Archive for reptiles

Feeding Your Reptiles: Frozen/Thawed Rats and Mice

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

One of the first questions that comes up whenever I tell people that I have pet snakes is inevitably, “what do you feed them?”  People are incredibly curious about how snakes eat, what they eat, and where you get such things.  And many people reveal during these conversations that the only reason they’d never looked seriously into getting a snake as a pet was because of a fear of (or simple distaste for) the idea of feeding live prey.

Most people are a bit surprised when I tell them that I simply buy frozen mice or rats, usually in bulk (packages of 12 or 24) so that I don’t need to worry about going to the pet store every single week.  I can then thaw the prey items out, one at a time, much like you’d thaw out a chicken breast before cooking it.  It’s fast, easy, and convenient.  And my snakes get a good meal whenever they need it, without me having to trek across town to the pet store, or worry about keeping live rodents in my apartment.

nom nom nom


So Why Frozen/Thawed Instead of Live Prey?

There are people who make the argument that live prey is more “natural”, because a snake in the wild has to stalk and kill its prey.  I find such arguments to be patently ridiculous, because there’s really nothing “natural” about keeping a snake in a glass enclosure in your home.  Most snakes in the pet trade were captive-bred — they’ve spent their lives living in “unnatural” conditions — and many were selectively bred for traits that would get them killed in the wild (ie, albinism).  Snakes in the wild rarely live for more than a few years, while in captivity they can live for decades.  Perhaps a frozen/thawed mouse is a bit unnatural, but it’s certainly no more unnatural than feeding kibbles or canned food to your cat or dog.

Many shops that carry reptile products do offer live prey items as an option, but any argument that a live mouse is somehow “healthier” or contains “more nutritional value” than a frozen one is purely specious — if anything, the frozen prey will be healthier, because pet stores often don’t have very good housing conditions for their prey items, don’t properly feed them, and don’t monitor for health problems the way that a dedicated rodent production facility has to do.  Live prey items might also carry parasites picked up at the store (or elsewhere), which freezing will kill off — live prey items are a potential source of mite infestations, for example, or may contain parasites in their guts.

The biggest risk with live prey, of course, is that it might fight back.  Rodents have long, sharp teeth that can seriously injure your beloved snake-friend.  A snake that misses on the first strike, or gets a bad grip on its prey, can be severely bitten (even killed) by a cornered, fighting-for-its-life rodent.  Vet bills for reptiles get expensive quickly — since they’re an “exotic” pet, even walking in to the vet’s office or emergency clinic with them can be a $100 appointment fee, before any tests/surgeries/medicines/etc even enter the picture.  And many vets are untrained in reptile care, and will be able to do little to help your injured friend — especially if you’re going to an emergency clinic or the like.  Herpetological specialists are rare, and their offices may have limited hours.


What If My Snake Doesn’t Like Already-Dead Food?

There are instances where a snake doesn’t immediately take to eating things that have been pre-killed for it.  Wild-caught individuals (which you should never buy — animals taken from their natural habitats are usually illegal and have to be smuggled across borders, are typically less healthy, and you may be destroying natural ecosystems by participating in their sale), or animals who were raised on live prey in captivity (there are still some major breeders out there who feed live, despite the risks), may not immediately recognize a frozen/thawed rodent as a food item.

There’s the odd animal who will simply never take to eating frozen/thawed, especially if this type of prey was not introduced to them until they were an adult.  But in 99% of cases, a bit of care and attention will get your animal eating f/t prey.  A few tricks to try, if you’ve got a fussy eater on your hands — I’ll arrange them from least to most macabre:

