Owning a Pet Snake

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

There are approximately 2,500 different species of snakes. Several species are commonly kept as pets, including king snakes, rat snakes, garter snakes, corn snakes, various pythons (particularly ball pythons and Burmese pythons), and various boa constrictors (especially the red tail boa constrictor).

The needs of one species may differ from those of another, so be sure to discuss specific questions with a knowledgeable herpetologist (someone who studies reptiles and amphibians) or a veterinarian familiar with reptiles.

Different species of snakes live in different temperatures and different humidity zones around the world. It is important to familiarize yourself with the proper cage temperature and humidity setting needed for the particular snake you have.

Most of the commonly kept snakes eat small rodents for food. Larger constrictor snakes, like adult Burmese and reticulated pythons, may consume small rabbits. Live animals should not be fed as they can cause serious wounds to your snake during a struggle.

Most snakes sold as pets are easy to handle and are usually not aggressive. However, certain species of snakes commonly kept by serious reptile collectors have a naturally aggressive nature, such as reticulated pythons and green tree pythons. These species do not often appear in the general pet trade, and are not typically available in pet stores.

"Lack of appetite can be a normal reaction to stress, but if prolonged, it may be a sign of a more serious problem that requires prompt veterinary attention."

Some snakes, especially the ball python, may not eat for weeks to months after the stress of going to a new home and new environment. Some pythons and constrictors do not eat during the winter months, as their body’s metabolism naturally slows down during this time. Lack of appetite can be a normal reaction to stress, but if prolonged, it may be a sign of a more serious problem that requires prompt veterinary attention.

Ideally, only captive-bred animals should be sold as pets. Wild-caught snakes are less tolerant of stress, more likely to refuse food, and often harbor higher numbers of internal and external parasites.

Male and female snakes look identical for most species. Your veterinarian can carefully probe the snake’s vent (opening to the cloaca) with a special instrument to determine the sex of your pet. Snake sexing should only be performed by an individual trained in this procedure, as the snake may be injured by an inexperienced person probing.

Corn snakes, king snakes and garter snakes may reach a length of 3-6 feet at adulthood. Hatchling ball pythons are about a foot long and grow to about 3 feet by 3 years of age. At maturity (reached in 3-5 years), adults reach 5-6 feet in length. Ball pythons can live 10-20 years, depending on their care. Some python species can reach a length of 20 feet at maturity.

How do snakes differ anatomically from other pets?

  • A snake's skin is covered in leathery scales. Contrary to popular misconception, snakes are not slimy: the skin is smooth, often shiny, and dry to the touch. Snakes are ectotherms (their body temperature is determined by their environmental temperature), so the temperature of their skin reflects the surrounding temperature, and if the surrounding temperature is cold, their skin feels wet and cool.
  • Snakes have coverings over their eyelids called spectacles, instead of eyelids, and their eyes are open all the time.
  • Snakes shed their skin every few weeks as they grow. A healthy snake in a healthy environment sheds its old skin in one piece (from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail). If pieces of old skin are retained on the body after a shed, your veterinarian should check the snake to ensure there is no underlying infection or problem with inadequate humidity.
  • Since snakes are ectotherms, they are dependent on external or environmental sources of heat to maintain their own body heat.
  • Most snakes have only one functional, simple lung—usually the right lung; the other lung is smaller or completely absent. Boas and pythons are the exception to this rule, as they have two lungs. The lung can occupy much of the snake's body between the heart and the hind end. Snakes have no diaphragm (the muscle that separates the chest and the abdomen in mammals), so they move the muscles of the ribs and body wall to pump air in and out of the lungs. Without a diaphragm, they cannot cough or clear their airways of mucus. As a result, snakes with simple respiratory infections may develop pneumonia.
  • Snakes swallow their food whole. All species are carnivores, and their diet depends on the species of snake. Some specifically eat warm-blooded prey like rodents, rabbits, or birds, while others eat insects, amphibians (frogs and toads), eggs, other reptiles, fish, earthworms, or slugs.
  • Snakes have a cloaca, a chamber at the hind end of the snake, into which the urinary, digestive, and reproductive tracts all empty. The cloaca empties to the outside through the vent found on the snake’s underside, at the base of the tail. They defecate, urinate, and reproduce through the cloaca. By inserting a special probe carefully in the cloacal area, a knowledgeable veterinarian can determine the sex of the snake.
  • Snakes have no limbs, but it has been suggested that the two spurs that are present on either side of the vent on boas and pythons represent vestigial limbs.
  • Snakes have numerous pairs of ribs running the length of their body.
  • Snakes have three-chambered hearts, whereas mammals and birds have four-chambered hearts.
  • Males have two reproductive organs, called hemipenes, which are found just inside the vent.

How do I select a snake?

Most owners buy snakes locally from pet stores or reptile shows, although mail ordering from reptile breeders is also common. If you buy a pet through the mail, make sure you know what you are getting! It is better to see the animal before you purchase it. Ask about a guarantee if the pet does not turn out to be what you want or is not healthy. Snakes are also available for adoption from some animal shelters or rescue groups. Your new snake should be kept separate from other pet snakes for one month, to observe for signs of illness.

Young, captive-raised animals make the best pets. Older, imported, wild-caught animals are harder to tame, may harbor more internal and external parasites, and often suffer illness from the stress in captivity.

Start out right with a healthy pet. Avoid snakes that appear skinny or bony, have loose skin or sunken eyes, and seem inactive or lethargic. A healthy snake is usually bright, active, and alert. The eyes should be clear. Cloudy eyes may indicate that the snake is about to shed. While not a sign of illness, shedding is very stressful for snakes, and they often do not eat when they are shedding. It is best not to purchase a snake that is about to shed.

"A healthy snake is usually bright, active, and alert."

Check around the snakes’ eyes and under its scales for mites, which look like tiny black dots that move when touched. Make sure no lumps or bumps are present and there are no sores or discolorations on the skin. Simply running your hands slowly down the snake's body will allow you to detect any swellings. The vent should be clean and free of wetness or stool stuck to it. If possible, gently open the mouth. There should be a small amount of clear saliva present and a pink tongue. Large amounts of cloudy-looking mucus, cottage cheese-like material, or red, bloody, or bruised gums is a sign of mouth infection.

My snake looks healthy. Does he really need to see a veterinarian?

Within one week of your purchase, your snake should be examined by a qualified reptile veterinarian. The veterinary visit typically includes determining the animal's weight, as well as checking for abnormalities such as lumps, bumps, or signs of external parasites. The reptile is examined for signs of dehydration and malnutrition. The mouth is examined for signs of infection (called stomatitis). A microscopic analysis of the feces is done to check for intestinal parasites.

Many veterinarians consider all snakes (even those bred in captivity) to have intestinal parasites and may recommend routine antiparasitic treatment. Vaccines are not required for snakes. Your veterinarian may recommend blood tests, cultures, or X-rays to check for other diseases if the snake appears unhealthy.

Like all pets, snakes should be examined at least annually, and a fecal examination, looking for parasites, should be part of every examination.

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