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General Pet Snake Care Sheet

 

| Snake_Introduction | Housing | Disinfection | Environment | Routine Enclosure Inspection | Feeding | Shedding | Handling & Transporting | Initial Veterinary Care | Signs Of Ill-Health | Quarantine | Books | Related Topics | References & Further Reading |
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Snake Introduction:

Snakes do not only make interesting pets, but it is also popular to collect snakes, sometimes together with other reptiles, as a hobby. With about 2 300 species, varying in shape, colour and size, it is easy to select the appropriate pet snake that will suit you. The name herpetoculture among hobbyist might as well have been "snake keeper". Snakes are quiet, usually docile, do not stink and you need little effort from your side to keep them happy and healthy.

This page will give you the general care sheet for snakes. For more details on a specific species use the appropriate link on the Snakes or Care Sheets pages.

With enough snake breeders right around the world it is easy to go out and buy a local bred, healthy, non-poisonous exotic pet snake. There is no need to go out and try to catch a potential dangerous snake from the wild. As with all indigenous animals, it is illegal to own, keep, breed, trade or transport indigenous snakes in most parts of South Africa without a permit from Nature Conservation. Because of various laws and regulations protecting indigenous fauna, it is easier to purchase popular captive-bred species that originated from an another country (exotics). Refer to the About Reptile Permits section for more information on reptile permits in South Africa.

Wild caught snakes can harbor and transmit various infectious diseases and parasites to the rest of an established snake or herptile collection. Captive bred and wild caught snakes can also transmit some pathogens to humans and other non-reptile pets. Refer to the General Animal Bio-security & Quarantine section for more info on quarantine and other bio-security related issues.

Pet snake prices varies considerably. Prices range between R20 and R7 000 depending on age, species, gender, availability, breeding status, origin and physical condition of a snake. Some colour or pattern variations like for example albinism (absence of melanin or black pigment) and striped are more expensive.

When buying a new-born snake remember to make sure the snake is in good health, is a good eater and has at least shed once or twice. Some pet shops and breeders do not allow the exchange of live animals after purchase. Find out whether the snake is male or female and if possible also get the date of birth, the scientific and common name, the size of the final enclosure size and/or the expected size of the snake when it is mature etc. More info will make it easier to properly care for the new pet. Make sure to call the seller and ask if there are any uncertainties.

A healthy snake will have a well fleshed body with no , no visible cuts or abrasions, clear, alert eyes, regular tongue flicking, no signs of mites or ticks and a clean nose vent.

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Snake Housing:

Different snake species should never be housed together. Some of the kingsnake and milksnake species tend to be cannibalistic and two of the same species (i.e. male and female) should not even be housed together.

Snakes are masters of escape. Whatever enclosure or cage is used, make sure it is secure. Snake are quite strong for their size and they are more than able to climb up impossible surfaces, lift unsecured lids and to squeeze through small openings. It is said that when the head can go through a much thicker body can easily follow.

The main idea of housing a snake is to give it a large enough environment where it can live, grow and breed normally during its stay. Notice the practicality of an enclosure in terms of cleaning and disinfecting and some other aspects like heating etc.

Most reptiles will grow larger than its captive environment allows and will keep on  growing and become miserable when the proper sized enclosure is not provided. Always find out what the mature size of an animal is going to be before taking it home. Do not be fooled by  a small sized snake before enquiring about the age. It is known that some pet shops deliberately underfeed snakes so that they look small and cute. A snake can also be small for its age when a pet shop do not know how to, or do not bother to spend money on food to feed snakes or on the correct heating equipment.

The sides of a snake enclosure should be smooth, non-abrasive and preferably non-absorbent. Smooth edges will prevent self inflicted injuries and waterproofing will prevent absorption, subsequent expansion and deterioration of the panels. Popular materials with both these properties include glass, plastic, plexiglass, stainless steel and melamine covered press wood or super wood. Enclosures made from wood, press wood or super wood must be sealed with polyurethane or a similar non-toxic, waterproofing agent and the seams should be caulked to allow easy cleaning and disinfection. This will also prevent potential parasites like mites from hiding between the panels. To prevent inhalation of potential toxic fumes the fresh polyurethane must be allowed to dry for several days while the cabinet is thoroughly aerated.

Consider something small for new-born and juvenile snakes. Youngsters tend to get nervous when they find themselves in a too large environment. It is preferable not to house more than one hatchling in the same container. Larger and older snakes will generally not mind some extra space, but keep in mind that some individuals or species might. The mature size of medium and larger snakes species must be kept in mind before buying or constructing a final cage or enclosure.

