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Choosing a Brown House Snake

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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Brown house snakes are rather easily handled, have good dispositions, and are easily fed. They are pretty constrictors of moderate size. Males seldom grow to more than 2.5 feet in length while females may be a bit larger. They make an excellent beginner species of snake.

Known scientifically as Lamprophis fuliginosus, the brown house snake derives its common name from its habit of approaching, and even entering, outbuildings and dwellings in search of mice. They are secretive snakes and principally nocturnal in their activity preferences.

Brown house snakes are from southern and eastern Africa. A captive longevity of more than 8 years has been recorded.

Appearance

While most of these snakes are brown, their color can be an attractive russet or terra cotta in dorsal coloration. A lovely opalescence plays over and enhances the glossiness of the scales. The belly is white. There is a light (often pink) line along the top of each eye. Besides the normal brown to red colors, both piebald and albino specimens are known. An albino strain has also been tenuously established.

House snakes have smooth (non-keeled) scales and small eyes with vertically elliptical pupils. Juvenile specimens may occasionally have obscure lateral blotches, old adults may become very dark. The pattern and color of the hatchlings is much like those of the adults.

Aberrant colors still command prices ranging in the many hundreds of dollars. In general, the brighter the color, the more expensive the price.

At hatching, brown house snakes are about 10 inches long. If properly cared for, they can attain an adult breeding size in the first year of life.

Behavior

These snakes are usually gentle. Many wild collected specimens can be handled immediately with no show of bad temper, but a few may strike until they become acclimated to captivity. Hatchlings are often more apt to bite than adults. The good news is that these are small snakes and can't do much damage even if they do bite. With gentle and frequent handling, they usually become entirely tractable.

Like other snakes, house snakes may be grumpier as they approach shedding. When your house snake displays the typical dull skin and "blue" eyes for shedding, move slowly when you open the cage. Your snake can't see well and may be nippy.

Although they can climb, brown house snakes are basically terrestrial, are nocturnal, and are secretive. Captives should be provided with one or more cage-bottom hides.

This snake is a powerful constrictor.

Housing

Since the brown house snake is essentially terrestrial, an average size specimen (24 to 36 inches) requires a minimum floor space of 12 by 30 inches – the size of a 20-gallon long aquarium. A pair of brown house snakes can be maintained in accommodations of that size.

The tank should have a substrate of newspaper, packing corrugate, paper towels, dry leaves like live oak, or dry mulch. The substrate should be removed and replaced whenever the snake eliminates. It is a good idea to clean the entire tank at the same time, washing down with window cleaner.

Snakes are ectothermic, meaning that they cannot regulate their body temperatures on their own. Instead, they rely on their environment to do that. To meet their needs, you tank should have a temperature gradient that makes it warmer on one end than on the other. There should also be a hiding spot in both the heated and cooler sections of the tank.

You can heat one end of the tank by using a heating pad that sits beneath it or by using a bare light bulb or ceramic heating unit that sits above the snake. Be sure that the snakes cannot come in contact with a bare bulb or ceramic heating unit, lest they burn themselves.

Temperatures should be between 82 and 88 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 72 and 75 degrees at night. Heat only one end of the tank to provide a thermal gradient. Winter temperatures, including that of the basking spot, can be allowed to drop a few more degrees (mid 60s night, low 80s day). A natural photoperiod is best.

These snakes are secretive animals so the tank should also be furnished with furniture such as corkbark or other commercial hides. Be sure no furniture can shift or topple and injure your snake. There should be a hiding spot in both the heated and cooler sections of the tank.

House snakes are escape artists. They will push to test the resiliency at what they think to be a weak spot in their cage so your terrarium or cage must be tightly covered with a top that will lock in place.

A shallow dish of fresh water must always be available.

Feeding

Captive brown house snakes are usually fed a diet exclusively of rodents, but in the wild they have a varied diet. Besides small mammals, they eat other reptiles, and occasionally amphibians. The prey is killed by constriction.

An adult brown house snake will eat one or two good-sized mice a week. You can tell whether your snake is hungry by watching its movements. For the most part, a brown house snake will lie still until it is ready to eat. Then it will emerge from its hiding spot to prowl its territory in search of food. When you see your snake begin to move, it is probably time to place a pre-killed mouse or two in its habitat. It is most likely to move at night.

Although many hobbyists believe it best to feed a snake live food, the bite of a live rodent, if it is not eaten immediately, or if it is gripped and constricted incorrectly by the snake, can cause injury or even the death. We suggest that only pre-killed prey be offered.

Handling

Captive hatched brown house snakes usually do not bite and are easily handled. Until acclimated, wild-collected specimens are more apt to bite. Snakes typically respond defensively to fast movements, but are tolerant of slow movements. Snakes typically shy away from movements above them, but are somewhat less wary of movements from the side. To avoid being bitten, do not handle your snake when it is preparing to shed its skin. Also approach it slowly and from the side.

When lifting your house snake slide one hand under it about a third of the way rearward from the head. The snake will most often coil around your hand. Keep it away from your face.

Handling a house snake that has recently eaten may result in the snake's regurgitating. This is especially true if the meal was large or the temperature is borderline to cool. Do not lift your snake for a few days after it has eaten.

Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling your snake or working in its terrarium to protect yourself from the possibility of contracting Salmonella, a bacteria that is often carried by reptiles and amphibians and which can cause illness in humans.

Common Diseases and Disorders

  • Thermal burns from a malfunctioning hot rock or improperly baffled bulb or ceramic heater can be serious.

  • Rodent bites can be very damaging or even fatal. We suggest that you never feed a snake a live rodent.

  • Mouth rot (infectious stomatitis) can occur if a snake's teeth are broken, the mouth lining is injured or if a struggling rodent being constricted bites the snake.

  • Respiratory distress can occur is the cage temperature changes radically, especially if humidity is high or the cage is damp.

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