Make sure your snake’s vivarium is of a suitable size. Corn snakes continue to grow throughout their life-span (about 20 years), and can reach up to 1.5 metres long. They grow rapidly when young, and can often measure up to a metre by the time they are 2-3 years old. As a general guideline, when your corn snake grows longer than one length plus one width of the vivarium, it is time to upgrade to larger accommodation. A very small vivarium for a hatchling snake is called a faunarium. A vivarium which is too large can be very stressful for the snake, so be aware that you may need to invest in several over the life-span of your snake unless you purchase or build one with a wall partition which can be moved along to allow more space as the snake grows. Stressed snakes can quickly become inappetent. Snakes are good escape artists, so the accommodation needs to be very secure.
Corn snakes, like all snakes, are cold blooded and regulate their temperature by moving between warmer and cooler areas. This is called thermo-regulation. Heat is provided by either a thermostatically controlled pad (which should only cover one third to half of the floor), or a heat lamp with adjustable settings and a safety cover. The ideal temperature for the vivarium is 24-27 degrees C in the coolest area, and 30 degrees C in the heated zone. Corn snakes originate from the warm south east states of the US which is why they require a heated environment.
Snakes defecate 1-2 days following a feed, and it’s important to clear up any mess as soon as possible to minimise the risk of infection. A full clean is needed every 2-3 weeks, and the entire vivarium, hides/caves and any other furniture should be disinfected using a special reptile-safe product. Aspen or hemp are two of the best types of bedding as they are unscented and non-toxic. Cedar and pine shavings suitable for rodent cages are not safe for corn snakes. The water bowl should be large enough for bathing as well as drinking, and cleaned and replenished daily. Prior to shedding, your snake may spend a considerable amount of time immersing himself in his water in preparation. Corn snakes eat pinkies, mice or young rats (depending on the snake’s age and size) and they should be thoroughly defrosted at room temperature (or in warm water) before feeding. Never microwave them! Live food must not be given due to the risk of injury to your snake. Use a specially designated board for defrosting and make sure this is disinfected after use. Keep the tongs used for feeding clean and disinfected too. If your snake is about to shed, he may not want to eat. Discard and carefully dispose of an uneaten meal and only offer new fresh food. Change water daily and wash the bowl each day. Defrost mice/rats carefully. Always use an antibacterial hand-wash before and after handling your corn snake.
Although snakes don’t play and are generally quite solitary animals, they do appreciate suitable branches and rocks to climb on, and a suitable cave in which to sleep or hide. Your corn snake will rub along suitable objects to help ease shedding. Don’t change too much at once if you’re purchasing new items for the vivarium as this can be unsettling. Most corn-snakes are amenable to handling and will enjoy coming out of the vivarium from time to time to slither over their owner, but they must not be handled for at least 48 hours following a meal as it can cause them to regurgitate. As mentioned, the drinking water vessel should be large enough for your snake to bathe in, but not so large that it takes up too much of the floor space.
Regular handling is beneficial as it allows you to carefully check your corn snake for any signs of ill health. Use both hands when handling your snake, and allow him to slither gently through them without squeezing, restricting or grabbing him. Prior to shedding (ecdysis), your snake may spend more time in his hide and you will notice that the eyes look a little cloudy and the scales are duller than usual. This is normal. Providing your corn snake is well looked after, he is not likely to become unwell, but it’s important to be aware of some of the common conditions that could affect him and seek prompt veterinary care if necessary. Keep a special eye on his mouth as snakes can develop a bacterial condition called ulcerative stomatitis (symptoms included increased salivation/blowing bubbles, bleeding and eventual loss of teeth if untreated). Snakes can suffer from viral, bacterial and fungal infection which may affect the respiratory system, eyes and/or skin/scales. Other medical problems may include constipation, urate crystal formation, prolapse and cancer. Skin problems can be caused or exacerbated by incomplete shedding, so it is important to ensure that any skin that has not sloughed naturally is gently bathed off.
Corn snakes prefer their own territory, but they can live together so long as they are a similar size and a newcomer is introduced with caution. If there is any bullying behaviour, the snakes should be separated and kept alone. Males together or females together are generally fine, but a male and female will breed. This is not recommended unless you are an experienced snake keeper planning a mate, and it should definitely not be allowed before the snakes have reached maturity. A female who is mated too young can be predisposed to stunted growth, and the act itself can cause her significant stress especially if she is repeatedly bred. It can be difficult to sex young snakes, so it is best to ask an expert if you are considering keeping more than one corn snake. Co-habiting snakes will need a larger vivarium, a larger water bowl and an extra cave or hide.
Snakes don’t need a light source in their vivarium so long as they have sufficient natural light during the day (out of direct sunlight). The ideal is 12-14 hours of light during the summer, reducing down to 8 hours in the autumn. Corn snakes are crepuscular, which means they are most active at dawn and dusk. They tend to spend a fair amount of the day in their hides, and are generally out more when it is dark, so it is best to turn off artificial light sources at night.
Corn snakes can tolerate reasonable levels of humidity, and may appreciate a light water misting of their vivarium to aid them during the shedding process. However, very high levels of humidity can cause respiratory problems.
While most corn snakes tolerate handling well, do exercise caution. It is better to prevent a bite by knowing when your snake may not be amenable to being taken out of the vivarium than causing him to strike and end up being fearful of him in future. As already discussed, snakes should not be handled for at least 48 hours after feeding due to the risk of regurgitation. You must also take care when waking up a snake! It is common sense to be careful at feeding time, and it is better to use tongs than your snake mistake a finger for a pinkie.
It’s a really good idea to keep a snake diary where you can record your corn snake’s weight, sloughs and feeds. Also keep a note of any changes in behaviour, the vivarium temperature/humidity if different to usual, plus details of husbandry including the type of bedding, disinfectant and hand-wash used. If your snake is insured, it’s a good idea to keep the certificate and small print to hand near a suitable escape-proof carrier for transport to the vet as and when required.