Throughout North America, it has become quite common to find people that keep different snake species as pets. Twenty years ago, it was only the stereotypical “biker dude with a snake wrapped around his neck” that was known to keep snakes, but the hobby has grown so immensely over the past two decades that people of all ages and sexes are now keeping these wonderful animals as pets. The biggest question that is asked to people that keep snakes as pets is “why?”. Of course the purpose of this article is to answer that very question, but the short and painless answer, or Coles notes version, is that they are the easiest pet to take care of and possibly the most unique of all of herpetology, the study of reptiles.
But if they are so easy to take care of, why is it that their popularity is now just becoming mainstream? The answer is that there has always been, and perhaps always will be, a negative stigma associated with snakes of all species. Most major religions see the snake as being the devil incarnate, like Christianity, or see them as being dark powerful entities, like in Voodoo cultures, and the evilness of snakes is constantly perpetrated by worldwide myths that show the snake to often be a trickster. The fact is that people associated all snakes with snakes involved in negative incidents, like large constrictors eating small other family pets, extremely venomous snakes killing humans, or even aggressive species attacking humans in the wild, but the stigma associated with snakes couldn’t be farther from the truth. The snakes commonly found in pet stores or available to the public from breeders are less likely to bite than most small animals like hamsters and mice. And for those who have strong allergies to pets, snakes are considered hypoallergenic because they have no hair or dander that most people suffer allergic attacks too. The fact is that snakes make fantastic pets, and once you have one, you will definitely be hooked in the hobby for the rest of your life.
What is a snake?
Snakes are elongate, legless, carnivorous reptiles of the suborder Serpentes that can be distinguished from legless lizards by their lack of eyelids and external ears. Like all squamates, snakes are ectothermic, amniote vertebrates covered in overlapping scales. Many species of snakes have skulls with many more joints than their lizard ancestors, enabling them to swallow prey much larger than their heads with their highly mobile jaws.
Types of Snakes
Of the fifteen families of snakes that are currently recognized, comprising 456 genera and over 2,900 species I have the impossible job of breaking down the nearly three thousand species into three nice, neat groups. Well, to be perfectly honest, the task was considerably easier than you would think because there are only so many available to the public through pet stores and private breeders. The two most popular types of snakes that people generally keep as pets are Colubrids and Constrictors. The main differences will be described below, but these snakes generally come from different area in the world, and they have distinct physical differences, which both factors lead to different housing requirements. The third type that I will cover is considerably rarer and is not recommended for beginners under any circumstances. Venomous snakes are available through specific breeders that deal with specific species of venomous snakes. These snakes are often quite colorful to see in person, and like Colubrids and Constrictors, require their own housing requirements.
Colubrids are by far the most common type of snake available to hobbyists of all levels of experience. These are snakes that are members of the family Colubridae, which is a broad classification of snakes that includes about two thirds of all snake species on earth. Colubrid species are found on every continent, except Antarctica. The most common types of colubrids for hobbyists are cornsnakes, milksnakes, and kingsnakes, which all have a large variety of coloration for hobbyists to choose from and for the most part they are all good natured. Even more fascinating, a large number of these snakes are actually found within North America, and if you are lucky enough, you may be able to see them in the wild. They span from the Canadian Prairies, to the mountain ranges of Canada and the USA, and even the humid areas in the Southern United States. Because of their popularity and ease of care, there are numerous breeders throughout North America that specialize is producing fantastic captive breed snakes of different morphs, or different colorations and patterns, which means that there is no longer any need to take animals from the wild.
Constrictors refer to snakes that kill their prey by wrapping their bodies around the prey and squeezing so tightly that it is impossible for their prey to breathe. When we speak of constrictors, we are speaking in general terms because the specific types of snakes we are talking about are Pythons and Boas. These snakes are often grouped together because they are generally larger snakes and because of their method of killing their prey. Although they are grouped together, they do have their own physical differences and they also span different locations of the globe.
