Answers to basic newbie questions
This is by no means the definitive care sheet for snakes, but hopefully will provide some of the answers to the regular questions newbie's seem to post on the forum. You should still research the individual requirements for the snake you intend to get.
Firstly, you will need to house the snake in a suitable enclosure. The enclosure needs to be large enough to allow the snake to uncoil and move around. There is no maximum size. If you have the space for a six foot vivarium for your cornsnake, then that would be every bit as good as a three four foot vivarium. It is also possible to hose snakes in rack system, using RUBs or really useful boxes. There are pro's and cons for any enclosure, and the choice is down to things like space available, how warm the room is where the snakes will be kept, and personal preference.
Whichever method you choose the enclosure needs to be secure. Use two part epoxy to glue in the vents in a wooden vivarium, especially if it is a commercial vivarium purchased as a flat pack. Seal all cable entry holes with aquarium grade silicone, and purchase a key operate glass lock for the two part sliding panels. Don't use wedges, as they can fall out and the snake only needs a small gap to escape. If you are using a rack system, ensure the RUBs have a clip on lid. If you are opting for a lidless system, then the trays should fit snug to the divider above them to ensure the snake can't escape.
Ventilation is required in any enclosure. Ideally the vents should be placed low down in the side wall at a cool end of a wooden vivarium, with a second up high in the opposite warm end. As heat rises this will allow the warm air to escape and draw fresh cool air into to the vivarium. In a RUB small holes can be drilled front and back.
Heating is probably the most hotly (no pun intended) subject and is often the area where newbie's get confused. Firstly all snakes require an area in the enclosure that enables it to warm up and absorb the energy in order to live and function. This can be at floor level, or above ground as a thermal gradient can be vertical as well as horizontal. Don't get hung up on getting an exact ideal temperature of XX degrees C / F. Provided the snake has access to a hot spot of 32c - 34c and an area away from that heat it will thermo-regulate itself depending on its needs.
The method of heating is somewhat dependent on the type of enclosure (you can't fit a ceramic heater inside a plastic RUB for example). Heat mats are good for smaller snakes and hatchings, where their body mass won't cause thermal blocking. For most snakes a ceramic heating element (CHE) is ideal. These need guarding to prevent the snake coming into contact with them as they run very hot. CHE's also have the advantage of heating the air as well as the area directly beneath them, making them the ideal heater for snakes that come from tropical regions or spend a lot of time in trees. You may see the use of RED spotlamps being recommended, but these have one major drawback in that in order to maintain a hot spot for the snake to take advantage of anytime it needs it, the light has to be on 24/7. Research has shown that contrary to belief, snakes can see the RED wavelength these lights emit and as such would never experience a day / night routine which is a natural occurrence. Having a day / night photo-period is essential for a snake's natural process, especially with snakes that are active at night. For this reason the use of lamps as a heat source is not recommended.
All methods of heating need to be controlled using a thermostat designed for use with reptiles. A heat mat can be controlled by a simple on/off type thermostat. CHE's require either a pulse proportional thermostat, or a dimmer thermostat. Running a CHE from an on/off stat will shorten the life of the CHE and will create too wide a thermal range. Whichever method is chosen, the heater needs to be placed at one side of the enclosure (at the end where the top vent is in a vivarium). In the case of a RUB, the RUB should be placed so that 1/3rd of the floor area is covering the heat mat. If a mat is fitted inside a RUB or vivarium then it should be of suitable size to cover 1/3rd the floor area. The use of a thermometer to read the temperature of the substrate and set the thermostat is recommended rather than relying on the indications on the dial. An IR laser temperature gun is ideal for this, and can be had cheaply from a well know auction site or any leading electronics retailer.
The need for lighting has been debated and discussed at length on the forum. In a rack system it's almost impossible to provide artificial light to offer a day night cycle. However snakes kept in this system still eat, feed, and breed in captivity, even though they receive a subtle change in brightness during the day. If you want to display your snake in a vivarium, then the installation of some form of lighting is required. This can be LED, normal incandescent lamps, or fluorescent tubes, the two latter methods should be guarded as they will get hot enough to cause burns should the snake stay in contact for long periods. LED's especially the strips that are self adhesive may also need covering as there have been cases where the strips get stuck to the snake and then requires treatment from a vet.
Substrate and decoration is a personal choice. At one end of the scale you have a RUB with a few sheets of kitchen paper towel and water dish, at the other end a fully natural enclosure with live plants, natural substrate and even a section with flowing water. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Common substrates include newspaper, aspen, pellets of wood or paper, beech chippings, bark chippings, and wood shavings. One regular subject that often appears on the forum is that of snakes ingesting substrate which gets stuck to a mouse or rat whilst eating. As far as I can remember there has only been one case of someone posting concern after their snake had ingested a beech chipping which had got stuck in its throat. This was regurgitated within 48 hours, much to the relief of the owner. In the wild, snakes will ingest all sorts of leaf matter and dirt whilst eating, and they deal with it, so there is no need to use feeding bowls, or plates to try and remove the possibility. My own snakes are kept on small bark chippings and regularly swallow the odd chipping with their rats and have never had a problem. One thing to watch is not to have a thick layer of substrate over a heat mat as most products are insulators and covering the mat can cause the mat to overheat.
