I want to get a pet snake. What aspects should I consider when choosing one and preparing to keep it and care for it?
The exact details of the environment and requirements will vary from species to species, reflecting the different sizes, natures and natural habitats of the different kinds of snakes, but the principles of keeping any snake are very similar.
The underlying principle, as with keeping any animal, is of course to put its health and welfare first, so that you and it may enjoy the maximum time together and derive the maximum enjoyment.
Any animal needs space to roam and to exercise in order to exhibit its natural behaviour. As a minimum, for a ground-dwelling snake, is that the perimeter of the enclosure should be double the length of the animal. An arboreal snake should have that, plus at least half their length available in height, but even a ground-dweller such as a Royal (Ball) Python will appreciate the chance to stretch upwards.
The snake's home should have a warm side and a cool side. The exact temperature range required varies according to the species, and (to a lesser extent) even according to the individual snake, but a range of, for example, 75°F-90°F (24°C-32°C) would be typical for a Royal Python.
You should always have an accurate thermometer to keep track of the temperature. Typically, digital thermometers are better calibrated than analogue (dial) ones.
Individual animals might have different preferences, of course, so watch where your snake goes and adjust the temperature from time to time. If it's always in the warmer side, then perhaps the temperatures need to be raised by a degree.
Whether it hides in rodent burrows, or hangs in trees, every snake values its safety, to the extent that it will favour a safe location over warmth if that's the choice. A pet snake's home should be large enough to be able to provide more than one hide, such that it can feel safe in either the warm side or the cool side.
Again, watching where your individual pet spends its time will give you an indication as to whether you have a habitat which suits it. A happy snake will move between the hides from time to time, though rarely when you are watching, so looks for trails in the substrate.
- Follow a normal Circadian rhythm by turning the lights on in the morning and off at night to follow the sunrise and sunset. Also, keep in mind that some snakes prefer to be active at different times of the day (whether they are nocturnal, diurnal, or crepuscular).
- Check your snake's light range sensitivity when purchasing lights, some can detect infrared light (IR), some ultraviolet (UV).
Actual values vary from species to species, but this should be measured (using a hygrometer) and managed as appropriate. In general, the humidity will need to be higher (50%-70%) for rain forest dwellers, and lower (30%-50%) for desert dwellers. Humidity can generally be raised by misting the tank with water and providing live plants, and lowered by desiccating the substrate and providing more ventilation.
Humidity should generally be a little higher when your snake is shedding, in order to ease the removal of the old skin. Creating a "moss box" by filling a hide with damp moss (sphagnum moss for example) can be used to give a concentrated humidity and avoid increasing the humidity of the entire tank.
- Make sure that the chosen substrate is appropriate to the specific species, as some snakes will be intolerant to certain substrate.
- Common substrates include: sand, wood chips/bark (commonly aspen), coconut husk (eco-earth), newspaper, or absorbent paper towels/kitchen rolls.
- Some substrates will hold moisture better than others, which can help keep a higher humidity, but they can also encourage mold and bacteria growth, which should be avoided by choosing a different substrate or replacing the substrate frequently.
- Some animals will ingest substrate when eating. Sand is particularly nasty if this happens as it will become impacted inside the animal's digestive tract, potentially blocking it. This can be avoided by using a different substrate, and/or feeding in a separate container that has no substrate.
- Substrate will need to be regularly cleaned (usually daily) to take out the waste left by the snake.
- Every so often the substrate will have to be replaced entirely, and the tank "deep-cleaned" with anti-bacterial, pet-safe, cleaning solution.
Snakes need water to drink and to bathe.
Bear in mind that some snakes will choose to defecate in their water bowl, so it should be checked at various times throughout the day. Other conditions might cause the snake to spend more time in the water bowl than normal. During shedding times, and if your animal should be unfortunate enough to suffer an infestation of mites. More care should be kept towards keeping the water clean during these times (and of course treatments for parasites if that's the case).
- Appropriate to the specific species
Typically mice, rats, or multimammates (also known as African Soft Furred rats, sometimes simply called multis)
Also eggs, frogs, birds, or lizards
- Appropriate size
Typically the same width as the snake at its widest point
The choice of how to furnish a vivarium is mostly down to personal taste, and is more for the benefit of humans looking at it than the snake, but a varied environment will more closely match what the animal would have had in the wild, and so can give it more opportunity to express natural behaviour. Some species like to burrow more, while others will climb, so check on the specific needs for your species, for example by providing an arboreal with objects to climb.
- Appropriate to the specific species. Snakes that have been in the pet industry, and bred in captivity will be more receptive to handling, while snakes new to the pet industry, and wild caught, will be harder (sometimes impossible) to handle.
- Handle the snake with the size and space in mind, providing proper support to it's body. Also avoid handling a snake while it's shedding, or after feeding.
- Handle snakes safely, if the snake is not used to handling the use of hook, or "tap training", might be necessary. Hooks should always be used with venomous snakes.
- Make sure to follow proper hygiene, washing your hands both before and after, using anti-bacterial soap.
You should know, preferably before you acquire the animal, where you can obtain specialist veterinary care. If you have a venomous snake, you should get in contact with your local hospital to check whether they keep suitable antidote in stock, and make sure that you follow your local laws regarding keeping poisonous species.
Be sure to check with your local authorities for any regulations on owning snakes. - Some areas have regulations regarding venomous snakes, where a license is required to own them, in some select areas anti-venom must be kept on-site, other areas might ban the ownership of venomous snakes entirely. - Some areas have regulations regarding the size of snakes, where snakes that grow to a certain length are prohibited.
other animals might feature on a list of "endangered species".
In most places, there will be a distinction between "captive bred" snakes, (CB) and "wild captured" snakes (WC): ensure that you understand the distinction between them and the implications behind them, and know where your animal has come from. Wild captured snakes should be avoided if you have no previous experience with reptiles.
More detailed information can be found by searching through the other questions regarding snakes, as well as searching for a "care sheet" of the specific snake that are usually provided by snake breeders and reptile magazines.
Since the previous answer was so thorough about snake care, I'm just going to focus on what kind of snake is best for a beginner and where to get one!
General agreement is that the best beginner snakes in terms of manageable size, temperament, low cost, ease/cost of providing an appropriate habitat, and lack of feeding issues are: corn snake, California king snake, rosy boa, and milk snake. Some people might add ball pythons to this list but personally I'm a bit put off by their reputation for being difficult feeders. I know people with balls that are excellent feeders and never turn down a meal... but then again I know of some that regularly go on feeding strikes.
For all of these, captive bred individuals are fairly easy to find at pet stores, local reptile fairs, or local or online breeders. My advice is to avoid large chain pet stores as they often lack staff who are knowledgeable about reptiles and may not take proper care of them. A good locally-owned pet store is a valuable resource as they will be able to provide you continuing support and advice after your purchase. If you're going with a breeder, be sure to look for online reviews before choosing... there are some shady mofos out there including a few that regularly come up at the top of Google searches!
Experience: I have been a reptile owner for almost 10 years. I currently own an 11 year old corn snake which I have bred several times, and a 2 year old Brazilian rainbow boa.