What You Need to Know Before Getting a Pet Snake
Snakes are absolutely beautiful animals. To be able to own one as a pet is the dream of anyone who appreciates their beauty and grace. But snakes require an extraordinary amount of care and attention, and having the wrong knowledge can easily make them sick or even kill them. If you are looking to own a snake or buy a pet snake for your child, then here’s the bare minimum of what you need to know.
There are lots of different kinds of snakes available in today’s pet market. The best ones for beginners include corn snakes, hognose snakes, sand boas, rosy boas, and ball pythons.
What type of snake you get affects enclosure size, temperature, humidity, diet, hiding areas, and many other factors. For this article, we will focus on the general information, but you will have to research for information on your specific type of snake before buying it.
Snakes have 5 basic needs that you need to meet:
- Lights & Heating
- Hiding Areas
- Food and Water
Resist the temptation to buy an all-in-one snake kit from the pet store. Although convenient, these kits rarely contain the supplies that your snake needs to be healthy and happy in your care. You end up spending a lot of money to replace the stuff that you don’t need, and in the end you will wish that you just bought everything separately. Fortunately some websites have shopping lists that you can use to buy everything you need online.
It is recommended you get either a glass or plastic terrarium for your new friend. There is some debate about which is better. On one hand, glass terrariums are easier to find since you can easily find a sturdy one in the size you need at the pet store. They are also easy to heat and light from above. However, glass cages are much less private and you may find your pet snake unwilling to cruise around as much. They can also be difficult to secure against escape.
PVC plastic cages, especially ones that have glass only in the front, afford the snake more privacy and security. You can find plastic cages in the right size you will need, but you will have to shop online rather than go to a pet store. Good brands include Animal Plastics and DIY Cages.
Whatever choice you make, just make sure you get a terrarium big enough for your companion. A general rule of thumb to keep in mind is that the terrarium should be as long as your snake is, half as wide, and half to a quarter as tall. If the snake is arboreal (tree dwelling), the enclosure should be taller than it is wide. Whenever possible, bigger is always better because it will give your new friend more room to move and explore.
Substrate is the material that you use to line the bottom of the cage with. Stay away from sand, especially anything labeled “calcium sand” or “vitamin sand.” It’s been found they are dangerous for all reptiles because they often lead to fatal blockages in the digestive tract, despite the manufacturer’s claims. Coconut fiber is similarly dangerous.
Some owners recommend Carefresh paper-based bedding. But it tends to be dusty, which is bad for respiratory systems and more meant for small mammals. Stay away from cedar or pine shavings as well. The oils have been known to cause long-term damage to snakes.
So what you should use? Substrates like aspen shavings, cypress mulch, or organic topsoil mixed with peat moss work well. But exactly what substrate your snake needs depends on its humidity requirements. For example, corn snakes don’t need much humidity so they can do well on aspen shavings. But ball pythons need lots of humidity, so they do better on a thick layer of cypress mulch or topsoil mix.
Heat lamps and under tank heaters are what is available for heating. Heat lamps, however, seem to be the preferred choice amongst hobbyists and owners. For one, if a heat lamp goes out, it’s easier and cheaper to replace a bulb than it is a peel and stick heat pad. They are also a more natural source of heat since they mimic the sun (especially this high-tech Deep Heat Projector bulb by Arcadia). Heat lamps are also very good at creating a heat gradient in the cage, so your snake can move to a cooler spot in the cage if it gets too hot.
Under tank heaters can get so hot, they can crack glass terrariums, cause terrible burns, and even become a fire hazard. They can only be safely used if regulated by a thermostat (not the same thing as a thermometer). But since they provide heat from below, they’re more unnatural and don’t do a good job of heating the air inside the enclosure.
You will also have to check your tank’s temperature every day to make the temperature is consistent. You can do this with a digital thermometer/hygrometer to measure air temperature and a temperature gun to measure ground temperature. Avoid the stick-on thermometers because they are not very accurate, and that can be dangerous to your snake’s health.
