North American Colubrids Care Guidelines
Please note: This caresheet is valid for the majority of North American Colubrids found readily available in the pet trade. This includes snakes classified in the Pantherophis, Lampropeltis, and Pituophis genera of snakes. In other words, Ratsnakes, Cornsnakes, Kingsnakes, Milksnakes, Gophersnakes, Bullsnakes and Pine snakes, and the species and subspecies of each. Please research specific requirements for the exact species you are getting before you make any purchases.
North American Colubrids are generally quite easy to care for. You only need a few simple things to properly care for your snake:
1-Escape Proof Enclosure-It is vital that your new enclosure be escape proof. If there is any way out…your snake will find it. All Glass Aquariums makes a product called a Critter Cage that has a sliding and lockable screen top that is absolutely escape proof and designed to hold snakes and small animals. The minimum size recommendation for adult cornsnakes is 30″ X 12″ X 12″, or the size of a standard 20long aquarium. Of course, if given the opportunity, your corn snake would like to exercise and climb branches. A 29 gallon aquarium would provide 6″ more in vertical space for climbing.
2-Substrate-Substrate is the “stuff” you put in the bottom of the cage. My personal favorite is fine, dry, shredded coconut fibers because they look great, smell good, provide superb moisture absorption for when your snake spills it’s water dish, and the natural tannins act as an antibacterial agent helping to prevent mold and bacterial growth. Other acceptable substrates include Aspen shavings, Care Fresh, or astro-turf type aquarium grass. DO NOT USE PINE, CEDAR, OR FIR!! These materials contain toxins which can be harmful or fatal to your snake.
3-Furniture-Your snake wants to see…but not be seen. They prefer to remain hidden as much as possible, especially as young snakes and hatchlings. In the wild, young snakes are extremely vulnerable to predation from mammals, rodents, other snakes and lizards. As such, a young hatchling will prefer to remain as hidden as possible as much as possible. It is vital that you provide your snake with the opportunity to do so. The more hides and “ground cover” you give your snake…the happier it will be. I recommend a minimum of two hides at opposite ends of the cage with a water bowl and a climbing branch in the middle. This is minimal. A scattering of fake leaves or several branches will add security. If your snake is small and your cage is large…provide extra small hides scattered about the floor of the cage. Your snake will explore and use all of them at some point. Hides can be as simple as cardboard boxes or tents, toilet paper rolls or overturned flowerpot bottoms or elaborate, pre-fabricated, store bought hides that add naturalistic beauty as well as security to your enclosure. Branches of all shapes and sizes can be purchased at most pet shops. I prefer sandblasted grapevine for it’s intricacies and texture.
4-Heat-Your snake is an ectotherm. That means that it does not generate it’s own body heat. As such, it will need an external heat source to warm up, be active, and digest properly. In my opinion, the best way to accomplish this feat is through the use of an Under Tank Heater and a thermostat. An UTH goes underneath your glass enclosure on the outside, and covers 1/3 to 1/2 of the bottom of the tank. Plug it into a thermostat with a probe, and place the probe on top of the glass inside the enclosure. This will regulate the hottest part of the enclosure that your snake has access to. The thermostat should be set to turn off the heat mat between 80 and 85*F. This is the optimal temperature at which your snake can digest and be active without getting too hot. It is vital that you only heat one side of the cage in order to provide a thermogradient. This thermogradient will provide surface temperatures that steadily decrease as the snake moves away from the heat source. This is called thermoregulation and is absolutely vital to your snakes health.
5-Food and Water-A clean dish of fresh water should always be available to your snake. I like to use dishes that are big enough for the snake to crawl into and soak. This helps during the shedding process. Your snake can eat one appropriately sized prey item every seven days. “Appropriately sized” is a mouse or rat that is roughly 1 1/2 times as thick as the thickest part of your snake. There should be a visible food bulge for a full 24 hours or more after eating. However…if you feed much larger than this ratio, you put your snake at risk for incomplete digestion and regurgitations. I feed all of my own snakes only frozen prey that is defrosted before “serving”. I do not recommend feeding live prey as the teeth of rodents can inflict serious and debilitating damage to your snake.