Medium and large frame ground dwelling snake species need a floor space of at least between a half and a full length of the snake’s length, squared. For example a snake which has an adult size of about one meter will ultimately need a floor space of at least 500 cm² (1 m / 2 = 500 cm²). Some hobbyists also recommend using enclosures in which the sum of the length and width are equal or longer than the length of the snake. The cage should be enlarged by 25% or more for each newly added individual.

Aboreal snakes spend more time climbing than on the floor. With these snakes the bottom area of the enclosure or container can be a bit smaller than the recommended floor space for ground dwelling snakes, but it should be high enough to add a branch or two and some artificial plants or logs for climbing. To handle the weight of the snake, climbing branches should be at least the same width or thicker than the body of the snake. With bigger and higher enclosures it is relatively more difficult to obtain the correct temperature ranges (discussed a bit later on this page).

Enclosures should be adequately ventilated A permanent supply of fresh, draught-free air is essential for optimum health. The ventilation will not only have an effect on the air quality, but it will also regulate the temperature and relative humidity of the enclosure (discussed a bit later on this page). Holes can be manually drilled in the sides of larger self made cages. Commercial ventilation vents are also available from some hardware stores. Ventilation holes should be small enough to prevent snakes from escaping. For proper ventilation the holes should not be too high up in larger enclosures and on at least two opposite sides or the enclosure. Most cages has ventilation holes only at the back. Holes can also be drilled on the lid in the case of small containers like lunch and ice-cream boxes.

Small snakes can be housed in small to medium size lunch boxes, ice-cream boxes or anything similar in size. Small ventilation holes can be drilled in the sides and/or in the lid of the box. Small to medium acrylic containers marketed for small pets, or so called “Pal Pens” or "Desert Dens" are also commercially available from most pet shops.

For bigger snakes, anything large enough will be appropriate. Glass tanks or aquariums used for fish make good housing and can be cleaned and disinfected easily. The lid should have a tight fit and should have adequate ventilation holes. Cabinets with sliding glass-fronted doors, or so-called vivariums are also widely used. Melamine coated press wood or super wood and fiberglass cabinets might be a good idea as it is easy keep clean and to drill holes in for ventilation. More stylish pine or oak coated cabinets are also commercially available.

Glass tanks and acrylic type containers, having three times as much open viewable sides than cabinet type containers have the disadvantage of being very "open". Snakes cannot always understand why they cannot go forward when "there is nothing in the way". This might lead to self inflicted trauma and avoidable stress.

For large species, like some of the Python and Boa species, extra large cages or rooms are commonly used. Before actually getting to the final adult sized enclosure, the current enclosure should grow as the snake grows. Large snakes should have at least five changes during their lifetime.

For those who are not sure about a cage or container, there is always the option of buying a snake cabinet or vivarium and all the necessary accessories from a professional snake breeder or a pet shop. The professional breeder or seller should also be able to help with the current and final size of a cage or container.

a b c d
e f g h

 Figure 1  Different types of enclosures for housing snakes. a & b Smaller & larger acrylic containers; c Addis™ container; d Aquarium; e Melamine cabinet; f & g Oak coated cabinets; h Converted fish tank. Note that the bottom of the lid of this tank is reinforced with heavy materials to make it more escape proof.

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Disinfection:

Milton PictureAll enclosures should be cleaned and disinfect at least once every two months.  Reptiles can carry potential diseases in their mouths, on their skin and in their faeces which can infect humans (zoonosis) and other animals. Droppings should be removed as soon as possible by either replacing the substrate or by taking it out manually. Soiled water bowls should be removed immediately, washed, disinfected and replaced with fresh water.

Enclosures should be washed thoroughly with a soap / detergent mixture after which it should be washed or sprayed with disinfecting solution like Milton™, Jik or a suitable Veterinary F10 product. These and additional products is available from veterinarians and reptile friendly pet shops. Follow the instructions mentioned on the label of the product that is used. Allow for at least 30 minutes contact time (or the time mentioned on the bottle of the product) and rinse afterwards. Washable cage decorations, water bowls and substrates should be washed and disinfected in the same way. Non-washable substrates should be replaced regularly. After chemical disinfection, containers and decorations can be left outside in direct sunlight for ultraviolet disinfection and to dry.

To prevent the transmission of harmful pathogens from snakes, the hands and arms of a handler should be washed with a proper skin disinfection product directly after contact with these animals. their enclosures or cage furniture. Possible pathogens include the much discussed Salmonella group of bacteria.