  • Warm the prey item to approximately body temperature by immersing it in hot water until it feels warm to the touch.
  • Wiggle the prey item around in front of the snake’s face (you may want to use tongs or forceps, rather than just holding the prey item in your hand — it’s not unheard of for a snake to mistake a human hand for a yummy rat, especially if you’ve got rat-smell all over your fingers).
  • Cut the prey item open a little bit, to get a stronger “blood” smell for attracting the snake.  Anecdotally, puncturing or crushing the skull is the best way to do this (apparently brains smell delicious), but if you’re squeamish it may be better to go for a less-gruesome tactic.
  • Try purchasing a live prey item, but killing it just before feeding it to your snake.  I’ve seen various YouTube demonstrations of how to use vinegar & baking soda to make a CO2 chamber at home, or how to use CO2 cartridges for the same purpose, but such DIY creations tend to be unreliable — often the prey simply falls asleep, and doesn’t actually die.  And there’s an argument to be made that suffocation may not be particularly kind, even if it looks (from an outside perspective) like just falling asleep.  If you’re not terribly squeamish, snapping the spine is one of the most humane & painless ways to euthanize a rodent.  If you feel confident in your ability to do so, snapping the neck manually is the most precise and “gentle” method.  Many people teach to simply whack the rodent (hard) off a table or other hard surface, which is less precise and may only stun the prey item, not actually kill it … plus it just looks & feels fairly brutal.  My chosen method (because I hate feeling bones snapping in my hand) is to place a hard, thin object like a screwdriver over the rodent’s neck, hold the tail in my off hand and the screwdriver in my dominant hand, and push (sharply) down and forwards.  It’s fast and precise, and the prey item feels little-to-no fear or pain, because it all happens in less than a second.  I don’t like doing it, but I’m pragmatic enough to understand that this is still far less traumatic to the animal than being dropped into a tank with a live snake, and then bitten & squeezed to death, would be.  Always wear gloves when handling live rodents; they have big teeth and can deliver mean bites.

If absolutely none of the above suggestions work, and your snake has gone a long time without eating, you may have to resort to live prey.  If that’s the case, feeding smaller prey items with greater frequency is usually the way to go.  A snake that could eat a medium-sized rat twice a month, for example, might do better if fed rat pups, every single week.  Younger/smaller prey items are less likely to be able to fight back or inflict serious injuries on your snake.  Never feed live prey without supervising the feeding process (have a set of good, thick gloves on so that you can pick up a struggling rat or snake should things go badly), and be aware of risks like parasites — check incoming live prey thoroughly to be sure it’s not carrying mites or the like, and always check your snake out visually following a feeding to look for bite or scratch injuries.


Are There Any Risks With Frozen/Thawed?

Now that I’ve outlined how f/t is the safer and more humane way to go, I’ll go over the couple of risks that may come along with feeding frozen prey items.

Most important is making sure that the prey item is thoroughly defrosted.  Snakes are cold-blooded.  A prey item that feels warm to the touch, but still has a big chunk of frozen meat inside of it?  That could cause your snake’s internal temperature to drop enough to cause serious problems, or even death from organ failure.  The same is true if the prey becomes too warm (which is why you should NEVER use a microwave to defrost frozen prey — the internal organs of the prey item will heat much faster than the outside, and can get hot enough to cause burns).  The microwave also risks actually cooking the meat, and snakes don’t have the same biology that we do — their bodies aren’t designed to digest cooked meat.  Defrosting a frozen prey item is best done by immersing it in hot water and leaving it to sit until it’s thoroughly thawed out (the larger the prey item, the longer it needs).  Give the prey item a squeeze, to make sure there’s no big frozen parts inside.  If it still feels cold to the touch, it’s not ready yet.

The other risk (which isn’t really limited to f/t items, but is more of a concern because they’re probably being stored in your freezer alongside your own food) is transmission of any rodent-borne dirt/bacteria to your own food & utensils.  Keeping separate “snake utensils” is recommended — a set of tongs & a “defrosting bowl” that are for snake-related uses only.  Frozen rodents are unlikely to have any parasites or diseases still living on them, since most bacteria and viruses and the like can’t live at freezer temperatures, but double-bagging frozen rats/mice & being sure to wash your hands after handling is a useful “just in case” measure.  Double-bagging also helps to prevent freezer burn, and may help to disguise the bag of frozen rats from any friends/family who happen to open your freezer and peek inside (I’ve definitely had friends scream and drop glassware upon going into my freezer to grab the bottle of vodka I keep in the freezer door, because the other shelf in the freezer door is the “rat shelf” … several broken glasses later, I’ve learned to warn people of this in advance).


Costs and Additional Notes

Snakes are extremely low-maintenance pets.  Being cold-blooded, they only need to eat a fraction of the amount that a warm-blooded mammal or bird would — and (generally) the larger the prey they eat, the less often you need to feed them.

