WARNING: If you suffer from ophidiophobia, then this article may not be for you!
About half-way through Easter, my parents’ home (which is also the residency of four cats, two dogs, two horses, a giant African land snail, a barn owl, several nosy foxes and the occasional badger) recently took on a new occupant. My sister and I are both reptile lovers, and have for a while tried to encourage our father to tolerate the presence of an ophidian family member. While I would have preferred a ball-python, she seems to have won the argument by our acquiring a corn snake. Both are excellent choices for first pets, though the corn snake seems to be the more popular choice in the shops. The Ball Python set up would have been a great deal more expensive too – so, I’ve decided to use that money to go on a Greek holiday with my partner.
Along with kingsnakes, milk snakes, vine snakes and indigo snakes, corn snakes are part of the subfamily Colubrinae and are known as rat snakes. They are constrictors; this means they subdue their prey by constriction. Previously, people thought this meant snakes suffocated their prey, but recent scientific studies have revealed new insight into how constriction in snakes work. Not all rat snakes are non-venomous, but those that have been found with venom also pose no threat to humans. They are separated into old-world and new-world. New-world rat snakes are considered better pets, as some of the old-world rat snakes can be a bit skittish. Find a list of them here.
Why keep a snake as a pet? Aren’t they icky and slithery and gross? Maybe to you, but there are plenty of reasons – especially with corn snakes.
They are docile, fairly small, and easy to care for. For instance:
- Roo needs only to be fed once a week with a frozen mouse (we call them mousecicles).
- She defecates once a week (compare that with my German Shepherd, who seems to take pride in churning out two or three per hour) and
- her vivarium needs to be cleaned only once a month (how often does the cat tray need emptying?)
- In captivity, they display surprising longevity – they can live past 20 years, compared to only 8 in the wild.
Corn snakes make excellent pets because they also tolerate excessive handling. Their low space requirements mean you don’t have to shell out a great deal for a vivarium, either – our set up cost just over £100, while other, larger vivariums can cost double or even triple that. A medium size vivarium will provide plenty of room for a fully grown corn snake. They enjoy a loose substrate, and somewhere to hide. We’ve thrown in a log for Roo to snuggle into when she’s feeling antisocial.
You might also be pleased to learn that corn snakes are generally not venomous – though they very rarely bite anyway, being constrictors. They are beneficial to we humans – they are endemic to North America, where they control pests, such as rats, who would otherwise damage crops and spread diseases.
Snakes hibernate in cold regions, but in the temperate zones will likely take shelter under rocks and trees to come out and enjoy the warm days, basking in the sunshine.
A lot of people will assume that a snake, being a wild animal, requires live prey. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact, most owners and pet shops will advise strongly against live prey. Injuries resulting from a confrontation, are much more likely to occur if you expect your snake to take down a live animal. It’s more likely to catch disease too. Stunned and frozen mice are the way to go. This also pleases the mouse-lovers out there (we at WildLincoln like mice too, don’t worry!), who would rather not see an animal suffer needlessly. Unfortunately the little mouse does have to go – but at least he doesn’t feel anything.
Firstly, if you’re going to keep frozen mice, it is recommended you get a separate freezer. Keeping dead rodents next to your dad’s beef wellington might not sit well with him, before and after he eats it. Dead rodents carry leptospirosis, which can survive even at sub-zero temperatures.
If you are stuck for a freezer, make sure you keep your mice safely wrapped in a container and separate them from human food as much as possible. Always wash your hands.
When it comes to feeding, you’ll need to thaw the rodent. Handling this with your bare hands is not recommended – always use tongs. Never microwave the rat, as it will cook the meat, and your snake will become poorly. You will need to thaw the rodent in warm water. Place the rodent in a plastic bag, and then into a bowl of warm water. To stop the bag from floating, place a mug over it to keep it submerged. It should take around two hours to thaw.
We don’t recommend you feed your snake in his or her enclosure. Snakes associate – if you bring mice into their vivarium, they’ll begin to think food is always coming in, and next time someone sticks their fingers in, you could get a nasty nick. Take him out, and put him into a separate tub or container. If your snake is the grumpy type who doesn’t like being handled around feeding time, you may have to put the mouse in his enclosure, but make sure you do so with the tongs, and put the mouse somewhere out of the way – on a rock, or on a branch, somewhere that you won’t risk being bitten.
Some snakes have problems with dead rodents, and won’t try to eat them. If this is the case, use your tongs to wiggle some life into the mouse.
Finally, your snake needs to digest his meal. If he’s in a tub, let him crawl out naturally, then pick him up and put him back in his enclosure. He’ll want a space that is warm and dark to digest his meal. Don’t handle your snake for 2 to 3 days after he’s digested his meal, or you risk him regurgitating it.If your snake still isn’t used to dead food, there are products you can use to enhance the rodent’s smell, otherwise try rubbing it in some used mouse bedding. Keep doing it until he is used to eating dead rodents.
Snakes may refuse to eat if they are close to shedding.
If he still doesn’t want to eat dead mice, don’t force him. Some snakes just never get used to it.
If you get bitten, don’t panic, and don’t try and remove your finger. Snake’s fangs rake backwards. Apply pressure to the snake’s jaw joints, at the back and side of the head. If you pull your finger or hand away, you will simply make the bite sink deeper, or you risk breaking the snake’s fangs.
Never feed a snake a rodent that is too large for it!
- Nearly 1/3 of adult humans claim a fear of snakes, making it the second most common phobia in the world. Check out our article on snake phobias.
- Anacondas and Pythons can live up to a year without food.
- A snake’s jaw is marvellous – the lower jaw consists of two separate sides that can move independently of one another, attached by ligaments. The upper jaw is not rigidly attached, and pivots, allowing the snake to digest something twice the size of its head! A common myth is that snakes dislocate/unhinge their jaw – this is not the case.
- There are no snakes in Antarctica, Iceland, Ireland, Greenland or New Zealand. Ophidiophobes, you have your holiday destinations.
- Snakes shed their skin three to six times per year.
- Not all snakes lay eggs – some give birth to live young, like the boa, the rattlesnake, and the garter snake.