Snake Care Sheet

Selecting a Snake

Before you acquire your snake, you should do some research on the particular species that you are interested in. Different species have varied husbandry and dietary requirements, physical appearance (such as length), temperaments, and environmental considerations. Some snakes, such as boa constrictors and ball pythons, have gentle and very docile temperaments. Others, such as the reticulated and Burmese pythons, are unpredictable and tend to be aggressive as they mature. Anacondas rarely adapt well to captivity. Some snakes reach very large sizes in captivity: for example, the boa constrictors and pythons can grow up to sixteen feet. It is illegal (and foolish) to house venomous/poisonous snakes unless you are an experienced herpetologist with a license from the DSE to do this. Select a snake that looks healthy and is eating regularly. Never buy a snake that looks sick, even if the price is a bargain. You will end up paying more in veterinary bills.

Housing

Aquariums and other plexi-glass or glass enclosures are suitable for snakes. It should be large enough to hold required items and also allow the snake room to stretch out. Snakes utilize both their vertical and horizontal space. Whichever you choose, make sure that it is secured and escape-proof.

When choosing material for floor coverings, hygiene is more important than aesthetics. Appropriate materials are unprinted newspaper, butcher paper, paper towels, astroturf, and indoor-outdoor carpeting. Do not use materials such as pea gravel, kitty litter, crushed corncobs, or wood shavings. These trap moisture and filth, allow bacteria to incubate, and also can be ingested.

Inside the cage should be a water container large enough for immersion; a “hide box” such as a cardboard box, clay pot, etc.; and, objects to climb on. Water should be available at all times and containers should be thoroughly and regularly cleaned with a dilute clorox solution (one part bleach to thirty-two parts water). Lysol cleaners are harmful to snakes.

Environmental temperatures should range from 80 F to 90 F in the daytime and 70 F to 75 F at night time. Preferably, the cage should have areas at different temperature gradients. I do not like hot rocks because snakes generally will not move away from heating devices even when they are being burned. Heating pads can be placed under part of the cage (there should be no direct contact with the animal). Electrical appliances should carry a valid “UL approved” mark. I also recommend purchasing devices that will shut off the current if there is a failure in the appliances or wiring.

Lighting should be provided with both fluorescent and ultraviolet sources. If both cannot be provided at the same time, the UV light should be available twice a week. UV light is important for Vitamin D production. Make sure that the snakes have a cooler place they can retreat to from the light if the temperature gets too high for them. Light periods should be ten to twelve hours of daylight with a gradual increase in the number of hours in the spring and a gradual decrease in the fall/winter.

Feeding

Snakes should be fed dead or incapacitated prey if at all possible. Rodents left unattended may turn on the snake and inflict serious bite wounds. If it is not possible to offer anything other than live prey, the feeding must be carefully supervised. If the snake does not show any interest in feeding within ten to fifteen minutes, then remove the prey. If similar feeding attempts are unsuccessful within the next two weeks, then contact your veterinarian. Prey animals fed to snakes should appear healthy and come from a reliable source. Do not feed wild rodents because they may introduce diseases or parasites to the snake. Be very cautious during feeding times, especially if human-snake interaction is limited only to feeding times. A very hungry snake may strike at the owner as the prey is introduced. It is not recommended to feed more than one snake within an enclosure. Recommend that you do not handle the prey, instead use BBQ tongs.

In general, juvenile snakes are fed once every one to two weeks and adults once every three to six weeks. Feeding more often is not recommended as obesity in snakes can cause health problems. The number of prey items offered at each feeding is determined by the age, species, size, condition, and specific requirements of the snake. Prey size should be no larger than 1 ½ times the widest part of the snake’s body.

