Raising Baby Snakes
One of the questions we get asked quite often is "How do you successfully raise so many baby snakes". This article will explain how we do it, using methods we've developed at VMS over the last twenty-plus years. Some articles may differ from the methodology presented here, and some keepers may view it as overly simplified. Remember, in any large-scale operation the simplest method will always prove the most effective. Whether you are new to the hobby or experienced, a lot can be learned from that simple statement.
The article here focuses on raising hatchling cornsnakes, but apply equally well to many other colubrid species as well, such as kingsnakes, milksnakes, ratsnakes, etc. Remember, it's the concepts presented here that matter; the details can be varied a bit based on specie.
Obtaining Healthy Hatchlings
For the purposes of this article, we'll simply assume you've obtained healthy hatchlings from a reliable breeder, or better still have produced your own.
There's a huge number of sources for baby snakes out there, but in general we recommend dealing directly with a breeder to obtain them. Use caution when dealing over the internet, as it can be difficult to ascertain whether you are dealing with a legitimate business or simply a small breeder falsely representing themselves as such. Ask questions about length of time in business, ask to see copies of business documents such as tax licenses, and check references around the internet. In short, make every effort to make sure you are dealing with a long-term reputable dealer BEFORE even looking at his stocks. Quite often, those offering the lowest prices are best avoided. This may indicate they are unable to properly house and maintain large numbers of hatchlings and must dump them fast. If nothing else, it can indicate the seller places little value on them, and thus will usually devote little effort to caring for them as well. Be prepared to pay a fair market price for a quality specimen, it's the reward quality breeders deserve for their efforts.
This subject really should have come first in this article. Always have all required equipment and caging assembled before obtaining or hatching baby snakes. Seems like a simple enough concept, but you'd be surprised at how many inquiries we get on what to buy for a new baby snake somebody has "just picked up at a show a few days ago".
Figure 1: a baby snake rack
At left is a close-up view of one of our baby snake racks (Fig. 1), with most of the boxes removed for easier viewing. While it seems simple, there are a number of features that should be examined before either building your own or buying a commercially made one.
We often get asked which commercial rack systems we prefer, and the answer is none. Thus far, we have found fault with every type we've examined and elected to construct our own. However, new rack systems appear on the market each year and presumably somebody will get it right eventually. Truthfully, we haven't really checked in the last several years.
The racks shown here were built upon 6qt Sterilite brand shoeboxes. These are slightly taller than many boxes, and thus fewer fit per rack, but they seemed ideal for use with somewhat nervous species - which might leap up and over the sides of shallower boxes. Additionally, they are very inexpensive and readily available at many stores. Many other brands or sizes may be used, experiment a bit to see what best suits your needs.
Figure 2: check the shelf spacing
Once the box has been selected (or if you are evaluating a commercially built rack), it's most important to pay close attention to the spacing of the shelves as shown here (Fig. 2). In order to provide security, tight tolerances are required. Too loose and tiny snakes can escape, too tight and sliding boxes in and out is impossible.
A hint if you are building your own: Cut several spacer blocks and test them for a precise fit before assembling the shelves. Use these spacer blocks to hold shelves in place and insure you have a correct and uniform fit between each shelf during construction.
Figure 3: use a rheostat or thermostat
Notice the rheostat we've installed in the space occupied by one box. (Fig. 3) Whether you choose a simple rheostat as shown here, or a fancier digital thermostat is up to you. But some method of controlling the heat used to create a 'hot-spot' is a requirement.
It's not shown here, but at the outside rear of the same compartment is an electrical outlet. The rheostat is wired to control half of this outlet, and the heat cable is simply plugged into it.
Figure 4: a commercially available 'heat rope'
I knew you were going to ask what a heat cable is, so I've illustrated one here. (Fig. 4) This is a prototype of a now commercially available brand often sold as 'heat rope' or similar.
Other types can be used, and for many years we've used commercial pipe heating cables. However, these come with thermostats built in set for freezing temperatures, which must be cut away or spliced around to operate for our needs. Heat ropes such as shown here are probably the safest bet for those not experienced at electrical wiring and safety.
Figure 5: location of the heat tape
In the picture at left (Fig. 5), look carefully at the silver metallic tape along the back of each shelf.
We used our table saw and a dado blade to cut a simple channel perfectly sized to fit the heat cable. Metallic tape (aluminum tape) is placed over the top to prevent the cable from popping out of the channel or getting rubbed by the boxes sliding overhead.
At proper temperatures, the heat cable will warm about a third of the wooden shelf - providing a perfectly sized 'hot-spot' for baby snakes.
Providing the Proper Temperature
Speaking of 'hot-spots' and temperatures, what is right for your baby snakes? Providing proper temperatures is absolutely critical to successfully raising any reptile. We get more questions about this subject than any other, and they can prove difficult to answer properly.
