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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
A beginners guide to cornsnakes (Pantherophis guttatus)

This species has one of the longest historys in the hobby, they have been bred for many decades and in that time many mutations (color morphs) have appeared. This species has everything from solid dark grey/brown to completely snow white, from full length stripes to saddles, so there is something for everyone. The wild look of this species is very attractive being predominantly orange and red This species has a large range that includes a large variety of habitats, this translates in captivity to a species than can tolerate a wide range of conditions and still thrive, this makes them ideal captives and ideal beginner snakes.

The corn snake is a medium sized colubrid that reaches an average of 4ft as an adult, in captivity under ideal conditions this takes aprrox 3 years, they hatch fairly small, sometimes runt neonates (babies) can be very small and very difficult to start feeding, which is why you should only buy well started juveniles or older animals as ur first pet.

HOUSING (General) - The two main methods of housing in the modern hobby is plastic tubs or wooden glass fronted vivariums. For neonates i recommend plastic tubs with small holes drilled/melted into them for ventilation (make sure the holes are smaller than the width of the head otherwise the animal WILL escape), a rough size guide for a neonate tub is as follows, the minimum tub length should equal to or longer than the neonates length, the width and height should be 50% of the neonates length. Snakes are cold blooded, this means they rely on their environment to supply the temperatures needed for functions like digestion. The basic requirements of a snake "cage" is a source of heat, a water source, 2 hides, one over the hot end, the other in the cool end, this gives the animal the opportunity to warm up and cool down and not have to select security over heat, given that choice many animals will choose security to the detriment of their health, so a choice prevents any issues. The hide should ideally be small and dark, if its too large some crumpled tissue or dry moss can be used to fill the space so it provides a snug fitting hide, you are aiming to provide a sense of security. This may seem like a small thing but it is actually something that should always be kept in mind no matter the age of the animal, snakes may be highly evolved predators but they are also prey, and this has given them a constant need to feel safe, to feel secure, of "what can see me?". Many of the problems an animal will present in captivity can be fixed by providing the animal with a strong sense of security, of safety, a secure animal will feed, a secure animal wont lash out at a sudden movement.

An adult corn can be kept in a larger plastic tub but given their semi arboreal nature i feel they should be given a wooden vivarium, these can be bought off the shelf in various styles and sizes. An ideal adult cage would be 90x60x60cm to 120x60x60cm, substrates can be anything from newspaper to aspen bedding or even a soil mix for a more natural look, a loose substrate like aspen has the advantages of allowing the animal to burrow, captive corns do burrow even though its not something their specialised in, in the wild. A loose substrate also allows you to remove soiled areas without removing the entire cages contents as you have to do with newspaper. Any food offered on a substrate should be dry to the touch to prevent accidental ingestion of substrate, this usually doesn't harm the animal but it should be kept to a minimum where possible. Animals should be housed singly, cannabalism is rare in corns but it does happen, two animals together complicate their care in regards to feeding disease control etc, but also as the animals mature you could get unwanted eggs, which is a whole different conversation best kept till you have experience with one animal per enclosure, the experience learned from this will prepare you for the trickier questions of multiple animals and all that entails.

Cornsnakes drink reguarly and should have water constantly present, a small heavy clay/glazed dog/cat bowl is ideal as it prevents tipping, its best located in the cool end of the cage to prevent the water spoiling rapidly, the water should be replaced at least every other day, tap water is fine, if its fine for you, its fine for them. Branches can be placed in the vivarium to allow climbing exploration and excercise. The glass doors to the cage should be locked or have a rubber wedge holding them closed, many escapes happen due to the doors not being fully closed, if they have a lock its a mental reminder to at least check the cage is indeed secure after maintenance for example.

