Choosing a Snake
Snakes are elongated, legless animals with dry, scale-covered skin. Their skin is unusually elastic, which allows it to stretch when large prey are swallowed. Snakes are rather unique because of these features and because they lack moveable eyelids and external ear openings.
The most common snakes kept in private are boas, pythons, rat, milk, racer, gopher and garter species. The husbandry and dietary requirements for each type of snake vary considerably so proper research on the snake you choose should definitely be done before you purchase your new pet. Furthermore, some species (boas and pythons) reach very large sizes in captivity, and their considerable space requirements must be anticipated.
Snake temperaments vary among species and among individuals of the same species. Certain snakes almost always retain a gentle, docile nature when they are raised from infancy (boa constrictors). Other species (the larger pythons) are unpredictable and tend to be quite pugnacious as they mature, whether or not they are handled frequently. Reticulated and Burmese pythons are especially unpredictable when they are anticipating being fed. Proper care must be taken when handling these snakes.
Select a snake that can feed without difficulty and one that is eating regularly. Select a snake that appears healthy in all aspects. Avoid choosing an unthrifty-looking snake out of sympathy with the idea that you can nurse it back to health.
Avoid selecting a snake belonging to a species that is notoriously difficult to keep in captivity. Avoid selecting a venomous species.
Aquariums or other similar glass or Plexiglas enclosures are usually the most suitable enclosures. The top should be secure and escape proof since many snakes are escape artists. Also, snakes will use both the horizontal and vertical space within their enclosure if provisions are made.
Unprinted newsprint, butcher paper, paper towels and indoor-outdoor carpeting are the most suitable materials for the bottom of the aquarium. Under no circumstances should pea gravel, kitty litter, crushed corncob material or wood shavings be used. These materials can keep in bacteria and cause an intestinal obstruction if eaten.
It is very important to provide some privacy for a captive snake. Many snakes will not feed without the security of a hide box.
Tropical snakes (boas, pythons, etc.) require relatively warm temperatures and high relative humidity. Daytime temperatures should range between 80° and 85°F without creating problems for most snakes. Native American snakes do well when maintained at 70°-80°F.
Direct, unfiltered sunlight is the healthiest way to house reptiles, especially during the warm months. Ultraviolet rays that are essential for proper health do not pass through glass so putting your cage next to a window is not adequate. The next best solution is to use an artificial ultraviolet light source rather than fluorescent or incandescent lightbulbs. It is best to supply 10-12 hours of daylight and 12-14 hours of darkness each day.
Water should be provide at all times. Most snakes drink infrequently but use a suitable container for immersing themselves and soaking.
Feed dead or incapacitated prey whenever possible. This is because such prey cannot inquire the feeding snake by inflicting a serious bite wound. If it is not possible to offer anything other than live and fully conscious prey for a snake to successfully feed, the encounter must be carefully supervised.
Feeding schedules for captive snakes vary with the age, species, size, condition and specific requirements of the individual. Generally speaking, pet snakes are usually fed once every 1-2 weeks. Juveniles and adults, for which a relatively rapid growth rate is desired can be fed more frequently, providing that environmental temperatures are warm enough to allow complete and thorough digestion. Older snake are usually fed less frequently, often once every 3-6 weeks. The number of prey animals offered at each feeding is determined by the same factors discussed above with the regard to the frequency of feeding.
Shedding is the process by which snakes periodically discard the outer portion of their skin. This activity is under hormonal control and associated with growth. Most snakes shed their skin 4-8 times per year.
The shedding process is preceded by a period of relative inactivity. This period usually lasts 1-2 weeks, during which time the eyes begin to exhibit a dull, bluish-white appearance.
Snakes produce offspring in 2 basic ways. In the first, live juvenile snakes are born that look like miniature adults. Boa constrictors, water and garter snakes, and rattlesnakes are examples.
The second method involves the deposition of oblong leather-shelled eggs. Pythons, rat and milk snakes are egg layers.
All newborn or newly hatched snakes can fend for themselves and receive no parental nurturing.
Signs of Illness
The following is a partial list of potential medical problems. If any of these problems occur, or if your snake is not acting right for any other reasons, then it should be seen by your veterinarian. The list includes, but is not limited to failure to voluntarily feed, regurgitation, burns, rat/mouse bites, nose abrasions, constipation, cloacal prolapses, abnormal shedding, retained eye caps, abscesses and respiratory infections.
Enclosure and Space Requirements
As a general rule, snakes require relatively little space because of their limited and nonexertional activity. Generally speaking, the size of the enclosure should allow inclusion of certain required items (discussed below) and still allow the snake adequate space to stretch out and move about. Snakes will use both the horizontal and vertical space within their enclosure if provisions are made for this activity.