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Snake Environment:

The overall physical characteristics, growth and reproductive performance of an animal (phenotype) are the summation of the potential coded in the genes (inherited from the parents) and the direct environment. An unfavorable environment can have detrimental effects on the phenotype. To prevent stress, the environment of a captive snake should be as close as possible to its natural environment. The most important aspects of a captive snake's environment are the temperature, humidity, the availability of food and hiding. Food is an indirect element of the environment. These and some of the other aspects of the environment are discussed below:

Substrates

Refer to the Herptile Substrate page for more information on the use of suitable substrates for snakes

Water Bowl & Hiding Place
Apart from water intake, snakes also use moisture to cool down (also known as thermoregulate) and to aid in the shedding (ecdysis) process. When temperatures become too hot or it is time to shed, captive snakes will often choose to spend some time in the water bowl. Water bowls should be large enough to facilitate the entire body of the snake.

Some desert snakes get most of their water requirements from the food they eat. Even if this is the case, fresh water should always be available for these captive snakes. Water bowls should be rinsed and washed on a daily basis and disinfected weekly or when soiled with faeces before being replaced with fresh potable water.

A Corn Snake (Elaphe guttata guttata) Drinking Water From A Water Bowl

B Silver Corn Snake (Elaphe guttata guttata) Hiding Under A Water Bowl C Large Corn Snake (Elaphe guttata guttata) Submerged In Water Bowl
 Figure 2  A Corn snake (Elaphe guttata guttata) drinking water from a natural looking water bowl; B Dog water bowl on top of a custom made hide box. Note the hole in the side of the water bowl where the snake is passing through. This water bowl serves as an additional hiding place; C Adult Corn snake (E. g. guttata) submerged in his water bowl.

Important properties for adequate water bowls include size, ease of cleaning, durability and aesthetic properties. Bowls used to feed dogs, plastic containers, large lids, water baths or similar items can be used as appropriate water bowls. Avoid using water bowls that can tilt or prevent tilting by strategic placing or by placing a heavy object such as a rock in the bowl. Make sure the water bowl is secure if it is used as additional hiding place. Any degree of water spillage should be cleaned and dried immediately. Custom-made "pool type" bowls can be made with clay, cement or fiberglass and a bit of imagination.

Snakes might get nervous when housed in a too large environment. To feel safe, they like to squeeze into small spaces like tunnels, between bricks and rocks and under flat objects. This sense of security can be supplied by adding hiding, or objects where snakes can hide in. Large plastic water bowls with an appropriate sized opening in the side can serve as additional hiding. Natural and attractive hiding places can be made from rocks or pieces of wood or bark or are sometimes commercially available. Make sure these structures are secure! Commercial snake hide boxes made from wood or plastic are also available. Empty shoeboxes, plastic containers, wood boxes or something similar with custom made openings can also be used.

a Water Bowl Picture b c
 Figure 3  Some of the different types of  water bowls & hiding available for snakes. a Large & small plastic dog bowls with an opening in the side; b Artificial wood bowl & artificial hollow log for hiding; c Artificial-stone water bowl.

Temperature
Temperature is literally how hot or cold it is. It is a very important aspect of the environment of captive snakes. Unlike mammals, reptiles are ectothermic (relying on external heat sources to keep their body temperature at a suitable level) and poikilothermic (having a variable body temperature which is dependant on the external environment). When there is no external heat, i.e. supplied via external heat sources, snakes will cease feeding, have a reduced metabolic rate, become lethargic and susceptible to disease and can eventually die. Wild snakes regulate their body temperature by basking in the sun or by lying around in- or on hot places. When captive snakes get cold they will move towards the warmer areas of the enclosure like close to a hot rock or heat pad. When a snake's body temperature gets too hot it will move to cooler surroundings. This is termed thermoregulation.

It is impossible to determine the exact temperature range for each and every individual snake or species. The correct temperature is dependant on the time of the year, the size/age of the snake, the breeding status, whether it is male or female, its feeding status and the species itself. The normal temperature range for most snake species range between 25 and 30 ºC / 77 and 86 ºF. Larger species and desert species might need higher temperatures while more temperate species might need cooler temperatures. A drop of about 5 ºC / 40 ºF during the winter or during the night will in most cases not do any harm or can even be beneficial and are sometimes necessary to induce breeding or brumation.

Snakes can be allowed to thermoregulate by placing the desired heat source on one side of the enclosure with a natural heat loss gradient away from the source, i.e. towards the other side of the enclosure. The gradient should exceed both ends of the optimum temperate range for the species by 1 or 2 degrees C / 30 degrees F. In smaller enclosures the heat source should only be allowed to emit about one third of the total floor area. In larger, walk-in enclosures multiple heat sources might be necessary.

Various commercial thermometers are available to read and monitor temperatures. The price of a thermometer is usually dependant on the accuracy and reliability. The more expensive digital thermometers are generally more accurate, but are dependant on some sort of energy source for operation. Thermometers on thermostats can also be used to monitor and control temperatures. Which ever thermometer is used, it is advised that it is permanently and securely mounted into the enclosure for constant and easy monitoring. A thermometer should preferably be installed on both sides of simple enclosures on in multiple locations of larger cages.

