Table of Contents
Black Rat Snake Care Guide
What's a Black Rat Snake?
It’s not uncommon in some parts of the US for a farmer to stick their hand into a dark chicken nest box to collect eggs, only to feel them moving! It’s generally not the eggs themselves, but rat snakes. This species has a thing for chicken eggs and will not think twice before using their climbing abilities to reach the nest box. While all rat snake species do this, the Texas rat snake is known to have a special fondness for freshly laid eggs. They will quickly swallow whole eggs without breaking the shell, unhinging their jaws and then relying on extra strength stomach acid to break it down.
Black Rat Snake Size and Color
Adult rat snakes are typically 3-5 ft, but large individuals may be well over 6 ft long. The appearance of rat snakes varies greatly throughout the geographic range. Black rat snakes are more northern in distribution and are characteristically black on top with a faint hint of white between some of the scales. Yellow rat snakes are greenish, yellow, or orange with four dark stripes running the length of the body. Gray rat snakes are dark to light gray with darker gray or brown blotches.
Black Rat Snake Location
Rat snakes are found throughout every southeastern state and most of the eastern and midwestern states as far north as southern New England and southern Michigan. They occupy a wide variety of habitats including rocky glens, hardwood forests, river floodplains and swamp margins. They are attracted to abandoned buildings and barns and are therefore the most common large snake in suburban areas.
In addition to chicken eggs, adult rat snakes consume mice, rats, squirrels, and birds. Juveniles eat small frogs, lizards, and small rodents. Rat snakes are constrictors, and agile climbers that can scale brick walls as well as tree trunks. When frightened they often assume an odd “kinked” posture and remain motionless. They will attempt to frighten a potential predator with a fake rattlesnake tail vibration, and if that doesn’t fool anyone, they exude a really foul musk.
Rat snakes are primarily diurnal, meaning they’re awake during the day and asleep at night, although in super-hot weather they can adapt and become more nocturnal.
Great Beginner Snake
These snakes are good for beginners as they are relatively docile and respond quickly to gentle and consistent handling. Although they should not be handled right after eating (wait 48 hours) most other times will suit them. Periods of shedding and brumation (discussed below) should also hands-off times, however.
Once a trusting bond has been established, these snakes enjoy physical contact with owners and will crawl playfully up and down the keeper’s arms and body. They can become very satisfying long-term companions and when correctly housed and cared for can live up to 20 years old.
Black Rat Snake Habitat
These snakes need room to move, but not too much, as this can make them feel insecure. A juvenile Rat will do well in a 10-gallon tank for a couple of years. At 3 years old, your snake will have more than doubled in length and will be sexually mature. At this point, a 20-30 gallon tank is advised. Despite their tendency to climb, most keepers have had the best success with a horizontally oriented tank, rather than a vertical arrangement.
The basic elements of the tank should include
- a suitable substrate
- a hide
- a water dish/shallow pool
- something for the snake to climb and bask on.
- A basking lamp can be provided, but it must be carefully placed so that it can never exceed 90 degrees F at the closest possible point to the snake.
A thick layer of aspen shavings is favored by most snake keepers, although many do like cypress shavings just as well. Aromatic woods such as pine and cedar should be avoided as they can cause lung and eye irritation. A dense (2-3inches) covering of shavings provides a light and sanitary bedding that the snake will often disappear under as an alternative to its hide.
Concerning tops of tanks screened for ventilation, if your rat snake can reach the top and the screen is not well secured, he/she can and will make a break for it. In winter, this will undoubtedly end in tragedy, as they will manage to find a place either too hot or too cold for their bodies to sustain a living temperature, unless you find them quickly. If your new tank/terrarium/vivarium comes with a snugly fitting screened top, great, but not sufficient if your pet is more than 30 inches long. Add clamps to two sides, you will thank yourself later.
Black Snake Hides
A hide made of something easily sanitized is essential. Plastic may look tacky, but may be more practical, depending on your lifestyle. I love the look of cork wood, but it is really problematic to clean. Dish washer safe hides and bowls are the easiest by far. If you do decide on cork wood as an attractive and snake friendly hide, I would replace it every year. Remember not to place the hide directly over the mat, unless you have monitored the temperature for at least one week before introducing your snake to the habitat. Halfway between the cool and warm sides is best short term until you are really confident in the temperature gradient. If you decide against plastic furnishings, you can try what some reptile keepers do for sanitation and bake the wood at 250 degrees F for 1 hour.