Here in Southern Ontario, small “pinky” or “fuzzy” mice cost about $1-$1.50 apiece, while adult mice may be $2-3.  Medium-Large rats may be more in the $5 to $8 range.  If you’ve got an especially large animal, you may need to be feeding a larger prey item like rabbits, which can cost $15-20 depending on availability in your area … but on the plus side, such larger animals often only need to eat once a month or so.  Buying in bulk can get you discounts, but you need to have freezer space for storing 24 or 50 or 100 prey items in order to make such discounts a viable option — and remember that like with all food, there’s a limited amount of time that something can be kept in the freezer before freezer burn starts to set in & nutritional value is lost.  Airtight storage bags & a clean freezer without frost on the walls will help with longevity in storage.

If you’re getting a new snake, ask the breeder/store/rescue where you’re acquiring it if it’s already eating frozen/thawed prey.  If not, be prepared that you might have to spend some time teaching your new pet to take f/t, and be ready to potentially buy some live rodents & kill them yourself, to get things started.  If that doesn’t seem like something you’re prepared for, ask for another animal that’s already taking f/t, or ask if they’d be willing to “test” the animal on f/t food for you, before you commit to buying/adopting.

And if you really love the idea of having a pet snake, but really *can’t* stomach the idea of handling dead mice/rats, there are a few species out there that eat other foods — like eggs or fish.  Dasypeltis, an African breed, is a commonly known egg-eating colubrid snake which you may be able to get your hands on (although they’re much less common than other colubrid species in the pet trade, and finding a captive-bred specimen may be challenging) — they are usually fed quail eggs in captivity.  Many species of garter snake prefer to eat fish (although live feeder-fish carry high risk of parasites; do your research before deciding on a fish-eating snake as a pet, and you may want to go frozen/thawed with fishy feeders, too, to kill off any parasites).  Other colubrid snakes may eat eggs, fish, or earthworms — but they may require vitamin or calcium supplements added to their diet, as these foods are not as nutritionally valuable as mammal prey.  Thorough research is necessary before acquiring any pet — don’t simply trust what “some guy at the pet store” said.  There are myths out there about snakes eating insectivorous diets and the like — these are MYTHS, and a snake won’t get proper nutrition eating only bugs.  But if you’ve done your research well, a non-rodent-eating snake may be a very beautiful and rewarding pet choice.


Fascinating Animals: Tuatara

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2012 by KarenElizabeth


The animal in this picture is not a lizard.

No, this isn’t some Magritte-esque ceci n’est pas une pipe kind of philosophical thing — I’ve been posting too many philosophical ramblings lately, and I’m trying to get back into posting more regular updates about not-my-personal-drama kind of things.

The animal in the above picture is called a tuatara (genus Sphenodon), and it is one of my absolute favourite animals in the world.  They are found only in New Zealand (I suspect that they may feed occasionally on hobbits), and they are incredibly ancient.  Tuatara are the only surviving members of order Rhynchocephalia, which flourished around 200 million years ago (back in the late Triassic/early Jurassic period).  This is about the time that the first mammals (some of our early ancestors, small shrew-like critters that bore little resemblance to us) were just evolving.  By that point, rhynchocephalians already looked pretty much like their modern ancestors do — check out this fossil of an extinct species from the order:


Tuatara are distantly related to modern squamates (lizards and snakes), as well as to archosaurs (the ancestors of dinosaurs and birds), which makes them very interesting to scientists — because the two groups diverged so many millions of years ago, studying tuatara may be able to tell us a lot about how modern lizards, snakes, birds, and crocodilians evolved.  Although they look similar to lizards on the outside, tuatara possess many traits that show just how ancient they are:  their brains are more similar to those of amphibians than to those of reptiles; their lungs are single-chambered and don’t have bronchial tubes; they have a remarkably well-developed ‘third eye‘ under the skin of their foreheads (something which most modern animals have lost to evolution); they have no external ear structures and their internal ears are incredibly primitive; their vertebrae resemble those of fish and amphibians rather than those of other amniotes; they have an acrodont tooth structure (their teeth are fused to the bones of their jaw rather than being separate structures); and they have sex in the same way as birds, by simply rubbing their cloacas together, because the males don’t have penises.

Unlike most cold-blooded animals, tuatara prefer cool temperatures and will actually die of heat stress if exposed to temperatures much above 80 degrees Fahrenheit for any length of time.  This adaptation to cool temperatures is likely a factor in their longevity — it’s theorized that tuatara could live to be over 200 years old in captivity (although no one knows for sure, because we haven’t been studying them long enough), and even living in the wild (with all the associated hardships and dangers) they commonly live about 80 years.  But because they live for so long, they do their living at a very slow pace:  it can take over a year for tuatara eggs to hatch, and over 30 years for a tuatara to reach its full adult size.

