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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.