The correct answer depends on several things. Don't put too much faith in the temperature ranges found in some book or on the internet as just a few degrees can make a big difference. For example, I just checked a popular book on Cornsnakes that states a range of 79-85 degrees is ideal. Yet when I checked one of our racks in which the snakes were thermo-regulating perfectly, I got a range of 82-90. Bear in mind that our baby snake room is heated to 76-78 in winter and 82-84 in summer, and so there are no cold spots anywhere in any cage.
Your conditions may be slightly different. And that's the point - there is no simple answer. It's up to you to be diligent and thorough about providing safe temperature ranges. I'm not going to make specific statements about it and the various equipment available, especially since we've probably never used any of the commonly available pet store equipment. Instead I'm going to show you how we've settled on doing it over the last twenty years of commercial production. Take a look at the following section to see just how simply it can be done.
Figure 6: it's too hot, let's go to the front
To eliminate error, why not just let the snakes themselves guide you? After all, they know best.
Take a look at the photo at right (Fig. 6). See how all the little snakes are pressed to the front of the cage? That's because it's uncomfortably warm for them at the rear over the heat cable. It's your clue to turn down the heat cable just a little.
Figure 7: it's too cool in here, let's go to the back
Now wait a few hours and check again. See in the photo at left (Fig. 7) how the snakes have all left the front and are now sitting on the hot-spot at the rear of the cage? That's your clue that temps could be just a teensy bit warmer.
Once you've got it just right for the specie involved, you'll see some are at the front and some are at the rear most of the time. Other times you'll see them mostly all on the heat if the room has cooled overnight, and mostly all back at the front later during the heat of the day. This means optimal temperature ranges have been achieved and the snakes are now successfully thermo-regulating themselves. You may now quit fooling around with the rheostat and get back to work cleaning cages.
The Cage Itself
Speaking of cleaning cages, let's start by examining the box itself. We use commonly available Sterilite boxes. We settled on these after having encountered difficulty obtaining replacements for the more specialized boxes offered by some dealers. It just seemed wisest to work with a type easy to obtain. These boxes offer an interior floor space of 11" x 5" and are 4-1/2" tall, ideal for hatchling cornsnakes, ratsnakes, kingsnakes, milksnakes, ball pythons, sand boas and rosy boas. Outside measurements are slightly more due to the angled sides. Many keepers utilize shorter boxes, but this makes it easy for a panicked snake to jump out, so we've settled on this height as the best balance for our needs. Feel free to select whatever size suits you, it's not critical. What's important is that it be cheap, lightweight, easily replaceable, and easily cleaned.
Figure 8: a baby snake box, showing ventilation holes
Notice the ventilation holes in front and rear of each box in the photo at right (Fig. 8). Don't drill these, doing so will leave sharp edges which will cut little snake noses. Instead, use a soldering iron to melt each hole. Be sure to do this outside, and avoid inhaling the fumes created. Depending on the humidity requirements for your specie, and the relative humidity in your snake room, you may need to make more holes than shown here - but it's a good starting point. You can always add more holes later if needed.
You'll also notice in some of the photos that our racks all have either perforated pegboard backs or simply have open backs. This allows for better airflow throughout the cages. Most of our rooms have ceiling fans to provide additional circulation as well. All of our rooms have exhaust fans set on timers to exhaust stale air from the rooms and draw in fresh air for an hour or so twice per day. Fresh air is a must, if it stinks to you, then it must be unbearable to the snakes.
Here at VMS, we use inexpensive disposable plastic water dishes, as shown here (Fig. 9). They are lightweight, very cheap, and can simply be tossed if soiled. They have a snap-on cover that limits spills from sloshing when the cage is pulled out. They are clear and the contents can be easily viewed without sliding each cage out.
Figure 9: a baby snake box, showing disposable plastic water dish
Frankly, we find them ideal, but with one caveat: They should only be used with very small snakes. Larger specimens may get inside to soak, forcing the contents all the way to the top. If they cannot find the exit hole, or are too thick to turn easily, they may drown. We recommend them only for slender snakes such as corns up to about 18" in length.
As for the water itself, we currently use well water, straight from the tap. Water in urban areas may contain chlorines, chloramines and fluorides. While we used treated municipal water for many years without problems, some keepers insist on using filtered water. Honestly, I think if it's safe for you to drink, it's safe for a snake to drink. But go with your gut on that one, there's certainly no reason not to offer filtered water. Regardless of the water source, change it at least weekly if chlorinated, more frequently if not, and immediately if soiled. Always wash and sterilize (or replace) the dish during these changes.
