So you have decided to purchase a snake and you view it as a pet and a companion, a low maintenance animal that will grow and enjoy life with you. Something you can hold in your hands and show to friends and family members. An animal that is on the unusual side and reflects your independent nature, and sets you aside from main stream society. All of these reasons are valid and a snake can be a very interesting subject of conversation. As for low maintenance, a snake can be considered low maintenance after the initial set up has been completed and you have learned the basics of caring for the species of snake you have chosen. Snakes are like humans, they come in all types and sizes, when in the infant stage (less then 6 months of age) all snakes are cute, easy to handle and require minimal care. Like people, snakes grow and some grow and grow and grow, prior to purchasing your pet you must complete a short study program to ensure you purchase the right snake for your needs, in short you must become a smart shopper.
First you should look at your housing situation, if you live in an apartment complex, a snake is not for you. Should it escape, you have let yourself in for lawsuits filed by neighbors as well as being asked to move. Snakes do not belong in a multi family type dwelling and that is that. If you live in a single family home, you have met the number one requirement. A snake will reach adulthood at two to three years of age, how large of a snake do you want to own if purchased as an adult? two feet, three feet, twenty-eight feet? Most people new to the hobby want a snake that will max out at five feet and weigh less then seven pounds. This is the ideal size for a beginner, at this size a snake is easy to handle and does not cost an arm and a leg to feed. Deciding upon the correct species is the next question. Boa constrictors are not very good beginner snakes mainly because they tend to have an attitude and often bite when annoyed. Being bitten by a non venomous snake is really no big deal, it is far less painful then an injection at the doctors office and when washed with soap and water, it is forgotten in a day or so. Members of the Colubridae family are snakes that include King snakes, Garter snakes etc. These animals are also not generally for beginners as they require a complicated habitat set up and must be fed more often then other species. Next is the python family, this family has members that reach lengths of thirty feet so you must use caution when purchasing a member of the python family. One python that is ideal for a beginner is the “Ball Python” it grows to six foot tops and weighs about seven pounds tops. It is a popular snake and easy to find in reputable pet stores everywhere. This species of snake is extremely tame and rarely if ever bites. They seem to show affection once they become familiar with their keeper and readily crawl around in their owners hands. After forty years of handling reptiles I would wholeheartedly recommend a Ball Python for a beginner. Other reasonably good choices for a beginner are the Rainbow Boa, the Rubber and Rosy Boas, A California King Snake and a Corn snake, all make excellent starter snakes.
Prior to purchasing the snake you must purchase its habitat and accessory items. You should take them home, set the habitat up, obtain the snakes food supply, I recommend you purchase a three month food supply and then freeze it. When the food supply gets down to one month left in the freezer, purchase another three month supply and use the oldest first. The following is a list of items you will need to maintain a snake and keep it in good physical health for a life time. Before you go any farther, a snakes life time can run from ten to thirty-five years! Ask yourself if you are really prepared for this long a commitment, and please be honest with yourself. Snakes grow very fast during the first 18 months of their lives. The 18 inch snake you purchase today will double in size before its first birthday so purchase a tank that will accommodate a 36 inch snake, it will save trips to the pet store in the future and money in the long run. OK here are the items required for a Ball Python (Also any other snake)
#1: The aquarium: I would go ahead and get the 40 gallon tank. Get a reptile aquarium, not a fish tank. The difference is about $60.00 and about 15 pounds in weight. 1 reptile tank 40 gallon with locking screen top. Note the “locking” screen top, snakes are escape artists and the screen allows for ventilation. The top must be lockable, no amount of weight will keep a snake inside, they are masters of escape and will do so if not locked.
#2: Hide boxes, two, this can be as simple as a shoe box with a hole cut in the side large enough for the snake to crawl in and out of. You need one for each end of the tank. All snakes require seclusion and a spot they can retreat to for sleep and when digesting food. It should be slightly larger then the snake. Its sides should touch the sides of the box when inside. Snakes like tight places with only one entrance, they know they are safe from attack and are able to relax. Believe it or not, more snakes die of stress then all illnesses combined. If you fail to give your pet snake a place to retreat to, I bet it will die before you have had it six months, a hide box at each end is vital.
