Snakes: Housing

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

What type of cage does my snake require?

You should try to provide the largest cage possible for your snake. The type of cage you set up must be appropriate for the specific needs of its species. Smaller species or juvenile snakes often do well in a 10-20 gallon aquarium, or even a plastic Rubbermaid-type container with holes cut in the top for circulation of air. As your snake grows, he/she must be moved to a more comfortable and spacious enclosure. These can be purchased commercially or built by the pet owner, using Plexiglass, glass, fiberglass, or untreated wood. It should be mentioned that wooden cages are hard to clean and thoroughly disinfect.

Feces and dried urates should be removed every 24-72 hours and the cage should be washed out weekly. Many people strive to create a vivarium or terrarium, with the goal of creating a semi-natural environment with plants, rocks and tree branches. These require a lot more work to maintain, but your pet may be "happier".

"All cages for snakes must be well-ventilated and ESCAPE PROOF..."

All cages for snakes must be well-ventilated and ESCAPE PROOF, with sealed seams and a locking, secure top. Your veterinarian or pet store may have examples of these larger enclosures to give you an idea of the proper habitat for an adult snake.

Does my snake need bedding in his cage?

Substrate, or bedding material, should be easy to clean and nontoxic to the snake. Newspaper, butcher paper, towels, or Astroturf (artificial grass) is recommended. When using Astroturf, buy two pieces and cut them to fit the bottom of the cage. With two pieces, one is placed in the cage and one is kept outside the cage, where it is clean and ready to use. As soon as the turf inside the cage becomes soiled, you can replace it with the clean, dry piece. Clean the soiled turf with ordinary soap and water (avoid harsher products unless your reptile veterinarian approves them), thoroughly rinse it, and hang it to dry, ready to be used at the next cage cleaning.

Avoid sand, gravel, wood shavings, corncob material, walnut shells, and cat litter. These substrates are not only difficult to clean, but they can also cause intestinal impaction if ingested intentionally or accidentally (if food items may become coated in the substrate). Cedar wood shavings are toxic to reptiles and must be avoided!

What else do I need in the cage?

Natural branches are enjoyed by the snake. Any natural branch must be free of insects and must not have been in contact with pesticides. Make sure the branches are secure and will not fall onto the snake and injure it. Ideally, the branch should slope from the bottom of the enclosure to the top, and should end near a heat or light source so the snake can bask. Large rocks can be placed in the cage to allow for basking, exploring, and rubbing against at the time of shedding. A safe and secure hiding place is appreciated by all reptiles. Upside-down boxes, a hollow log, a large piece of curved bark, clay pots, commercial reptile caves, or artificial vegetation make excellent hiding spots.

A large, heavy ceramic crock or bowl (that cannot be spilled easily) with fresh, clean water should be provided at all times. A good-sized dish may help maintain better humidity in the air. Some snakes enjoy soaking in this dish periodically. Many snakes eliminate in their water bowl as well as drinking from it. Water dishes should be cleaned and disinfected every 24-72 hours.

What about a source of heat?

A heat source is necessary for all reptiles. Snakes, like all reptiles, are ectotherms, also known as cold-blooded. This means that they depend on external or environmental sources of heat to maintain their body heat. They need a range of temperatures to regulate their internal body temperature. Ideally, the cage should be set up so that a heat gradient is established, with one area of the tank warmer than the other end. In this way, the snake can move around its environment and warm or cool itself as needed. It is ideal to purchase two thermometers (unbreakable ones that cannot be accidentally swallowed) and place one at the cooler end of the cage and one at the warmer end, near the heat source. If you position the thermometer at approximately the height where the animal will bask, you will know how hot it is at that position.

The temperature in the cage should mimic what the animal experiences in its native, natural environment, and should reflect the part of the world it comes from. Generally, the cooler end of the cage should be approximately 70-75ºF (21-24ºC), while the warmer end should be 90-95ºF (32-38ºC). An inexpensive way to do this is to supply a focal heat source using a 100-watt incandescent bulb with a protected reflector hood. Alternately, you can purchase other types of heat lamps and ceramic infrared heat emitters at specialty pet stores. Use these heat sources as directed. Your heat source should be placed outside the cage, located at one end of the cage and should be covered by a screened top to prevent the snake from escaping or coming in direct contact with the hot bulb. The heat source should be at least 3-4 inches from the highest spot the snake can reach in the cage. At night, heat is not necessary, as long as the temperature remains at 65-70ºF (18-21ºC).

""Hot Rocks" or "Sizzle Rocks" are dangerous, can lead to injury, are ineffective, and should be avoided."

Human grade heating pads or under-tank heat pads beneath the cage can also be used for warmth. Please speak with your veterinarian to learn the correct way to use them if you choose this form of heating. "Hot Rocks" or "Sizzle Rocks" are dangerous, can lead to injury, are ineffective, and should be avoided!

Natural humidity requirements vary geographically and seasonally. Some homes are too dry for snakes. Depending on the species, many snakes do well with humidity between 40 and 70%. Too much humidity can also be harmful and lead to health problems. Clearly, desert species require less humidity.

What about UV-B light?

The light requirements of snakes are not well understood. While UV-B light is necessary to provide vitamin D3 for most reptiles, veterinarians are divided about the need for UV light for snakes. This is because snakes consume whole prey in their diets, and the prey is nutritionally balanced for snakes. However, providing UV light would certainly not be harmful and may be beneficial, so it would probably be wise to provide some type of UV-B light such as a Vita-Lite. Speak with your local pet store or your veterinarian about the need for UV-B light for your snake. Many people try to mimic the natural seasonal change in light (photoperiod) to promote good health, balance, and to enhance breeding success.

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