Like many species in New Zealand, tuatara face great risks from introduced predators.  Having lived for so many millions of years on protected islands with few natural enemies, the introduction of animals such as rats and dogs and cats has devastated tuatara populations.  Tuatara are particularly vulnerable because of their slow pace of living:  a year is a long time for eggs to remain undisturbed in a nest when there are hungry rodents about, and a female tuatara is only able to lay eggs once every 3-5 years after she has reached sexual maturity (which can take 20 years to happen).  Like most reptiles, tuatara do not protect their nests or their babies, so unprotected eggs and young are easy prey.  Tuatara are also vulnerable to the effects of global warming — not only do higher temperatures stress them out and cause harm, but their young are temperature-sex dependent:  eggs incubated at lower temperatures will hatch out female, while eggs incubated at higher temperatures will hatch out male.  As global temperatures rise, fewer and fewer females will be hatching.  So even as conservation efforts are seeing success and protection from introduced predators is becoming more stable, there is still the risk of tuatara going extinct in a grand, sad sausage party.

The Difference Between a Bad Pet and a Bad Owner

Posted in Animalia, Rants with tags , , , , , , on October 26, 2011 by KarenElizabeth

So, I’ve been a bad blogger and let my personal life completely override my ability to blog, lately.  It’s been a crazy couple of months, to put it in brief.  But I’m trying to get back into it, and today I saw a little piece on the news that got me mad enough to want to rant here.

This is the piece I’m talking about.

And here it is on another news website.

To give you the story in brief:  this week there have been two incidents of loose pet snakes being discovered in apartment buildings, both of which happen to be just a few blocks from where I live.  One was a corn snake, apparently discovered coming “through the wall” (I’m assuming a heating vent of some sort), while another was a ball python, found in a bathroom.

As is usually the case with such stories, the news outlets have completely ignored the reality of the situation (that these snakes are harmless to humans, completely legal to keep, non-aggressive, etc).  Instead they’ve focused on interviews with “terrified” residents, and labeled the animals as “pests” and “dangerous”.  They’ve stirred up anti-snake sentiment, which of course (being as I’m a snake owner and enthusiast) gets my hackles up.

What really bothers me about the coverage of this story is that the focus is in completely the wrong place.  The real question is:  why were these snakes loose in the first place?  Why has no owner stepped forwards to claim them?  If someone’s pet had managed to get out of its cage, why did that person not tell their neighbors, and ask them to be on the lookout for the missing critter?  This is, quite clearly, a case of bad and irresponsible ownership — it’s the humans, not the snakes, who are to blame.

While it hasn’t happened yet, I’m sure that in the coming days there will be an uproar as panicked residents, egged on by the biased journalism, begin the hue and cry for harder crackdowns on reptile owners, tougher restrictions on which pets can be kept in apartment buildings, and other general witch-huntery.  The comments on the stories that I linked to above already show signs of it — people freaking out because their children and pets are at risk from these “dangerous” animals.  Seriously, people?  Maybe if you have a pet rat — but somebody’s loose cat is much more likely to be a danger, in that case.  Cats will kill for fun.  Snakes only kill if they’re hungry.

In fact, a dog or cat (considered perfectly acceptable pets, by most people) is certainly a much more dangerous animal than any legal-to-own reptile, and also much more likely to escape — snakes are generally kept in tanks which are designed to be escape-proof, while your mammalian friend likely roams free about your home or apartment, and may even be allowed to go outside unsupervised.  People are bitten by dogs or scratched by cats all the time, but it doesn’t make the news, nor does it start a witch-hunt scenario with all and sundry calling for “dangerous” dogs and cats to be banned.  If a dog bites, it’s generally the owner who is blamed, because it is the human being who is responsible for training, restraining, and generally keeping control over their pet.  The same should be true of reptiles and other exotics.

Official Confirmation of Adrasteia’s Cute-Factor

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , , on June 30, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

Well, I already knew she was adorable — but apparently the folks over at Daily Squee agree.  Adrasteia (my female leopard gecko) is featured on their front page today.

The Internet is Back! Also, Butterworms.