#3: A heating pad placed under the tank, not touching the glass and set on low should raise the temperature inside the hide box to about 90 to 95 degrees. This will be the hot end of the habitat, there must be two different temperatures inside the tank. A snake will need the extra heat after eating, to aid in digestion and taking up minerals and vitamins from the food into its body. The hide box at the other end should be about 73 degrees to the low 80’s. Snakes regulate their temperatures from external sources and need a choice available to them. Also you will need a heat lamp which you will use for three hours a day immediately after your snake eats a meal, the temperature should be between 92 and 99 degrees directly below the lamp. This is called a “basking spot”. Please be sure the heating pad is adjustable, low med. hi. Do not use inside heat sources like heat rocks, they have caused severe burns to snakes.
#4: two water bowls one of which must be large enough for the snake to bath its entire body in. You should use non chlorinated water for drinking and bathing. The water must be changed daily and sooner if it becomes contaminated by wastes or other items which have fallen into the bowl. Plastic dog bowls are ideal items, glass is not advisable.
#5: Two thermometers, one at each end of the tank and kept in sight for easy reading at a glance. A humidity gauge in the center of the tank is also required. Normal humidity of 40% is fine except when your snake is in a shed cycle. The humidity must be elevated to 80 to 100% once you notice your snakes eyes start to cloud over which signals the start of a shed cycle. You must also obtain a spray misting bottle. It must be used twice a day when in a shed cycle to mist the snakes body and keep the outer layer of skin soft and loose. Twice a day, AM PM mist. You must remember not to handle your pet when in a shed cycle, resist the temptation to pick it up or play with it. Also do not feed your snake once its eyes have clouded. After you notice the eyes cloud, the snake will shed its skin about four days after the eyes clear. Resume normal activity after the shed has been removed. Check the two eye spots on the shed to insure the two “Brill’s” clear eye scales have also been removed.
#6: What to put on the floor of the tank? Never use wood chips, especially ceder chips, they contain a toxin which will cause injury or death yo snakes. Wood chips stick to food and when swallowed do not dissolve, this can be fatal to a snake. indoor out door carpet is OK but hard to clean when soiled. I use 100% white cotton bath towels folded the exact size of the floor area. I can see any waste deposited on the floor, I can see a tick, flea etc. and deal with the problem. It is soft on the delicate ventral side of a snake and any parasite is visible at a glance. I have a few extra ready to use when the one in use becomes soiled.
#7: food, A Ball python will eat two mice a week when six months or less old. When it becomes larger you can switch to small rats. I never feed my animals live prey, I refuse to do this for a variety of reasons. Number one, I find it cruel watching any animal being crushed in the snakes powerful coils. If the snake is not hungry, a mouse or especially a rat can inflict sever damage to a snake. Remember the prey animal is fighting for its life and bites can be bad enough to cause infection and the death of your snake. Live mice at times come with fleas and mites that can injure a snake. Freezing kill a bulk of harmful organisms. With frozen food I can stock up when I find them on sale. I have fed a Ball python of mine, strips of warm baked chicken as a treat. You should by powdered calcium and sprinkle it on the food item once a month, a multivitamin inserted into the rodents mouth is also a good idea, once a month.
#8: A fluorescent UVA & UVB light bulb and fixture should be placed on top of the tank which will allow your pet to absorb the needed vitamins obtained when under sunlight out of doors. The fixture is inexpensive but the bulb can run $20:00 or more. To avoid the cost of this, you can place your set up in an area that allows natural sunlight to enter for about three hours a day. Some reptiles require it regardless of the tanks location while others do require it at all. I find it best to utilize the bulb on all of my animals regardless.
#9: An inexpensive humidifier. You can purchase this at a chain pharmacy for less then $25:00 or at a second hand store, here you can find them for $5:00 or less. Use it when your snake is in a shed cycle or if you live in extremely dry arid locations. 40 to 50% is normal 80 to 100% during a shed, along with a misting bottle twice a day until the shed has been removed. You will also need to place a rough medium sized rock in to the tank, it will serve to tear the old skin, allowing the snake to crawl out of its old skin and a snake will also use it to scratch any itch it might have.
