Snakes are interesting pets that can provide a source of enjoyment for their owners, and like all animals, have certain requirements for a happy, healthy life. Of course, there are some snake species whose venomous nature, large size, or aggressive temperament makes them dangerous. While pythons and boas are not venomous, certain varieties can grow beyond 12-15 feet and weigh up to 300 lbs. Additionally, the owner should understand that many adult snakes of these breeds need considerable care, including large enclosures with an associated greater amount of clean-up time. Many species can live to be 20-30 years old. Potential snake owners should realize that all snakes are masters of escape and should be kept in fully secure enclosures for their sake and others’.
Note: This work confers generalized principles in keeping more commonly owned tropical snake species, and should not be used as a definitive guide for all species. Any potential pet owner should thoroughly research the animal before obtaining it.
Housing: There are a variety of enclosures and types of “set-up” that are used for keeping snakes, but they all must have certain characteristics. The enclosure should be easy to clean, have adequate room for the snake to move around, provide proper ventilation, and be free of sharp points or edges. Glass aquariums are the most commonly used enclosures for pet snakes.
This author recommends that each snake should have a hide-box, or place into which it can retreat from sight. Remember that this hiding place should be constructed so that the owner can easily remove the snake from it. A hiding place can greatly reduce stress for the snake, ultimately leading to a longer, happier life. Some reptile enthusiasts provide branches in their enclosures for arboreal snakes; this is not necessary for terrestrial species. As far as substrates are concerned, this author prefers newspaper, as it is very safe (non-toxic) and inexpensive. Some wood shavings such as cedar contain aromatic oils that can irritate the snake’s respiratory tract.
Diet and feeding: Pythons and boas are most commonly fed rodents, with the size and number of the prey items depending on the size of the snake itself. The smallest snakes eat “pinkies”, “fuzzies”, or “hoppers”, which are different developmental stages of mice or rats. Larger snakes are generally fed adult rodents, rabbits, or occasionally chickens. By far the best type of prey is to use are whole animals that have been pre-killed. Frozen pre-killed animals can be bought in bulk and stored easily. Using pre-killed, frozen prey has many advantages. It is more convenient and less expensive to buy this food in bulk and store it in a freezer. There are theories that freezing prey can kill parasites or bacteria that may be passed from the prey to the snake. Most importantly, live rodents, especially rats, can bite and scratch the snake, causing severe damage and even death, regardless of the snake’s size. Never leave live prey and a snake in an unsupervised enclosure. Warming frozen prey involves placing it in a plastic bag before soaking the bag in hot water. (This allows the prey item’s temperature to approximate body temperature while keeping it dry and maintaining its natural scent.) Feeding the snake in an enclosure other than its cage helps keep the snake from thinking it is going to be fed each time someone comes to handle it. Moving the prey by use of tongs may help it to appear alive to the snake.
Temperature: The average daytime temperature of the enclosure for these snakes should be in the range of 83-87°F, while the nighttime temperature should be 73-78°F. There should also be a portion of the cage designated as the “basking area” with a temperature range from 90-97°F. The ambient temperature of the enclosure can be adjusted and maintained by using under the tank heating mats and heat lamps together. (This system creates a temperature gradient within the enclosure, and allows the snake to move between warmer and cooler areas). AVOID “hot-rocks” as they can cause severe burns. Temperature monitoring should be done definitively by using a quality thermometer. One commonly used model can be purchased at Radio Shack (indoor/outdoor model). The classic “rainbow” aquarium sticker thermometers are not accurate enough for these purposes.
Water: Any pet should be provided with clean drinking water at all times. The water should be changed immediately if the snake has defecated in the bowl. Otherwise, it should be changed every 1-3 days. Many snakes enjoy soaking in their water bowls, which helps to keep the snake well hydrated and assists with the snake’s shedding. Larger water bowls also help keep humidity levels within normal ranges within the enclosure.
Lighting: It is not clear at this time whether snakes have definitive needs for natural sunlight, or specific parts of the light spectrum to carry out life processes. It is known that many other types of reptiles do have such needs. Therefore, it would be logical to think that snakes would have this requirement as well. This author recommends that a snake be provided with a UV-B bulb (2%) for 4-8 hours per day. Generally UV-B bulbs lose their ability to provide this part of the spectrum after about 6 months, so they need to be changed regularly.
Socialization: If you desire a pet that is easier to handle, you should dedicate a regular amount of time towards spending time with it. This activity allows the snake to become used to being touched. However, it is likely that most reptiles do not “enjoy” being handled, but tolerate it as long as it is a stress-free activity.
General health: Because reptiles can carry a variety of infectious agents, it is highly recommended that any new reptile be quarantined from the rest of the collection for 2-3 months before introducing them to the established animals.
Preventive Care: Just like other pets, it is recommended that snakes receive regular veterinary care. A complete physical examination is recommended every 6-12 months. A fecal examination to screen for possible parasitic infection is recommended each year. Blood tests are recommended every 1-3 years. Speak to your veterinarian about any health care concerns you may have about your pet.