Aquaria or other similar glass or plexiglass-lined enclosures are usually most suitable because they allow optimum visualization of and safety for the occupant(s), and help to maintain desirable environmental temperatures and generally high relative humidity levels. Furthermore, such enclosures prevent injuries to the rostrum (nose and surrounding tissues) as snakes repeatedly attempt to “escape” through the wire mesh.
Any enclosure used must have a secure top and be escape-proof. All hinges and locks should be secure. All snakes are potential escape artists.
Floor Coverings and Enclosure Items
Unprinted newsprint, butcher paper, paper towels, terrycloth towels and indoor-outdoor carpeting are the most suitable materials for covering the bottom of a snake’s enclosure. Under no circumstances should pea gravel, kitty litter, crushed corncob material or wood shavings be used. These are unquestionably more visually aesthetic than most of the materials mentioned above; however, they are unsuitable because they trap moisture and filth, provide unlimited “hiding places” for external parasites, and make enclosures very difficult to clean. Furthermore, these types of particulate matter are easily and inadvertently eaten while the snake is feeding. This can cause mechanical injury to or obstruction of the digestive tract.
Various objects should be included within a snake’s enclosure that occupies its vertical area.These include sturdy branches of various hardwood trees or those fabricated from artificial materials, driftwood, grapevine, hanging ropes, and shelves situated along the sides of the enclosure.
It is very important to provide some privacy for a captive snake. Many snakes will not feed without the privacy affected by some degree of visual security. This can be accomplished by providing a “hide box” into which the snake can retreat when it feeds or at other times when privacy is desired. Visual security can also be provided by the use and strategic placement of silk artificial plants (and trees if the enclosure is large enough to accommodate them). Silk plants are visually pleasing and easy to clean and disinfect. They require minimal maintenance, help to augment the relative humidity level of the enclosure if the foliage is frequently misted, and can complement a snake’s ability to camouflage itself, thereby providing visual security.
Tropical snakes kept in captivity (boa constrictors, pythons, etc) require relatively warm temperatures and high relative humidity. Daytime temperatures should range between 8- and 85 F. Nighttime temperatures can fall between 70-75 F without creating problems for most snakes. Native American snakes do well when maintained at 70-80 F.
Relatively large enclosures can be supplied with heat lamps or heaters equipped with thermostats, whereas small enclosures may be adequately heated by placing a heating pad directly underneath them. Exposed heat sources must be shielded to protect snakes from serious burns as they attempt to warm themselves by coining next to them.
A focal (spot) source of warmth should also be provided. Small snakes should be offered a hot rock. Large snakes can use one or more well-protected and water-proofed heating pads. These appliances allow the snake direct, but safe, contact with the heat source, which helps to raise their body temperature. This allows the snake to be more active and increases their rate of digestion. Check these appliances frequently for malfunction and periodically check the snake for evidence of burns because snakes generally do not move away from heat-generating appliances even if they are being severely burned.
Ideally, it would be advantageous for all captive reptiles to be housed in such a way that they could be exposed to and benefit from direct, unfiltered sunlight during the daylight hours every day. This represents the healthiest and most natural situation. Unfortunately, this set of circumstances can rarely be fulfilled by hobbyists because it is neither practical nor possible. The next best solution is to use an artificial ultraviolet light source rather than fluorescent or incandescent light bulbs to illuminate the enclosure during the daylight hours. To approximate a natural photo-period, it is best to supply 10-12 hours of daylight and 12-14 hours of darkness each day, with a gradual increase in the number of hours of light in the spring and a gradual decrease in the fall and winter months.
Feeeding & Diet
Water should be provided at all times. Most snakes drink infrequently but use a suitably sized container for immersing themselves and soaking. Another advantage for including a relatively large water container is that water evaporation contributes to the relative humidity of the enclosure. This is especially true if the enclosure is glass or plexiglass-lined. The water container should be roomy enough to allow adequate soaking and heavy enough so it cannot be easily overturned.
Before specific feeding recommendations are made, it is very important to make several points and cautions regarding the feeding of captive snakes. The most respected herpetologists and experienced snake hobbyists all agree that captive snakes should be fed dead prey whenever possible in order to prevent injury to the snake. Providing killed prey that has been frozen is convenient and economical for the hobbyist.
If it is not possible to offer anything other than live prey for a snake to successfully feed, the encounter must be carefully supervised. If a snake shows no interest in feeding within 10-15 minutes after the prey has been introduced, the prey should be removed. If other similar attempts to feed the snake within the next 1-2 weeks are equally unsuccessful, veterinary help should be sought at once.
