OK, so you’ve just received a baby snake or maybe you’re planning to purchase one at a shop or from a breeder. Probably the most stress free plan is to have the animal’s cage ready and waiting when the animal comes home, or at least plan on purchasing the cage and associated supplies when the juvenile snake is purchased. Luckily, snakes are generally less time consuming to care for than a dog, cat, hamster, parakeet, or many other captive animals. The catch is that it takes more knowledge about the animal to care for the snake since it’s not as adaptable to environmental change as many of the commonly kept warm blooded animals.
Ordinarily, one would think the bigger the cage, the better. However, in the case of smaller critters, sometimes there are advantages to smaller enclosures. You will need to be concerned about the snake being able to find its food, having a range of temperatures available to it, and having an opportunity to hide in a relatively tight space. Cage materials can include wire meshes (good for lids because you can place a light fixture on it without risk of fire), plastic (light, but shows scratches), glass (clear for viewing but breakable), and wood (heavy, hard to clean and waterproof).
Probably the easiest route to take is to purchase a clears plastic critter keeper with snap on vented lid. Make certain the hatchling snake is unable to get through the vents. Milksnakes, especially, are burrowers and tend to test corners and crevices with their snouts. If you aren’t certain the vents are escape proof, you can place a piece of fibreglass window screen on the cage top before snapping on the lid. A disadvantage of the critter keepers is that it’s difficult to heat them without risk of melting. Also they tend to be so small that heating with an incandescent bulb results in the whole cage being heated, not giving the snake a choice of temperatures. If you do use a plastic critter keeper or other plastic Rubbermaid type container, I suggest you forget additional heat and keep the cage in a room where the temperature ranges from 70-80 degrees F. Incidentally, you might also check the housewares section of your local discount or grocery store, since there is a wide variety of plastic storage containers available that might be used as a cage.
Major considerations are ventilation (you’ll probably have to drill holes in the sides) and ways to lock the top and make the container escape proof. Some varieties have lids complete with flip down locks. These work OK, but small snakes are able to climb between the underside of the lid and top edges of the cage, so you have to be very careful when opening or closing these cages. Proper size would be about the dimensions of a shoebox. Occasionally you might find plastic canisters with screw on lids that are extremely escape proof, but need to be drilled for ventilation. Often these have limited floor space, but they’ll work for awhile, especially if you provide a deep floor covering that allows the snake to burrow.
Shoebox sized cages will need to be replaced as your snake grows. If you invest in a 5 or 10 gallon aquarium tank or a 10 gallon tank with sliding screen lid designed for herps, it will be longer before the cage needs to be replaced. These tanks also allow for better temperature control, as you can place flat plate heaters under one edge of the tank or a small incandescent light fixture on the screen top, to allow the snake a range of temperatures to choose from. This is an especially good idea if your household background temperature is less than 75 degrees F. If you get a standard aquarium tank, escape proofing the lid may be a problem. Screen tops area available with metal clips to hold them in place, but the clips may still leave narrow cracks between the cage top and frame. This is OK with a 3 or 4 foot snake, but hatchlings may escape. Even the tanks with sliding screen lids may have a little forward/backward play in them. Don’t get smug because the cage is taller than your snake is long. A small snake can wedge itself into cage corners and climb to the top.
By now you realize that you may be able to get a hatchling snake for $15 or $20, but by the time you purchase needed supplies, you will have a much bigger investment. Also be aware that if you leave the snake alone outside its cage for even a few minutes, it’s very capable of crawling off and never being found again.
Heating is an area where you can use a lot of creativity, but it may also be expensive and safety must be a prime goal. You don’t want to burn down your house in the process of heating your snake. Make sure you pay attention to limits on the equipment, keeping light bulbs within the allowable wattage for the fixtures.