Posted in Animalia, Ramblings with tags , , , , on May 13, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

As the title suggests, I’ve finally managed to get my home Internet up and running.  I’ve got lots of posting to catch up on, so expect a pretty decent activity level here in the coming weeks.  Of course, I’ve also still got lots of unpacking to do from the move, and some extra hours at work to put in to pay those moving costs, so I won’t be constantly online or anything like that.

While I was in my Internet-less state, a rather disturbing story broke in the reptile hobbyist community: a story about butterworms (a delicious and nutritious feeder insect) causing serious chemical burns on some baby crested geckos.  My friend and former roommate blogged about it the other day, and he’s covered the basics quite well, but I do feel the need to throw my 2 cents in here, as this is a pretty serious issue.

What I want to focus on here isn’t the “risks” per say, as there’s basically no information to go on.  There are a few anecdotal reports, nothing more — and as any scientifically minded person knows, anecdotal evidence is very, very sketchy stuff.  Information about butterworms and the way that they are prepared for export from Chile is hard to come by:  there really aren’t any cold, hard facts here to work from.  There’s not even a whole lot known about the butterworm life cycle — they’re the larval form of the Chilecomadia moorei moth, but information like how long they stay in larval form and what their breeding habits are is not readily available.

This lack of information creates a situation that is potentially extremely harmful to the butterworm trade — and, in a roundabout way, harmful to the herp hobby, because either way we could be losing what I’ve always considered to be a really good feeder.  Butterworms are a relatively expensive feeder (due to the cost of importing them), but they’ve always been considered worth the price because they’re very good nutritionally.  Especially important is their high calcium content and high fat content — both very important things for gravid (egg-producing) females, and also for juvenile animals.  They’re also not “shelly” insects like the cheaper mealworms or superworms, and the lack of a hard carapace makes them more easily digestible.

Reports like the recent ones of butterworms “burning” baby geckos could halt the butterworm trade cold.  What responsible owner, after all, would want to risk hurting their babies?  If these anecdotal reports can be supported with some decent facts, I’ll certainly stop using these feeders.  But that’s only IF the reports have any substance to them.  It’s entirely possible that there are isolated cases where butterworms have been exposed to some sort of caustic chemical during transport, and there’s also the theory being circulated that these were not, in fact, butterworms, but a related species that could easily have been mistaken for butterworms.  Or, of course, there’s the very real possibility that despite their assurances to the contrary, the owners in question were in fact the ones to blame, having allowed their feeders or their reptiles to come into contact with something unpleasant.

What’s especially sad to me is that not only will a halt of the butterworm trade be harmful to the companies and individuals who sell these insects, but it will also mean the loss of a very good feeder — possibly without reason.

This should be a wake-up call to all companies that transparency and getting good, accurate information out to your customers is VERY VERY IMPORTANT!  A few anecdotal tales would cause virtually no harm at all if there were better, more scientifically  sound information out there to counter those stories.  But without good information, we’re left with only these sketchy anecdotes, and we have to choose whether to believe them or not — and the possible risk to our animals is one that is hard to ignore.

Bathtime for Ziggy! The Importance of Bathing Your Beardie

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , on April 13, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

I took some cute photos during Ziggy’s bath last week, and decided to take the opportunity to talk a little bit about the importance of bathing to beardie health.

D’awww, isn’t he a sweetie?

Anywhos.  Despite the fact that bearded dragons come from relatively arid parts of Australia, bathing is an important part of a captive beardie’s lifestyle, and should be made part of your regular routine.  A bath every week or two is a nice way to spend time together, and is beneficial to many aspects of your beardie’s health.

As you can see in the picture above, Ziggy was shedding and had some loose skin attached to his feet.  Just tugging off loose skin from your reptiles when they are shedding is generally considered to be a bad idea:  you can easily hurt them without realizing it.  So a bath is a great way to help loosen up that skin without the risk of inflicting injury — plus it helps to keep substrate and any other material from getting caught up in the loose skin, where it can cause irritation.  Humidity is very important to ensuring that your reptiles have healthy sheds (this is why I advocate keeping moist hide areas available to all of your herps), and baths serve the same purpose here.

In addition to the benefits during shedding, a nice warm bath is good for relaxing your beardie, and it helps with digestion.  Many beardies prefer to defecate in water, and so providing a bath facilitates that nicely (just be sure to remove your baby from the water once he or she has pooped, so they’re not swimming in their own filth).  Cleanliness is, of course, the third benefit of the bath:  many beardies are messy eaters and will end up with food smeared on their faces and stuck in their beards.  Bathing gets rid of that and makes them all squeaky-clean again (at least until the next feeding time).