In the warmer parts of South Africa, like in the northern provinces and Kwazulu-Natal, no heating equipment might be necessary for most captive species. A sunlit room i.e. room with a sun roof should be warm enough during summer, even in temperate areas. When room temperatures drop below the recommended range appropriate heating equipment must be installed.

The best option when it comes to external heat sources for snakes is normal low-output heat pads or heat strips. Appropriate heating equipment is available from most reptile friendly pet shops. Smaller pads/strips give off more heat per area and are generally warmer when touched directly. Heat pads and strips should always be covered by the substrate of the enclosure to prevent direct contact.

When multiple snakes are kept in one room it might be more economic to heat the entire room with a normal heater. Make sure not to overheat the room. This will obviously only work for species which need a similar temperature range. When keeping species with different temperature needs in the same room, the room temperature should be set to the requirements of the more cooler or temperate species and additional heating should be installed in the rest.

Electricity is dangerous! When working with electricity, caution must be taken at all times. Buy accessories that are approved by the SABS or any other quality regulatory body. Seek assistance if you do not know what you are doing!
Electrical equipment & their wiring should be inspected at least every six months.

Refer to the Accessories & Other Stuff for Herptiles section for more information on heating equipment for snakes

Electrical heating equipment can and sometimes should be used in conjunction with thermostats to obtain and maintain the correct temperature range. Thermostats can "sense" the environmental temperature and switch the heat source on when the temperate is too cold or switch it off when the temperate is too high. Some thermostats can also be connected to cooling sources such as fans to reduce the temperature when the temperature gets too hot.  Whatever thermostat you use, make sure whether it intended to read air or water temperatures (i.e. aquarium thermostats). Some aquarium thermostats will also work outside water. Refer to the Accessories & Other Stuff for Reptiles section for more information on thermostats for snakes enclosures.

When other (more dangerous) heat sources like spotlights, infra red lights and heated- or "hot rocks" are used, direct contact with the snake should be prevented at all times. Snakes are know to explore and coil around these objects to seek warmth which can lead to avoidable thermal burn wounds. When the abovementioned heat sources are connected to electrical thermostats they are the most dangerous to snakes. When the unit is switched off the animal coils around it, and when the electricity  is switched back on again the snake burns itself before sensing it. Refer to the Accessories & Other Stuff for Herptiles section for more information on other heat sources for snakes.

To prevent thermal burns, heat pads and strips should be covered with a heat transmitting substrate to prevent direct contact. Another reason for covering heat pads is that the glue that keeps the layers of most heat pads together gets hot, melts and the layers get separated, leaving a strong, sticky, lovely looking hiding place for a snake.  See the Suitable Substrates for Herptiles section for more information.

Heat pads or strips can be placed both inside ("in-cage" heating) or on the outside (i.e. container is placed onto the heat source). The amount of exposure of these sources can be adjusted to attain the desired overlapping temperature and temperature gradient, but it should never be allowed to emit more than about a third of the total floor space. In-cage heat pads and strips can be folded and coiled to expose the desired area.

Humidity
The relative humidity (RH) is defined as the degree of evaporated or vaporised water molecules in the air. The term is usually expressed as a percentage and can be measured with a hydrometer. Tropical snake species need a significant higher RH compared to non-tropical species, whereas desert species on the other hand need lower humidities. Most snakes do not need a particular humidity and no attempt should be made to alter it.

Spray Bottle PictureThe enclosure RH can be increased by any or a combination of the following:

  • Decreasing the amount of ventilation holes - make sure not to remove ventilation totally
  • Spraying the enclosure once or twice a day with a spray bottle
  • Placing a large shallow water container filled with water over the heat source - heat will cause water to evaporate slowly - make sure to fill this container up as needed
  • Adding electric humidifiers or mist makers and vaporizers
  • Adding a hide box with a moistened substrate such as wetted vermiculite, spagmum or peat moss
  • Adding a large enough water bowl for the snake to completely submerge itself under water
  • Adding a wetted pot clay hide box
  • By using water as total or partial substrate

Note: By reducing ventilation the humidity will be maintained for longer, but the enclosure still needs to be adequately ventilated. Rather try to increase the humidity instead of reducing the ventilation to prevent water escape.

Vaporizers and humidifiers or mist makers can be connected to hydrostats which can maintain the humidity on a desired range. This can be used in combination with a hydrometer as backup monitor tool. Refer to the Accessories & Other Stuff for Herptiles section for more information on humidifiers, hydrometer, hydrostats and other accessories for snakes.

