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Choosing a Honduran Milk Snake

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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Called milk snakes due to the fable that they milk cows, Honduran milk snakes, are secretive and powerful constrictors that can attain a length of up to four feet. They are primarily terrestrial and are nervous creatures that can be difficult to handle.

Hatchlings can be feisty, striking and biting when only minimally provoked. Adults are usually less apt to bite, but often squirm strongly and void the contents of their cloaca when restrained. Despite those drawbacks, the Honduran milk snake's brilliant coloration, ready availability and very wide range of costs, make this hardy snake a hobbyist favorite.

Honduran milk snakes occur in several natural colors and patterns, all variations of red or tangerine and black rings. There are also captive bred in many designer colors and patterns. Hatchlings are usually quite like the adults they will become, but a few of the designer phases alter patterns with growth.

Origin and Life Span

The Honduran milk snake is one of the Central American representatives of the common milk snake. Naturally variable in color and pattern, it has become an easily bred hobbyist's favorite. It's life span in captivity may exceed 20 years.

Appearance

At hatching, Honduran milk snakes are about a foot-long. If properly cared for, they can grow to full length in the first two years of their life. The usual adult size of this snake is 2.5 to 3.5 feet, but they occasionally top four feet in total length.

Naturally of variable pattern, Honduran milk snakes have smooth (non-keeled) scales and a head that is not much wider than the neck. Wild specimens may be ringed in black and red (bicolored phase), black, red, and white (tricolored phase), or a beautiful tangerine and black (tangerine phase).

Herpetoculturists have now developed albinos, patterns that diminish with age, pinstripes and many others. It seems as if new morphs appear with each passing year.

Housing

Since the Honduran milk snake is essentially terrestrial, an average sized specimen requires a minimum floor space of 12 by 30 inches – the size of a 20-gallon long aquarium.

The tank should have a substrate of newspaper, packing corrugate, paper towels, dry leaves 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. If the cage substrate is damp, this snake may develop blister disease.

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, your 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 snake 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 75 and 80 degrees at night. Heat only one end of the tank to provide a thermal gradient.

These 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.

Honduran milk 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

Like the kingsnakes, milk snakes eat a wide variety of prey. Captives are usually fed a diet exclusively of rodents, but in the wild this snake has a varied diet. Besides rodents and insectivorous mammals, they will also eat snake eggs, other snakes, frogs and lizards. The prey is killed by constriction.

Milk snakes have an amazing resistance to the debilitating effects of the poison of venomous snakes, and may include these in their diet.

An adult milk snake will eat one or two good-sized mice a week. You can tell whether your snake is hungry by watching its movements. A Honduran milk snake 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 to, or even the death of your snake. We suggest that only pre-killed prey be offered.

Behavior

Honduran milk snakes are hardy, reasonably gentle, but difficult to hold. Some, when held, have a disconcerting habit of slowly and gently exploring your fingers or soft portions of your hand with their snout, then deliberately biting and chewing.

Hatchlings are often more apt to bite than adults. We have not found a great difference in the disposition between wild-collected and captive-bred examples. With gentle and frequent handling, this snake may tame somewhat. Newly captured specimens, or those otherwise frightened, may defecate on their captor.

Although they can climb, the Honduran milk snake is essentially a terrestrial snake. They are secretive, but may occasionally emerge from beneath boulders or surface debris to bask. They are especially secretive when preparing to shed their skin.

Because of their cannibalistic tendencies, Honduran milk snakes should be housed separately. Captives must be provided with one or more cage-bottom hiding areas.

Handling

Handling these nervous snakes soon after they eat may cause them to regurgitate their meal. This is especially true if that meal was large. Do not lift the snakes for a few days after they have eaten. Baby milk snakes and those preparing to shed may strike or 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. By gently lifting your milk snake several times daily, it may become accustomed to being handled.

Grasping your snake by its neck will frighten it and cause it to whip to and fro. Instead, slide one hand under it about a third of the way rearward from the head, the other hand about a quarter of the way forward from the tail tip, and holding it loosely, lift the animal slowly. If not startled or frightened, the snake will probably hold you. Keep it away from your face.

Medical Concerns

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

Rodent bites can be very serious. 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 if the cage temperature changes radically, especially if humidity is high or the cage is damp.

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

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