Obviously, it’s VERY IMPORTANT to make sure that the bath water is neither too hot nor too cold for your beardie, since they are cold-blooded creatures who will change with their surroundings. Water that’s too hot carries the obvious risk of burns, while water that’s too cold can chill your beardie’s core temperature down to dangerously low levels.  You want the water to be just about body temperature — if you stick your fingers in the water and it feels comfortably warm, it’s probably good.  If you’re not sure, use a thermometer to determine the ideal temperature range (95-100 degrees Fahrenheit should be just about right).

Baths can either be had in the tub itself, or in a separate container.  The water shouldn’t come up higher than the level of your beardie’s chest — they’re not great swimmers and this should be considered a soak, not a swim.  On that note, DO NOT LEAVE YOUR BEARDIE UNATTENDED IN THE TUB!  Accidents can happen even in a safe and shallow pool, so it’s best to be vigilant.

Baths should last about 10-20 minutes, although it should be noted that some beardies enjoy bathing more than others — it’s just a personality thing.  If your beardie finds bathing to be somewhat stressful, shorter baths are acceptable.  If your beardie seems to be having a really good time hanging out in the water, you can leave them a bit longer … but I really wouldn’t recommend going longer than a half hour, just because they can’t thermoregulate properly when in water.

Once bathtime is over, give your beardie a pat dry with a soft cloth (watch for rough towels that might catch on their toes and other spiky bits!) and then return your baby to their home.  After a nice, relaxing bath they’ll probably find a good spot to go to sleep for a while.

A few safety tips for you and your dragon:

  • Wash down the tub or bath container both before and after bathtime.  Soaps or cleaning products can injure your beardie, so you want to make sure the water is pure and clean before you put him in.  And after he’s done, there’s always the slight risk of salmonella being passed on to a human from a beardie’s feces, so you’ll want to give everything a good scrub and disinfection.
  • Be vigilant the WHOLE TIME your beardie is in the tub!
  • Monitor bath temperatures carefully so that your beardie doesn’t get too hot or too cold.
  • Keep the water shallow — chest-height is good.
  • If your beardie poops in the water, clean it up right away so that he’s not swimming in his own filth (and to reduce the risk of passing on salmonella).
  • If you’ve got other pets around (like cats or dogs), keep a good eye on them, or lock them out of the room entirely.

Wicker does not understand this “bathing” thing.  Wet paws are anathema to fuzzy kitties.  (Don’t worry, I was watching him very closely the whole time he was in the room … he just wanted to take a peek at what I was doing, and to be a little camera hog).

Meet the Menagerie: Penelope

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , , , on March 21, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

In this, the fourth installment of my “Meet the Menagerie” posts, I’m introducing you to my California Kingsnake, Penelope.

For years I’ve had a special love for colubrid snakes, and kingsnakes in particular.  When I was in high school, I had a friend whose older sister had a pet red kingsnake.  Every time I visited their house, I’d find an excuse to go stare at the snake tank for a while.  He was a fun snake to watch — very active, and very pretty.  So when I decided last fall to get myself a pet snake, kingsnakes were first on the (longish) list.

Basic Info

Kingsnakes (genus Lampropeltis) are non-venemous, constricting snakes that are common in much of the United States and Mexico.  They have shiny, unkeeled (non-ridged) scales, sleek heads, and long, thin bodies.  There are many different subspecies of kingsnake, from the brightly coloured red kingsnake with banding that imitates the venomous coral snake, to the dark chocolate-coloured Mexican kingsnake.  California Kingsnakes like Penelope (Lampropeltis getula californiae) are, as the name suggests, most commonly found in California — but they’re also seen in Arizona, southern Nevada, southern Utah,  southern Oregon, and northwestern Mexico.  There are several regional colour variations within the California Kingsnake species; Penelope exhibits what is commonly known as the “Newport-Long Beach” phase, with a broken-up pattern that looks almost like a cross between bands and stripes.  Banded snakes with either black and white or yellow and brown bands are more commonly seen, and snakes with longitudinal stripes are also found in the wild.  The thickness of the bands or stripes can also vary, creating different-looking snakes.  Check out some photos of different morphs here.

