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Some snakes are rare, endangered and protected by law. These snakes may only be kept by zoos and legitimate herpetologists with the appropriate permits. This is also the case with venomous snakes, which should not under any circumstances, be kept by the average hobbyist.

The most common snakes kept by enthusiasts are the many and varied constrictor species (boas, pythons, rat and milk snakes. etc.), and the racer, gopher and garter species. The husbandry and dietary requirements for these types of snakes vary considerably. Further, some of the same species (notably the boa constrictors and pythons) reach very large sizes in captivity, and their considerable space requirements must be anticipated. Usually, an individual eager to own a snake already has a species preference in mind because of some familiarity with it or because of an inexplicable attraction to a species' physical appearance, size, activity or habits.

Before you acquire a snake, you should carefully consider the following recommendations:

1.) Research the major husbandry requirements of the snake and determine whether or not you can successfully meet them now and in the future. Husbandry requirements include dietary, environmental (living space, temperature, humidity, lighting, etc.) and sanitation considerations.

2.) Research the temperament of the species. If you intend to enjoy your snake primarily by observing it within its enclosure and rarely by handling it, this becomes a less important consideration. If you intend to regularly handle the snake, however, you must be able to do so with minimal stress and injury to both the snake and yourself. Snake temperaments vary among species and among individuals of the same species. Certain snake species almost always retain a gentle, docile nature when they are raised from infancy (boa constrictors). Other species (the larger pythons) are unpredictable and tend to be quite pugnacious as they mature, whether or not they are handled frequently. Wild-caught adults of all species generally make unsuitable pets because they resist taming.

3.) Select a snake that can feed without difficulty and one that is eating regularly. Select a snake that appears healthy in all respects. Avoid choosing an unthrifty-looking snake out of sympathy with the idea that you can nurse' the snake back to health. Many of these snakes have suffered irreparable internal damage and cannot be fully restored to health.

4.) Avoid selecting snake belonging to a species that is notoriously difficult to keep in captivity, requires difficult or elaborate environmental setups or spends most of its time hiding or burrowed underground.

5.) Avoid selecting a poisonous or venomous species. Only the very experienced herpetologist should attempt to keep these types of snakes in captivity. State and local laws prohibit possession of venomous snakes except by experienced individuals holding legitimate permits.

As a general rule, snakes require relatively little space because of their limited and nonexertional activity. Generally speaking, the size of the enclosure should allow inclusion of certain required items (discussed below) and still allow the snake adequate space to stretch out and move about. Snakes will use both the horizontal and vertical space within their enclosure if provisions are made for this activity. Aquaria or other similar glass or Plexiglas™-lined enclosures are usually most suitable because they allow optimum visualization of and safety for the occupant(s), and help to maintain desirable environmental temperatures and generally high relative humidity levels. Wire-lined enclosures may afford adequate visualization of the snake but certainly cannot contribute to the maintenance of desirable environmental temperature and humidity levels. Further, such enclosures promote injuries to the rostrum (nose and surrounding tissues) as snakes repeatedly attempt to "escape' through the wire mesh. Any enclosure used must have a secure top and be escape-proof. All hinges and locks should be secure. All snakes are potential "escape artists'' and many can escape from almost any apparently secure enclosure.

Unprinted newsprint, butcher paper, paper towels, terrycloth towels and indoor-outdoor carpeting (although this requires constant and through cleaning) are the most suitable materials for covering the bottom of a snake's enclosure. In fact, the first materials mentioned can be cut to size and placed many layers thick on to the floor of the enclosure. When the top layer(s) are soiled, they can be easily removed, leaving clean, dry paper. This makes cleaning of the enclosure very quick and efficient. If indoor-outdoor carpeting is used, it is best to have 2-3 pieces cut to the correct dimensions. This way, replacements can be used while the soiled piece is cleaned and disinfected.

Under no circumstances should pea gravel, kitty litter, crushed corncob material or wood shavings be used. These are unquestionably more visually aesthetic than most of the materials mentioned above: however, they are unsuitable because they trap moisture and filth, provide unlimited hiding places for external parasites, and make enclosures very difficult to clean. Furthermore, these types of particulate matter are easily and inadvertently eaten while the snake is feeding. This can cause mechanical injury to or obstruction of the digestive tract.

