GENERAL CARE OF SNAKES
Each species of snake can have their own differences in husbandry, especially when comparing the water snakes versus the dry-land snakes. This is basic information provided for taking care of all snakes. On the average most snakes can live to be 15-20 years with proper care.
The cage to house a snake should be escape proof, ventilated, warm and be able to be easily cleaned. Aquariums, wood, fiberglass or plastic are the most common materials used for snake cages. Wood can be harder to clean and disinfect. Branches and similar items should be provided for climbing. Snakes also need a place to hide and feel visually safe in their environment, such as hollow log or inverted box. We recommend the full spectrum lighting for reptiles, placed 24″ or less above the habitat, with the bulbs changed every 6 months. The light bulb should be open towards the snake. Plastic (i.e. acrylic) and glass covers will filter out the proper wavelength of light (290-320 nm) needed to make vitamin D3 in reptiles. With some reptile species, such as iguanas, we recommend taking their cage outside in the warm weather–but this is not usually recommended for snakes (who can also easily escape). The water in the water bowl should be changed daily. The bowl should be large enough to hold the snake within. Excessive soaking may indicate a sick snake. Dirty water and a wet litter environment are frequently the sources of infections and parasites that affect reptiles. In some cities a snake over 6’ long cannot be kept as a pet. Colorado law prohibits keeping a snake over 10’ in length. To protect the environment from invasive species, it is illegal to transport across state lines any yellow anacondas, Burmese, northern or southern African pythons.
We prefer paper as the litter of choice, such as newspaper or butcher’s paper. Other organic materials, corn cobs, sawdust, aquarium gravel, wood chips, dirt and sand usually hold more moisture and cause rotting and skin problems. When disinfecting the cage we recommend mild products such as 1/30 Chlorox or 1/10 chlorahexadine. Always allow the cage to dry and smell free of fumes before reintroducing the snake back into the cage.
Adequate ventilation is very important. Should mold be growing within the habitat you need to provide more air and/or periodic cleaning of the cage. A humidity of 60-70% is desired for the average tropical snake, while 30-50% is preferred for the desert species. A high humidity in a desert species can lead to skin and lung infections. Yet in the tropical species, such as the boas, a low humidity can predispose the snake to pneumonia. If the snake has a shedding problem (dysecdysis), or retained eyelid caps, the humidity is usually too low. Spray misting, wet sponges (in a water bowl) inside the cage and warm baths should help alleviate the low humidity problem. Oil products should not be used on a snake. Sphagnum moss in a terra cotta pot, with holes in the top and bottom also can help increase the humidity. Monitor these areas for mold.
Reptiles cannot regulate their own body heat. A thermometer is a must to test the air temperature in the cage. Snakes are ectothermic and rely on the surrounding air temperature to keep them warm. We recommend that you heat only one end of the cage, so the snake can find a temperature it prefers. Hot rocks are adequate, but may burn the snake. A hot rock alone is not an adequate source of heat. We do not recommend heating pads at all. A 75-150 watt (maximum) heat lamp can be used to heat one end of the habitat, while leaving the other end cooler. The vitamin light and a heat rock may be adequate for some habitats. One end of the cage should be at least 75 degrees, preferably 85 degrees. All lighting should be on a timer, to allow a period of darkness for sleep. There are also the non-light, ceramic heat sources which can be placed above the cage.
Snakes should be fed a variety of food, such as fish, small mice and even insects such as grubs and worms. Live prey, especially fish, can be a source of some parasites. Freezing fish and rethawing in warm water (90 degrees) helps eliminate the parasite problem, yet feeding frozen fish alone can cause thiamine and vitamin E deficiencies. Unfortunately most snakes prefer live prey. The tongue of a snake has a Jacobson’s organ to smell its prey. The pits on the face of some snakes, such as vipers, sense infrared heat. The movement of live insect prey is needed for some species. Try feeding the frozen fish, warmed up in water as hot as you can place your finger into to mimic the body heat emitted from live prey. We prefer the that insects be limited to less than 20% of their diet, and fish to less than 40%. With insects and worms you can provide a mineral supplement by placing the food in a bag or vial with the vitamin/mineral powder and shaking before feeding to the snake. We recommend a vitamin-mineral supplement periodically for all reptiles, even if it is given by mixing the powder with Nutrical and giving orally to the prey first. For snakes on a “pinky diet only” it is best to give orally a small mixture of the dry supplement with water, or one of the liquid vitamin/mineral supplements, with an eye dropper to the mice before feeding to the snake. If a snake has not eaten an adult mouse or rat within 30 minutes remove the rodent. The rodents can attack and even kill a snake as a survival method for the mouse or rat. Bites to the snake must be treated with systemic antibiotics to prevent severe infections (not just topically). We feel most all of the constrictor snakes (boas, python and rat snakes) can be trained to be fed freshly killed or thawed rodents, which is safer for the snake. Frozen prey can be thawed inside a bag in warm water, and fed with feeding tongs with the prey head first. The racers and garter snakes will also eat amphibians (salamanders, tadpoles, frogs), small fish, grubs and other insects. Some snakes desire one type of prey, such as the water snakes and hognose snake prefer amphibians. A few species may prefer frogs and not toads. Some species of snakes can be placed into a winter hibernation stage for a few months, if desired and/or your food source is scarce. The hibernating species of snakes can be at a lower temperature for 2-3 months. Please ask for our feeder insect care handout, for ideas on varying the diet in a snake.
One of the most common problems we see in snakes is parasites. We recommend that all snakes have periodic stool exams for parasites. All reptiles can carry the Salmonella bacteria, which cannot easily be eradicated from a snake. We recommend that you wash your hands after handling all reptiles.
Snake breeding should be left to the experts. Some snakes will kill each other, if species and/or two of the same sex are kept in the same area. The snakes sold in pet stores are tropical type of species. Some of the wild species of snakes, which may be illegal to keep in captivity without a permit, may require a seasonal cooling or hibernation to breed. Snakes can be sexed by a probe into the cloaca; this should be done by an expert person to prevent damage to the snake. Male snakes usually have larger cloacal pores than females. Pelvic spurs are seen with male snakes.
This handout is a source of information for the average snake. We recommend that you purchase a book for the species you have, as each type of snake has different requirements for heat, etc. We have more information within our library, which you may read at the clinic. If you do not plan to breed reptiles, we recommend you keep one per habitat to reduce aggression and fighting wounds. Signs of sickness in reptiles can be trouble breathing, constipation or egg binding, diarrhea, ear infections, swollen eyes, lumps, mouth rot, shell/skin rot, a softening shell, swollen eyes, increased thirst and/or not eating for a week or longer. Humidity over 60% may cause skin infections and blisters to form. Sea snakes live in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and all are poisonous. Living in water only, they have a flat tail and move differently than a land snake. We do not recommend keeping any poisonous snakes. A poisonous snake has an elliptical eye pupil and a loreal pit that opens forward. This loreal pit is behind the nostril. The elliptical eye pupil is a small slit which runs up and down (vertical). A nonpoisonous snake has a round pupil and no loreal pit.
The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic