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Care of Snakes in Captivity
(General Information)



Know your snake: Know everything you can about the species you are about to keep in your house. Ribbon Snakes prefer to eat fish and frogs and salamanders, but Boas want rodents and birds. You can't just give them Purina Snake Chow (it doesn't exist). And what about temperature, humidity and other special requirements? Read, read, read. Go to the library (it's free) and check out a book on the species you are considering getting, or the region of its origin. Listen to what others tell you, but listen to as many sources as possible and weigh all the information. Seek out a local Herpetological Society or other resource group.

NOTE: Pet shops may provide information, but be wary. Their primary interest may or may not be your pet's well being, but may be simply to help you spend your money. Most pet shop employees are not well trained in the area of herpetology. Occasionally you may find a shop that specializes in Herps and has more employees that are very knowledgeable, but this is the exception to the rule.


Keep the horse in front of the cart: Once you know a little about your intended victim pet, set the cage up before you bring the animal home. A good safe temperature for just about any snake is 77-78 Fahrenheit (about 25 Celsius). There are always exceptions to the rule, but not very many snakes from the Antarctic are kept as pets. A large water bowl with fresh water is necessary. You may want to keep it only about half full since many snakes like to curl up in the water bowl, especially when they are about to shed. (Again, know the specific needs of your snake. The Ball Python does not necessarily need water in its enclosure all the time and may develop skin blisters if the humidity is too high.) The cage should be large enough to provide differing temperate zones. It doesn't have to be HUGE, but the snake should be able to vary its body temperature by moving to different areas of the cage. If you use a "Hot Rock" as a heat source, make sure the surface temperature of the stone is not above 100 Fahrenheit (about 38 Celsius). If you use an incandescent light (cheap, but not recommended) as the heat source, make sure there is absolutely no way for the snake to come in direct contact with the bulb. The bulb is bright, the snake is not and it will burn itself or cut itself after breaking the bulb. NEVER USE INFRARED! Infrared is for the pass bar at Denny's, not heating animals.

Snakes like to hide. You may purchase a "Hide Box" formed from sturdy ABS plastic or other material. You may make one by whacking an opening into a Tupperware box or even a shoebox. The shoebox is free, but will need to be replaced periodically after the snake crushes it or "lays waste" to it (literally).

Construction of your cage is very important, especially what materials are used. Smaller snakes may be kept in a 10-gallon fish tank. This is cheap and easy to clean. There are now available "reptile tanks" with locking lids. Look at each model closely and think like a snake. Not all locks will lock in a snake. If it is a plastic frame screened top with edges that clip to the rim of the tank, it won't hold a snake. A tank designed so that the screened lid slides into a track and latches or secures with a nail or cotter pin will work well.

If you are acquiring or building a wood and glass cabinet style cage, you must be very careful of the materials used in construction. Particleboard is not advisable. It will swell when it gets wet, deforming your cage and there may be chemical reactions with the snake's urea causing toxic fumes. Overall, it is just a poor choice for wood. Most plywood and solid woods are fine. Any wood used should be completely sealed after construction with an epoxy or polyurethane. Use glass for small doors and Plexiglas or Lexan for larger doors. If you use a premanufactured window as a sliding door for the cage, make sure the design of the window matches the intended use. For instance, if the glass is to slide sideways, you must use a window designed to operate that way. Otherwise it will jam and be a problem.

Keep the floor clear of any obstacles. You will have to clean this area frequently. The fewer number of right angles, the better. Never permanently attach tree limbs to the floor of the cage. You'll regret it when you are cleaning and putting in new substrate. The best substrate to use in a snake cage is newspaper (avoid colored inks and glossy finish). It is cheap and may be discarded after it is soiled. The green or brown grass indoor/outdoor carpet works well and looks better, but takes a little more effort to clean. The best method for using carpet substrate is to have two pieces for each cage. Pull the dirty one and replace it with the clean one. Clean the dirty one and hang it up to dry. It should be ready once the cage is again dirty.

