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As snakes have become more and more popular as pets in recent years, the number of species available in the UK has grown exponentially. Snakes are fascinating creatures, and captive bred, well handled specimens can become very tame. But snakes are delicate animals, and have unique care requirements. So a large amount of leg work and research is required in the early stages of the decision making process, before deciding if a pet snake is a good choice for you. Responsible snake owners and breeders will only sell captive bred snakes, and you should never knowingly buy a wild caught or unhandled snake. Wild caught snakes tend to be unhappy and stressed in captivity, more prone to illnesses, and may carry parasites and diseases. The three most commonly available and beginner friendly pet snakes in the UK, are the corn snake, the milk snake, and the ball python. While the corn snake is perhaps the best well known of all pet snakes, any of these three species are relatively easy to care for by the beginner, and a good starting point for anyone considering keeping snakes for the first time. Here is a quick run down of the characteristics of these three snake species.
The Corn Snake, or to give it its correct Latin name 'Elaphe Guttata' is a species of rat snake, and an ideal choice for the first time snake keeper. In their native habitat of the south east USA, corn snakes are mainly active around dusk and at night, when the temperature cools down. Although they are ground dwelling snakes, they are also keen climbers and excellent escape artists, so you must make sure that their tank or enclosure is secure! The name 'corn snake' comes from the days when grain farmers in the USA would store harvested corn and other crops in large buildings called cribs. Mice and rats would find their way into the cribs to eat the corn and grains, and the corn snakes naturally followed in order to prey on the rats and mice. One of the more docile species of snake, corn snakes are non venomous, calm and easy to care for. They are available in many colour and pattern variations as a result of selective breeding programmes as their popularity has increased, including hybrid combinations from cross breeding with other species. Although corn snake hatchlings start off very small, they can grow up to six feet long, and can live for up to 20 years or more in captivity. Corn snakes are carnivorous, and the staple diet of adults consists of defrosted pinkie mice which you may have to order specially. Like all non venomous snakes, corn snakes are constrictors- this means that they kill their prey by squeezing it between its coils until it suffocates- not, as many people often believe, by crushing it.
The Milk Snake or Lampropeltis Triangulum is a docile, slow moving snake available in a wide range of colour and pattern variations. Probably the most widely known milk snake is the red milk snake, which has a striking body pattern composed of deep red bands ringed with smaller black and yellow interruptions. There are twenty five known sub species of milk snake, including the commonly named scarlet king snake. The terms 'milk snake' and 'king snake' are sometimes used interchangeably. Milk snakes are native to Canada, North America, Central America, Ecuador, Venezuela and South America. Milk snakes grow to a length of around six or seven feet, and live in captivity for up to fifteen or twenty years. Milk snakes are mainly nocturnal, and generally ground dwelling although they can climb. Like corn snakes, milk snakes are constrictors, and their prey in the wild consists of rodents, birds, amphibians, and even sometimes other snakes. Due to their cannibalistic tendencies, milk snakes should always be housed individually!
The Ball Python (Python Regius) is so named because they will curl themselves into a tightly coiled ball when threatened, with their head protected inside their coils. Ball pythons are sometimes known as 'Royal Pythons,' supposedly because they were the species of snake which Cleopatra reputedly wore around her wrist. The smallest of the African pythons, ball pythons grow to a maximum size of three to five feet, slightly smaller than milk snakes, corn snakes and most other constricting species. Ball pythons do not have any subspecies, and their natural colour pattern is black or brown with lighter brown or gold blotches, and a cream or white belly. Selective breeding and genetic mutation has led to various colour morphs and mutations being produced by breeders, although these are still relatively uncommon. Ball pythons have an average lifespan in captivity of twenty to thirty years, although they can live up to fifty years old and possibly more- a genuine lifetime commitment! In the wild, ball pythons eat mainly rats, mice and other small rodents, and sometimes birds. It is recommended when buying any snake or reptile to choose a captive bred specimen for many reasons, and especially so with pythons. Pythons are notoriously fussy eaters, and some wild caught ball pythons will refuse to eat in captivity.
Beginner snake keepers should not seek to keep larger constrictors, which have complex feeding and housing requirements as well as needing expert handling. When deciding upon your first snake, you might find your head turned by various large or exotic species such as boa constrictors, red tailed boas, tree boas, green snakes and water snakes. While all of these snakes are striking and impressive to look at, they also require highly specialised care and handling, and are not suitable for the first time keeper.
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