Nope. I'm not talking about an alarm system, although you may want one of you have a large and valuable collection, we've had one for years now. What I'm referring to here is the security of the snake. A snake which feels insecure will never do well. Don't locate the cage in an area with high traffic, slamming doors, kids bouncing balls off the front, a cat staring down through the screen cover at it, bright lights...well you get the idea. They need peace and quiet.
Figure 10: a baby snake box, showing crumpled newspaper hiding area
This is another area where rack systems excel. Those small plastic boxes slipped into dark little shelves are often enough security for all but the most nervous individuals. In fact, we rarely offer any form of hide in our racks.
When we do need to offer a hide, we usually keep it simple. We simply scrunch up a half sheet of newspaper and place it in the cage as shown at right (Fig 10). Besides being free and disposable, it's been well received by the snakes. They simply love being able to cram themselves into the tight folds it offers. Just be sure to shake them out before discarding a soiled piece of paper, I've had to dig more than one startled little cornsnake back out of the trash can. When placed as shown, it also allows them to continue thermo-regulating while always enjoying the security of their hide. Regardless of the type of hide you choose, those are the two most important aspects. It must be a tight and secure fit for them, and it must allow for thermoregulation by covering both warm and cool locations. Otherwise, many snakes will seek out a hiding spot at the expense of achieving proper body temperature.
Now for the big subject, proper feeding. For our purposes here, we're going to assume you've obtained a healthy young snake, already feeding steadily on frozen-thawed mice and that you are maintaining correct environmental conditions as described above. If not, we've prepared an entire web page on dealing with stubborn feeders, and I'm not going to cover all that again here. Click here to read it.
Sizing and Preparing the Meal
For many years, all keepers had available were live or freshly killed mice. While these could have a few problems, such as live adult ones chewing up snakes and either type potentially carrying parasites, problems were otherwise pretty non-existent. In fact, the only problem commonly encountered was a lack of steady supply. This problem continues to this day.
Over the last decade or so, frozen mice have entered the hobby on a commercial scale and quickly achieved 'mainstream' status. They provide the perfect solution to the irregular supply problem, and are a real convenience to all who tire of running to the local store once a week for a mouse. Just pop a dozen in the freezer and problem solved. Be sure to put them BEHIND the frozen pizza, lest your mother in law stumble across them while grubbing for ice cubes...
Figure 11: a freezer full of mice is convenient - but can cause cardiac arrest in unsuspecting relatives
As you can see in this picture from our freezer (Fig. 11), the greatest convenience is the handy supply of a variety of sizes. Anybody with some freezer space can keep every size needed for a vast array of snakes of all ages and sizes. I can also see from the photo that it's time to re-order. Waiting on the UPS truck is a lot easier than digging through our rodent breeding racks for pinkies....
While wonderfully convenient, they are not without their problems. In fact, since their use has become wide-spread the numbers of digestive-related health inquiries we've received has increased dramatically. I can't say there's a definite correlation, but it feels like it. I've written an entire page on the subject of live vs. frozen, and won't go over it all again here. Click here to read it. Regardless of the issues, we use them here almost exclusively for our baby colubrid snakes. This is mostly because customers have grown to require they be feeding on frozen and because it's, well, like I said, convenient.
But remember when using either fresh-killed or frozen-thawed that you are dealing with a complete carcass here. We're all familiar with safety precautions involving thawing chicken breasts on the kitchen counter, imagine the dangers in thawing a complete frozen chicken. Not the kind neatly cleaned and sealed in the vacuum packed plastic wrapper, I mean the kind with all the guts, fresh poop in and on it, and dirty feathers all over it. Lemme guess, after reading that you don't want chicken for dinner? Well, your snake doesn't want a dirty rotting pinkie either, so use the same precautions you would with your own meal. Keep things fresh, feed immediately after thawing, remove uneaten items after thirty minutes, and above all never ever ever feed one that's even slightly cold to the touch.
Figure 12: thaw feeders COMPLETELY before feeding
We recommend simply laying out each food item on clean paper towel, well-spaced as shown at right (Fig. 12), and placing them in front of a fan. At snake-room temperature, with air circulating over them, even larger food items thaw amazingly fast.
Speaking of larger food items, what size is right for your snake? Based on the numbers of inquiries we receive asking what to do about regurgitation, it's apparent that far too many keepers feed prey items that are far too large. Just because somebody sent you an internet photo of a Reticulated Python that ate a Donkey, it doesn't mean you should feed Donkeys to your pet snake. For Colubrid snakes, such as corns, kings, rats, and milks, feed prey items with a body diameter roughly the same size as that of the snake and you'll be OK.
This is where another potential problem often arises, as there seems to be no standards for sizes amongst suppliers. What one calls 'large pinkies', another may call 'fuzzies'. I can't help you with this very much, but the best suppliers offer photos of each size, along with a common item (such as a dime). Go set your little snake o to of a dime and see what you think before ordering. Sorry, it's the best I can do.
