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Choosing a Snake as a Pet

June 30, 2011

Snakes aren’t right for everyone, but for someone who is committed to understand their unique needs and caretaking requirements, a snake can be a fascinating pet.

With regular handling, snakes can even become quite tame.

If you’re thinking about acquiring a snake as a pet, do plenty of research on what it takes for care for this type of pet, and what type of snake is best for someone who has little or no experience with them.

Posing with my California kingsnake…

A few good starter questions to ask yourself when considering a snake as a pet include:

  • Why do I want a snake?
  • How much research am I willing to do about different types of snakes and what it takes to care for them?
  • Am I okay feeding whole prey animals to a snake, and storing frozen prey in my freezer? If my snake will only eat live prey, am I okay with that?
  • How much room do I have for a snake, and how much can I afford to spend on upkeep?
  • Is the snake I'm considering safe around children (if you have any)?

More Things to Consider Before Acquiring Your First Snake

  • Some snakes do much better in captivity than others, so you'll want to choose a species that is known for health and hardiness in captivity.
  • Some snakes have wilder, aggressive temperaments than others. You'll want a type of snake that is easy to tame and is known for its good temperament.
  • Some snakes are not inclined to eat frozen, thawed rodents. Most people, especially novice owners, won't want to feed live prey to their snake, so a species of snake known to be a good eater – one that will be content with frozen/thawed rodents – is the way to go.
  • Some snakes grow very large as adults, and most people don't have unlimited space to keep a snake. Many towns also have ordinances defining a maximum size a pet snake can be. A snake cage about four feet in length is a good size for most homes, and a snake that grows to between four and five feet will be comfortable in a habitat that size. Please do not buy a snake that you will not be able to house when it becomes an adult.
  • Captive-bred snakes are generally healthier than wild snakes. The stress of captivity on wild snakes makes them more susceptible to illness; wild snakes also typically carry a lot of parasites. Captive-bred snakes are generally easier to handle and more willing to eat frozen, thawed prey.

    I do not recommend purchasing wild-caught snakes for several reasons, the most important one being you are removing them from their natural habitat where, in my opinion, they deserve to be. There are many pet snakes currently available through rescue organizations as well.
  • Snakes bred for the pet trade are often stressed and ill from improper care. For tips on what to look for in selecting a snake, read’s article How to Pick a Healthy Pet Reptile.

Good Snakes for Beginners

Corn Snakes

Corn snakes grow to a manageable size, averaging around five feet in length. They are known to have good temperaments, are easy to tame with regular handling, and enjoy long, healthy lives. Corn snakes will typically eat frozen, thawed mice or rats, so there's no need to provide live prey. Corn snakes come in a wide variety of beautiful colors. These are my favorite snakes for novice snake owners.


The California kingsnake is a very common type of pet snake and a popular species of kingsnake. These snakes average 4 to 6 feet in length when full grown, are easy to tame and feed. Kingsnakes also come in a wide variety of colors and patterns – banded, speckled and striped, for example.

Gopher Snakes

These snakes are easy to tame when raised by hand, even tempered, and are good eaters. Their average length as adults is about six feet, though a few species grow longer than that.

Ball Pythons

These snakes are known to be docile and good tempered if purchased as juveniles and handled regularly. They reach about five and a half feet full grown and do very well in captivity if well cared for. They can have lifespans 25 years or longer. The only possible drawback to a ball python as a pet is they tend to be pickier eaters than other 'beginner' snakes.

Snake Habitat Primer

I recommend you start with an aquarium or other habitat large enough to accommodate your snake when it reaches adulthood. A 30-gallon long aquarium is typically sufficient for the snakes discussed above.

Burrowing and ground-dwelling snakes are fine in a low-sided enclosure; snakes that climb need a higher enclosure.

Snake enclosures can be homemade or purchased. If you're planning to build your own snake habitat, it's important to make it escape-proof.

Using an aquarium smaller than a 20-gallon tank will not allow you to appropriately regulate the snake's ambient temperature gradient, and he will either be too cold or too hot.

Snakes are referred to as "cold blooded" because they are exothermic animals; their body temp is the same as the air temperature in their enclosure or other surroundings. For this reason, snake enclosures require a warming system. However, it's best if only half the habitat is heated so the snake can move into or out of heated space at will. Providing a warm (heated) side and a cool (unheated) side allows your snake to thermoregulate -- an important normal behavior.

An under-tank heating system is safest for your snake. I do not recommend 'hot rocks' or any in-tank heating system, as thermal burns are possible.

Many snakes also do well with a radiant heat source that provides a basking area. These bulbs are positioned over the warm side of the cage and are left on 8-12 hours a day. There are black and red heat lights that provide nighttime heat in the same fashion. As with all pets, snakes need a normal day and night cycle and should not be under bright light (or no light) 24 hours a day.

The aquarium or habitat floor should be covered with substrate – plain newspaper seems the best choice for most snakes according to the experts. Other possible substrates, depending on the species of snake, include clean potting soil, peat moss, aspen shavings, 'reptile bark' (usually made from coconut or tree fiber) , and washable reptile carpet sold at pet stores.

Remember, all organic substrates will grow bacteria, so they must be refreshed regularly. All enclosures should be regularly disinfected.

Your snake will need a dish of water to drink and soak in. The dish should be heavy so it can't be tipped over, should be big enough to accommodate the whole snake (for soaking) and should be kept about one-third full.

Snakes like their own space, so if you have more than one, each should have its own enclosure. Occasionally some snakes can be housed together, but always ask an experienced reptile enthusiast or reptile vet before combining two snakes in one aquarium.

Hiding spots, and rocks or other natural surfaces (which will assist with the shedding process) within the habitat are also a must-have.

Snakes require a consistent level of humidity for their skin. Too low humidity means your snake may not be able to shed the skin; too high humidity can cause skin blistering, infections and breathing difficulties. The level of humidity your snake will need depends on the species.

At least one and preferably two reptile-safe thermometers should be included in the habitat, one on the warm end and the other on the cool end to ensure the heat sources are providing the optimal temperature range for the species you are housing. A humidity gauge is also a good idea.

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