Keeping Your Snake Healthy
R.D. and Patti Bartlett
If you want a healthy snake, start out with a healthy snake then strive to keep it that way. If you provide your snake with a suitable cage, cleanliness, water and proper humidity, proper diet and temperatures, snakes are not difficult keep healthy. If we can anthropomorphize a little, they are probably also happy.
Most health problems seen in snakes can be traced to improper husbandry and stressful situations. Let's take a look at a few of the things you may do to help you succeed with your snake, be it your first or tenth.
Before choosing your snake, first determine how much space you have for a cage, what foods are readily available and what cage temperatures you can most easily maintain. You must also learn about state and local laws and consider how much experience you have in keeping snakes. All these criteria will ultimately figure into your ability to keep a snake healthy.
Caging Your Snake
If you have room only for a cage the size of a 20-gallon-long terrarium (12 inches by 12 inches by 30 inches), don't get a baby boa or Burmese python that will quickly outgrow the cage. Instead, opt for a California kingsnake, a Honduran milk snake, corn snake or garter snake. Any of these could live out their long lives in a 20-gallon tank.
Conversely, if you want to make a custom cage with a bottom space the size of a piece of plywood (4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet) and with a height of 2.5 feet or higher, you could certainly house a Colombian boa or a larger snake. If you have room for a vertically-oriented tank with a height of 2.5 or more feet but only a floor space of, let's say, 12 inches by 24 inches, you might opt for an arboreal species such as a tree boa or a green tree python.
Heating and Lighting
Lighting your terrarium will help you observe your snake, and incandescent bulbs can provide necessary heat as well. This might be helpful if you live in a cooler area. In a very hot region or home environment, you may opt for cooler fluorescent lighting.
Cages and terraria can also be warmed by the prudent use of undertank heaters or by ceramic heat coils that fit an incandescent light socket. Because malfunctioning "hot rocks" have caused so many burns to snakes, we do not advocate the use of these.
Overheating can kill or debilitate a snake as surely as overly cold temperatures. Use care when supplying heat and provide thermal gradients within the terrarium by heating only one end. This will allow the snake to utilize the temperature that suits it at the moment.
What is too hot or too cold will vary according to the species. In general, the hot end of the tank should not exceed 88 to 92 degrees Fahrenheit and, unless your snake is a temperate species undergoing a winter cooling or hibernation, the cool end should not be below 70 F. A good temperature range for most snakes is 88 to 75 F at the hot and cool ends of the tank respectively. Terraria for temperate snakes can be allowed to drop a few additional degrees at night.
If cage temperatures fluctuate rapidly and widely, your snake may develop respiratory illness. This is especially so if cage humidity is high or the substrate is wet and cold. Since many snakes have only a single functional lung, respiratory distress of any manner can be a very serious – even fatal – malady. Excessive sneezing, wheezing, rasping or bubbling all indicate the need to correct your husbandry, elevate cage temperatures to 90 to 95 F, and to seek the help of a reptile qualified veterinarian.
Proper humidity is also key. A shovel-nosed snake or a rosy boa kept in a perpetually humid cage will rapidly show a health decline and, unless husbandry is changed, will die. Aridland snakes kept too humid often develop a chronic and difficult-to-correct regurgitation syndrome. Lower the cage humidity, feed smaller meals and consult a reptile-oriented veterinarian.
Humidity can be lowered by keeping the terrarium in an air-conditioned or otherwise dehumidified room and by allowing an airflow through the terrarium. As long as a constant supply of drinking water is available, a snake from humid regions kept in a tank with too low of a humidity is at slightly less of a disadvantage. One of the first signs that problems do exist may be the snake's inability to shed its skin properly. Cage humidity can be raised by providing a larger waterbowl, by sitting the waterbowl atop the undertank heating unit (if one is used) and by partially covering the terrarium top with plastic.
Virtually all of the humidity-related problems can be avoided by keeping a snake that is naturally adapted to the area in which you live.
Cage cleanliness is also an important factor in the well being of any snake. A damp cage, and particularly a damp and dirty cage will quickly lead to skin lesions and can cause sufficient debilitation to allow a proliferation of related problems.
Although cleanliness is of paramount importance, how, and with what the cleaning is achieved, is equally important. Snakes are susceptible to phenols, so don't use any pine-oil cleansing agent. Instead, use a dilute solution of Clorox® or Roccal® (for which snakes have a relatively great tolerance). Be sure to rinse and dry the cage well. Glass can be cleaned with nearly any alcohol-based window cleaning solution, but it should then be rinsed with pure water and dried as well.
The health of a captive snake can be severely compromised by its owner doing what may seem to be the most natural thing in the world - feeding it a live prey animal. In the confines of a cage, mice, rats and other rodents often turn the tables, becoming the aggressor rather than the prey. With their sharp teeth, rodents have caused innumerable disfiguring injuries and even the death of the snakes - including big, normally aggressive snakes - that were supposed to eat them. It is always best to feed pre-killed prey to your snakes.
Although most snakes can swallow comparatively immense meals, the larger the meal, the more apt it is to be regurgitated if the snake is stressed in any manner. Dehydration, fear, handling and only slightly adverse temperatures are just a few of the things that can induce regurgitation. More meals of smaller prey are definitely better and less apt to be regurgitated.
Keeping a snake well hydrated is a necessity and, unexpectedly, doing so can be a challenge. Many arboreal snakes do not recognize dishes of standing water as a drinking source. In nature they drink droplets of dew that condense on their body coils or pendulous droplets of rain from the leaves. Droplets spattering in a rain-filled tree crotch will also get their attention.
As captives, tree boas, green tree pythons, many tree vipers, the red-tailed green rat snake and others will drink droplets from the leaves and their coils when their terrarium is misted. They will also drink from elevated water dishes when the water is roiled by an aeration stone attached to a small aquarium pump. Some arboreal snakes will eventually learn to drink from a standard water dish but never take this for granted.
It seems that many desert snakes metabolize much of their water needs from the food they eat, but most will drink opportunistically when water is available. To provide ample water yet to not create excessive humidity can be problematic in humid areas or in cages with poor circulation. To lessen the cage humidity, you may choose to provide water for desert snakes only every second day.
Giant snakes will need a bathtub-sized water receptacle in which they can coil and soak as well as drink. Since these snakes often defecate in their water, the receptacle must be easily drained, easily cleaned and frequently sterilized.