Snakes in the Grass: Reptile Husbandry Misconceptions
Appropriate husbandry, including environment and nutrition, is vital to the health of any animal. However, especially for reptiles, good husbandry can mean the difference between life and death. For new snake owners, it is of the utmost importance to research the specific species being obtained.
There are many species-specific husbandry guides available, but below are a few common misconceptions about owning and caring for snakes.
- The tank has a heat lamp, so it is most likely the appropriate temperature.
Snakes are ectotherms, meaning they cannot internally regulate their body temperature. For this reason, appropriate temperature control is one of the most important aspects of caring for a snake. Each species has a specific ideal temperature range, and this should not be approximated or guessed. An appropriate snake enclosure includes at least two thermometers. Another option is to use a temperature gun, which can be used to measure the temperature of different areas of the enclosure.
2. The tank is at this species’ ideal temperature, so the environment is ideal.
More so than one specific constant temperature, most snakes require a temperature gradient.
In order to effectively thermoregulate, the snake needs to be able to choose its temperature. This means that one end of the enclosure should be cooler than the other, and the snake can decide where to spend its time. Many snakes will choose to spend some time in a warmer basking area, but need to be able to retreat to a cooler location as well. For arboreal (tree dwelling) species, this gradient should extend vertically rather than horizontally.
This gradient can be created with heat lamps, as well as heated mats under the tank. In general, heated rocks should be avoided, as snakes may obtain thermal burns if they can come in direct contact with a heat source. Lights for snakes, unlike lizards, do not need to contain UV light.
Additionally, most species require a cooler period at night, so lamps should be on a timer system. Temperature averages may also need to be altered to encourage breeding or to facilitate brumation (a period of decreased metabolic activity).
3. If my snake is naturally a desert dwelling species, it needs a very dry enclosure.
Humidity is an often overlooked environmental variable for snakes. Different species have different humidity requirements, but a humidity gradient is also important for most. Especially when shedding, snakes need access to a higher humidity area.
For tropical species, the enclosure may require misting setups or regular spraying. But even desert species need a dish of standing water large enough to fully submerge themselves. It is also ideal to include at least one high humidity hide area (such as a box containing moist substrate). It is also important to remember that high humidity areas require regular cleaning in order to avoid bacterial overgrowth.
4. Sand and gravel are great substrate choices.
While sand may be an aesthetically appealing substrate choice, it is often less than ideal. It can be abrasive, and may get in snakes’ eyes. Gravel may also be accidentally ingested when snakes are striking at prey, and can cause an intestinal obstruction. Newspaper, artificial turf, and coconut fiber are all good substrate choices. An ideal substrate should be non-irritating to the snake, easy to clean, and hard to accidentally ingest.
5. Feeding live prey is enriching for my snake.
While it may be entertaining to watch a snake utilize its predatory skills, feeding live prey is generally not recommended. Live prey can injure the snake, especially if the snake it not interested in eating when the prey animal is introduced to the enclosure. Adult mice or rats can cause significant damage to even a large snake.
Ideally, snakes should be fed freshly killed or frozen prey. If frozen prey is used, it should be thawed to a warm (not hot) temperature before feeding.
6. A good snake enclosure maximizes my pet’s visibility at all times.
Obviously, snake owners want to be able to see and appreciate their pets. However, it is stressful for reptiles to be constantly exposed. All snakes need to have access to covered areas where they can feel safe. These hide areas can be as simple as a piece of PVC tubing, or a more elaborate natural-appearing shelter. Logs, sticks, and branches can be part of providing cover to a snake as well. Ideally, the enclosure should include more than one hide area. If only one hide box is available, the snake may choose shelter over the ideal temperature. Having multiple hide boxes allows the snake to appropriately thermoregulate while decreasing stress.
7. I just got a new snake, so I should handle it frequently so it becomes used to me.
Many snakes can become acclimated to regular handling. However, especially when recently moved to a new environment, handling can be a source of stress. Stressed snakes are predisposed to anorexia, immune suppression, delayed wound healing, and other issues. Owners should wait to regularly handle a new snake until it is reliably eating and acting normally. Sick snakes should also be handled as little as possible.
ACMP vets are experienced with caring for snakes and other reptiles. If you have questions regarding your pet’s health or care, please contact Animal Clinic of Morris Plains and schedule an appointment and/or an exam.
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J.S. de la Navarre, B. (2012). Reptile and Amphibian Nutrition. Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference 2012. Retrieved from https://www.vin.com/doc/?id=5540544.
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