Where the boa comes from Mexico, Central and South America, Madagascar and on Reunion Island, the python comes from Africa, Asia, and Australia. It’s interesting that Colubrids make up two thirds of all snakes where pythons and Boas only account for 21 species in total. The other issue surrounding this group of snakes is that because of their larger size, there are several restrictions including bans throughout North America. This is largely due to the fear of the entire species because of a couple bad apples, namely the Burmese Python, which is good natures but huge reaching sizes of up to 20 feet, and the Reticulated Python, which reaches sizes that rival the Burmese but can also show aggression to humans.
Venomous snakes are snakes that uses modified saliva, snake venom, usually delivered through highly specialized teeth such as hollow fangs, for the purpose of prey immobilization and self-defense. In contrast, non-venomous species either constrict their prey, or simply overpower it with their jaws. Venomous snakes include several families of snakes and do not form a single taxonomic group that accounts for one quarter of snake species throughout the world. This has been interpreted to mean that venom in snakes originated more than once as the result of convergent evolution. Evidence has recently been presented for the Toxicofera hypothesis however; venom was present (in small amounts) in the ancestor of all snakes (as well as several lizard families) as `toxic saliva` and evolved to extremes in those snake families normally classified as venomous by parallel evolution. The Toxicofera hypothesis further implies that `non venomous` snake lineages have either lost the ability to produce venom (but may still have lingering venom pseudogenes), or actually do produce venom in small quantities, likely sufficient to assist in small prey capture, but cause no harm to humans if bitten. For the purposes of this article, the more common snakes bred in captivity are generally vipers because of their bright coloration. The problem with this type of snake is obvious, but it is always worth saying that they are incredibly dangerous and they can cause fatalities to humans. You have to also understand that anti-venom works in most cases, but there is a limited supply that is usually not accessible in certain areas, and different snakes require different anti-venom. So the rarer of snake you have, the more rare it is to get anti-venom.
Interesting fact about snake anti-venom: Anti-venom is made with the help of horses! Horses have a natural tolerance towards snake venom, and when introduced slowly into their systems, their blood builds a natural immunity. The horse’s blood is then taken in order to make snake anti-venom for humans.
Purchasing Your First Snake
The first rule about purchasing your first snake is to buy a species that is interesting to you. Never be persuaded to purchase a snake that you don’t want because you are told it is an easier snake meant for a beginner. If it is a snake that you don’t really want, then it is a snake that you will grow tired of in the future. Regardless of what type of snake it is that you want, you have to ensure you do all the research about the snake prior to purchasing it so that you take proper care of the snake from day one. There is simply no sense in getting a snake that will grow to be 20 feet long if you are living in an apartment. The idea that a reptile will grow to the size of its enclosure is a myth, and the fact is that if they live in an enclosure too small, their growth will be stunted and they will suffer from health issues.
One of the most debated issues in all of herpetology is whether to purchase from a private breeder or from a pet store. Here is an argument that is based on a few too many bad apples spoiling it for the bunch. Without pet stores, there simply would not be reptiles, snake, and amphibians in captivity as pets because it was various pet stores that sparked the interest in reptiles in the first place. But over the past twenty years, there have been numerous cases of reptiles being sold by people thinking only of profit as their reptiles suffered from neglect. Thankfully, there has been numerous reptile enthusiasts stepping forward to challenge pet stores that simply do not live up to the standards that reptile require, and there have also been numerous pet stores in North America that have been promoting proper reptile care. The downside to purchasing from a pet store is that you will be paying higher prices because the pet store purchases from breeders and then mark up the prices to make a profit. Sometimes you will find unique snakes in pet stores, but for the most time, they are usually the run of the mill whereas, if you purchase from a breeder, you may be able to get a more unique morph that most people have never seen before.
As a general rule of thumb, always try to purchase the healthiest snake available. This is easily done by purchasing the largest snake in a group that is bright eyes and active. Larger snakes typically mean that they are being well fed and cared for. If a snake is skinning and not active, then it is best to leave it be. Although snakes are nocturnal, it is important that they are alert when uncovered or picked up. One of the most common reasons for buying a small sickly snake from either a breeder or pet store is because you want to save it and nurse it back to health. Although noble your intentions might be, a life time of health issues will not make you love your snake more, and health issues in snakes are incredibly difficult to treat especially if it is a young snake that has yet to build up a resistance to illnesses. A healthy snake can live many years, and if you put in the time that is necessary, you will be rewarded in the long run.
