When deciding on which pet would best suit you and your lifestyle, snakes aren't usually at the top of most peoples' list. But for those that do choose to keep them, they can prove to be both rewarding and fascinating.
They are relatively cheap to look after - eating only once every few days when fully grown, they rarely smell, and don't need exercising. That said, they're not really big on cuddles, they can live for many years, you will usually have to feed them dead prey animals, and they might frighten your friends.
The first thing to consider when looking at a reptile purchase is 'Why do I want a snake?' If it's for the 'wow' factor, or because it's something a bit different, then be aware that for most people you know, the novelty will probably wear off within ten minutes and prove the 'wow' factor to be short lived.
If you want a snake because you don't have enough room for a dog, you aren't allowed a cat, or if you have an allergy to fur or feathers, just ask yourself if you're ready to take on what many people still consider to be a specialist pet. In fact many experts don't consider snakes to be pets at all, but rather something to gaze at in wonder and awe - like tropical fish. They take a lot of careful handling and quite a bit of expertise. Would you be better with fish perhaps, or a hamster?
Ask most herpetologists (the proper name for a reptile expert) what they would recommend for a beginner and the answer would probably be 'corn snake'. Why? Well, because corn snakes are fairly docile, they don't grow too big and they're usually happy to be handled. They will thrive on mice, which can be obtained from most pet shops, and because they don't reach mammoth proportions, the vivarium won't need to be huge.
All in all, the vast majority of those in the know would advise a corn, king or milk snake as the ideal purchase for a first time owner. Beautiful as they are, beginners should steer clear of large constrictors or venomous species.
There is an overwhelming consensus here that any snake purchase should be made from a reputable, knowledgeable breeder and the animal should be captive bred. This means you get a healthy snake that's used to humans and there is less pressure on wild populations. Wild snakes can also be prone to illness and disease brought on by the stress of being caught.
A vet or your local 'Herp' society can help locate a breeder and they should be willing to answer any questions you might have, as well as provide advice on feeding, healthcare and setting up your vivarium. A good breeder will probably make themselves available for advice once you've taken your new snake home too.
While at the breeder's you can ask to see the snake being fed to make sure it takes prey without a problem and you can have a good look over it to check for injury or illness.
Like most reptiles, your new snake will benefit from being kept in a vivarium - usually a temperature-controlled cabinet with glass doors. This allows the snake's home environment to be precisely controlled and monitored at all times. You must also make sure that any vivarium you choose has a secure lid and lockable doors - snakes are excellent escape artists...
Young corn snakes should not be housed in a vivarium at first. As snakes are agoraphobic (nervous in open spaces) they will find it stressful and may refuse to eat. Seek the breeder's advice on housing your hatchling to avoid any health issues.
Once fully grown a corn snake is not usually very active, so its vivarium will not need to be enormous - roughly half the length of the animal's body. Snakes are cold blooded and in the wild regulate their body temperature by seeking out warm and cool spots as required. Therefore the vivarium temperature for a corn snake should be kept between 24ËšC - 30ËšC with a 5ËšC drop at night.
Heat should come from either a heat mat (covering no more than two thirds of the vivarium floor so the snake can thermo-regulate) or a heat bulb. If you choose to use a bulb make sure you also fit a bulb guard as your new friend may burn itself as it explores its new home.
There are many different kids of substrate that are ideal for covering the floor of the vivarium - excellent options include Aspen bedding, bark chips or cage carpet. All of these options are effective and easy to keep clean - essential if health issues are to be avoided.
Humidity must also be closely monitored - corn snakes prefer a dry environment, however providing a hide that is cool and damp is also essential if the snake is to control its temperature.
Finally, although snakes are not known for their love of toys, enrichment can be provided in the shape of rocks, hides, branches and artificial plants.
In the wild the corn snake will hunt small mammals, reptiles and rodents. In captivity they will survive happily on a diet of rodents - specifically mice. These should be offered dead and can be bought frozen from most pet shops. Young snakes should be fed 'pinkies' - moving onto adult mice only when fully grown. Food should be thoroughly defrosted at room temperature NOT in a microwave, between two sheets of kitchen towel. This should be discarded and all utensils cleaned thoroughly after use. Feed should be offered with tweezers or tongs once or twice a week. Do be aware that your snake may go off his food during shedding.
A bowl of clean water should also be available for your snake. Not only will he appreciate a drink, he will also take the opportunity to bathe occasionally so make sure the bowl is cleaned regularly.
Corn snakes are not venomous and are therefore not generally aggressive. They will explore their vivarium and will usually remain docile when handled, however take care to move around them gently and quietly as they may 'strike' if startled.
Snakes are relatively clean animals, only defecating one or two days after being fed. This means that regular 'spot' cleaning, with a thorough clean once every two or three weeks is all that's required. Remember to use a reptile-friendly disinfectant and to dry everything thoroughly prior to replacing it in the vivarium.
As long as they are given the right food, environment and care a snake should remain healthy. Your snake may lose condition immediately prior to shedding, and you must take care to ensure all traces of the old skin have been removed and discarded. However, as long as all of its needs are taken care of you can look forward to spending many years with your reptile friend.
PLEASE NOTE: Always wash hands with soap and water before and after handling your snake or if you handle any equipment. Always supervise children when near the snake.