Kingsnakes & Milksnakes: A Beginning Snake Guide

If you are reading this article, you are either considering buying a kingsnake as a pet, or you have already done so. Congratulations, kingsnakes make very good pets for the beginner as well as advanced hobbyist, and there are so many species readily available in pet stores and over the Internet that research is sometimes necessary to find the exact snake species you are interested in. They can be found in almost any color imaginable, as well as several color phases, or “morphs” as they are known that may range from hypomelanistic and albino to hypermelanistic phases. Good sources for information on the range of species and color phases can be found in a reputable bookstore in the science and nature section, as well as online at reptile sites like www.kingsnake.com, or Melissa Kaplan’s herp pages. Surf the net looking at breeder home pages for pictures of what is available and keep a list of things you like or don’t like, as well as saving websites and references to go back to later. Eventually you will come to a decision, and where you buy your pet depends on your wants and desires, which I will discuss next.

Finding a Snake:


Finding your kingsnake can be as easy as a mouse click, or as difficult as driving to every pet store in town. There are pros and cons to buying snakes online as well as in person, and I will try to cover both aspects. Buying your snake in a pet store has several advantages: if something should go wrong, then there is a good chance you can exchange the animal or get a refund, if it’s within a reasonable amount of time. There are also times that a pet store can give you some pointers or expertise on whatever problems you have, or whatever needs your animal may have arise. Having said that, you also need to be cautious with the advice dispensed by a pet store. It has been my experience that the majority of pet stores, especially the chain stores, have very little knowledge about reptiles beyond the most basic rudiments of food, water, and shelter. This also goes for veterinarians as well! A good reptile knowledgeable pet store is a rare thing, and usually is a privately owned one. Of the 5 pet stores within a 15-mile radius of my house, only one would I consider a herp knowledgeable store, the others I constantly have to help, and give advice too. Vet reptile specialists are also rare, and many times I have talked to people whose pet store or small animal vet gave them the exact opposite advice they needed and the animal suffered or died. Some more cons: pet store stock is usually limited, so if you are looking to find something unusual, unless the owner has connections or is really into snakes, don’t expect anything beyond run of the mill, average animals. On top of that, pet stores typically mark up their live stock 200 to 400% over their cost to cover overhead, and animal losses that they will have to replace. Just as an example, that baby normal California Kingsnake that is on sale for $89.95 was likely sold to that same store by a breeder like me for less than $20.

Buying an animal online will likely get you that $90 snake for between $20 and $30, but you are going to have to pay to have it shipped to your house overnight, and that can run between $15 and $25 in most cases. You will still save some money, but there is a chance that something will happen to the animal in transit, and the standard shippers like Fed Ex, UPS, USPS, and Airborne Express do not guarantee live delivery of your animal, just delivery! HOWEVER, having said this, out of the hundreds of times I have shipped or had animals shipped to me, only one time has an animal died in transit. That was because it was shipped from my town at 90 plus degrees to a town in the northeast, where it dipped into the 20’s at night. The snake could not tolerate the temp difference, and I did not adequately insulate the package for fear of overheating the snake on my end and killing it! Like I said, this has only happened once in 4 years, but it can happen. Precautions normally prevent all problems though. Another drawback to ordering online is you normally cannot return the animal if there is a problem. Internet trading takes place cross country, and breeders cannot be expected to be able to tell if the animal died because it was their fault, or the person who bought it 700 miles away. Since the animal is sold at “wholesale” generally the buyer should consider it a write off no matter what happens, unless it is an investment quality animal costing hundreds of dollars. Now, in spite of the problems mentioned above, and coupled with the chance to save lots of money, buying online is my favorite method because no matter what it is you want, you can find a breeder who has it online…. The colors, the phases, the sex of the animal, without spending extra time or money to locate, call, or write. I constantly buy animals at herp auctions, online classifieds, and breeder pages, and have had nothing but great experiences either with animals I have kept or bought for resale. I will caution you to use reputable sites, and you will figure that out fairly quickly as you surf.

