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Choosing a Garter Snake

By: PetPlace Staff

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In one species or another, garter snakes (often referred to as "gardener snakes") may be found over much of North America. Some species are quite bland in color, others are spectacularly beautiful. These easily kept snakes are good beginner species.

Garter snakes, like every other snake species, have their good points and their bad points. In their favor, they are fairly small (usually 3 feet or less), eat a wide variety of food, are readily available and hardy.

On the negative side, garter snakes are nervous, may bite, will smear cloacal contents on a careless handler, emit a pungent musk, and, if kept only slightly too damp, are prone to skin disorders.

Appearance

Although the basic garter snake is a yellow-striped black serpent, some may be red and black or checkered. All of these various colors and patterns may occur in just a single subspecies. The garter snakes most often seen in captivity comprise the various races of the eastern garter snake. This garter snake is actually found along all three coasts and well into the interior of the country.

The various garter snakes are slender and active, and are related to water snakes. They are non-constrictors that are often found along the banks of lakes (or other watercourses) or in moist woodlands. They have strongly keeled scales and a rather narrow head. No matter the species, most examples have either a distinctly striped pattern or are strongly checkered. Besides the normal dark colors, hobbyists have established albino strains. Recently, the vermilion (flame morph) of the eastern garter snake has made its debut. This latter is so brilliantly colored that it is actually gaudy.

The usual adult size of this snake is 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 feet, but it occasionally barely tops 4 feet in total length.

Behavior

With persistent gentle handling, garter snakes can be tamed. In fact, many can be handled immediately with no show of bad temper. However, a few will strike energetically whenever disturbed, resisting taming for some time. Some, when held, have a disconcerting habit of writhing rapidly and smearing cloacal contents on the hand that is holding them. Many emit a pungent musk when frightened.

Although they can climb, the garter snake is essentially a terrestrial or partially aquatic snake. They are alert and quickly move to safety when they are approached. During times of moderate temperatures, garter snakes are primarily diurnal in their activity patterns. However, when temperatures become uncomfortably hot, garter snakes change their lifestyle and become crepuscular and nocturnal.

Many garter snakes will bite and, although they are designated harmless snakes, considerable swelling has occurred at some bite sites.

Feeding

Most species of garter snakes eat a variety of foods but others are quite specialized. For example, while the various races of the eastern garter snake eat worms, frogs, toads, salamanders, fish, gastropods, probably some insects and, in the west, nestling rodents, the diet of the short-headed garter snake seems to consist primarily of earthworms. The various ribbon snakes may hold out for minnows, tadpoles and small frogs.

The diet of captive garter snakes also varies by species. Most live long lives on minnows, earthworms and an occasional slug.

Handling

It is better not to handle your garter snakes for a day or two after they have eaten. This is especially true if the snake is nervous and the meal was large. If handled too soon after eating, they may regurgitate. Garter snakes (including ribbon snakes) are nervous, and will usually try to quickly wriggle away from an approaching hand. If carelessly restrained, even long-term captive garter snakes may bite. This is especially true if they are preparing to shed their skin.

Ribbon snakes (these are also garter snakes) seldom bite. Baby garter snakes may be especially nervous about being handled. Garter snakes are more tolerant of slow movements. Like most snakes, they typically shy away from movements from above, but are somewhat less wary of movements from the side. Approach your snake slowly and from the side. When you are trying to accustom your garter snake to being handled, we suggest gently lifting it frequently (once or twice daily) until it becomes used to the procedure. Many will soon tame. Do not grasp your snake by its neck. Rather, restrain it gently at about mid body. Use your other hand to support the rear of the snake. Keep the snake away from your face.

Housing

At birth, garter snakes vary from about 5 1/2 inches to 8 inches in total length. If properly cared for, they can attain about half of their growth in a year and adult size in about 2 1/2 years. When captive, these snakes may be active at any time of the day or night.

Since they are essentially terrestrial, the minimum floor space for one or two adults should be 12 by 30 inches (the size of a 20-gallon-long aquarium) but, of course, if the cage is larger the snakes will utilize the extra space. Cage furniture such as cork bark or other commercial hides should be provided. Be sure no furniture can shift or topple and injure your snake. The terrarium or cage must be tightly covered with a top that will lock in place.

A substrate of newspaper, packing corrugate, paper towels, dry leaves or dry mulch can be used. Be sure that the snakes cannot come in contact with a bare bulb or ceramic heating unit. Under-cage heaters can also be used. A cage temperature of 72 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit at nights and 82 to 88 F during days will suffice.

A shallow dish of fresh water, large enough for the snake to coil and immerse in, must always be available.

Common Diseases and Disorders

Although garter snakes are very hardy, sickness or injury is always possible.

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

  • 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 if the cage temperature changes radically, especially if humidity is high or the cage is damp.

  • Garter snakes are quite susceptible to blister disease. This can occur if the cage is too wet, and especially if the cage is both wet and dirty.

  • Improper shedding (retained eyecaps, etc.) may occasionally occur if your snake is not properly hydrated or if the cage humidity is too low.

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