Shedding problems, dehydration, skin and respiratory problems can all be due to inadequate RH. Snakes with chronic shedding problems, i.e. partial or prolonged shedding, should be exposed to higher humidities.  Higher humidities or ventilation problems can also lead to a buildup of bacteria and other parasites such as protozoans and fugi. Skin disease like blister disease or "skin rot" is associated with poor husbandry in conjunction with a high RH. To overcome this problem, high humidity enclosures should be cleaned and disinfected regularly.

Lighting
Most captive kept snakes are nocturnal (mainly active from dusk to dawn - at night). Light will be more important to the keeper than to the snake. Natural or skylight entering an enclosure through a room’s window are usually enough, but additional in-cage lighting such as artificial lights are more necessary when the terrarium is used for decorative or displaying purposes. Where strict breeding environment standards are enforced, artificial light is also necessary to have accurate control of the photoperiod. Refer to the Photoperiod & Brumation / Hibernation section for more information.

Low output fluorescent lamps, so called energy saving light bulbs or long fluorescent tubes is the preferred artificial light source for snakes. These light units emits a low light illuminance or intensity (quantity measured in lux), have a low wattage / are economic to run and usually does not emit significant amounts of radiant and local heat which will prevent it from interfering with the environmental temperature and are safer for snakes to coil around.

Never use unprotected incandescent light bulbs in snake enclosures. These bulbs usually give off a lot of local and radiant heat which can interfere with the environmental temperature and can induce severe thermal burn wounds when a snake coils around it!

When natural light is used to light up a snake enclosure, i.e. skylight from an open window, it is important to prevent cage contact with direct sunlight. Glass is a potential light magnifying medium and can heat up enclosures to extreme temperatures. Refer to the Accessories & Other Stuff for Herptiles section for more information on different lighting methods for snakes.

Light also have a qualitative property. In some reptile species (incl. some snake species), full spectrum lighting (UVA and UVB) are necessary for normal physiology. Various artificial lighting bulbs and tubes are commercially available at specialized pet shops or reptile friendly vets. Make sure to buy products specifically designed for snakes, and more specifically the type of snakes. When a snake does not need full spectrum lightning rather use normal fluorescent lamps or tubes to regulate the photoperiod for breeding. When a snake does not need full spectrum lighting it will not benefit from it even if it is supplied. Whether a snake needs extra light will be stated in its particular Care Sheet on the Snakes page. Also refer to other literature sources for species that are not mentioned. Refer to the Photoperiod & Brumation / Hibernation page for additional information.

Decoration & Cage Furniture
Enclosures used for displaying purposes or so called terrariums might need appropriate decoration and cage furniture. Snakes might also feel a bit more at home and less stressed in natural scenarios. Even if a total natural environment is created, the health and safety requirements of the animal must still be taken into consideration, for example, using a natural-looking water bowl or hide box are more difficult to clean and disinfect and can lead to the buildup of potential disease causing pathogens. Another thing to take into consideration with extra decoration is that it will give more hiding spaces for live prey which can make it difficult for a snake to catch or kill prey properly. Proper overall cage disinfection might also be more difficult in these scenarios.

Natural looking logs, pieces of bark, rocks and driftwood can be used to decorate enclosures. Items should be washed and disinfected, especially when it was collected from outside. Commercial natural looking and artificial water bowls, hide boxes and logs are also available. Enclosures can also be decorated with artificial or live low-light-tolerant plants.

a Snake Cabinet Decoration Picture b Snake Decoration Picture

 Figure 4  Cage furniture which can be used to decorate display cages. a Self-made root log; b Treated logs (driftwood) & rocks can be bought from pet shops, nurseries or can be collected from outside.

Heavy objects such as rocks and big pieces of logs and driftwood should be adequately secured. Objects must be sturdy enough to prevent it from being moved or tipped by a snake. Rocks should be secured on the bottom of the enclosure's floor surface and not on top of the substrate to prevent a snake from digging underneath it and potentially get crushed.

When setting up a naturalistic environment, a more aesthetic pleasing substrate such as forest leafs, wood chips or bark, sand or soil can be considered. Some of these substrates are commercially available, but can also be collected from outside. The health implications must once again be weighed up against the advantages of having such a scenario.

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Routine Enclosure Inspection:

Regular enclosure inspections are not only necessary to correct problems, but also to prevent potential ones. Regular daily inspections include water replacement and water bowl disinfection, faecal, sloughed skin and uneaten food removal and to monitor the functionality of the heating and lighting equipment. We clean our cages at least once a week / when necessary. Ultraviolet (UV) lighting should be replaced every six months or according to the recommended manufacturer's requirements. Normal non-UV lighting should be replaced when faulty. All electrical equipment and their wiring should be inspected at least every six months. Full enclosure disinfection should be done as needed or every two months.

