Care, Housing, and Feeding
- Parent Category: Care
- Published on Friday, 31 October 2008 19:49
Corn Snake Care Sheet
The Corn Snake - sometimes called the red rat snake - Pantherophis guttatus (formerly Elaphe guttata guttata) is one of the easiest snake species to maintain in captivity. Adult corns generally average lengths between 3.5 and 4.5 feet (1 and 1.4m), and no other snake species in their size class rivals the variety of colors and patterns found in corns. They are arguably the most human-tolerant snake in captivity today, and are considered the number one choice for new snake owners. We suggest reviewing the latest written data resources (books and Internet chat forums) regarding the keeping of corn snakes before acquiring one, but keep in mind that anyone can publish anything on the World Wide Web, and much of what you find on the subject of corn snake care is not peer-approved by professional corn snake breeders and keepers.
For many obvious reasons, I recommend a captive-hatched snake over a wild one. Captive bred corns are generally parasite and disease free, and by discouraging the sale of wild-caught corn snakes, we help reduce the wild habitat damage inflicted by snake catchers. If you are shopping for a pet snake, and want unbiased opinions about which species a first-time snake owner should consider, contact your local zoo for their recommendations. I doubt that any of them will suggest a species other than the corn snake for first time snake owners.
Corn snakes are resourceful escapists, so be sure the cage (vivarium) you use has a secure and tightly-fitting closure. In general, snakes require fresh air, but excessive ventilation can dangerously cool the cage, with potentially deadly consequences. We therefore recommend top ventilation such as screen tops made for aquaria; not cages with screen sides. For hatchling corn snakes, a small enclosure (floor dimensions of 12" x 8" and at least 3" tall = 30.5cm x 20.3cm x 7.6cm) with adequate ventilation will be suitable until they reach approximately 24" in (61cm) length, but larger vivaria are more appropriately heated by way of offering two or more distinct thermal zones -- not always possible in very small enclosures. More details regarding the importance of thermal zones are below in the HEATING section of this care sheet. These neonate (newly hatched) corn snakes can escape from any cage with gaps or holes the size of their snout. For adults, the cage length should be approximately 1/2 the length of the snake (or larger); a 15 or 20 gallon (56.8 or 75.7 liter) aquarium with a locking lid is adequate for the lifetime of most corns. Many owners of young corn snakes begin with a 10 gallon (37.9 liter) aquarium, and upgrade to a 15- or 20- gallon (56.8 or 75.7 liter) fish tank as their snake grows. If you prefer not to have more than one cage throughout the lifetime of your snake, there is nothing harmful about making a 15-20-gallon 56.8 or 75.7 liter (or larger) enclosure the first and only cage they will know. Having only one functional lung, corns are considered "low-aerobic" pets. Therefore, corns do not require a spacious cage, but naturally, larger vivaria afford them the benefit of more exercise - thereby facilitating better muscle tone. While aquariums are the most widely used cages for corn snakes, they are by no means the only efficient enclosures. The main reason they are the cage of choice is that their glass construction not only offers better viewing of your pet, but has the greatest number of options for heating. The see-through cage sides increase detection of feces and fecal smudges that can harbor germs throughout the cage.
Communal housing of corns of any size is inherently dangerous and therefore ill-advised.
Temperature Consistancy is the single most important facet of successful snake keeping!
Snakes are ectothermic - essentially meaning that in lacking the ability to create their own body heat, they depend on temperatures immediately around them to facilitate proper metabolism. When you hear the term cold blooded - which originally referred to the fact that unlike most mammals, snakes are often cold to the touch - the primary implication is that their bodies are incapable of creating heat. Of course, the result of both explanations is the same. Even at proper cage temperatures, your snake will feel cold to your touch because your outer skin is roughly between 90ºF and 95ºF (32ºc and 35ºc) indoors. Therefore, you may falsely preceive that your snake's body is unacceptly cold, when in fact, the temperature may be ideal for appetite and food digestion. Only thermometers that are properly located in your cages will aid you in ensuring that your snake is properly heated. Regarding placement of stationary thermometers and/or where to monitor temperatures in the cage via remote probe placement or non-contact reading devices, there is only ONE place that matters. THE SNAKE'S BODY. No other place in the cage matters, so since we know that in the absence of eyelids to protect their eyes from UV light, and because corns are naturally nocturnal, the only place where you need to control temperature is inside the hide that is continually between 80°F and 85°F (26.7°c - 29.4°c), ideally; 81F to 84F (27°c - 29°c).