Feeding schedules for captive snakes vary with the age, species, size, condition and specific requirements of the individual. Generally speaking, pet snakes are usually fed once every 1-2 weeks. Juveniles can be fed more frequently, providing that environmental temperatures are warm enough to allow complete and thorough digestion. Older snakes are usually fed less frequently, often once every 3-6 weeks.
Overfeeding must be avoided because of the risk of obesity. Too-frequent feeding and allowing a captive snake to consume multiple prey animals at each feeding encourages rapid growth. It also leads to obesity in older animals.
Specific Dietary Recommendations
The variety of snakes kept in captivity is considerable and their food preferences are quite variable. Following is a list of preferred prey animals for the snakes most commonly kept in captivity.
Boa constrictors, pythons, rat snakes, gopher or bull snakes:
- Warm-blooded prey is preferred, such as rodents and birds. Juveniles of these species prefer the very small warm-blooded prey species.
- They may also consume very small lizards and snakes. Some tree boas and pythons prefer lizards to mammals and birds.
Garter snakes, ribbon snakes, water snakes, etc:
- Fish, frogs, salamanders, toads, earthworms, slugs and carrion are preferred.
- Many accept dead mice if they are covered with the external mucus of frogs or fish before they are offered.
Shedding is the process by which snakes periodically discard the outer portion of their skin. This activity is under hormonal control and associated with growth. Most snakes shed their skin 4-8 times per year. The frequency of shedding depends upon many factors, including environmental temperature, frequency of feeding, amount fed at each feeding, and activity level. Young snakes shed more frequently than older ones because growth is relatively rapid in the first few years of life.
Healthy snakes usually have little or no difficulty with shedding and tend to shed their skins in one entire piece. Exceptions to this include snakes with injuries to the skin and/or scales resulting in scarring, and snakes housed in enclosures with sub optimal temperature and/or relative humidity levels.
The stresses associated with shedding can be substantial. Sick snakes, those suffering from malnutrition, or those whose health has been directly or indirectly compromised by poor husbandry experience delayed and incomplete sheds. These snakes tend to shed their skins in pieces. In fact, many of the pieces remain adhered to the underlying skin and eyes (retained eye caps).
The shedding process is preceded by a period of relative inactivity. This period usually lasts 1-2 weeks, during which time the eyes begin to exhibit a dull, bluish-white appearance. During this period, the snake’s vision is impaired, which causes them to be rather unpredictable and sometimes aggressive. The skin during this period tends to have an overall dull appearance. The underlying new skin is soft and vulnerable to damage while the outer layers prepare to slough away.
The eyes again become transparent after 7-15 days and shedding commences. A snake will make use of any rough objects or surfaces within its enclosure to help shed the skin. Shedding commences with the skin of the head. Once the snake has loosened and dislodged the skin surrounding the mouth and overlying the rostrum (nose), it then passes between rough objects that can trap the loose skin and hold it as the snake glides out of the ”old” skin. Discarded skin appears dry and tube-like or moist and crumpled in a solitary heap. Many snakes defecate after a successful shed, or consume large quantities of water.
As stated earlier, nutritional deficiencies and disease resulting from malnutrition are relatively rare among captive snakes because of their habit of consuming whole prey animals. However, exclusive use of whole but immature prey animals, such as “pinkies” (neonatal mice and rats), juvenile goldfish and invertebrates, can create nutritional problems. Furthermore, certain snakes that receive a monotonous diet (no variety of prey items) are also susceptible to nutritional deficiencies.
Failure to Voluntarily Feed
Anorexia (lack of appetite) and failure to voluntarily feed are common problems among captive snakes. Despite the fact that snakes are uniquely suited to survive prolonged periods without feeding, the reason(s) for the snake’s failure to feed must be discovered. This search must include the possibility of illness, since anorexia is a universal sign of disease in snakes.
First consider the circumstances and situations during which snakes normally will not feed:
- Recent acquisition of a snake
- Snake in pre-shed condition
- Latter stages of pregnancy
- Older, larger snakes feed less often than younger, smaller ones
- Obese snakes occasionally engage in self-imposed fasts
- Newborn or newly hatched snakes may not feed until after their first shed 10-14 days after birth
- Hyperactivity associated with the breeding season or the imposition of captivity on newly acquired, high-strung species
- Hibernation or attempts to hibernate
If all of the above have been rejected as causes for anorexia, you must consider problems with husbandry. The most common cause for failure of a snake to voluntarily feed is inadequate environmental temperatures. Tropical snakes require temperatures between 75 and 85F for normal activity and optimum digestive capacity. Subnormal temperatures lead to sluggishness and incomplete digestion. The food literally spoils inside the snake, producing serious illness, an early sign of which is vomiting.