What Kind of Kingsnake

Choosing a kingsnake can be as trying as choosing any other type of pet. There are many, many species and subspecies. I keep several types of kings: Florida Kingsnakes, Desert Kingsnakes, Speckled Kingsnakes, California Kingsnakes, Graybanded Kingsnakes, Mexican Milksnakes, Pueblan Milksnakes, and Andean Milksnakes. Milksnakes are kingsnakes, but they got their names because they were found around barns, and farmers thought they were too slow to catch rodents, so they must be stealing milk from the cows. In general, all species of kings make good pets, but they tend to be cannibalistic by nature, so housing them together, especially different sizes of snakes, is not advisable. Kingsnakes can also be fast and squirmy, and they can musk and defecate on you to display their displeasure with you. On occasion, they may even bite, especially the babies, though I cannot recall ever personally being bitten by one of my adult kings (but my Florida King nailed a person that was pestering her!) One comment here: If you mess with snakes long enough, you WILL get bitten sooner or later. Remember, you are holding an animal that is not too far removed from the wild, unlike dogs or cats. They are basically still wild by nature, but will calm to holding over a period of time. Snake bite damage comes from human reaction to the bite 99% of the time because the snakes teeth curve backwards, and yanking a finger or hand from a biting snake cuts and slices, where a straight bite does little but prick the skin. Now, you try not to flinch if a 5 foot Desert King takes a swipe at you, because I haven’t totally mastered that skill yet! Young snakes tend to be nippier than large snakes inherently, because to survive as a youngster being on every animal’s dietary menu takes tenacity.

So, after deciding what type of kingsnake to buy, how do you choose the snake you want? If you buy a snake in a pet store, it’s body condition and appearance will tell you quite a bit about the animal. It needs to be alert, with good muscle tone and movement. Lethargic snakes, overweight snakes, or overly skinny snakes usually spell problems down the road, and you should never ever buy a snake because it’s in bad condition and you think you can save it. The snakes skin should look healthy and clean, its cloaca (anus) should be free of any materials. Its breathing should be clear, no rasping or wheezing. If at all possible, you should ask to see it eat before buying. These things are not possible if you buy snakes through the mail or over the Internet, however, reputable breeders will often let you exchange a snake that you are not happy with if done so within a week or two. The most important thing I can stress is be an active participant, an informed consumer in your snake purchase. If something does not feel right, look right, or act right from the snake to the seller, do not buy it. Ask questions, ask to hold it, ask to see it eat, ask it’s feeding schedule, it’s medical history, etc. If everything is legitimate, then there will be few problems, if not, then you may be able to tell. Research your species and see if the seller’s info jibes with what most experts agree is right. Remember, I said most pet stores no little about the reptiles they sell beyond keeping them alive and the market price. You are investing in a pet that may be yours for 20 years or more, and having a bad start with your new snake is not the way to start your relationship.

Do you choose an adult or hatchling snake?

The majority of snakes offered for sale are hatchlings. This means you have to establish its feeding process and habits, and you have to deal with its nippiness as a youngster. However, you and your snake will acclimate to each other quickly and you get the satisfaction of seeing it grow from small as a pencil to several feet, plus they are generally cheaper than adults. Buying an adult assures that its feeding habits are established and that it is healthy enough to live as long as they have, but you may be buying into some behavior problems or a snake that is a retired breeder and old! Make sure you want and like the snake you are to buy, then you will have no problems.

Lastly, do you choose a male or female? I have never noticed a difference in temperament between snake sexes except at breeding time. If your snake will be a pet and nothing more, or if you will never have another snake, then the sex does not matter. But if you have any inclinations at all to making this a hobby, or if you would like to make your money back, buy a female if possible. Females are harder to find, as hobbyists do not let go of their breeding stock much. Males are easier to find and usually readily available, so if you decide to breed your pet down the line, acquiring a mate is a simple thing.

Housing and Caring for Your Snake:

What do you need to keep a snake? The answer to this question is a varied as the number of kingsnake keepers. I will give you some advice in general, but you can change or modify many other things to fit your personal needs.

Housing:

You can use just about anything from aquariums to Rubbermaid shoeboxes. Whatever the enclosure, you need to make sure it is kept clean and is easy to secure. Snakes are escape artists, and it never ceases to amaze me the ways they can get out of an enclosure. Here is what I consider an awesome hint. Aquariums at pet stores are expensive, lets face it. A small ten-gallon tank is ten bucks, the screen or plastic top to go with it, another ten bucks. Bigger tanks are not incrementally more, they are almost exponentially more. I get LOTS and LOTS of good tanks, big tanks, at garage sales and resale shops. My best buy was a 500-gallon tank that was used for saltwater. It was 7′ long, 3.5′ high, and 3′ wide. It cost me 10 bucks, and the guy wanted to get rid of it so bad he delivered it to my house. Most of my garage sale tanks are between 20 and 70 gallon tanks, and I have yet to pay more than 5$ for any of these! Also, a cracked tank does not mean an unusable one. Crack(s) can be repaired with that reptile keepers miracle cure, silicone, available for 3-5$ anywhere. What I am saying is that there are times you can get a tank and setup used for a fraction of the cost of a new one, check around, trust me, its worth it.