Kingsnakes in the wild live in a variety of different habitats, but are most commonly found in rocky or scrub-brush terrain where there are plenty of hiding spaces.  They’re good snakes to have around, and those who know their reptiles are happy to find kingsnakes living near their homes, because kingsnakes are immune to the venom of most rattlesnakes and will happily eat the venomous snakes.  Their taste for other snakes is why they are called “kings”.  They also eat mice, rats and other unwanted vermin, which is also appreciated by their human neighbors.

Kingsnakes are often killed by humans when mistaken for other, more dangerous species.  Red kingsnakes have a pattern that imitates the banding of the venomous coral snake, and those who don’t know the rhyme “red and yellow kills a fellow; red and black is okay, Jack” may kill the harmless and helpful kingsnake by mistake.  Other kingsnakes, like the California kingsnake, may be mistaken for rattlesnakes, because when threatened they will quickly vibrate their tails.  Despite the fact that they don’t actually have “rattles”, this vibration will often create enough of a noise to fool a predator — or a human — into thinking that they’re the real thing.  If you do live in an area where kingsnakes are common, get to know what the local species look like.  This way you’ll be able to protect both the snakes and yourself.

Kingsnakes in Captivity

In captivity, kingsnakes have a few simple requirements.  First, and most important, is a large enough tank.  With kingsnakes, as with most snakes, you want to follow the “L Rule” when selecting an enclosure:  the length of the snake should not exceed the length of two consecutive sides of the tank.  In other words, if the snake were to bend into an “L” shape, with the tip of its tail in one corner of the tank, would its head touch the opposing corner?  If so, you should get a bigger tank.  For an adult kingsnake you’ll likely be looking at a 40 gallon tank, as they grow up to about 5 feet long.  If you can afford to go even larger than that, please consider doing so:  these are very active, curious snakes, and more space will give them more mental stimulation, and allow you to observe a wider range of natural behaviours.  Speaking of mental stimulation:  making changes to their environment on a regular basis can also keep life more interesting for your animal.  I try to move at least one piece of cage furniture every week, to encourage exploratory behaviors and keep Penelope active and happy.

Always remember when keeping snakes:  a secure lid is VERY important.  Snakes are curious creatures and amazing escape artists — if they can push the lid of the tank up even a little bit, they’ll escape, and with all the multitudinous hiding places available in an average house you may never find them again.  Many large terrariums are designed with lids that lock closed, specifically to prevent snake escapes.

Kingsnakes also need a ready source of fresh, clean water — and their water dish should be large enough for them to curl up and take a bath in, if they want to.  A large margarine tub is a simple (if not very attractive) option.  There are also commercially available reptile dishes that are large enough — or you can go with any other (non-breakable) dish that’s of an appropriate size.  I specify non-breakable because if your snake is anything like mine, that dish is going to get moved around the terrarium quite a bit.  Kingsnakes are curious and will happily re-arrange their tank furniture during their exploratory missions.  You can also increase the amount of activity and exercise they’re getting by taking them out of their tank on occasions (always make sure you’re carefully supervising, as they can make quick getaways when you’re not paying attention).  Some snakes will enjoy handling more than others.  Penelope is quite personable and enjoys exploring people (and especially crawling inside of shirts and into pockets).  Other snakes may be more skittish, and so you’ll have to limit the amount of handling they get.  Respond to your snake’s personality, and do what is best for them.  If you find that your snake is extremely aggressive when handling, you may want to increase the amount you’re feeding them, since kingsnakes are usually a very docile species.

Hiding spots are also important when you’re setting up your snake’s home, as kingsnakes in the wild will find sheltered spots to curl up in when they rest.  At least one of these hides should be a “moist hide”, with some sort of moss or soil inside to retain moisture.  Snakes, like other reptiles, seek out humid places when they are shedding, as it helps them in sloughing their skin.  In Penelope’s tank I’ve used a mix of branches and PVC pipes to create spaces for her to hide.  I’ve also sectioned off one area of the tank to have soil as the substrate (to retain moisture and give a natural look to the space), and another section to contain a product called CareFresh — a recycled paper product that is commonly used as reptile or small mammal bedding.  Penelope likes to burrow under the CareFresh to hide.  The only reason I don’t recommend it as the substrate for the entire tank is that it turns to mush when wet, and so you can’t really use it near the water dish.