UT (Under Tank) and OT (Over Tank) are the most common heeating methods used for corn snake Vivaria. We recommend UT heating, since it more accurately simulates how corn snake achieve proper body heat in the wild, and is the safest way to heat your snake. Yes, on cool days, wild corns will bask in light, but for most of the year, they achieve necessary body heat via lying on/near warm entities in their natural habitat (i.e. the ground or tree branches). Warming themselves from sunlight is safely achieved in the wild because snakes are able to move into or away from such radiation, depending on temperature tolerances. In cages--such as aquaria that have been converted to snake enclosures--heat from OT lighting (or OT heat-emitters) is impractical and inherently unsafe for several reasons. Because hot air rises, much of the heat output from OT heaters never reaches your snake, and nocturnal snakes like corns do not require (or appreciate) lighting in their cages. It's inefficient in that most of the heat rising from the heat lamp or emitter is not getting down to your snake at the bottom of the cage. Therefore, often, snake keepers tend to use light or heat fixtures that emit more heat than the snake is comfortable (or safe) with. The resulting dehydration of the air space below the light or heat-emitter can contribute to dysecdysis (incomplete skin shedding) and even potential kidney damage. The very nature of such lights and heat-emitters is not focused enough to heat just one small space in the cage (the warm hide), the target of which is not only more economical, but safer for your snake. If not using thermostats to regulate the heat output of your particular heat source, if the surrounding room temperature spikes, your OT light or heat-emitter is still putting heat down to your snake, which could result in the death of your pet(s). "Passive" heating with UT devices is not only safer, more natural, and less expensive, but eco-friendly - via using less electricity. UT heaters are therefore much more widely used by corn snake keepers because the location of the UT heater beneath the bottom glass of the aquarium is focused on - and therefore heats - only one zone of the cage. Even if regulating devices like thermostats are not used, if the cage gets too warm, the snake can retreat to the cool end of the cage or in the water bowl, to reduce its body temperature. Insulating substrate materials like aspen bedding form a substratum that works as a buffer between the heater under the bottom glass and your snake. The temperature of the glass atop the UT heater can be as high as 120° F (48°c), but since corn snake virtually NEVER lie upon or near such hot surfaces, damage to your snake should not be a concern. Some snakes (i.e. Ball Pythons) eagerly burrow beneath the substrate and have been known to die from burns received from such hot surfaces. In the 35+ years I've been keeping corns - and having kept at least 40,000 of them - not one snake was ever burned from UT heating devices.
I recommend that the size of the UT heater never exceed 1/4 of the length of the cage. If too large, it's possible to place the warm hide where it will overheat. If you already have a UT heater that's too large, place the hide only partially above it. If the hide is too warm, the snake will opt to repose in cooler zones of the cage, thereby not achieving body temps necessary for appetite and digestion.
Whether using UT (Under Tank) or OT (Over Tank) heating, it is crucial to offer your corn more than one thermal zone within the cage - in order to facilitate successful thermoregulation. In most cases, exclusive use of a UT heating device is satisfactory, but even if OT heat emitters or lights serve your snakes' temperature needs, they can sometimes be harmful to your snake. UT heat devices should be affixed to the underside of the vivarium, near one end only - NOT INSIDE the enclosure. Attaching a UT heater to the side of the vivarium is virtually useless, since most of the heat from that device will be dissipated into the room, instead of the cage. Bear in mind that the primary location in the cage that requires monitoring is INSIDE the warm-side hide -- where your snake will spend the majority of its life in captivity.