Various objects should be included within a snake's enclosure that occupy its vertical area. These include sturdy branches of various hardwood trees or those fabricated from artificial materials, driftwood, grapevine, hanging ropes, and shelves situated along the sides of the enclosure.

It is very important to provide some privacy for a captive snake. Many snakes will not feed without the privacy afforded by some degree of visual security. This can be accomplished by providing a ''hide box" into which the snake can retreat when it feeds or at other times when privacy is desired. Visual security can also be provided by the use and strategic placement of silk artificial plants (and trees if the enclosure is large enough to accommodate them). Silk plants are visually pleasing and easy to clean and disinfect. They require minimal maintenance, help to augment the relative humidity level of the enclosure if the foliage is frequently misted, and can complement a snake's ability to camouflage itself, thereby providing visual security.

Tropical snakes kept in captivity (boa constrictors, pythons, etc) require relatively warm temperatures and high relative humidity. Daytime temperatures should range between 80°-85° F. Night time temperatures can fall between 70°-75°F without creating problems for most snakes. Native American snakes do well when maintained at 70° - 80°F. Relatively large enclosures can be supplied with heat lamps or heaters equipped with thermostats, whereas small enclosures may be adequately heated by placing a heating pad directly underneath them.

Exposed heat sources must be shielded to protect snakes from serious burns as they attempt to warm themselves by coiling next to them. Large and small enclosures should also provide the snake a focal (spot) source of warmth. Small snakes should be offered a hot rock. Large snakes can use one or more well-protected and water-proofed heating pads. These appliances allow the snake direct, but safe contact with the heat source, which helps to raise their body temperature. This allows the snake to be more active and increases their rate of digestion.

Check these appliances frequently for malfunction and periodically check the snake for evidence of burns because snakes generally do not move away from heat-generating appliances even if they are being severely burned.

deally it would be advantageous for all captive reptiles to be housed in such a way that they could be exposed to and benefit from direct, unfiltered sunlight during the daylight hours every day. This represents the healthiest and most natural situation. Unfortunately, this set of circumstances can rarely be fulfilled by hobbyists because it is neither practical nor possible. The next best solution is to use an artificial ultraviolet light source rather than fluorescent or incandescent lightbulbs. One or more Vita-Lites™ should he used to illuminate the enclosure during the daylight hours. To approximate a natural photoperiod, it is best to supply 10-12 hours of daylight and 12-14 hours of darkness each day, with a gradual increase in the number of hours of light in the spring and a gradual decrease in the fall and winter months.

Water should be provided at all times. Most snakes drink infrequently but use suitably sized container for immersing themselves and soaking. Another advantage for including a relatively large water container is that water evaporation contributes to the relative humidity of the enclosure. This is especially true if the enclosure is glass or Plexiglas™-lined. The water container should be roomy enough to allow adequate soaking and heavy enough so it cannot be easily overturned. Water containers must be thoroughly and regularly cleaned. Failure to do so encourages bacterial proliferation. Snakes drinking and soaking in this water soon become ill. Use a mixture of l oz. of bleach to 1 gallon of water and rinse well to disinfect the snake's enclosure and furnishings at least once every 2-4 weeks.

Before specific feeding recommendations are made, it is very important to make several points and cautions regarding the feeding of captive snakes. The most respected herpetologists and experienced snake hobbyists all agree that captive snakes should be fed dead or incapacitated prey whenever possible. This is because such prey cannot injure the feeding snake. Providing killed prey that has been frozen is convenient and economical for the hobbyist.

Rodents (rats and mice in particular) left unattended and unobserved within an enclosure with a supposedly hungry snake sometimes turn on the "diner'' and inflict serious bite wounds on it. These "dinner becomes the diner" incidents are most likely to occur when a snake is ill or otherwise uninterested in feeding. If snakes do not accept freshly killed or well-thawed frozen prey, the live prey must be stunned so that it is sufficiently incapacitated and unable to injure the snake.