6-Hygrometer and Thermometer-The only way to ensure your snake is happy and healthy is to monitor the environment it lives in. You do this easily with thermometers and hygrometers. Thermometers measure temperature and hygrometers measure humidity. I like Indoor/Outdoor Thermometer/Hygrometer combinations. These are a small unit sold at most K-Mart and Wal-Mart type stores for around $20. They have a small LCD display that shows inside temperature, outside temperature through a probe, and relative humidity. I put the probe directly on top of the heat mat inside the enclosure, and place the unit itself at the other end of the cage. This gives me my hottest temperature as the Outdoor reading, my coolest temperature at the Indoor reading, and a relative ambient humidity. Your hot side temperature should be between 80 and 85*F. Your cool end temperature should be in the 70s during the day. Your relative humidity should be around 50% during non-shedding periods. You can raise the humidity to 75% during shedding cycles to aid in shedding.
And those are the basics. That is what you absolutely need to properly care for a cornsnake or North American kingsnake. Of course…more decorations and furniture will make the enclosure more attractive to both you and your snake. Some people like to add backgrounds of rocks or trees or rivers to help the snake feel more “at home”, and some people like to cover the inside upper reaches with fake leaves and vines to provide climbing opportunities and coverage. It’s really up to you how simple or elaborate you design your enclosure.
A few tips before I end this…
Upon arriving at your home, your new snake is going to be very nervous. It may strike or bite the first few times you try to touch it. In order for your snake to be happy and healthy, it is important to reduce this stress as quickly as possible. I recommend having your enclosure all set and ready to go a couple of days prior to getting your snake. This way, your snake can immediately be put into it’s new home, and start settling in. I also recommend that for the first week, you leave your snake completely alone, without holding it or feeding it, or going in to the cage to find it. This quiet period will go a long way towards helping your snake to settle in and be comfortable…which makes handling sessions much more pleasant in the long run.
Shedding can be stressful. Your snake will start to take on a distinctly “dull” appearance roughly 1 or two weeks prior to shedding. It’s eyes will usually take on a milky, opaque look, and the skin will have lost it’s lustre and sheen. This is known as being “in blue” because of the bluish tint to the eyes during this phase. About 3-5 days before actually shedding, this cloudiness will go away. This is normal. This is your snake’s body building a lubrication to aid in the release of the old skin. During the “blue phase”, your snake would really enjoy some extra humidity. 75% makes shedding much easier. You can accomplish this by misting the cage with a spray bottle and water every day, sometimes a couple times a day, or you can add a “humid hide”. A Humid hide is a simple thing, really. Take a plastic container like a plastic coffee can, and put several small ventilation holes all over it. Make a hole big enough for your snake to fit inside. Line the inside of the container with moist paper towels or sphagnum moss. Place it on the warm end of the cage. Humidity will build up inside the container and keep your snake WELL hydrated during the shed phase.
After you feed your snake, it will be quite uncomfortable for a couple days. It is recommended that you wait a minimum of 48 hours after feeding your snake before you try to handle it or play with it. It will use this 48 hour period to digest it’s food, and it can be stressful to be handled when digesting.
Care for North American kingsnakes is virtually the same. They thrive in much the same conditions as cornsnakes, and if you follow this same care sheet, you should have success.
Finally, I want to stress one point I hear ALOT about…
Cohabitation. It is risky. Housing more than one cornsnake in a single enclosure can cause many issues. Only a few of these issues would be stress, aggression, cannibalism, parasitic infestation, illness and disease transference, regurgitations, and food refusals. Most of these issues can be fatal. All of them are unhealthy. It is true that some people successfully co-habitate multiple cornsnakes. But in order to be successful, it requires a certain amount of diligence and vigilance in observation of behaviors and activities of your snakes. If you choose to co-hab your snakes, please be sure of the risks. These are real risks to the life of your snake and you can never eliminate them as long as they share an enclosure.