In the absence of the ability to metabolically produce heat, thermoregulation is practiced by most reptiles to achieve comfort, metabolic efficiency, and basic survival. In a snake cage, this is accomplished by your snake voluntarily changing positions within the cage to facilitate their most important life functions; achieving appetite and digestion. In the wild, snakes that cannot find proper digesting temperatures are forced to leave their territorial spaces, but in a cage, if you do not provide adequate thermoregulatory resources, your snake has only one alternative (suffer starvation and consequent immune-deficiency). It is therefore your responsibility to provide at least two different temperate zones in your pet's' cages. Acceptable and safe digestion can be achieved in a cage with only one temperature zone, provided that one temperature is continually in the range of 80°F - 85°F (26.7°c - 29.4°c). Most professional corn snake breeders do not intentionally impose a night-time temperature drop, since constant maintenance of the 80°F - 85°F (26.7°c - 29.4°c) range results in more predictable growth rates and fewer digestive failures. We endeavor to maintain a constant 82.5°F (+ or - 1°F) in our snake buildings. In so much as most humans are not comfortable in a room that is constantly 80°F - 85°F (26.7°c - 29.4°c), for the casual corn snake pet keeper who maintains their reptiles in a room that is too cool for corn snakes, I recommend a cage with one hide that is 80°F - 85°F (26.7°c - 29.4°c) and one that is below 80°F (26.7°c). If either hide is not sufficiently and invitingly dark inside, your snake may not utilize those temp refuges, and may consequently fail to thrive. Corn snakes will know when they need heat and when they should avoid heat, so it is important to offer two temperate zones (and even a third, intermediary zone when possible). Be sure the heating device is associated with only one end of the cage so your snake can retreat to cooler zones in the unexpected event that the warm zone overheats. Without electronic controllers like thermostats or rheostats (both are usually not necessary), regardless of room temperatures, heating devices are fully ON or fully OFF (exception being proportional thermostats that delivery a constant flow of electricity to your heating device that results in one temperature point that set by you). Given that electronic temperature controllers are subject to failure for many reasons, if using one, you should continually check the accuracy of such devices by monitoring temperatures on the warm side of the cage with one or two thermometers you trust. For this reason, we do not recommend thermostats or rheostats. They are additional devices that could contribute to the illness or death of your pet, should they fail. If one end of your cage is not affected by the heating device, the only way that end of the cage will be dangerous to your snake is if the entire room were to reach dangerously high temperatures - in which case a thermostat or rheostat will not help anyway. If you see your snake behaving uncharacteristically - if not from illness, parasites, or injury - it is sometimes the result of incorrect (and potentially unsafe) temperatures. Incidentally, another reason I don't recommend the use of thermostats is that if they are not the expensive proportional devices, even if the probe is properly located (inside the warm hide), from the time when the probe cuts power to the heating device to the time it comes back on, the snake's body temperature may drop as much as. Naturally, the inverse can also occur - temperature spikes of 5°F - 7°F until the thermostat disengages the heating device.
In most cases, the UT heater should warm less than 1/3 of the cage floor space (unless you are heating units in a rack system that has vastly less ventilation). Heating less than 1/4 of each cage in a rack system is recommended. Naturally, the end of the cage that includes the warm hide is the end you need to heat. In rack systems, heating either the inside back panel of the rack or beneath the back of each shelf is recommended. Using UT heating devices that are larger than 1/3 or 1/4 of of the cage floor can unintentionally heat more than one end of the cage, thereby not affording your snake with a cool refuge, should the warm end be unsafely warm. Since heating the underside of the back of shelves in a rack system obviously provides excessive heat to snakes beneath the shelves, it is recommended that you use proportional thermostats for rack systems. The option is to affix the heat devices to the inside back panel of the rack. Since little or no ventilation is afforded by most rack systems, heat buildup is a foregone conclusion. We put heat strips on the inside back panel of our racks routinely, since males can be rendered sterile if UT heating is excessive. Sperm are killed by such over-heating, so sterility is usually temporary, but in some cases males can be rendered permanently sterile from over-hearing. Proportional thermostats render steady heat levels to snakes, vs non-proportional thermostats that allow spikes at the end of each heat cycle.
