Housing Your Snake
R.D. and Patti Bartlett
Captive snakes can thrive and breed in either lush cages or spartan quarters, but the aim in all cases is to provide a healthy, secure and absolutely escape-proof environment. Some species do, of course, have more specific caging necessities. Terrestrial snake species, for example, do well in horizontally oriented cages but we urge you to consider vertically oriented terraria for arboreal species. Glass aquaria are available in horizontal or vertical "high-cube" styles. Terrestrial snakes do well in horizontal tanks while vertical tanks are excellent for arboreal species.
Captive snakes must have dry cages, and they must be absolutely clean. Even species such as ribbon and water snakes, forms that are usually associated with aquatic habitats in the wild, require dryness in captivity so they don't develop skin disorders. In the wild, the onset of these potentially fatal illnesses is deterred by long basking periods in unfiltered sunlight.
A terrarium may be as simple as a converted aquarium fish tank or a plastic shoe, sweater or blanket box (all available in hardware and department stores). It will often contain nothing more than an absorbent substrate of folded newspaper, paper towels or aspen shavings, a water bowl that won't tip and a box in which your snake can hide. The suitability of these conditions is reflected in the tens of thousands of rat, king and gopher snakes and many others that are bred in them annually.
Tips on the Tank
Be sure that your set-up has a secure top. Loose tops can be secured with tape or velcro strips. Locking plastic or metal-framed screen lids are available in sizes to fit most standard aquaria.
If you use plastic caging, you must provide ventilation by drilling holes through the sides. We prefer ventilation on at least two sides but usually ventilate all four sides. If an aridland species is being kept, we ventilate the top as well to prevent a build up in humidity.
If you are handy, you can build your own tank up to a capacity of several hundred gallons by joining panes of glass with silicone aquarium sealant. Hold the glass in place with strips of tape while the sealant is curing (about 24 hours). The most important thing when using the sealant is to make absolutely certain that the edges of the glass that are to be sealed are entirely free of oils or any other debris that could prevent the aquarium sealant from forming a tight seal.
The Substrate and Cleaning
The substrate is the material that lines the bottom of the tank so that your snake rests on something more natural and comfortable than glass. It can range from a layer of paper towels to several inches of smooth sand into which a snake can burrow. Other acceptable materials include newspaper, rolled corrugate, aspen shavings, cypress bark mulch and dry leaves. We use those of live oak. Do not use cedar shavings or aromatic wood shavings.
The substrate also serves as the repository of your snake's waste and should be removed and replaced whenever the snake eliminates. It is a good idea to clean the entire tank at the same time. Acceptable cleansers include alcohol-based glass cleaners, mild soap and water, dilute Clorox® solution and dilute Roccal® solution. Do not use phenol-based cleansers, such as pine cleansers.
It is important to provide the most natural surroundings possible. Cage furnishings figure prominently. The term cage furniture covers virtually all cage decorations, whether a simple wooden snag, an inverted cardboard hidebox (usually referred to simply as a "hide"), a growing plant or a plastic vine.
Firmly anchored, sizable limbs are particularly important to arboreal and semi-arboreal snakes. Limbs, cut to the exact inside length of the terrarium can be secured at any level with thick "U-shaped" beads of silicone aquarium sealant that have been placed on the aquarium glass. Merely slide the limb downward into the open top of the U until the limb rests securely in place.
Snakes also use large tank-bottom logs and rocks, but these must be positioned so they can't shift and hurt the snakes.
Providing Hiding Spots
If snakes are nothing else, they are secretive. Most spend a good deal of time in, adjacent to or beneath cover of some kind. Captive snakes seldom outgrow the need to hide. Burrowing snakes spend their time beneath substrate, arboreal snakes seek clumps of leaves or other visual barriers, and other snakes seek surface hiding areas of some sort.
Snakes prefer to coil in hiding areas that seem barely big enough to contain them. A suitable hidebox may make the difference between a nervous snake eating or not eating. If forced to stay in the open some snakes will become stressed and refuse to eat. This is especially true if the snake's cage is in a heavily trafficked area and the inhabitant is one of the more nervous species.
There can be no hidebox more inexpensive, readily available and readily replaceable than a small cardboard box with an access hole cut in one side. Commercial hides are available from pet stores. These may be preformed plastic "caves" or combination cave-water dishes, artificial stone pools and others.
Cork bark in tubes and other various shapes also makes excellent hides. Parakeet and cockatiel nesting boxes are readily accepted by most species of rat snakes, small pythons and semi-arboreal boas. However, unless these boxes have a hinged or removable side they are very difficult to clean. Hollowed cactus skeletons laid on the cage floor are also readily accepted by many small snakes.
Some materials are not suitable for use in a hidebox. These include cedar and other phenol exuding wood.
Lighting and Heating
Snakes use outside sources of heat and coolness to regulate their body temperatures. They warm themselves by basking in radiating heat or beneath an already warmed rock. Captive snakes warm themselves by lying on a surface heated by a bulb or above a heating pad or heating tape.
Ceramic heating units that screw into a light socket are now readily available. These and incandescent light bulbs must be screened so the snake cannot come in contact with them. Make certain your heating unit is thermostatically controlled and cannot overheat the snake.
We do not recommend electric hot rocks because they are so prone to malfunction.
Snakes must also be able to cool themselves. Provide thermal gradients by heating only one end of the terrarium. In small tanks, we put the hidebox on the cool end of the tank; if the tank is sufficiently large, we put a hidebox on both ends.
Snakes do not absolutely require UV emitting lighting, but some will bask for hours in it if available.
Water and Cage Humidity
Proper cage humidity is very important to the well being of a snake. Cage ventilation and water bowl size and placement can help you alter humidity somewhat. To increase humidity place a large water bowl over an undertank heater and put a solid cover on the top of the terrarium. To decrease humidity provide a small water bowl in the coolest spot in the cage and provide a screen top.
Aridland species drink and soak less often and require less humidity than woodland or rainforest species. In fact, if humidity is too high, aridland snakes will languish. Many successful breeders of these species suggest providing water to the more humidity-sensitive species only one or two days a week. Conversely, species from humid areas will have shedding problems if the humidity is too low.
If your snake is preparing to shed its skin, keep a water dish in the cage at all times large enough to allow your snake to soak.