Wood shavings and bark chips tend to stay dirty and fragments may lodge in the snake's mouth during feeding causing mouth sores or ULCERATIVE STOMATITIS (Mouthrot). Mouthrot looks a bit like impetigo (infantigo) and will kill the snake in time if left untreated. Plus it is not very pretty and impossible to treat if you are squeamish. Keep the cage clean. If you do decide to use a natural substrate, Aspen bedding is best for most snakes. Cypress mulch seems to be okay for larger species. Just make sure it is pure Cypress mulch and not ground up palettes. Cypress mulch is available at most gardening centers and home improvement stores. (Shop around for the best price.) You may buy Aspen bedding direct from American Excelsior.


Death to all food items: With the exception of insect eaters and fish eaters, all snakes need to be fed dead food. A rodent, mouse or rat can do an amazing amount of damage to your snake in a very, very short period of time. "But it won't eat dead food", you whine. Yes, it will, if you work at it. And even if after much trial, you cannot coerce your pet to take dead food, at least stun the food animal to limit the potential for your pet to be hurt.

Here's what you do. First thing is to buy a frozen mouse, rat or rabbit (according to the size of your pet), thaw it out thoroughly (2 to 4 hours for large rats and up to 24 hours for a large rabbit) and using tongs or some other similar device, offer it to your snake. You may find that the offering will be eagerly accepted. Watch your fingers! If the food is not taken directly from you, lay it in front of the hide box opening and leave it there overnight. It will probably be gone in the morning. Some captive snakes are shy about feeding and prefer to eat at night undisturbed. Once the snake has eaten, you should not handle it for several days.

Now that you have accomplished the conversion from live to dead food, you can then buy mice and/or rats in quantity and keep them in the freezer. This is much more efficient than keeping live rodents around (which will also reduce your chances of being bitten by a misguided feeding response brought on by the constant scent of rodents in the air).

Another consideration is that snakes should be separate while being fed. It is not uncommon or unacceptable to maintain more than one snake in a cage, but they should ALWAYS be separated for feeding. Large Tupperware or Sterlite storage containers or even a 32-gallon Rubbermaid trash container will make excellent temporary housing for feeding. You can put a water bowl in with them and just seal the snake up for a few days. Don't forget to perforate the lid so the snake will be able to breathe. Use a "snakehook" to handle a recently fed snake to avoid being bitten. I don't recommend using tongs. They are too easy to misuse, injuring the snake.

NOTE: Behavioral modification should be considered and used to control the snake's feeding response. For instance, if you put your large Python in a trash can to feed, be ready for a feeding response once the snake recognizes that he/she is in the can. The snake may come flying out at you with mouth open the second you drop him/her into the recognized feeding enclosure. (This scenario I have experienced first hand!)


Once bitten, twice shy: This is the greatest single factor causing neglect of captive snakes. Everything is cool. Everyone is happy. Then one day, your pet bites you. You are now afraid to handle your snake and therefor you don't want to deal with it. You start pouring water into the bowl through the screened lid rather than removing the bowl and washing it. You allow the snake to go through three or even four elimination cycles (pooping) before you muster the courage to clean the cage.

When you do finally decide you must clean the cage, you handle the animal roughly, gripping it tightly behind the head so it can't bite you. You bag it, then when the cage is clean; you pour it out of the bag into the cage and close the lid or door as quickly as possible. The stress to the snake from these circumstances may cause the animal to stop feeding and the dirty cage encourages infections and skin problems. It just spirals down from there. "Oh, I won't be that way" you plead. I've heard it all before. Maintaining a snake takes as much if not more effort as keeping any pet.


My sources for this tirade are too numerous to mention and stem from some 30 odd years of experience, listening and reading.

I would however, like to thank a few people...
Dave Barker, Terry Hibbits, Jim Dunlap, Ken Magnuson, Barry Kuenn, Jim Stout, et al.
Take care.


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