By adjusting the depth of the cage substrate, it is easy to achieve proper appetite and digesting temperatures for your corn snake without the aid of electronic controllers. If the warm-side hide is over 85°F (26.7°c) inside, increase the substrate depth so the snake is farther from the heat source. Conversely, if the inside of the warm-side hide is in the low 80sF (26.7°c - 29°c) or below, decrease the substrate depth to move your snake's primary hide closer to the heat source that is under the cage. In rare instances, UT and OT heaters are jointly advised in very large enclosures, but in positioning and adjusting devices and hides, it is essential to remember that the appetite and digestion TEMPERATURE GOAL of 80°F - 85°F (26.7°c - 29.4°c) is only achieved if your snake wants to access that ideal temperature zone. In other words, no matter how you achieve it, your goal is to offer your snake a hiding place where its body temperature will be 80°F - 85°F (26.7°c - 29.4°c). OT heating is not only more expensive than UT heating, but considerably more dangerous. The simplest way to evaluate the body temperature of your snake is by placing a properly-working thermometer inside the hide on the warm side of the cage. Since your snake most efficiently digests when it is in the mid 80°sF (29°c - 30°c), and since its instinct is to hide during the daytime hours, it makes no sense to place a thermometer anywhere in the cage other than INSIDE THE HIDE on the warm end of the cage. It can be permanently affixed to the ceiling in the hide, or just laying inside the hide from time to time, to periodically evaluate proper appetite and digestion-facilitating conditions.
1. Warm hide (coconut half-shell) above the UT heater
2. Cool hide (coconut half-shell)
3. Passive hide (artificial greenery)
4. Passive hide (artificial greenery)
5. Passive hide (ornate tree branch)
6. Passive hide (aspen substratum)
8. Monitor for thermometer probe inside warm hide
9. Water bowl (molded composite plastic)
HOT ROCKS are great for some diurnal lizards, but potentially dangerous for snakes, and should therefore never be used for ANY snake. Rare in corns is the potentiality that one will lie too near the hot rock and receive harmful contact burns. Unlike some serpent species (i.e. Ball Pythons and Boa Constrictors) that commonly injure themselves by bodily contact with hot surfaces, corns virtually always avoid such devices, but in doing so, will get sick from spending too much time in cooler zones of the cage.
All snakes can benefit from fluorescent UV lighting, but it is not necessary for corns. Corn snakes are nocturnal by nature and for thousands of years have not required direct sunlight to survive. Indirect light from a window or artificial room lighting is sufficient to represent the transition from day to night. Do not position your corn snake's cage near a window where dangerous greenhouse-effect heating from the sun can endanger your its life, unless adequate diffusion is provided -- as seen in this photograph.
The primary purpose of an absorbent substratum beneath your snake is to absorb feces and spilled water. By desiccating moisture, the resulting dry substrate medium controls odors and promotes a germ-free environment for your snake. In the realm of substrate materials, remember the three don'ts. Don't use CEDAR, don't use ANY KIND OF BARK, and don't use SAND or GRAVEL. Cedar shavings and pine (or fir) bark products are toxic to snakes, and are therefore not recommended. Reasons why sand and gravel are inherently dangerous to your snake include:
o They are non-absorbent, thereby allowing the growth of bacteria that can cause offensive odors and disease.
o If ingested, indigestible sand and gravel pass through the digestive tract of snakes, and can cause internal injuries and impaction.
o Not only can such non-organic substrates cause intestinal impactions in your pet, but sand and gravel are excessively abrasive to your snake's skin and eyes. In so much that corns are inherently nocturnal, when they have temperature options, they choose those temperate zones that afford them darkness and seclusion. Hence, burrowing is often a life-saving option for them, but if they reason that their only escape from light and inappropriate temperatures is to dig, they can damage themselves burrowing through rock and gravel.