Some species that are obligate burrowers HAVE to be kept on loose substrates & must never be kept on paper, carpet etc, eg hogs, sand boas, rosy boas etc.
OK so now you've got your enclosure set up, it's got a hot spot suitable for the species (ball park figure of 32c - 34c), plenty of cover, branches , and a decent layer of substrate and it's time to collect the snake. Take a cloth bag or pillow case with you as the seller may not have anything to put the snake in for you. Once the snake has been bagged and brought home, release it into the enclosure and then leave it alone. Resist the urge to constantly open the enclosure and watch it, or get it out for handling sessions. Let the snake settle in for two to three weeks, with the only disturbance being to change the water in its dish / bowl. You will soon see the snake exploring its enclosure when it's ready to. After two weeks you can try and offer a meal to see if it will take a meal. The response will be dependent on the species as some eat more readily than others.
Handling snakes is again down to personal preference. If it's your only snake and it's a pet, then regular handling will allow the snake to get use to the disruption. Note that snakes don't get any enjoyment out of being handled in the way a dog or car will. Often the fact the snake may sit still on your lap is because it's an excellent heat source and not that it want to sit with you and watch the TV. Snakes tolerate being handled, some more than others, but even the most placid snake can have its moment and would much prefer to be left alone. Snakes that are in shed should be left alone, especially whilst the eyes are blue and opaque. Remember that they are not domesticated animals; they still have wild tendencies to either fight or flight, so learn to read the signs. Snakes don't need walks, so taking them out in public is not required. If the weather is warm enough in summer you can take the snake outside where it will benefit from natural sunlight. But bear in mind that the snake will warm up quickly and become very active and may well resist being retrained or will move a lot faster if left alone on the lawn.
When it comes to feeding, again there is no one set rule. However one thing is certain and that is that you don't feed your snake on a daily basis ! - Most people feed one food item per snake on a weekly basis. However, others feed once every two weeks. Snakes can go long periods of time without food (ask any seasoned Royal python owner). Snakes metabolism is slow, and it can take three to four days to fully digest a meal, so feeding too frequently means that the snake never really has a chance to digest and process the food completely before being offered another meal.
The size of the food item also matters. You can offer two small items when the snake is between prey sizes, and generally it's better to give a meal that will produce a slight bulge in the snake's girth once it's been swallowed. Yes a snake can manage a huge meal, and we've all seen the video or photos of a large python eating a gazelle or impala, but snakes are opportunist and will take what it can when it can as in the wild it never knows when its next meal will be. In captivity, where the snake expels less energy searching for food, it doesn't need such a large food intake.
Some snakes will have a specialist diet, even eating crickets, mealworks or earthworms. Most are rodent eaters and will take defrosted rodents without any preparation. Royal Pythons tend to rely on their heat pits as well as other senses, so the food item needs to be warmed. This can be done by either placing the food item in a plastic food bag or leaving it in hot water for half an hour or so, or using a hairdryer has the same effect. You can dip the rodent into hot water, and then dry it off using a kitchen towel, or place it on a warm radiator to do the same. Don't place the item in a microwave as this can cause the rodent to cook inside, or explode. It's also not hygienic. The use of tongs is also recommended so the snake doesn't mistake your warm hand as the target !
As mentioned earlier, snakes go off food from time to time. Don't worry if your snake refuses a meal and hasn't eaten for ten days or so... Most king snakes and corn snakes will sexually mature at 12 - 18 months and will go off food when their internal body clock tells them it's breeding season. Males will often refuse food for upwards of 4 months, maybe taking the odd meal here and there. Females may also refuse food, but normally this happens less and for shorter periods than males. In this period, simply offer a meal once every three or four weeks so that you don't waste food. Royal pythons are notorious for fasting, sometimes upwards of 7 or 8 months. The record has been more than a year without food. It's mostly males that fast, and again it associated with the breeding season. The same process applies, just offer meals once every month until the snake resumed feeding. Once the snake is feeding, you may find a change in its behaviour in that it comes charging out of its hide every time the vivarium is opened. If the snake has lost some body weight then you can take advantage of this behaviour and feed two items at each sitting on a weekly basis in order to regain its body weight. As mentioned earlier, fresh water should be provided daily.
That about wraps this post up... if after reading this thread you still have questions then start a new thread below, and provide as much information as possible with regards to your set up, the age of the snake and anything you have done to try and resolve any particular issue you have. Photo's of your set up, or problem will also help.
Last edited by Debbie1962; 14-09-2017 at 03:09 PM..
Reason: Mistakes corrected