Likewise temperature controllers have wattage limits. If you use containers not designed for reptile keeping, be very careful about exposing them to heat. The should be able to take typical ambient temperatures (up to 90 degrees or so), or else they would melt just sitting around the house in the summer. You’ll need to check cage temperatures with a dependable thermometer. Very inexpensive liquid crystal types are available for aquarium use, but they may not have sufficient temperature range. Probably the best investment is a digital thermometer with remote probe. Get one of these at a local discount store, or perhaps a Radio Shack. They’re usually available in the $15-$35 dollar range, last for years, and even have a memory that allows you to check max. and min. Temperatures overnight. The thermometer will allow you to check the temperatures that your caging materials are being exposed to and also monitor cage temps once you are set up. You can get whole room heaters with proportional temperature controllers and night temperature drop capability if you have a large collection. For just one cage, you can use incandescent bulbs in simple fixtures (vary the bulb wattage to get the desired temperature) or commercially available hot rocks or heating pads. Unless the heater gives you just the right temperature, you’ll also need a rheostat controller or thermostat, which could run you $15-$40. At one time, hot rocks caused some problems because they put out too much heat and animals were getting burned. You’ll find that flat plate heaters are more expensive than you planned. If you use one, make sure it is only under a portion of the cage so the snake can get away from the heat. Some types stick to the cage. If you stick them on, don’t plan on ever removing them. A compromise is to stick the heater to a piece of metal roof flashing or other sheet metal and then slide the metal under the cage edge. Remember, use of these heaters with plastic caging may cause problems.
Generally snakes do fine without special lighting, something usually not true with other reptiles. If you do wish to provide lighting, the main purpose would be for you to see the snake. Either fluorescent or incandescent lighting is fine, but be aware that incandescent will add heat.
Substrate is the material on the cage bottom. We want it to be affordable, easy to clean or replace, and non-toxic. Newspaper, butcher paper, or paper towels will work and are easily replaced. Paper towels tend to flop into the water dish or be moved around by the snake, since they are so flimsy. Indoor carpeting is available for cage substrate. You will need two pieces, one to take the place of the other when it is being washed and disinfected with soap and water or a safe disinfectant solution. Avoid phenolic compounds. I have heard that they can be toxic. Also make certain the carpeting is completely rinsed and dried before being put back into the cage. If you are keeping a milk snake or a snake that tends to be very active, a substrate that allows burrowing like aspen may be good. Avoid cedar. Pine may be OK, but I avoid it since it’s rather stiff and may cause digestive problems if accidentally swallowed. Soil tends to get messy when damp. It also holds moisture which is bad. If you have a species that needs higher humidity (some rainforest types), finer cypress mulch substrate may help you keep the humidity elevated.
Water may be provided in any small, tip proof, nontoxic, waterproof container. Baby food jars with a half inch or so of water work, Just make certain that the water level is low enough that your snake won’t drown if it gets stuck in there. You can also use small hamster food dishes, or glass containers found in the housewares section of a discount store. Glass containers work well. Plastic will also work if it’s not so light as to be tippable. The weight of the water container is important. It needs to be heavy enough to be untippable, but light enough that it won’t crush the snake if it accidentally shifts when you move the cage. Also a heavy container should be placed directly on the cage bottom rather than on the top of aspen or mulch where your snake might be able to burrow under the water dish and be crushed.
I remember the time that I observed a captive group of alligator lizards for many, many hours as part of a college animal behavior course. As I recall they spent 90 some pe cent of their time pretty much just sitting around. Reptiles tend to be inactive and also usually appear to desire a cramped small space to use as a hide, sometimes the smaller the better. An easily found disposable hide for a juvenile snake is an empty toilet paper roll crimped shut and folded at one end. As the snake grows, you can move up to various sized cardboard boxes that can also be disposed of when dirty. If this idea offends your sense of aesthetics, cork bark is a washable hiding place, and there are many commercially made hide spots that mimic nature. Just make certain that if you pick a model that is heavy ceramic or artificial stone that it cannot tip onto your snake. You also need to be careful when replacing the hide into the cage if the snake is under a newspaper substrate. Find out where the animal is before you drop that artificial stone on top of it! Climbing limbs are also fine, although milk snakes and some other colubrids may not use them. Remember it is best to use cage furnishings that are disposable or that can be cleaned easily. Deep cracks in the item can retain bacteria. Some artificial rocks and limbs have holes underneath formed as part of the manufacturing process. These holes can be great places for your snake to disappear into or get wedged into.
Remember to use common sense when housing your juvenile snake, especially regarding the use of electricity for lighting or heating. If in doubt about safety for the animal, your household, or household members, find another safer set up. Watch for a future article on how to acclimate your snake to its new home.
- Thanks to the author and The GREATER CINCINNATI HERPETOLOGICAL SOCIETY for allowing us to reprint this article which was originally published in their newsletter The Forked Tongue
Republished from April 2009 Ratsnakes Digest