If it is not possible to offer anything other than live and fully conscious prey for a snake to successfully feed, the encounter must be carefully supervised. If a snake shows no interest in feeding within 10-l5 minutes after the prey has been introduced, the prey should be removed and all of the possible reasons for the snake's lack of interest in feeding should be investigated. (See section on Failure to Voluntarily Feed). If other similar attempts to feed the snake within the next 1-2 weeks are equally unsuccessful, veterinary help should be sought at once.

Snakes acquire a large number of infectious agents from the foods they consume, especially because of the snake's habit of feeding on whole prey items. It is not practical or possible to ensure that all prey animals are absolutely free of disease-causing agents. However, prey animals that are to be fed to captive snakes should appear healthy and come from a reliable source.

Extreme caution should be exercised when feeding snakes. This is especially important if a given snake is expected to be hungry and if human-snake interaction is limited to feeding times. An overzealous and hungry snake is very likely to strike at a person immediately after the enclosure is opened and as the prey item is introduced.

Great caution must also be exercised when feeding more than one snake within an enclosure. Serious problems result when 2 snakes choose to prey on the same food item. When 2 or more snakes are housed within the same enclosure, they should be fed individually by holding the prey animal in long forceps or tongs.
Feeding schedules for captive snakes vary with the age, species, size, condition and specific requirements of the individual. Generally speaking, pet snakes are usually fed once every 1-2 weeks. Juveniles and adults for which a relatively rapid growth rate is desired can be fed more frequently, providing that environmental temperatures are warm enough to allow complete and thorough digestion. Older snakes are usually fed less frequently, often once every 3-6 weeks. The number of prey animals offered at each feeding is determined by the same factors discussed above with regard to frequency of feeding. Overfeeding must be avoided because of the risk of obesity. Too frequent feedings and allowing a captive snake to consume multiple prey animals at each feeding encourages rapid growth. It also leads to obesity in older animals. The relative difficulties in procuring food limits this phenomenon in the wild.

Shedding is the process by which snakes periodically discard the outer portion of their skin. This activity is under hormonal control and associated with growth. Most snakes shed their skin 4-8 times per year. The frequency of shedding depends upon many factors, including environmental temperature, frequency of feeding, amount fed at each feeding and activity level. Young snakes shed more frequently than older ones because growth is relatively rapid in the first few years of life. Healthy snakes usually have little or no difficulty with shedding and tend to shed their skins in one entire piece. Exceptions to this include snakes with injuries to the skin and/or scales resulting in scaring, and snakes housed in enclosures with suboptimal temperature and/or relative humidity levels.

The stresses associated with shedding can be substantial. Sick snakes, those suffering from malnutrition, or those whose health has been directly or indirectly compromised by poor husbandry experience delayed and incomplete sheds. These snakes tend to shed their skins in pieces. In fact, many of the pieces remain adhered to the underlying skin and eyes (retained eye caps). The shedding process is preceded by a period of relative inactivity. This period usually lasts 1-2 weeks, during which time the eyes begin to exhibit a dull, bluish-white appearance. During this period, the snake's vision is impaired, which causes them to be rather unpredictable and sometimes aggressive. The skin during this period tends to have an overall dull appearance. The underlying new skin is soft and vulnerable to damage while the outer layers prepare to slough away. The eyes again become transparent after 7-15 days and shedding commences. A snake will make use of any rough objects or surfaces within its enclosure to help shed the skin.

Shedding commences with the skin of the head. Once the snake has loosened and dislodged the skin surrounding the mouth and overlying the rostrum (nose), it then passes between rough objects that can trap the loose skin and hold it as the snake glides out of the "old" skin. Discarded skin appears dry and tube-like or moist and crumpled in a solitary heap. Many snakes defecate after a successful shed, or consume large quantities of water.

Snakes produce offspring in 2 basic ways. The first involves development of the fertilized eggs within the body of the female. When the embryos are fully developed, the offspring are born, appearing like miniature adults. Boa constrictors, water and garter snakes, and rattlesnakes are live-bearing species and are considered ovoviviparous. The second method involves deposition of oblong, leathery-shelled eggs within the environment, where the eggs incubate. At the completion of embryonic development, the eggs hatch, producing miniature adults. Pythons and rat and milk snakes are egg layers and are considered oviparous. In either case, the newborn or newly hatched can fend for themselves and receive no parental nurturing.