Enclosure inspection records includes cleaning/sterilizing dates, UV replacing and electrical inspection dates. For easy reference these records can be stuck on the side or the back of enclosures.

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Snake Feeding:

Most captive kept snakes are rodent-eaters. Species that will mainly feed on something else, for e.g. eggs, insects, toads, birds, other snakes, etc. will be discussed in their particular care sheet on the Snakes page or in other appropriate literature resources.

a

b

 Figure 5  Snakes swallowing their prey. a & b Corn snakes (Elaphe guttata guttata) eating a mouse; b Snow corn snake (E. g. guttata).

Except for hatchling and baby snakes, food is generally offered on seven to ten day intervals. Very young, active growing snakes can be fed after defaecation (usually three to five days after feeding). Breeders can start to sell babies after they have shed and had at least one or two normal meals. Buyers should make sure that this is the case before purchasing any hatchling snake.

Mice pinkies or pinks are the obvious choice when it comes to hatchling and baby snakes. Very small hatchling snakes often present with feeding problems. In this case only very small one day old pinkie mice should be offered. The size of the prey should be adjusted as the snake grows i.e. from pinkies to fuzzies, hoppers, small adult mice, rat pinkies, adult mice and adult rats.

Refer to FeederInsects for more information on the keeping & breeding of rats & mice

Snakes should be fed ad libitum per feeding after which no feeding should take place again until after defaecation. Larger snakes like the some of the boa and python species will need rats, guinea pigs, rabbits and chickens. The diameter of the food can be anything from the same to two times (sometimes more) the diameter of the snake itself. Refer to the Reptile & Amphibian Feeding Problems section for more information on problamatic feeders.

Individual snakes should be fed separately. Two or more snakes in the same enclosure might go for the same prey which might end up in one snake (usually the larger one) swallowing the other. When snakes are taken out of their familiar environment they might choose not to eat - rather remove the snake(s) which are not to be fed while feeding the remaining one.

While some snakes like to kill their food before eating, other may like their pray already dead. In some countries like the USA, UK and South Africa it is illegal to feed some live prey items such as rodents and lagomorphs (rabbits) to snakes and other reptiles. Larger snake species like the pitvipers and some of the boas and pythons might refuse to take dead prey due to their thermal dependant hunting methods.

Some snakes will eat live pinkies but refuse live adult food later in their lifetime and vice versa. This preference may also change over time. Some snakes may kill its first and sometimes up to second victim and eat it, but are only willing to take more food if the food is already killed. Sometimes a snake will kill three victims after which it will start eating them one by one. Refer to the Live Vs. Dead Prey section for more information on which prey items to feed to snakes.

Some snakes will take rats and mice by holding and wiggling them by the tail. Thawed or live food can be held in front of a snake for it to strike at. Most snakes will eat prey placed in the enclosure, dead or alive. Blunt ended forceps can be used to hold and wiggle dead pinkies or fuzzies in front of smaller snakes. Offer food head first. Refer to the Preservation Of Live Prey section for more information on how to preserve food.

Shedding snakes will almost always refuse to eat. Food refusal might also be due to disease or stress, because the snake is still satisfied after the previous meal or because of seasonal changer (seasonal anorexia). When a snake refuse to eat on its attempted feeding day, the feeder should wait and try again the next day or week. It is normal for snakes not to eat each and every week, just like it is normal for some snake species to eat less or not eat at all during colder or winder days. When a snake refuses to eat for two or three weeks or more, the possibility of non-induced brumation should be investigated or potential housing or health problems should be eliminated. Refer to the Reptile & Amphibian Feeding Problems section for information on how to get a snake to eat and the Photoperiod & Brumation and the Record Keeping sections for related information.

Although snakes are not particularly prone to primary ingestion of nonfood items, they can still accidentally consume pieces of substrate while swallowing prey. For this reason it is recommended to feed snakes on a feeding platform, such as a flat board or a shallow feeding container when using a potential ingestible substrate. See the Suitable Substrates For Herptiles section for more information on safe and non-recommended substrates and other substrate properties for snakes.

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Snake Shedding:

As a snake grows, it simply becomes too big for its current skin, which it needs to get rid off to be replaced by a new one. This process is called shedding, sloughing or ecdysis. A few days prior to shedding the old skin starts to turn grey/blue/white for a few days after which it will turn normal again. The faded skin over the eyes are usually the most apparent. This condition is described as "going into the blue" or "turning opaque". During this time the snake cannot see optimally and may appear nervous and even agressive. A snake will usually shed within a few days after the eye colour has turned normal again. This phenomenon of turning blue will not always be apparent and a snake can be seen shedding after no indication.

