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Choosing a Yellow Rat Snake

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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Yellow rat snakes, Elaphe obsolete quadrivittata, make fine pets – once they are accustomed to being handled and you get used to dealing with a snake that can, and will, bite.

Yellow rat snakes with ordinary coloration usually are inexpensive and most often available from neighborhood pet shops. The cost varies from about $10 for a hatchling to $45 for an adult. Albinos, and occasionally other color variants, are captive-bred. They are most often available in the early summer soon after the eggs hatch. The cost of these snakes ranges from $75 to more than $125 each.

Origin and Life Span

The yellow rat snake is the southeastern representative of the black rat snake clan. It occurs naturally from southeastern South Carolina to the southern tip of Florida. The life span in captivity of a yellow rat snake is 17 to 20 years.

Appearance

Yellow rat snakes are pretty animals that have a variety of colorations and undergo considerable age-related color changes. The snake is also a powerful constrictor that, in the wild, easily overcomes its prey of rodents and an occasional bird. They grow to 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 feet long, although in rare cases an oldster may exceed 7 feet in total length.

Interestingly enough, the base color of the yellow rat snake ranges from dark greenish yellow in the northern part of its range to a rich yellow in southern Florida.

Hatchlings do not look like the adults. They are dark, with a ground color of gray. They have prominent dorsal blotches, about 40 of them running from nape to tailtip. Like the adults, there is a geographical north to south change from a dark to a light color. The tongue is black and the iris of the eye is usually similar to the body in color.

Adult yellow rat snakes lose the blotches and develop stripes. They have weakly keeled scales (a keel is a longitudinal ridge on a scale) that may range in ground color from greenish (northernmost specimens), through olive-yellow (central specimens), to a rather bright yellow (southernmost specimens). Typically, they have four well-defined broad stripes. The stripes are olive-brown to nearly black in specimens from the central area of the range; poorly defined, but dark, on northern specimens; and narrower and lighter in color in southern specimens. The belly is very similar in color to the back and may have dark smudging.

Housing

Captive yellow rat snakes need at least a 20-gallon terrarium with climbing branches, a hide box and sunning area. They will make use of elevated perches, and will seclude themselves in substrate-level hiding areas (curved cork bark or other commercial hide boxes) or at the cage top in a secured nest box. The snake also may coil up in its water dish.

Yellow rat snakes start out as foot-long babies, but can grow to 6 feet long in the first two years of their life. They need room, places to climb and hide and a heating element and basking lamp to provide proper temperatures.

Yellow rat snakes are good climbers, but spend considerable time on the ground. Provide cage furniture in the form of sizable limbs, cork bark or other commercial hides. Be sure the furniture can't shift or topple and injure your snake. The terrarium or cage must be tightly covered with a top that will lock in place. For the substrate, or floor covering, you can use newspaper, packing corrugate, paper towels, dry leaves or dry mulch.

Yellow rat snakes hide much of the time, but might come out on cool days to bask under a heat lamp. Be sure that the snakes cannot come in contact with a bare bulb or ceramic heating unit because they might burn themselves. Undercage heating pads also can be used. Cage temperatures of 72 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit at night and 82 to 88 F during the day are appropriate. Heat only one end of the tank to provide a thermal gradient.

A shallow dish of fresh water should always be available.

Feeding

Feeding a yellow rat snake is straightforward. As its common name indicates, adult yellow rat snakes eat rats, other rodents and chicks. Young yellow rat snakes may prefer treefrogs and lizards for their first several meals, although a baby yellow rat snake that was captive hatched may accept thawed pinky mice.

Although rat snakes can swallow comparatively large prey, adverse temperature fluctuations or fright can cause them to regurgitate a large meal. As a rule of thumb, the largest meal you feed your snake should not exceed the diameter of your snake's head.

Even domesticated rat snakes may bite at feeding time, so approach the snakes carefully. Although many hobbyists consider it macho to feed a snake live food, the bite of a live rodent can hurt, or even kill, your snake. It is best to feed the snake deceased prey.

Handling

Patience, persistence and care are the rule in handling a yellow rat snake – at least if you want to avoid getting bitten.

Snakes typically respond defensively to fast motion, but are tolerant of slow movements. They usually shy away from motion above them, but are less wary of movements from the side.

Do not grasp your snake by its neck. Rather, slide one hand under it about a third of the way back from the head, the other hand about a quarter of the way forward from the tail tip. Holding the snake loosely, lift it slowly. Keep it away from your face.

Snakes handled soon after eating may regurgitate their meal. Do not lift them for a few days after they have eaten.

Over time, you can get your snake accustomed to being handled without biting. When you are trying to accustom your rat snake to being handled, gently lift it frequently – once or twice a day – until it becomes used to it. If your snake strikes, allow it to settle down and try again.

Behavior

Although they may be active during the day, yellow rat snakes primarily are active at dusk and after dark.

The temperament of the yellow rat snake varies from specimen to specimen. Hatchlings often are more apt to bite than adults, and wild collected specimens are more defensive than captive-bred snakes. Even domesticated rat snakes may bite at feeding time, so approach the snakes carefully.

Common Diseases and Disorders

Yellow rat snakes can live for up to 20 years if well cared for, but they can fall prey to a variety of illnesses and injuries.

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

  • Rodent bites can be very serious. Never leave a live rodent unattended in your snake's cage.

  • 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 enclosure is damp.

  • Blister disease can occur if the cage is too wet, especially if the cage is both wet and dirty.

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