The next most common cause for captive snakes refusing to feed is lack of adequate visual security. Many snakes require privacy while they feed. A hiding box or a natural bark or rock retreat may be necessary. Sometimes placing the reluctant snake in a roomy burlap bag along with a dad or incapacitated prey item provides the security the snake requires to feed. Strategic placement of silk artificial plants may also help provide additional visual security.
Following is a list of additional suggestions to consider when you are challenged with a snake that refuses to feed:
- Try feeding at different times of the day. Nocturnal (night-active) species cannot be expected to feed on prey items placed within the enclosure during the daytime.
- Moving a snake to a new or different enclosure may stimulate feeding.
- Reduce handling of especially nervous or newly acquired snakes to encourage feeding.
- Rubbing the food item over the sensitive areas of the snake’s head (the nostrils and the areas surrounding the mouth) or gently hitting the snake with the prey may antagonize it to strike at the food.
- Offer live prey to snakes that have been consistently offered dead (with close supervision). For snakes that ordinarily eat live prey, try feeding dead or incapacitated live prey items. Often, the erratic motions of a rodent running around an enclosure can cause a snake to refuse to feed.
- Try feeding a smaller prey item. A snake that has been recently injured by a particularly large and aggressive prey animal may be reluctant to feed.
- Cater as much as possible to the individual preferences of an anorectic snake. If a snake refuses mice, try small rats, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits or even chicks. Some snakes can be very finicky.
If all of the above have been considered and attempted without success, have the snake examined by a veterinarian.
Regurgitation of food may result from handling a snake too soon after it has fed. Regurgitated food is undigested and relatively odorless. Another common cause of regurgitation is inadequate and incomplete digestion caused by relatively cool environmental temperatures. In these cases, the regurgitated food appears digested and is malodorous. If it is not possible to raise the temperature of the enclosure, a focal source of heat (hot rock, heating pad or pads) on which the snake can rest is a necessity to ensure adequate and complete digestion.
Other causes of regurgitation include stress in easily excitable species, parasitism, intestinal obstruction and serious internal disease.
Constipation is a common problem among captive snakes. Causes include suboptimal environmental temperature, illness, dehydration, injuries, parasitism and cloacoliths (see below).
Constipated snakes should be allowed to soak in very warm (not scalding hot) water for 20-30 minutes daily for 1-2 days. This often results in defecation and/or urination. If this conservative measure is not successful, veterinary help should be sought at once.
Abnormal shedding occurs when the normal sequence of events of the shedding process is somehow interrupted. This usually results in a piece-meal shed and/or retained eye caps. Causes include serious internal disease, inadequate relative humidity, previous injury (including surgery to the skin and scales, external parasitism, lack or adequate objects against which to rub at the beginning of the shed, and thyroid gland problems.
An abnormal shed indicates a problem that demands immediate attention. In these cases, consider all of the aforementioned causes, most of which demand veterinary assistance.
Treatment of a snake with retained skin from an abnormal shed involves first soaking the snake in warm water for several hours. A damp towel can then be used to gently peel off stubborn skin fragments. An alternative to this manual method involves rolling the snake snugly in warm moist, heavy towels and allowing it to crawl out, leaving the stubborn skin fragments behind. This procedure can be repeated if necessary.
Mouth Rot (Infectious Or Ulcerative Stomatitis)
Mouth rot is a progressive bacterial infection involving the oral lining. It may begin with increased salivation. Often saliva bubbles from the mouth. Close inspection of the oral lining reveals tiny pinpoint areas of bleeding. The oral lining becomes increasingly inflamed and pus begins to accumulate within the mouth, especially among the rows of teeth. As the disease progresses, the underlying bone becomes infected and the teeth fall out. This infection must be recognized in the early stages to successfully reverse it.
Blister disease is common in many captive reptiles. It is most often associated with the maintenance of these animals in damp, filthy environments. The first sign is usually a pink to red appearance of the bottom-most scales. Later, these scales become swollen and infected by bacteria and fungi.
Respiratory infections are common in snakes. They may be associated with bacterial or viral infections and mouth rot. Some respiratory illness may be the consequence of stress from poor or inadequate husbandry.
Snakes can be hosts to a large number of parasites, representing a bewildering variety of organisms that can cause problems. A large number of one-celled organisms (protozoa) can cause serious diseases of the digestive, respiratory, reproductive and vascular (blood and bloodstream) systems of snakes. Flukes cause illness in the respiratory and urinary systems. Tapeworms parasitize the digestive system. Roundworms and related parasites inhabit the digestive tract, but their juvenile stages can cause disease to other organs (especially the lungs) during the course of their migrations. Large numbers of mites and ticks parasitize the skin and scales of snakes, and create disease by feeding on the host’s blood.