Heating and Lighting - for a small neonate enclosure the equipment needed is as follows

A) the enclosure, a small ventilated tub with paper towl substrate, crumpled newspaper can be a good disposable hide, it can cover the entire floor, this lets the animal go to and fro as it wishes while still being sheilded from prying (and to the snake, predatory) eyes.
B) water bowl, in the cool end, to remain fresh
C) heat should be provided via a heatmat that covers a 1/3 to a max of 1/2 of the floor area
D) thermostat, this controls the amount of heat the animal is exposed to, the amount of heat a corn should be exposed to is 82-86of, 28-30oc
E) a digital thermometer with a long probe to check the surface temp the animal is exposed to, a good setup with this equipment is to have both probes enter the tub (the stat probe, the thermometer probe) via a hole at the floor level secured to the tub floor. ***THIS POINT MAY SEEM SMALL BUT IT IS NOT, the thermostat probe must be firmly fixed in place, if the thermostat probe leaves the heated floor it will cool, this will turn the mat on, which will increase the surface temp the animal is exposed to, this is a common cause of thermal burns in captive snakes, a thermostat probe simply moving from its intended position.

for an adult the following is required

A) the enclosure, a wooden or plastic vivarium with the dimensions of 90x60x60cm to 120x60x60cm
B) lighting ideally a flourescent tube, a type that seeks to replicate daylight in the captive setting is good, arcadia makes such tubes, the lighting can used for approx 14-16hrs per day (a digital timer is ideal to control this photoperiod)
C) thermostat, this controls the amount of heat the animal is exposed to, the amount of heat a corn should be exposed to is 82-86of, 28-30oc
D) a digital thermometer with a long probe to check the temperature the animal is exposed to
E) infrared ceramic heater, these heat sources produce no visible light and are thus ideal for producing heat at night, they come in bulb shapes a flat radiator shape, a trough element shape, they should be fixed to the ceiling at one end of the cage to create a thermal gradient, the probe that controls them should be fixed in place. The ceramic heater must be guarded, they have a very high surface temp and WILL burn the snake if they come into contact with it. A branch system will allow the corn to get as near or as far from the heat source as it desires. A daytime setting of 28-30 is fine, this can be reduced to around 20-22oc at night, the night time drop should follow the photoperiod, modern thermostats come with inbuilt night time drop facilitys. (neonates do not need a night time drop and are fine with 24hr constant heat to allow maximum growth)
F) Substrate, this can be anything from paper to something like aspen, personally i feel aspen is the superior choice, its easier to clean, it adds another behavioural dimension to the cage, the animal can burrow for whatever reason it feels the need to. Cage life is very static, to the point of boredom, a burrowing option is something that can add to an animals daily activitys.
G) water bowl, in the cool end, to remain fresh
H) hides, 2, one in the cool end, one in the hot end, of a design and size that maximises the sense of security in the animal

FEEDING/SHEDDING - Newborn corns feed well on newborn pink mice, as the snake grows so does the mouse size, as in nature, the bigger they get the bigger the rodent they can catch kill and eat. One of the most common questions beginners have for their pet, especially neonates, is "what size of food should i offer". The best way to tackle this question is to look at the thickest part of ur snake, in babies this is generally the head, in adults its their waist/midbody, the most appropriate food size is one that is equal too or slightly larger than than the snakes widest point. Another question beginners have is how much food can a snake eat in one feeding, a neonate will happily eat 1 or more newborn mice, if you offer 3 pinks and it eats 2 then that animals limit, at this size, is 2 pinks, this is a simple method of gauging an animals appetite. neonates can be offered food 1-2 times per week and adults should be offered food every 7-10- days. When an animal is young, the more food it eats the more it will shed its skin, the more it sheds the faster it will grow, as the animal reaches adulthood this cycle slows considerably. During shedding it is useful to spray the cage/tub with lukewarm water, a cheap plant mister will do, an elevated humidity level will assist in a healthy shed (you do not need a humidity guage, a good mist once a day, drying overnight is sufficent), when the snake approaches a shed its eyes will turn cloudy white, then several days later they will clear, several days later again the skin will be shed. The old skin is very absorbent, a lack of moisture can lead to a bad shed, spraying the cage essentially prevents the old skin from drying, tearing and/or sticking to the new skin below. A snake will usually stop feeding during this time as its vision is impaired and it cannot risk being out in the open as it may not spot an approaching predator, so they instinctively stop feeding and hide till shedding is complete. The best food for cornsnakes is frozen mice, they can be kept on mice from birth to adulthood. I do not recommend live feeding to beginners, it is not necessary, livefeeding has its own risks and no advantages in the captive setting (the only exception would be an animal that only eats live, but if you buy a well started frozen feeder this should not be an issue). To defrost frozen mice a good method is too put them in hot water (not boiling) in a tub, and let them go from popsicle to warm edible rodent, you will soon learn if the water is too warm as the rodents thin stomach skin will often rupture, if its not hot enough you'll have to top the temperature of the water up. Give the mouse a good squeeze and feel in ur hand, it should feel warm throughout, no cold or icy spots. Thoroughly dry the rodent prior to feeding, this stops any substrate from sticking to the rodents fur and being ingested along with the rodent, this should be kept to a minimum.

