterinarian or a reptile specialist.
Infectious stomatitis, or mouth rot as it more commonly known, is one of the most common diseases of captive reptiles, and is most often contributed to by poor hygiene conditions. Bacteria affect the gums first, which lose color, exhibit dots, and in later stages develop cheese-like clots. In severe cases, the gums recede, teeth fall out, and the lower jaw bone can be exposed. Treatment includes thorough cleansing with hydrogen peroxide followed by a good topical antibiotic or antiseptic (i.e., betad ine). This treatment as most others, should only be provided under the care of a veterinarian or experienced herpetologist.
External parasites abound in wild caught snakes in the form of mites and ticks. Ticks are readily visible as small, dark, scale-like projections on the skin. Mites are usually seen as tiny black dots moving on the lizard. The most effective way to be rid of these pests is to cut off a small piece of Vapona or other plastic insecticide-laced strip and place it in a small container with holes in the lid. This should then be placed in the cage with the lizard and lift for 2-3 days. Approximately 2 weeks later, this procedure should be repeated. In addition, the cage should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected to prevent reinfestation. Ticks are the easiest to remove by dabbing them with alcohol, then gently removing them with tweezers.
Cuts or scrapes on a snake can be caused by a various number of things. Live rodents can bite the animal, sharp, decorative objects can cut, or the snake can rub its snout raw on various parts of its cage. Abraded areas can be quickly treated by gent le cleansing and treatment with an appropriate antibiotic ointment.
As your snake continues to grow, it will eventually “outgrow” the protective keratinous layer on the surface of its body. Since this layer cannot expand indefinitely it is periodically shed. If humidity in the air is not high enough, the an imal may have some difficulties with this process, including patches of unshed skin covering the body or failure to shed the corneal shields (frequently referred to as eyecaps). Providing a large bathing dish with warm water in it is sometimes enough to h elp the snake to shed and correct the problem on its own. However, in the case of stubborn pieces of skin, gently massaging with a warm, wet washcloth will often work. Eyecaps generally come off in the course of shedding, however, if they remain on the ey e, they can cause irritation and even blindness. Again, gentle massage with a warm, wet washcloth will sometimes remove them, but if not, and the caps remain a problem, an esperienced herpetologist can remove them.
Finally, many snakes that are sold in pet stores may be gravid (pregnant) when you purchase them. This may be difficult to detect unless you have a very good idea of what to look for. Many beginners, however, do not realize that their snake is gravid , and are, therefore, surprised by the appearance of eggs in their tank. These should be carefully and immediately removed, and placed on damp paper towels in a clear plastic shoebox with some air holes drilled into the sides. More damp towels should then be placed over the top of the eggs, and the lid put in place. It is important to place the eggs the same side up as they were laid, or the developing embryo may suffocate in the embryonic fluid of the egg (a small mark placed on top of each egg can be us ed to ensure that they are placed in the proper orientation if moved). The entire shoebox should then be placed in a warm (approximately 82 degrees Fahrenheit) spot where they will not be disturbed, at which time someone with experience in this area shoul d be called.