Some people use wood shavings or chips as a substrate for their snakes, but it’s not my substrate of choice.  Some types of wood — like pine and cedar — MUST be avoided because they contain resin that can be irritating to the snake’s skin and respiratory system, and it’s poisonous if ingested.  Wood chips of any kind are also very hard to digest if accidentally ingested, and can cause impaction, so if you’re keeping your snake on wood chips you’ll always want to take them out of their tank before feeding them.  Some snake enthusiasts and breeders swear by aspen shavings, but I’m just not a fan, and I definitely encourage you to do your research before deciding on wood (it’s not a decision to make just because “the guy at the pet store said so”).

The final requirement for your snake is, of course, heating.  Like all reptiles, snakes are cold blooded and need to regulate their body temperature by moving between warmer and cooler parts of their environment.  You’ll want it to be about 87-90 degrees Fahrenheit on the hot side of the tank, and 78-80 degrees on the cool side.  Temperatures above 90 or below 75 degrees should be avoided.  A heat lamp is the best source of heat for snakes, as they have a tendency to burrow when they are feeling too warm — many injuries have been caused because a warm snake decided to burrow closer to its under-tank heating pad, instead of moving further away.

Delicious and Nutritious Foods

While wild kingsnakes will eat a wide variety of foods, ranging from other snakes to rodents to eggs to lizards, in captivity they are most commonly fed on rats or mice.  These are easily available live or frozen from any pet store that handles reptiles, and they come in many sizes.  Choose the size of rat based on the size of the snake — the food shouldn’t be bigger around than the largest part of the snake’s body.  I prefer to buy frozen, myself, because they’re easier to buy in large quantities, and I don’t need to worry about doing the killing (it’s not really difficult, but it’s unpleasant). With frozen rats, all you need to do is thaw them out by leaving them in warm water.  Be sure the rat is thoroughly thawed, so that your snake doesn’t get frostbite, and never use a microwave to thaw out the rodents, because they may thaw unevenly or get too hot and burn your snake.  If you decide to go with live rats or mice instead (some snakes will never take to eating something that’s been frozen first), you’ll want to kill them just before giving them to your snake.  The kindest way to do this is by snapping the neck (it’s pretty much instant death), or by using CO2 gas (which puts them to sleep).  Don’t put your rodents in the freezer to kill them — it’s a long, slow, unpleasant death.  I’m also not a fan of the “whack them off a table” method … it’s brutal and not always accurate (sometimes the rodent is only stunned, and it wakes up a few minutes later and you have to do it again).  I don’t recommend feeding live rodents to any snake, as it causes unnecessary terror to the prey, and your snake might get bitten or scratched if the rodent fights back in self-defense.

If you’re squeamish about killing the prey yourself, simply ask the person you get the snake from whether they’re eating frozen/thawed prey (if they are, you’ll be able to feed them that, too).  Or you may be able to get the staff at your pet store to do the killing for you, and then just feed the rodent to your snake immediately when you arrive home with it.

Juvenile kingsnakes should be fed every 5 to 7 days.  Once they’re full grown, you can go 10 days to 2 weeks between feedings.  The only exception occurs when they are shedding: snakes are unlikely to eat when they’re preparing to shed their skin, so always check their eyes to see if they have gone “opaque” before you attempt to feed them.  A snake that is going to shed in the next few days will start to look dull and have a whitish sheen.  When their eyes appear to have a white film over them, it’s a sign that a shed is going to happen in the next day or so.  At this time the snake is more likely to be defensive and it won’t want to be handled.  Young snakes will shed about once a month; adults will shed four or five times a year.

Once your snake has eaten, try to minimize handling for the next few days.  They’re busy digesting, and undue stress can mess with that process or even cause them to regurgitate their meal.  In the wild, a well-fed snake would probably remain mostly in hiding while it digested its food, and your captive friend will want to do the same.  A few days after eating, your snake will poop (snake poop is pretty smelly, so you’ll want to clean it up right away).  After that he or she will be back to their normal, personable self, and you can resume regular handling.

A Final Note

If you’re interested in getting a kingsnake as a pet, do your research, people! They’re not difficult animals to keep, but they do need more extensive (and expensive) setups than, say, a leopard gecko.  There’s no substitute for knowing your stuff, and people at pet stores can’t always be trusted when it comes to accurate reptile information.