How often should you feed? Well, that's a bit tricky. For newly arrived specimens, or those that are very small, once per week is generally about right. Once established and obviously thriving, you can pick up the pace a bit to increase growth rates. Make changes gradually, offering food every six days for a month, then every five days for a month, than maybe even every four days. Make very sure temperatures are optimal, as described above, as even slight changes can have a pronounced effect on digestion. With growth, the size of the prey item should be increased appropriately. It's far better to err on the side of safety and feed smaller items less often than to risk the health of your pet.
Offering the Meal
Okay, so here you are with freshly thawed pinkie mouse in hand. Now what?
Well, if your snake is really well-established, it will probably take the meal directly from your hand. By hand, I actually mean long forceps or tweezers. We use 10-12 inch ones for baby snakes and 16-18 inch for adults. Don't just use your hand, this will not only teach your snake to bite you, but if teeth break off in your skin it can cause real problems for the snake. Notice I didn't mention the problems for you, if you did this, you deserve it.
Simply grasp the prey item by the scruff of the neck in such fashion that you can easily present the nose to the baby snake. Do it quietly, without disturbing the snake. Scared snakes don't eat. Believe me, although seemingly sound asleep, it knows you are there. In fact, if you thawed the food in the same area (on top of the cage cover is good), the snake will likely already be on the prowl looking for it. Scent plays a key role in feeding - yet another reason to keep your hands out of the way and use forceps.
If your snake is younger, or shy, try this method instead:
Figure 13: offering meals in disposable cups prevents contamination
As you can see in the photo at left (Fig. 13), we've buried a 2oz portion cup almost flush with the surface of the bedding and placed the meal inside. This prevents bedding from adhering to the meal and possibly being ingested by the snake. You can use other items as a 'dinner plate', but these little cups are small, cheap, and disposable. You can usually bum a few from any restaurant you are dining at. If the wait-staff doesn't cough up a couple, mention that this means you'll have to save your tip money to buy some, that usually works.
Those with keen eyes will note that this pinkie is frozen, not properly thawed. I was in a hurry and did this just for the photo - don't offer even partially frozen meals to your snakes.
Always place the cup at the cooler end of the cage, preferably adjacent to the hide spot. Placing it directly on the hot spot will cause the meal to decompose at a startling rate of speed, with negative results on the olfactory senses of both keeper and snake.
Generally, best results with feedings are obtained very early in the morning and again in the evenings or just after dark. Since this is when most wildlife is active, this should come as no surprise. It's just common sense. Which brings me to my last point:
Using Common Sense
99% of successful reptile keeping is using common sense, and I just have to mention a few common problems that we encounter on an almost daily basis in our inquiries. While you don't have to think like a reptile, it'll help. All of these could be avoided with a little use of common sense.
First, if you are using that little round stick-on thermometer the pet store sold you, pry it off the cage wall and throw it away. The snake is not sitting ten inches off the ground on the back wall of the cage, so why is your thermometer stuck up there? The readings it's giving you are useless. Spend a few bucks on an infrared temperature 'gun' and take accurate readings down on the floor of the cage, under hide areas and such. That's where the snake lives and that's what matters. Better yet, just go back and review the discussion of thermoregulation above, since the snakes know more than the thermometer does.
Second, pay attention to the room temperature, especially in winter. Most homes are simply too cool, especially in winter, and providing a proper temperature range can be near impossible in such conditions. Be sure to check the temperature ranges often, especially as seasons change. Each and every fall we get letters from worried keepers that 'my snake has suddenly stopped feeding'. This is due to lowered temperatures. Check the temps.
Third, don't put your tiny new hatchling in a huge aquarium. With a hundred times the space available, it's a hundred times harder to make sure temperatures throughout are ideal. I know you think you are giving your new pet the very best, but there's a reason the pros use those little plastic boxes in shelf rack systems - they are far easier to work with.
Fourth, here's another point about using aquariums: That fancy screen cover you've placed on the top is also letting out all the heat. This can be especially noticeable in homes during winter, and it may be necessary to cover up some or all of the screen to prevent heat loss and achieve a safe temperature range throughout the cage. Take a heavy duty plastic food storage bag, cut the edges to open it flat and trim to fit as needed. This will also help maintain a higher humidity within the cage, which may or may not be of benefit, depending on the specie involved.
Thanks to you all!
Well, thanks to all who have taken the time to read this, and I hope some of the suggestions offered here will help. I'm sure there's a lot of things I've forgotten or inadvertently left out. It's one of the problems with doing something for so log that it becomes second nature, you just don't think to mention some things that might not be readily apparent to others. Feel free to shoot us a note if you see some of these things, or have questions, I'll go back and edit as needed.