Secondary to the desiccating function of absorbent substrate materials is that of buffering your snake from temperature extremes. In Nature, it's difficult to find better insulating material that is more efficient than wood pulp. Folded newspaper - while not aesthetic - is sanitary, inexpensive, and convenient, but many layers are necessary to create a safe barrier between the snake and the heat source (UT or OT). Shredded newsprint does not form a solid substratum, and therefore is not recommended. While not known to be a medical threat to reptiles, the ink on newsprint will transfer to and adhere to your snake, making it gradually darker in overall coloration until its next shed. Aspen pulp bedding (available in most pet stores) is a naturally absorbent hardwood substrate that most breeders and keepers use for its relative neutral smell and reduced resin content. Pine and fir pulp shavings which contain higher levels of oils and resins are potentially more toxic and should only be used for adult corns - in well ventilated cages. Intoxication at harmful levels has been reported in cases where snakes co-incidentally ingested pine or fir wood particles. In addition to the potential for casual (and usually unintentional) ingestion, these relatively harmful bedding particles are consumed during feeding, and even pose a risk of toxically polluting the snake's drinking water. Avoid using bark forms of pine and fir as they are the parts of trees with the highest resin concentrations and have been known to be harmful to snakes. In addition to contributing to snake deaths resulting from ingestion of bark pieces (often only surgically removable) constant bodily contact with bark can result in the slow-dose intake of toxins into your snake's bloodstream via absorption through their skin.
Aspen is the most popular substrate used by snake keepers that want to display their pets on attractive bedding that offers the lowest risk of injury and intoxication while providing superior desiccating and insulating protections. The particulate shapes of most aspen bedding products make spot cleaning a breeze, while total replacement is often necessary only a few times annually. Let your eyes and nose dictate the frequency of substrate maintenance. Many pet stores also offer recycled newspaper products made for cage substrates that are sanitary and absorbent, and make excellent cage floor coverings. We do not recommend the use of cage "carpeting", as it is not absorbent - thereby promoting bacterial growth that results in odor. And many "carpet" layers would be required to create a safe temperature buffer between your snakes and UT heating devices.
Snakes have relatively poor long-range eyesight, and are therefore stressed in the open spaces of most cages. Therefore, most nocturnal snakes (like corn snakes) instinctively stay hidden for most day lit hours. Hides are advisable to help reduce stress to your snake, and we recommend at least one for each end of the cage. Keep in mind that if a hide does not truly offer darkness for your snake, it may not be utilized. For animals like snakes that do not have eyelids or limbs with which to block light from their eyes, sufficiently dark hides in both the warm and cool zones of the cage are essential to their mental and digestive health. A corn snake's instinct to hide is greater than its instinct to utilize digestion-friendly temperature zones in the cage, so they may not frequent warm hides that are not sufficiently dark inside. A section of nearly flat bark or an empty box of appropriate size in more than one location is usually sufficient to encourage the thermoregulation necessary for proper digestion. If you can see your snake in the hide, it can see you outside. That does not satisfy the definition of "hide" nor does that reality make your snake feel comfortable in daytime refuges.
Most pet stores sell decorative plastic or ceramic hides that will enhance the appearance of your vivarium, but consider stuffing a percentage (if not all) of the cavity in such hollow accessories - to prevent snakes from becoming stuck therein. I have lately become fond of half-coconut shells as hides, because of the darkness they afford your snake. If you use natural tree parts as cage accessories, thoroughly soak them in a mild bleach/water solution to kill parasites. Thoroughly rinse and dry, before placement in the cage. What I call "half log" bark sections like you see in my book are not sufficiently dark to be good hides. If you use bark sections, I recommend pieces with very low convexity (almost flat). These simulate hides favored by corn snakes in the wild. If you think the hide is too cavernous (a condition in which your snake will instinctively not utilize), wad paper towels to fill the airspace. Snakes are instinctively drawn to hides where their bodies are completely in contact with their confines.