#10: You will need to locate a good reptile Vet. Do not chance using a Vet that says he knows reptiles, call your county extension service and ask them. Your ASPCA might be able to steer you to a good qualified Vet. as will the pet Store you purchase the snake from. Reptiles are special animals that require special training by Vets. Even if your snake never has an apparently bad day throughout the year, a wellness check up once a year is always a good idea. You will have to do your part to see that your pet has a healthy life, you must keep records of your snakes activities. A sheet of paper divided with the above titles in each row will tell your Vet. everything about the snake, should it become Ill. DATE, FOOD, AMT., B/M, URITES, SHED (start) (end), condition. Each time you feed your snake mark it down i9n the record book, if you feed it one or two mice or 1 rat, write it down. If your snake uses the bathroom, write it down. You will notice your snake will often deposit white chalky looking matter on the floor of its tank. Snakes do not have urinary Bladders like mammals do. They excrete urine in the form of soft solid urite crystals, in humans this is called a Kidney Stone! You may also notice fluid mixed in with the other waste products left behind, this is normal and nothing is wrong. Write down the date you see the eyes cloud over and when it sheds. Note if it is in one piece, several pieces etc. Write down your attempts to feed the snake but it refused to eat. PS. If the snake refuses to eat, place the thawed item in the refrigerator and warm it up in warm water the next day and offer it again. If it still refuses, discard the item, never refreeze it.
If you decide upon purchasing a Ball Python, they sell for different prices depending in which part of the Country you live in. A good price scale is somewhere between $59.00 and $89.00 for a yearling. This is a snake about 14 to 18 inches long and has a girth between the size of a dime to a nickel. The skin should be tight with no sags, the scales should be uniform with out scars or wounds of any type. Its eyes should be bright and clear (shinny), there should not be any waste material along the cloaca underneath near the tail section. Its tongue should be active flicking in and out all the time or at least when in your hands. There should be no mucus around the mouth and the mouth should always be closed. A snake breathing through an open mouth has a contagious (to other snakes, not humans) lung disease, do not purchase any snakes in that store. The snake should be actively crawling through your hand, from one to the other and exploring you and its area. It should not have a smell. Females usually have shorter tails then males and grow larger, ask if the snake has been sexed and have them indicate its sex on the receipt of ownership. Make sure it comes with a 30 day money back guarantee against sickness or death. Ask if they will take it back later then thirty days if you find you are not the snake person you thought you were.
It is not unreasonable for them to say they will find it a new owner but they will not refund money after thirty days, they should not charge the new owner for the snake other then the food it ate while under their care. Be sure to have its home set up and ready for it when you return from the store after making the purchase. For the first forty-eight hours, resist the urge to handle it and allow it time to acclimate itself into its new surroundings, only offer it water for the first two days. On day three, pick up the snake gently and introduce yourself. Snakes have no external ears but are sensitive to vocal vibrations and physical vibrations of things walking around them. Avoid using items such as a vacuum cleaner close to the tank, loud bass (rap) music can vibrate a snake into a coma. Talk in a normal tone of voice, it might sound silly but smile when looking face to face with the snake, use an antibiotic soap on your hands before and after handling your snake and wash your hands if you have come into contact with a dog, cat or especially a rodent, ( squirrel, mouse rat, hamster etc.) these are prey items and it could mistake a finger for a mouse. Washing your hands before and after is the rule from now on, and everything will be fine.
If you have a friend or relative whom wishes to hold it, OK but only after it becomes use to you, say during the first 30 days of having it in your possession, only you should handle it to avoid confusing the snake. After 30 days, wash hands before and after, this is the rule for others as well. Snakes do not enjoy being handled roughly or being held high above the floor, do not allow anyone to lift the snake over their head, this is stressful to snakes, and do not handle it for 48 hours post eating. Break this rule and you could be wearing a 1/2 dissolved mouse on your shirt and you wont do it twice, I promise you that. Do not allow other pets to get within close proximity to your snake. Cats and dogs might not look like they would bite or scratch the snake but it only takes the blink of an eye to end up with two short snakes that were one long snake just a moment ago. Ball Pythons and several other species of snake are nocturnal by nature. It does not cause much harm to handle them during the day light hours once in a while but after sin down is always best. You can view them after dark with out turning on lights if you purchase a red light bulb and place it near their tank. Snakes can not see the color red so they are in total darkness as far as they are concerned and they go about their business at hand unhampered by the red bulb. Several of the pythons including the Ball Python have infrared heat sensing pits along their lips which allow them to see warm blooded animals in total darkness. These pits are similar to the pits of rattlesnakes and other pit vipers although they are not as sensitive. A Ball python could deliver an 100% accurate strike at a rat or mouse even if it was totally blind. Special nerves called Trigeminal nerves spread from the pits and join with the optic nerve and connect to the brain enabling the snake to see images in a sophisticated 3D view. Pythons and Boas are two of the oldest species of snakes alive today, their lineage dates back to almost 300million years, that’s about 230 million years before mans ancestors found their way onto the scene.