Temperature:

Snakes are ectothermic, meaning they get most of their body heat from outside sources and you will have to provide that heat. The enclosure should have an ambient temperature of between 80-85 degrees, and it is preferable to have one small spot in the enclosure that the temperature is 90-95 degrees, and a sheltered spot where it is cooler on the other side. Snakes will move around to maintain their optimum temperature, this behavior is called shuttling. You need to check on specific species requirements however, as some kings like it hotter, some cooler, as in the case of my Andean Milksnake, which likes it in the 70’s at the hottest. Heat in enclosures can be achieved several ways: lamps, heat pads, and heat rocks. Many hobbyists say not to use heat rocks because they can burn your animal, which is true. I use heat rocks because they are cheap, but I put old socks over them to negate the hot surface temps that may occur.

Substrate:

What you put in your cage for the animal to crawl around in is also a matter of choice. Some keepers prefer newspaper: it’s cheap, easy, and can be replaced quickly. Some prefer Astroturf or reptile carpet. This looks nice, but requires cleaning and attention on your part. This leaves you with sand and mulch. I don’t prefer sand because it clumps and begins to stink after awhile, and it can be expensive to replace if you are buying Reptisand from a pet store. You will find an assortment of mulches at the pet store: Reptibark, aspen shavings, pine shavings, and cedar shavings. DO NOT use pine or cedar because the aromatic woods can cause respiratory problems in reptiles. Aspen shavings are good but expensive, and the same goes for Reptibark. I use cypress mulch that I purchase at home improvement store garden centers, WalMart, or even the grocery store in season. With 40+ cages, one 3 cubic foot bag can replace the substrate in all my cages at once, excluding my 3 biggest cages, yet cost less than 3 dollars! Reptibark and aspen often are 10$ or more for a little bag. For 6 bucks, I can replace all the bedding in ALL my cages at once, and to do that with pet store bought substrate would run into the hundreds of dollars. Cypress looks nice, and is easy and cheap to replace when soiled.

Feeding:


Whether you choose an adult or hatchling, a milksnake or a California Kingsnake, one thing is for sure…they will have to eat and that means rodents. For me, the best way to feed my collection is to buy frozen rodents in bulk, thaw them, heat them in hot water, and feed them to my animals. It is much cheaper in the long run, and safer for your animal if it will eat frozen thawed. For instance, a frozen adult mouse is 50cents, a live one at a pet store for $1.50 to 2$. True, I pay shipping, but I don’t have to buy many mice at that price to save. Buying in bulk for 6 months of rodents can save you considerably if done directly from the producer. My typical food order? 100 adult mice, 100 hoppers, 100 fuzzies, 100 pinkies, 50 Jumbo Rats, 100 Medium Rats, and that’s every other month! I figure I save 300-400$ over buying live. However, it may be inconvenient for you to buy a large number of frozen rodents, or the idea of a package of frozen mice next to your chicken in the freezer is unappealing, no problem. You can still buy live rodents to feed. I will caution you though, it is preferable to feed “stunned” prey to a snake to avoid the prey from damaging your snake. A mouse will bite to defend itself, even wrapped in a snake’s coils, and I have seen horrific damage done to a snake by rodents, especially if left in the cage too long a time when the snake will not eat for whatever reason. You can stun the rodent by whacking it over the head with a spoon or stick, or grasp it by the tail and swing it sharply, bringing the head in contact with a hard object like a table. The object is to not kill the animal or crush it, but to knock it senseless so that it will not fight the snake. This may be to graphic, and some of you may find it squeamish, so you can still throw live prey into your snakes cage, just be aware that damage to your snake may result, but not necessarily so. Also, if the snake does not grab the rodent in 10 minutes or so, remove the rodent from the cage. This prevents the rodent from snacking on your snake! Sounds irrational, but it’s true.

Conclusion:

Try as I might, I absolutely cannot tell you everything you need to know. My advice is to purchase a good book not only to research for your snake purchase but to help you in caring for your snake. I have a whole library full of care pages, books, and files that I have to reference, and I am always downloading and buying more.

By: Keith Martz

 

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