All snakes regardless of species require three main things to ensure that they not only survive, but thrive in their new home. The first thing that all snakes require is an enclosure that is big enough for them to stretch out it, but also to mimic their natural ecosystem. If a snake primarily stays on the ground, or terrestrial, then it needs a lot of ground space, but if the snake spends most of its time in trees above the ground in the wild then it should have a tall cage with little ground space. Depending on the type of snake, there are numerous types of substrate available for your specific snake ranging from different types of sand to various wood mulches. You just have to remember to always avoid oak and cedar because they have oils that are toxic to most snake species. Most important of all, especially if you want to keep you snakes in the cage, you have to have a tight fitting lid that they can’t push up or squeeze through. The fact of the matter is, if they can escape, they will, and just because you can’t see them trying, they are trying as hard as they can to escape.
The second thing to remember about snakes is that they are cold blooded, so they require an external heat source to keep their bodies warm. Without a heat range of 75 f to 80 f (For most Species), you snake will be stressed out and will not be able to digest its food properly. A lot of times when a snake refuses to eat, it is because their temperature is simply too low for their metabolism to function properly. This heat can be from an external reptile heat bulb to heat the cage from above, or you can choose to use a heat mat to heat the cage from below. It is important to heat only one half of the cage give the snake a chance to regulate its body temperature by being able to move from one side of the cage to another. As an add on to heating, most reptiles need daylight in one form or another in order to live long healthy lives. To accomplish this, there are numerous fluorescent lights on the market that mimic the natural like of the sun from different areas of the world for specifically desert, tropical, and sub-tropical reptiles.
The last thing you have to remember is that snakes like to feel secure. They do this by curling up underneath things that they can push up against and feel safe. The easiest way to do this is to purchase reptile hides from a pet store that look like big hollow rocks that your snake can climb under. These are the easiest to use, most effective, and the safest. Some people choose to use real rocks, which are alright, but you have to ensure they cannot be pushed over because they can and will crush a small snake. And again, snakes like to regulate their temperatures, so it is important to have one hiding spot on the cool side of the cage, and a hiding spot on the hot side of the cage.
All snakes are strictly carnivorous, eating small animals including lizards, other snakes, small mammals, birds, eggs, fish, snails or insects. Because snakes cannot bite or tear their food to pieces, they must swallow prey whole.
In captivity, the question of feeding is a highly debated topic. While a lot of people want to feed their snakes live prey items, there is a strong movement from private breeders to feed only frozen/thawed prey items. The problem with live prey is that they can bite the snake back, especially larger mice, rats, and gerbils that can cause significant health risks for the snake itself. The other issue with live prey is that some snakes get into a feeding pattern by eating the same thing over and over, and because large prey item are difficult to get, the snake is more likely to refuse to eat frozen/thawed. The benefit to frozen/thawed is that they are safe to feed all snakes, they do not lose any nutritional value, and you can purchase in bulk in order to save you money in the long run. The best part about feeding snake is that they only eat once a week, which means they only poop once a week. So in general, the maintenance is low and the cost of feeding is as low as twenty five cents for a baby snake and perhaps three dollars a week for an adult. It’s a simple fact that there is no animal that is easier and more affordable to feed than a snake.
Although they are one of the most misunderstood pet on the market today, the snake is one of the best, easiest, and most affordable pet you could ever purchase. The moment a snake is in your house, the hobby envelops you in a way you would never expect. I can probably state as a fact that all private breeders at one time or another were just like you or me, and picked up their first pet snake just because of their uniqueness, but the interest quickly turns into a passion. The simple fact that they do not bit, or are generally not aggressive in any way, makes them a fantastic people for people of all ages. Just when you think they have no personality, they will find a way to surprise you and make you rethink the way you look at snakes forever. And there is no time like the present to get into the hobby because due to the large number of breeders throughout North America, the general price of snakes has gone down significantly over the past twenty years. Now you can easily find beautiful snakes of all sorts of colors and patterns to suit your personality, and the best part is that they are all captive bred.