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Snake Care

milk snake on white background daisy street vets blackburn

Snakes are carnivorous in nature. In the wild every individual species of snake will have a varied diet depending on their natural living environment and prey available. It is assumed that the majority of pet snakes are already accustomed to eating rodent prey, as their only food source, before purchase.

The aim of feeding is to achieve a reptile which does not appear emaciated but lean. It is important to note that it is illegal to feed live vertebrate prey to another animal in the UK because it is inhumane. All rodent prey must be humanely killed first.

Preventing obesity

A common problem in pet snakes is overfeeding, therefore it is important to consider the natural feeding intervals for your species of snake.

Small carnivores (garter snakes, small corn snakes) should be fed fuzzies or pinkies three times a week, with one to two at the most, fed at a time.

Medium carnivores (kingsnakes, ratsnakes) should be fed adult mice, or juvenile rats once or twice a week .

Large carnivores (burmese pythons, boa constrictors) should be fed adult rats to rabbits depending on the size once weekly to once fortnightly depending on the meal taken

Avoid feeding overweight prey items.

Tips to help encourage a snake to eat

  • Warm the prey to body temperature before offering it to your snake by heating it in hot water (make sure it is not too hot as it can cause internal burns when ingested).
  • Break the prey item open to release the scent of blood.
  • Stimulate the snake to strike at the prey by mimicking movement of a live animal. Use for example, long forceps to avoid being bitten.
  • Try a variety of colours of prey, some snakes will only accept dark furred rodents.
  • To get a snake used to eating rodent prey after only eating fish (such as garter or water snakes), wipe the rodent to be offered with a previously taken food item to transfer the scent.
  • Ensure there are plenty of areas to hide. Some boids and pythons like to consume their prey in a box or hide.
  • Leave the prey in overnight, some species prefer to hunt at night
  • Going to the next smallest size of rodent, so if adult mice were previously offered try fuzzies, if juvenile rats try adult mice etc.

Pinkies—nude neonatal rat and mice pups

Fuzzies—week old rat and mice pups with a thin covering of fur

Furries—juvenile rat and mice pups of a few weeks of age which have a soft but  longer covering of fur.

Refeeding Syndrome

If your snake has been anorexic (not eating) for sometime it is important to seek veterinary treatment to help prevent refeeding syndrome. Excess calories and proteins in a snake that hasn’t eaten for sometime, can cause a rapid uptake of glucose from the bloodstream into the cells, taking potassium and phosphorous with it, this can lead to life-threatening low levels.

The snake will need to be rehydrated and feeding restarted slowly, approximately –50% of it’s normal requirement for it’s current weight.

Environmental temperature, humidity and lighting

Snakes like other reptiles are poikilothermic, meaning they are unable to generate their own heat and in the wild rely on the sun and environment to heat up their body. It is therefore vital in captivity to keep their environmental temperature warm and stable. Every species of snake will have their own optimum preferred temperature, in which their enzymes and metabolism function at their optimum levels. Temperature influences the rate at which their food is digested.

These ranges are for the preferred optimum temperature zone (POTZ) of a few commonly kept species. The vivarium needs to have a heat gradient aiming for the cool end to be at or below the lower end of the POTZ and the warm end being at or above the POTZ.

  Habitat POTZ Relative Humidity
Garter snake Terrestrial semi-aquatic 21-28°C 50-80%
Kingsnake Terrestrial Semi-arid scrubland 25-30°C 30-70%
Cornsnake Terrestrial Semi-arid scrubland 25-30°C 30-70%
Common boa Terrestrial, semi-arboreal and semi aquatic 28-30°C 50-80%
Royal python Terrestrial scrubland 25-30°C 50-80%
Burmese python Terrestrial, semi-arboreal 25-30°C 50-80%

Heat should be controlled by a thermostat and thermometers placed at each end of the vivarium.

A radiant heat mat should be placed on the outside wall of the enclosure at the warm end of the vivarium covering approximately ⅓ to a ½ of the longest side of the tank.

Upper humidity levels are useful when shedding

UV-B/ UV-A lighting

It is probable that most species of snake would benefit from some UV exposure but this remains undetermined. It is assumed that because they eat whole prey items their calcium and vitamin D requirement is fulfilled.

If you decide to provide your snake with UV light it needs to be placed on the inside of the vivarium within 30-45 cm of the snake. This should be on a timer switch set for 12-14 hours a day during daylight hours only as they must also have a period of  darkness for 10-12 hours a day.

It is advisable to change the bulb every 6-9 months even if it appears to be working fine. This is because the quality of the UV-B/UV-A rays emitted will degrade over time.

Housing

The vivarium should be constructed from an easy to clean, non-absorbent material, escape proof and have hides or branches depending on species to imitate it’s natural habitat and allow normal behaviours.

Terrestrial species  (Ground dwelling):

  • Longest side: ¾ of body length
  • Shortest side: ⅓ of body length
  • Height: ½ body length

Arboreal species  (Tree climbing) :

  • Longest side: ¾ of body length
  • Shortest side: ⅓ of body length
  • Height: allow for body length

Burrowing species :

  • Longest side: ¾ of body length
  • Shortest side: ⅓ of body length
  • Height: ½ body length above substrate and allow at least 30cm of substrate

These are minimum dimensions only. Ideally the snake should be able to stretch to it’s complete length.

Substrate and furniture

The floor covering of the vivarium should be non-toxic, easily cleaned and minimises the risk of ingestion.

Substrate Easy to clean Disease risk Comments
Newspaper Yes Low Lead in the ink can cause irritation and make reptiles dirty.
Sand/ Calcisand Frequent scooping but less frequent full changes Risk of gut impaction if ingested with food. Can discolour skin.
Astroturf ® Yes Low Not suitable for burrowing species
Wood chip Scooping difficult Can harbour chiggers and mites. Risk of ingestion Avoid Cedar chips which can cause respiratory and skin irritation

All snakes should be provided with a hide to escape to. The hide area should be approximately 2—2½ times the area of the snake housed.

The inclusion of some rough vivarium furniture or substrate will assist the snake during shedding.

Arboreal species will need vertical branches and ramps to climb.

Please note this care sheet is intended as a basic guide only.

Contact us on 01254 53622 should you have any concerns about your snakes health.

Written by Caroline Ashworth R.V.N, Cert VNES (Head Nurse), Daisy Street Veterinary Centre, Blackburn 20th May 2016, updated January 2017.

Feeding snakes, housing snakes, snake eating problems, snake substrates, refeeding syndrome.

Page updated 3rd Feb 2017, 11:59
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