Shedding

Frequency of shedding is dependent upon many factors: hormonal control, growth, environmental temperature, frequency of feeding and amount fed, activity level, and health. Most snakes shed four to eight times each year. Healthy snakes (with no scars) shed their skin in one piece. Incomplete sheds or shedding in pieces usually means that the snake is unhealthy and management/husbandry needs to be examined. The shedding process begins with a period of relative inactivity of one to two weeks, during which time the eyes begin to look dull with a bluish-white colour. Caution must be used during this period because the snake’s vision is impaired. The skin has an overall dull appearance. After seven to fifteen days, the eyes become clear and shedding commences. Many snakes will defecate or consume a large amount of water after successfully shedding.

If eye caps are retained, or the shed is in pieces, consult your veterinarian. Do not try removing the eye caps yourself as permanent damage can occur if done incorrectly.

Lack of Appetite 

This is a common problem with captive snakes. The following is a list of situations in which snakes will normally not feed: recent acquisition, pre-shedding, late pregnancy, breeding season, hibernation, and illness. Obese snakes occasionally will voluntarily fast; larger snakes feed less frequently than smaller snakes; and newborn snakes will not feed until after shedding (usually ten to fourteen days). The most common reason for snakes not to feed involves inappropriate management practices/environment (temperature, incorrect prey items, visual security, handling too much, etc). When you have a snake that refuses to feed, consider the following suggestions: try feeding at different times of the day, feed communal snakes separately, move to a different environment for feeding, reduce handling, drag the prey across the snake or in front of it, offer live/dead prey, try feeding a smaller or different prey item. If the snake still refuses to eat, veterinary attention should be sought.

Regurgitation/Vomiting 

Snakes often regurgitate due to a number of causes: handling too soon after feeding, cool environmental temperatures, stress, intestinal obstruction, disease, and parasitism.

Constipation

This is a common problem usually caused by suboptimal temperatures, dehydration, illness, parasitism, and cloacoliths. Try soaking the snake in very warm water for twenty to thirty minutes for one to two days. This should enable the snake to defecate/urinate. If there is still a problem, veterinary attention should be sought immediately.

Mouth Rot

This is a bacterial infection occurring in the oral cavity and is often a sign of more serious internal problems. Early signs of the disease include saliva bubbling from the mouth, failure to feed, inflammation of the oral lining, and keeping the mouth open. This is a very serious condition and VETERINARY ATTENTION MUST BE SOUGHT IMMEDIATELY. Periodically inspect the mouth for signs of mouth rot. Early recognition and treatment of this disease is necessary for a successful outcome. Infection involving the bone and teeth gives a poorer prognosis.

Blister Disease

This is a common disease usually associated with damp, filthy environments. The first sign is usually a pinkish-red appearance of the bottom scales. These then become swollen and infected with bacteria or fungi. Veterinary attention is necessary to treat this disease.

Septicemia 

This is a serious problem and veterinary attention is a must. Clinical signs may be very obvious or they may be subtle. These may include failure to feed, lethargy, dehydration, regurgitation, redness of the scales, bleeding, and in long term cases, visible weight loss.

Respiratory Disease 

Signs include loud respirations, discharge from the nostrils or mouth, bubbling from the mouth, open mouth breathing, and coughing. Veterinary attention should be sought immediately.

Parasites

Snakes can have a variety of external and internal parasites. Visual inspection of the skin and scales should be periodically performed.

Summary

We cannot stress enough the importance of proper husbandry and feeding practices in keeping your snake healthy. You should also be aware of the potential diseases and health problems that your snake can have. Above is only a partial list of the most common diseases that snakes can be afflicted with. Keeping a log of feedings, defecations, shedding, and activity can aid in early detection of problems. Snakes should be evaluated by a veterinarian when first acquired and also have yearly examinations as part of a good preventive medicine program (take a faecal sample with you). New snakes should be quarantined from other snakes for at least eight weeks. When disease is suspected or obvious, seek veterinary attention immediately as delay often decreases the chance of a successful outcome.

This article is intended to be used only as a guide in caring for your snake. It is not intended to be an all-encompassing study on the Snake and should not be construed as such.