Many snake species readily mate in captivity. One mating may result in up to 3 clutches of eggs or 3 ''litters" of live young. This is because sperm can be stored within the reproductive tract of the female after insemination. The proper pairing of snakes according to age and sex is essential if reproduction in captivity is to be successful. Sexing of snakes can be difficult because males generally resemble females. Snakes under 18 inches long can usually be sexed by exerting pressure on the tissues surrounding the vent. Male snakes have paired hemipenes (elongated, spurred structures used during copulation) than can be extruded with this maneuver. The widely accepted method for sexing most snakes over 18 inches in length requires specialized sexing probes. These elongated, blunt-tipped instruments are gently inserted into the vent and directed toward the tail. The probe penetrates only a short distance in females and a much longer distance in males. This procedure should only be attempted by experienced handlers.

Anorexia (lack of appetite) and failure to voluntarily feed are common problems among captive snakes. Despite the fact that snakes are uniquely suited to survive prolonged periods without feeding, the hobbyist must make every attempt to discover the reason(s) for the snake's failure to feed. This search must include the possibility of illness, since anorexia is a universal sign of disease in snakes. First consider the circumstances and situations during which snakes normally will not feed:

  • Recent acquisition of a snake
  • Snake in pre-shed condition
  • Latter stages of pregnancy
  • Older, larger snakes feed less often than younger, smaller ones
  • Obese snakes occasionally engage in self-imposed fasts
  • Newborn or newly hatched snakes may not feed until after their first shed 10-14 days after birth
  • Hyperactivity associated with the breeding season or the imposition of captivity of a newly acquired, high­ strung species
  • Hibernation or attempts to hibernate
  • Illness

If all of the above have been rejected as causes for anorexia, you must next consider problems with husbandry. The most common cause for failure of a snake to voluntarily feed is inadequate environmental temperatures. Tropical snakes require temperatures between 75° and 85°F for normal activity and optimum digestive capacity. Subnormal temperatures lead to sluggishness and incomplete digestion. The food literally spoils inside the snake, producing serious illness, an early sign of which is vomiting.

The next most common cause for captive snakes' refusing to feed is lack of adequate visual security. Many snakes require privacy while they feed. A hiding box or natural bark or rock retreat may be necessary. Sometimes placing the reluctant snake in a roomy burlap bag along with a dead or incapacitated prey item provides the security the snake requires to feed. Strategic placement of silk artificial plants may also help provide additional visual security. There may be one particular area of the enclosure in which the snake feels more secure. The food should be consistently placed there to encourage feeding. It is important to note that the presence of spectators often discourages nervous snakes from feeding. The enclosure should be covered in these cases and the snake's activity discretely monitored.

The following is a list of additional suggestions to consider when you are challenged with a snake that refuses to feed:

  • Try feeding at different times of the day. Nocturnal (night-active) species cannot be expected to feed on prey items placed within the enclosure during the daytime.
  • Try feeding nervous snakes that share an enclosure with other snakes in an environment separate from them. Often, the movement of other snakes in the same enclosure induces anorexia in nervous snakes.
  • Moving a snake to a new or different enclosure may stimulate feeding.
  • Reduce handling of especially nervous or newly acquired snakes to encourage feeding.
  • Rubbing the food item over the sensitive areas of the snake's head (the nostrils and the areas surrounding the mouth) or gently hitting the snake with the prey may antagonize it to strike at the food.
  • Offer live prey to snakes that have been consistently offered dead or incapacitated prey (with close supervision). Certain aggressive snakes and snakes with an impaired sense of smell may require live prey to successfully feed.
  • For snakes that ordinarily eat live prey, try feeding dead or incapacitated live prey items. Often the erratic motions of a rodent running around an enclosure can cause a snake to refuse to feed.
  • Try feeding a smaller prey item. A snake that has been recently injured by a particularly large and aggressive prey animal may be reluctant to feed.
  • Cater as much as possible to the individual preferences of an anorectic snake. If a snake refuses mice, try small rats, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits or even chicks. Some snakes can be very finicky.