After the snake's eyes colour turned normal again the humidity can be raised to aid in the shedding process. A low RH increases the risk of shedding problems. The water bowl should be large enough to fit the entire body for the snake to soak in. During this period particular attention should be paid to the cleanliness of the terrarium and a rough dry surface, like a piece of bark, carpet or a rock, can be added to the enclosure to rub against and start the peeling process.

Remaining pieces of skin on the body or eyes (retained spectacles) should not be removed manually before they are identified as causing (potential) problems or hinders the snake in any way. After the peeling process the skin should be inspected for retained spectacles. Problematic skin should only be removed by an experienced person or a reptile friendly veterinarian. To soften remaining pieces of skin before manual removal the snake can be soaked in luke-warm water for a short period of time. Pieces of skin can also be removed by placing the snake in a large enough container filled with moist (not dripping wet) towels for the snake to slither through. Skin should always be removed from the head towards the tail.

Snakes may refuse to eat starting a long time before they are due to shed. During this time they can also become very aggressive towards people and live food. The new skin is very sensitive and handling should be kept to a minimum around shedding until at least one or two days after the shedding process has completed.

Snakes shed according to their growth rate. Newly hatched snakes often shed for the first time within minutes after hatching. Young snakes may shed as regularly as once a month and adults two to three times a year.

a Snake In The Blue Picture b c Snake Shed Picture

 Figure 6  Snakes in various stages of the shedding process or ecdysis. a A Corn snake (E. g. guttata) "in the blue". Note the bluish discolouration of the eyes; b A Corn snake starting to peal its old skin. The peeling process can be aided by supplying a rough surface for the snake to rub against; c The same Corn snake shedding the rest of its old skin.

Shedding records can be used to monitor the growth rate, husbandry related humidity and health status of individual snakes. Refer to the Record Keeping section for more information on record keeping of snakes.

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Snake Handling & Transport:

When handling a snake the head should always be restrained with one hand while the other hand is holding the middle of the body. A snake should never be gripped tightly and should be allowed to curl loosely around the arm of the handler. It is extremely dangerous to allow large boas and pythons to curl around the neck of a person. The body of these snakes should rather be carried over one shoulder while the handler controls the head. Never let irresponsible adults or children handle snakes without proper supervision.

Most snake species will not wrap around your arm like pythons or kings. They tend to pick a direction and go for it. Though small snakes are small in body mass, they are quite strong. Always support the middle of the body. If the head starts going into an unwanted direction, gently guide it into another direction. Many snakes are nervous when introduced into a new situation. Give them a couple of days to settle down before letting new people handle them.

Aggressive and poisonous snakes can be lifted out of their enclosures with self made or commercially available "snake-hooks", snake grasping tools or any other snake handling tools. Before handling such a snake make sure the head is secure before picking one up. Strong sedation or tranquilisation might also be necessary to handle, evaluate and/or treat injured or diseased snakes. Grasp firmly but gentle behind the head while supporting the body with the the handling tool. While handling a poisonous snake make sure the head is secure at all times and that the snake is unable to turn its head or snap.

Snakes should preferably be transported individually or in familiar pairs. Small snakes can be carried in ventilated plastic containers with newspaper, corn cob, vermiculite or dust free wood shavings as substrate. Newspaper will only help for hiding. Larger individuals can be carried in escape proof canvas bags with a firmly tied top or in large storage containers with adequate ventilation. Multiple dry towels can be used as substrate in larger transport containers.

 

a

b

 Figure 7  Transport containers recommended for snakes. a Small Addis™ container with ventilation holes drilled in the lid & the sides; b Larger Roller box container to transport large & giant species.

It is illegal to transport indigenous snakes in most provinces in South Africa without a transport permit from Nature Conservation. Transport permits might also be needed to transport exotic species in and between some South African provinces. Please contact the representative Nature Conservation before attempting to transport exotic species between provinces. Refer to the About Reptile Permits in South Africa page for more information on snake permits.

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Initial Veterinary Care:

All snakes (even healthy ones), should have initial- and routine checkups done by an experienced reptile veterinarian. Each snake should be accompanied with a separate fresh faecal sample. Pooled samples can be collected in the case of multiple snakes per enclosure.

After the initial checkup, it is recommended to have a snake for yearly checkups. The vet will probably take a short history of the husbandry, diet, etc., do a full physical exam from the mouth to the tail tip, do a faecal examination and should be able to answer any medical related questions.

Common medical related conditions in snakes include internal and external parasites with or without dehydration, microbial infections, physical injuries and an- or dys-ecdysis. Internal parasites include helminths and protozoans, external parasites includes ticks and mites, microbial infections includes bacterial stomatitis or "mouth rot", secondary bacterial skin infections and various viral infections. Parasites can be transmitted to other reptiles, mammals and even to humans (zoonosis). Various medications are available to treat most of these conditions. When some of these conditions are left untreated, self-cure is impossible and it can lead to the ultimate preventable death of the snake.

