How to Keep Rat & King Snakes
By Dr. Gareth Evans
King Snakes and their close relatives, the Rat Snakes, are well known to snake-keepers the world over, not least for their docile temperaments, attractive looks and ease of handling. Fairly undemanding and straightforward in their care, these snakes make excellent pets and can live for 15 years or more in captivity.
King Snakes are handsome animals and make very good first snakes for anyone new to snake keeping. Some varieties grow to 7 feet or so (2.1m) – which means a large terrarium – but the California King Snake (Lampropeltis getula californiae), arguably the best and most popular subspecies to keep, typically only grows to around 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5m), making it a good deal easier to accommodate.
A handsome snake, the “wild” form has white bands running across its black body, although there are a number of colour morphs, including albino, chocolate and lavender, which have been steadily gaining popularity as pets.
In the wild, King Snakes eat a wide range of prey, such as rats, mice, lizards, frogs and other snakes, including rattlesnakes – King Snakes being largely immune to their venom. Their dietary habits obviously dictate that these beautiful snakes are best kept singly.
The Rat Snakes are a huge group of snakes and although most of the commonly kept pets are species of Elaphe, it also includes Bogertophis, Euprepiophis, Oreophis, Orthriophis, Pseudelaphe, Ptyas, Rhinechis, Senticolis and Zamenis.
Ready climbers in the wild – and remarkably efficient predators of rodents and birds – Rat Snakes offer an almost unrivalled range of colours and patterns, making them firm favourites for the terrarium.
Housing King Snakes And Rat Snakes
All of these snakes are easily housed in an appropriately sized container with a good lid. For all except the largest kinds, a tank around 40 x 20 x 20 inches (100x50x50cm) will be needed, while the ever popular California King Snake will do well in something a little smaller.
In many ways newspaper is the ideal flooring material, since it is fairly absorbent and easy to clean, although it isn’t the most attractive, which may be an important consideration if your tank is on show. Good options for a more “natural” look include reptile bark chippings, sphagnum moss and sterile compost – with a few large pieces of cork bark added to provide your pets with somewhere to hide.
The set-up should also include a large water bowl – big enough to let your pet have a good soak – and a well-secured climbing branch or two, though you need to make sure that they don’t let your snake get too near to heaters or lights.
Temperature And Heating
Although the exact requirements depend on the species being kept, most of these snakes do well with an ambient temperature in their tank of around 25 degrees C (77F) with a hot spot or two around 30C (86F), with a night-time drop of a few degrees to mimic nature. Heating and lighting obviously need to be controlled independently, so you can vary temperature and the artificial day/night cycle separately.
A combination of heat mats under part of the tank, with ceramic heaters or spot lamps is one of the most popular ways of achieving the necessary additional warmth. Whatever system you do decide to use, make sure that the snakes cannot come into contact with the heating elements – strong guards are essential – and use the best quality thermostats you can find.
Food And Feeding
Although the wild diet of most of these snakes would include a range of small birds, frogs, lizards, other snakes and some large insects, in captivity they are most commonly fed rodents – “pinkies”, small mice, larger mice and rats, depending on the size of the snake.
Most of these animals will feed readily, but some individuals can be a little reluctant from time to time; feeding at night – or turning off the lights – can often encourage hesitant eaters. It’s worth keeping good records of what, when and how much you feed your pet – and how well it eats; reduced appetite can often be the first sign of a sickening snake, so it’s important to get the earliest warning possible that all is not well.
Easy to keep and largely undemanding in their needs, these snakes make excellent and long-lived pets. Whether you’re just starting out and looking for a first snake, or have years of reptile keeping experience under your belt, few species rival the reward of keeping King Snakes and their relatives.
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