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Caring for Your Snake

By: Frank Indiviglio

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There are over 2,700 species of snake in our world. They occupy a diverse array of habitats including sub-polar meadows, tropical forest, the deepest oceans and the highest mountains. Ranging in size from four inches to 33 feet, this complex group defies generalizations as to captive care. So before you buy your pet, research its individual needs.

Housing

The size of the enclosure your snake will need depends upon its size and level of activity. Some snakes, such as boa constrictors, are fairly inactive while some, such as black racers, are more active and need comparatively larger cages. They become stressed when crowded. For inactive species the enclosure should be at least as long as the snake and at least three quarters as wide. For active species the enclosure should be twice those dimensions. (Large constrictors such as Burmese pythons and venomous species are best observed at zoos and museums.)

Aquariums are the usual choice of enclosure although you can buy custom enclosures, some with sliding glass fronts that make it easier to feed and handle the animal. For all but arboreal snakes (those that climb trees), the height of the enclosure is not a concern. But snakes climb glass walls with ease and are strong enough to push open covers that are not clipped down. The same sizes of enclosures will also serve two snakes but the snakes will have to be separated when fed to keep them from latching onto the same piece of food.

The furnishings of the enclosure can be simple for most pet species: a newspaper substrate, a hidebox big enough for the snake to retreat to and water bowl. For specialized species, there are other considerations. A rough green snake, for example, must have a planted moist terrarium; a green tree python requires a high perching site; a sand boa must have a substrate deep enough for it to be able to bury itself.

Newspaper works well as a substrate for all except those that live in the water or need sand in which to burrow. It is easy to replace and cheap. Larger animals such as reticulated pythons are best kept on bare floors, which can be hosed down. Snakes from watery habitats must have a place to dry off or they will develop "blister disease."

Heat and Light

Your pet must be able to thermoregulate which means it must be able to choose from a range of temperatures. Most species require an ambient temperature of 77 to 87 degrees Fahrenheit, with access to warmer areas, such as a spot under an incandescent light bulb. At night, heat without light can be provided by infrared bulbs, a heat pad or ceramic heater, all available at pet stores.

The day/night cycle is important for health and breeding and should be synchronized with a timer to the daily cycle of your pet's natural habitat. (Breeding snakes may require specialized heating and cooling cycles.)

In contrast to many other reptiles, snakes do not appear to require ultraviolet light for vitamin D3 synthesis, so no special overhead lighting is required.

Feeding

Various snakes consume everything from frog eggs to antelopes, but the commonly kept species do well on a weekly feeding of pre-killed mice or rats, which may be purchased frozen at pet shops. Large specimens may require a pre-killed rabbit every 2 to 4 weeks, while insectivorous species such as the ring-necked snake need two to three meals of crickets per week. The size of the meal depends upon the size of the snake or, more precisely, the size of its head, which is pretty much the size of its stomach. Do not feed snakes food that is too large. Although they may take it, it can overextend their stomachs and may cause them to regurgitate. Be aware that your pet may bite if it smells rodent scent on your hands or clothing.

Food insects should be coated with a vitamin supplement each week but do not give supplements to snakes consuming rodents. Snakes favoring fish, such as watersnakes, should not be fed solely goldfish. For reasons as yet unknown, a diet of goldfish will not suffice. So snakes should receive other vertebrate prey such as minnows or shiners to avoid a vitamin B deficiency. Juveniles should receive small, whole animals such as pinky mice, as opposed to pieces of larger items. Most snakes will drink from a bowl, but arboreal species such as the emerald tree boa, prefer to drink from sprayed droplets or a drip system.

Veterinary Care

Arrange for veterinary care before you purchase the animal for it is often difficult to find a vet experienced with snakes. New animals should be given a fecal exam and checked for mites and ticks. Common maladies include mouthrot, which appears as a bubbling at the mouth, and pneumonia, which appears as a froth at the nostrils.

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