Wild corn snakes climb for many reasons, but climbing is not crucial in captive settings. In the wild, snakes climb to find prey and to escape predators, but such climbing opportunities in cages are not only unnecessary, but can sometimes facilitate escapes. Climbing accessories can increase thermoregulation opportunities in cage situations where ground hides are inadequate, or when overheating occurs at lower cage levels, but if thermometers are properly placed and monitored, climbing is not a necessary thermal option. If you use a branch in the cage, your snake will be able to get closer to the top, so recheck any gaps around the lid, and ensure that the lid is weighted down or securely fastened.
Hatchling corns (one to 15 or 20 weeks of age) will eat one-day old mouse pinkies (newborn mice) once or twice weekly. They will often want more, but feeding more than this can be dangerous to the health of your snake unless you have optimal temperature zones in the cage. A rule of thumb regarding the size you feed is that if the bulge corresponding to the food item in the stomach of the snake is not obvious 24 hours after feeding, you should be able to graduate to the next prey size.
The normal progression of mouse sizes in the hobby is: small pinky - large pinky - fuzzy - hopper - weaned (small adult) - adult.
Pinky number 1 in the pic above represents a typical 1-day-old pinky. Pic on right shows a typical 1-day-old pinky next to an Extra Small pinky.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Not all suppliers of rodents in the industry have the same size definition of Extra Small pinkies, so understand what size they call Extra Small before you purchase.
We recommend acquiring your frozen rodents from one of the many Internet rodent businesses. Sometimes pet stores run out of some sizes of frozen rodents, so having an inventory in your freezer ensures that you will always feed the correct size to your snake.
In healthy snakes with proper cage temperatures, digestion is generally complete in three days. It is advisable to feed pre-killed or stunned rodents, as there is a slight possibility of injury from the prey during the kill. Of course, pinky mice have very soft claws and no teeth, so they pose no obvious injury threat to your snake. If you DO feed live prey, be sure not to leave the snake unattended until after ingestion. If your snake refuses the rodent for any reason, remove it, and repeat the offering on another day. If your snake unexpectedly refuses food, consult an experienced snake keeper or qualified reptile veterinarian for advice. Do not repeatedly offer what your snake is refusing to eat, as it may become conditioned to reject that prey item in the future, and you may be wasting valuable time in correcting potential health problems. The most common cause of food rejection in corns is improper cage temperature zones. Corn snakes can fast for long periods, but only if necessary, so establishment of a routine feeding schedule is recommended. It is not necessary to strictly adhere to such feeding regimens, but long periods of fasting are not recommended unless you are (brumating) your snake in preparation for breeding - and then only under proper temperature conditions.
Corn snakes are one of the easiest reptile species to breed in captivity. Consult a snake breeder or a good corn snake book if and when you are preparing to breed your snakes. Bear in mind that after the eggs hatch, the babies are an enormous responsibility, so if you do not have a good plan for placement of the babies, do not breed the adults. Breeding is not necessary for their health, and you do not want to be responsible for the deaths of the babies, due to your inability to maintain them or place them in good homes.
CAGE AND ACCESSORY SHOPPING LIST
This care sheet is not intended to be a definitive corn snake information resource. Before purchasing any pet, research as much data as possible, and solicit the advice of experienced snake keepers. In addition to the books offered on this web site, the Internet offers a virtual wealth of good information, but use caution in disseminating those data. In the absence of peer review and scientific scrutiny of Internet content, anyone can say anything about any subject. Therefore, blend the information gathered before taking actions that could ultimately endanger the health and safety of your pets. Question the credentials of Internet publishers, and don't be shy to ask questions in popular (and the most active) corn snake chat forums on the web. Remember also that veterinarians cannot diagnose and recommend treatment for your pets without a direct, hands-on examination. If you suspect your snake may be ill, solicit the services of a qualified reptile vet, since not all vets have sufficient experience with cold-blooded pets. Anyone on the Internet offering guesses as to what may be wrong with your snake is not a vet, and you therefore endanger the health of your snake by following their non-professional advice. Prevention is the best medicine. Through common sense snake husbandry practices, thousands of my customers can say they never took their snakes to a vet, and their snakes were never ill.