If all of the above have been considered and attempted without success. take your snake to a veterinarian experienced with snakes. The veterinarian will collect a detailed history and conduct a thorough physical examination. It may be necessary to collect a blood sample to more thoroughly evaluate the patient. Take along a fecal (stool) sample from the snake so the veterinarian can also check for intestinal parasites. A veterinarian may pass a flexible tube into the stomach and force- feed the anorectic snake at this time. This provides some nutrients while the medical evaluation is in progress. Some anorectic snakes begin to voluntarily feed after such a feeding.

Regurgitation of food may result from handling a snake too soon after it has fed. Regurgitated food is undigested and relatively odorless. Another common cause of regurgitation is inadequate and incomplete digestion caused by relatively cool environmental temperatures. In these cases, the regurgitated food appears digested and is malodorous. If it is not possible to raise the temperature of the enclosure, a focal source of heat (hot rock, heating pad or pads) on which the snake can rest is a necessity to ensure adequate and complete digestion. Other causes of regurgitation include stress in easily excitable species, parasitism, intestinal obstruction and serious internal disease An experienced veterinarian should he consulted if the cause for regurgitation is not readily determined.

Burns: Snakes commonly sustain serious burns when the contact unprotected or malfunctioning heat lamps or other heat sources (including hot rocks). Interestingly, snakes tend not to move away from the heat source inflicting the injury. This makes the wound considerably more serious. Medical treatment (including injectable antibiotics and periodic wound dressings) is required in these cases. Surgery may be necessary to minimize the disfiguring effects of such injures. These inures are easily avoidable. Periodically check all heating appliances to make certain they are functioning properly and that they are "snake proof".

Rat/Mouse Attack:
Sometimes a live mouse or rat turns the tables on a snake and injures the snake while fighting for its life (the dinner becomes the diner). Veterinary attention should be sought for serious bite wounds.

Rostral Abrasions:
One of the unfortunate consequences of captivity is injury to the captive animal from repeated attempts to escape. Snakes tend to push and rub their noses against the walls of their enclosure as they move about in search of a means to escape. This constant trauma initially damages the scales and skin of the nose (rostrum). If the trauma continues, deep ulceration of the rostrum with subsequent deformity may result. Rostral abrasions are equally likely with enclosures made of glass or wire mesh. Prevention of this problem is difficult, but adequate visual security (hiding places) and other additions to the enclosure (artificial plants, branches, etc) help minimize it. Further, a visual barrier of dark paint or plastic film placed on or along the lower 3- inches of the enclosures walls often inhibits pacing and rubbing.

Constipation is a common problem among captive snakes. Causes include suboptimal environmental temperature, illness, dehydration, injuries, parasitism and cloacoliths (see below). Constipated snakes should be allowed to soak in very warm (not scalding hot) water for 0-30 minutes daily for 1-2 days. This often results in defecation and/or urination. If this conservative measure is not successful, veterinary help should be sought at once.

Dehydration of captive snakes (especially if longstanding) may result in drying out of urinary excretions. When this occurs, uric acid "stones' tend to form within the cloaca ("cloacoliths''). Their presence in this location prevents expulsion of urinary waste and feces (constipation), which creates serious illness. Dehydration is a sign of disease and not a disease in itself, so it becomes the veterinarian's task to determine the underlying problem that caused the dehydration. Cloacoliths can usually be manually expelled with patience and the help of mineral oil enemas. This procedure should only be attempted by an experienced veterinarian.

A prolapse occurs when an organ inverts itself inside out and protrudes through the usual external opening of that organ. Prolapses of the cloaca and reproductive organs are not uncommon among captive snakes. Often the cause cannot be determined. Prolapses can be precipitated by straining during egg-laying or straining related to uric acid stones. Parasitic infections or other intestinal disease may also result in prolapses. Veterinary assistance is essential in these cases to treat the prolapse and determine the underlying cause, if possible.

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Please call the Roslyn Greenvale Veterinary Group at 516-621-4010 to schedule your snake for an examination with Dr. Marder or Dr. May today.

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