Faecal samples should be fresh and collected in ziplock™ bags. Faeces can be collected with latex gloves or grasped on the outside of an inside-out reversed bag which is then turned back again to secure the faeces on the inside. Bags should be identified with a permanent marker with the owners name, contact details, collection date and the name or description of the snake. Hands and arms should be washed with a proper skin disinfectant after faecal collection. Individual samples should preferably be collected in separate bags.

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Signs Of Ill-Health:

A lot of snake diseases are caused by incorrect or improper husbandry and management. Listlessness, failure to eat over several weeks, regular regurgitation of meals, dehydration and slow emaciation can all be signs of ill health. Other signs include mucous pouring from the mouth or nostrils, growths or exudates in the mouth, blisters on the skin and changes in appearance of the waste or urate portions of the faeces (different colour, consistency, frequency). Animals showing these signs should be presented to a reptile veterinarian with a faecal or regurgitation sample enclosed in a ziplock™ bag as mentioned in the Initial Veterinary Care section above. These animals will need symptomatic treatment before or while a diagnosis is being made. Daily observation is important to catch potential problems early on.

Snakes with ectoparasites such as ticks and mites must also be dealt with. With proper instructions from a veterinarian, this is something the keeper can manage at home if the infestation is mild. When ectoparasites are allowed to escalate they can ultimately lead to the death of their hosts.

Dehydration can be assessed by looking at the skin around the neck of a snake. If this skin forms wrinkles and puckers, the snake is severely dehydrated and must be presented to a vet. Dehydration is usually secondary and can be due to ill health, severe vomition/regurgitation, diarrhoea and endoparasites. The vet will either administer subcutaneous fluids or explain and show the keeper how to force fluids. Dehydrated animals generally refuse or are unable to eat and cannot digest food and emaciation will set in if the condition is allowed to continue untreated. Dehydration can also lead to secondary problems such as respiratory infections, parasites, other problems and even death.

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Snake Quarantine:

Quarantining animals ensures that no subclinical transmittable diseases are transmitted from new to established animals in a collection. A new snake should be quarantined for at least six months before it can be safely introduced into a new collection. Quarantined snakes should be kept in seperate containers in a separate room and air contact between rooms should be minimized. Procedures such as feeding and cleaning should be done last in the quarantined area (i.e. after the established animals are looked after) and the hands and arms of the in-contact handler should be washed and/or disinfected with an effective disinfectant before moving from one animal to the next. It is during this period where individual snakes should be observed closely for poor appetite or any signs of ill health. A elective inspection by a reptile veterinarian is also recommended. Refer to the Reptile & Amphibian Quarantine section for more information on how and why to quarantine any new snake.

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Snake Books:

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"If you think I should add more information to this section, think that something is incorrect or you have any additional information regarding keeping of snakes, use the form below or go to our contact page to get in touch. I would love to hear your ideas or methods you might use that is different than ours."

Last updated 23 May 2008 by Renier Delport

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"Always remember only to buy healthy animals from reputable pet shops and breeders. Make sure to buy animals that are captive bred in your own country and that it is not illegally imported or caught from the wild."

"If you've read something funny, or heard something that sounds out of place, use your common sense before applying. It is extremely important to do research from more than one source (before buying or accepting a new animal). For additional information, browse other internet pages, read related magazines and books and talk to experienced people."

Related Topics:

Other Care Sheets
Suitable Substrates For Herptiles
Accessories & Other Stuff For Herptiles
How To Rehydrate A Snake
Snake Burn Wounds
About Reptile Permits In South Africa
Photoperiod & Brumation / Hibernation
General Animal Bio-security & Quarantine
Rats & Mice As Food
Feeding Problems
Live Vs. Dead Prey
Preservation Of Live Prey
Record Keeping
General Zoology
Price List

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References & Further Reading:

Bartlett, R.D. The 25 Best Reptile And Amphibian Pets. Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

Brames, H. Aspects Of Light And Reptilian Immunity. Iguana Volume 14, Number 1, March 2007.

Mader, Douglas, R., 2006 Reptile Medicine & Surgery, Second Edition. Saunders Elsevier.

Alderton, David, 2001 The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Small Pets & Petcare.

Benson, Keith G.,1999 Reptilian Gastrointestinal Disease. W. B, Saunclers Company

Mattison, Chris, 1998 Keeping & Breeding Snakes, Second Edition. Blandford.

Mattison, Chris, 1994 A Practical Guide To Exotic Pets.

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