Three of the most common problems a keeper will encounter

Snake Mites -
Beginners tend to panic when they discover mites on their snake when they really shouldn't. Mites though annoying to the animal are easily dealt with and will cause no longterm issues. A classic sign of mites is when the snake sits in the waterbowl (not every snake in a waterbowl has mites), in an attempt to rid itself of the parasites, you will often see them around the snakes eye. There are several treatments available online and from pet shops, the chemicals they contain are powerful and the instructions should be followed to the letter. Until you aquire this treatment there are a couple of proactive steps you can take, A) remove all loose substrate and completely clean the tub/cage inc all the cage furniture with a reptile safe disinfectant, use newspaper as a substrate until the mites are dealt with. B) spray some plain white kitchen towel with water and let the snake slide through it in ur hand, this will remove many mites on the skin surface and will keep the numbers low till proper treatment begins.

Problems Shedding -
Sometimes a snake will not shed its skin properly, just like mites this is easy to deal with and is not a reason to panic. The treatment for neonates and adults is the same, you will need an appropriately sized empty holding tub, a towel thats fluffy/textured, soak the towel in lukewarm water and wring it out, place half the towel in the tub, then the animal, then the remaining towel on top of the animal, close the tub. With a neonate place the tub on its heatmat as normal, with an adult place the entire tub in the cool end of the cage, leave for one hour. The combination of moisture, heat and the towels texture will remove most if not all stuck shed, this can be repeated daily if needed. If there are any scales that simply will not come off, leave them, you will do more harm than good trying to force their removal, they will come off with the next shed, just make sure u mist the animal/cage during the shedding process.

Refusal to Feed -
This is probably the single most worrisome event a beginner will face, a snake that refuses a meal. Firstly, before u panic, understand that snakes are biologically designed to feed infrequently and go long periods between feedings, its only in captivity that we expect them to eat constantly and regularly. After a refusal to feed check the following - is it in shed, are the eyes cloudy, does it have mites around the eyes, on the head, is the cage/equipment working properly, check ur temperatures. If all those are fine then simply wait till the next scheduled feed, there should be no handling till the animal resumes regular feeding. A mistake thats often made after a refusal is the keeper starts to change things, the cage, the heat, the food, the hides etc forgetting that the snake was previously fine with all those things. Most of the time a refusal to feed is simply due to a lack of hunger or an upcoming shed and the simplest way to fix it is to wait, have patience, remember that they have evolved for this. Simply wait till the next scheduled date, offer food, keep everything consistent and stress to a minimum, and the animal will 99 times out of a 100 resume feeding, it may take a week or a month, but it will resume feeding.

Snake keeping is essentially an exercise in stress management, the creation of a stress free environment, a calm snake is open to interaction, a calm snake is open to satisfying its hunger, a calm snake is not afraid that a predator lurks around the next corner. A calm snake and a calm keeper are an ideal combination, the beginner grows into an experienced keeper aware of their animals triggers and the solutions to those triggers, the animal grows into a trusting adult aware of their keepers intentions towards it.

Cornsnakes are one of the hardiest snakes available in the hobby, they have been popular longer than virtually any other species for a good reason, they are well suited to cage life, even with the learning curve that a beginner has to experience to learn what it takes to be a snake keeper.

Rgds and good luck with your new pet

ps the above care can also be used for species like Everglades Rats, Yellow rats, Black Rats, Texas Rats, Bairds rat, though most of these will often reach a larger adult size, especially the Black Rat.

8,746 Posts
Discussion Starter · #2 ·
A note on the above care, there is a lot of information missing, especially in rgds to natural history, there are many points not expanded on fully, this guide is not intended to be a history of the species or the full breadth of knowledge that is snake keeping, it is however intended to answer a question asked countless times on the forum, "i have a new snake, how do i care for it?".

so the text is limited in scope to answer that question and provide a base that can be built on with further research.

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