The statement “low maintenance” is somewhat an accurate description for a pet snake however the few requirements that are necessary should always be handled in a timely manor, for instance feeding. Feed your snake every week in the evenings when it is normally active. Defrost the prey item in very warm water insuring it is thawed completely. Pat dry with a clean towel touching it to verify it is warn and not hot. Use forceps to grasp the mouse by the tail, never hold the tail with your fingers, one set of teeth sunk into your hand will cure you of feeding the snake with your fingers. Once it has swallowed the first mouse offer the second one. At times snakes absolutely refuse to eat. You can try offering it a different colored mouse but should that fail, relax and if it does not eat the next evening, wait until next week then start over. Snakes can go for months with out food so don’t worry about it starving itself to death, that is not likely to occur. Fresh water every day, sooner if soiled. Remember the proper temperature range inside the setup. Basking light for a few hours an evening for a few days after eating and no handling for 48 hours after a meal or when shedding.
Proper humidity and misting during a shed cycle, and no handling or feeding until the shed has been removed. Check the eye scales on the old skin. Wash hands before and after and have guests do the same only after the first thirty days of living with you. When on vacation, have a friend or relative look in on your pet once in a while when you are away. Use a red light to observe the snake after dark. Remember to write down every action your snake makes, eating, using the bathroom, shedding etc. Do not allow other pets close access to the snake. Handle the snake often to keep it familiar with your scent and use no perfumes when doing this. Handle the snake gently and keep it level with your mid section and chest area, never over head. Keep in mind that you are responsible for the life and health of this animal. Read everything you can obtain about this species of snake. To some people snakes are like potato chips, one is never enough. If you decide to obtain another, they can be housed together if they are of similar size and species. Do not place a newborn in with an adult, snakes are cannibalistic, both should be of similar size. Feed separately, never together, a war will ensue. A new snake must be quarantined for three months away from the older snake to avoid the spread of disease. Once they bond, leave them together from that point on. If they fight from the start, separate them and get a second set up like to first. Male and female are usually ok, female and female are also usually acceptable, male and male at times will fight for dominance of the area, once established, they should be OK from that point on.
As stated earlier, snakes can live for over ten years, the responsibility of caring for them is a serious one. Kept in a proper setting, and managed correctly snakes can live a long and healthy life. Proper food, temperature and a wellness check once a year are the prime requirements to having a healthy and happy snake. Keeping its enclosure clean is also important. When waste products are seen, remove it and replace the cotton towel immediately. A once a month total disinfection of the habitat is also advisable. One tablespoon full of Clorox to a gallon of water will kill every germ in the habitat. Place the tank on the sink top and use the sprayer to rinse all cleaning products left inside the tank. Dry and replace the contents and you are good to go for another month.
You can also place a few inches of warm water in the bath tub and let your snake swim around for a while, towel dry and you will end up with one happy, clean snake. Last but not least: Small children love unusual pets and will beg to hold the snake. You should hold the snakes forward most section and let the child hold the back section, this insures you of control of the snakes head should the child squeeze it tightly and the snake turn to bite. Let the child stroke the sides and hold the snake with open hands, watching both the child and snake for hints of trouble in the making. Once you have become proficient with the snake and become reasonably knowledgeable concerning its life style, requirements and other points of interest pass the knowledge along to others. Offer to exhibit your pet at local schools, 4-H clubs and homes for the elderly. You can join one of the many Herp. clubs on the net or start your own club. Snake rescue societies are also needed throughout the country. Become active and teach what you have learned, you will feel good for lending a hand and for saving the life of an unwanted or uncared for animal. Knowledge is a powerful tool and all to often not shared with those searching for an answer.