One thing you will absolutely have to provide is places for your snake to hide in. Snakes are very secretive, so they feel most secure when they have a place where they can stay out of sight. In fact, providing hiding spots can help you snake feel more confident in its environment, which means it will hide less and you will be able to watch it more. Whether it’s a fake log, plastic cave, flower pot, or a cat litter pan with a hole cut in, make sure it’s big enough to fit and small enough to be cozy.
Food and Water
Food: Snakes are carnivores, which means that they do not each any fruits or vegetables at all. There is no such thing as a vegan or vegetarian snake, so if you were hoping to go that route, a snake might not be the best pet for you. Whole mice and rats are pretty much the go-to food sources for snake owners, but snakes can eat many other things (and it’s good for them to get a varied diet). What exactly your snake needs to eat depends on how big your snake is and what it usually eats in the wild.
It is not recommended to use live animals as prey, as the animal can harm or even kill your snake. Instead, buy them frozen from your local independently-owned pet store or online, then thaw to about 98°F (body temperature) before feeding in warm water. If the idea of feeding your snake a whole animal makes you queasy, there’s a company called ReptiLinks that makes snake “sausages” that contain the same nutrition without the cute fuzzy face.
And for the record, no, pet snakes can’t eat small children. The types of snakes recommended earlier in this article are far too small to even think about eating anything larger than a rat. Certain constrictors like ball pythons do pose a small risk of suffocation if allowed to wrap around a child’s neck, but as with all pets, it is the parents’ responsibility to keep an eye on their children while playing with the family pet.
Water: Of course, you’ll have to provide a clean water bowl for your new pet. A small dog or cat bowl will be more than sufficient to provide water for your snake to drink. The water bowl may even help maintain humidity levels and provide a nice bath for small snakes.
Be sure to find a veterinarian that is knowledgeable in exotic pets so you have a place to go if your snake gets sick. The most reliable way to find a good reptile vet is to ask other snake owners in your area for a recommendation. Reptile rescues and zoos are especially knowledgeable. Don’t be afraid to go into a vet’s office to ask questions. It’s better to know ahead of time rather than realize too late that no one in your area specializes in reptiles and exotics. Depending on where you live, be prepared to drive a couple hours for a certified reptile veterinarian.
The thought that snakes don’t need enrichment is a myth and can actually be harmful to your snake’s psychological well-being. Many studies have been done to show that snakes kept in enriched environments have better growth rates and better problem-solving abilities than those who were kept in standard conditions. Giving your snake branches to climb on, foliage to explore, and a rock to curl up on will increase their activity levels.
Snakes need light to regulate their day/night cycle, especially if they are awake during the day. Some snake owners have noticed that UVB lights can increase activity levels as well as provide other benefits. Not all UVB bulbs are created equal, so if you decide to provide UVB for your snake, make sure to provide the right kind of UVB for its lifestyle. The UV Tool by herpetologist Frances Baines is a great reference to help you decide.
Never Stop Learning
Part of taking care of any pet is constantly learning more about how to take care of it better. This is especially the case when your pet is an exotic animal. Herpetology, or the study of reptiles and amphibians, is constantly being updated with new research on behavioral patterns, genetics, nutrition, and overall health and wellbeing of reptiles and amphibians.
Read articles on snake behavior and enrichment. Check out herpetology journals. Join Facebook groups. But most of all, be careful where you source your information from. Not everything on the Internet is evil, but scan through a reptile blog to make sure their information is sound and their animals are being housed safely and happily. Some of your best sources will be from people who are continuously learning and updating their knowledge base to become better pet owners. Here are some great resources to get you started:
To “Wrap” it Up
Snakes are a cool pet to have, but they take a lot of care just like any animal. With research and dedication, they can make any budding herpetologist or even just someone who loves and appreciates a widely, misunderstood creature a happy pet owner. So hit the pavement and keep learning — the more you know, the more you will be able to fully enjoy your new snake buddy for years to come.