So, to summarize, the basic set-up should include (inside): an aspen substrate about 2-3 inches deep, a hide, a water bowl, a climbing branch, and a screen that is very, very secure.
It is advisable to provide an insulating layer such as felt or reptile carpet under a glass bottomed tank if a heating mat is used to be certain the snake will not fall asleep on top of a hot mat and burn itself. Snakes can and will choose to rest in an area that ends up being too hot for their safety. As the temperature increases, they don’t always feel it in time to move to a cooler spot. It is up to the keeper to carefully test and retest all surfaces weekly to keep your snake safe.
For temperature measurement, a digital laser thermometer is a convenient and affordable option. For less than $25, a new keeper can take readings from all over the habitat with the push of a button. The overall temperature of the tank should not exceed 86 degrees on the warm side and 76 degrees on the cool side. Readings should therefore be taken at the surface of the bottom of the warm side, the cool side and any basking areas. Keepers need to remember that the ambient temperature of the room can affect the enclosure, so frequent readings are strongly recommended.
Black Snake Brumation
Speaking of temperature gradient, a cold environment will encourage brumation. Brumation is more or less the equivalent to hibernation in mammals. It is a reaction to insufficient heat necessary for normal activities. Brumation can be deliberate and is useful if you are attempting to breed you Rats, or it can be accidental due to heater malfunction. In captivity, brumation is not strictly necessary for health and may cause your pet to be unnecessarily lethargic, with a greater than normal tendency to hide and refuse food. This is yet another reason why temperature monitoring regularly is really quite important.
Rat snakes come from humid southern and eastern climates in the US and Mexico. Keepers in the more arid portions of the US and elsewhere need to bear this in mind. For instance, snake keepers in the Great Basin and desert southwest states will need to be much more mindful of humidity needs for their Rats than those in Alabama. You can easily add humidity to the snake’s enclosure by changing water daily. Warm water will help raise the humidity even more, just make sure it isn’t too warm. Better to err on the side of a bit too cool if uncertain and no thermometer is handy. A warm bath will humidify the habitat for a while, although in extremely dry conditions the effect will not last all day, as the top of the tank will undoubtedly be screened for proper ventilation. Those days when the keeper is away for the day and knows that ambient humidity levels will below 20%, a warm bath in the morning and then spritzing with room temperature water in the late afternoon should help to keep the habitat at about 40-50% humidity, which is what your snake will prefer for general comfort. Sixty percent is preferable when it becomes obvious the snake is preparing to shed.
Because the humidity level throughout even large habitats will be more consistent than temperature gradients, an hygrometer attached to the side of the enclosure will take the guess work out of managing humidity. In humid climates, cool (not cold) water baths should be sufficient. Warm baths in a humid climate may create unsanitary conditions favorable for the growth of molds, so careful observation of what works make take a few weeks. A successful keeper never assumes that once the conditions of temperature and humidity provisions seem optimal, they will stay that way. That is seldom true, and good monitoring of the conditions with changing seasons will prevent problems such a respiratory infections.
Black Snake Diet
When you feed your snake depends on what times he/she is most active. Rats can switch back and forth from day to night, so you may need to observe his/her behavior and then decide the best time of day to feed.
How often you feed your snake depends on how old it is. Baby snakes don’t even start to think about food until they are two to four weeks old. Once they do, they generally need to eat about twice a week. More frequent feedings will encourage them to grow faster, if that is what you wish. As your snake gets older, he/she will not need to be fed quite as often. In fact, one of the more convenient things about adult Rat snakes is that they only need to eat about every seven to ten days.
Separate Feeding Enclosure?
Food can be provided right within the habitat or in a separate enclosure. The use of a separate feeding enclosure is a subject of debate among fanciers. Some feel that while a separate feeding enclosure may not be strictly necessary, but it can sometimes be helpful. One argument in favor is that using a different habitat for feeding times can help to keep the main enclosure cleaner and more sanitary. A separate feeding enclosure may also be necessary if you are housing more than one snake in a habitat (not recommended) or if you use a substrate that can be ingested. Others feel it is unwise to move the snake to a strange environment, expect it to perform a natural behavior immediately, and then expect it not to throw up when it is handled for the purpose of placing it back in its main home. I have always fed in the enclosure.
A nice addition to ensure perfect health for your diurnal snake would be a UV lamp. This is not strictly necessary if you are able to handle your snake in a sunlit area for 30 minutes per day. Some keepers do without these, as they feel that all necessary D vitamins are obtained from prey items, unlike insectivorous lizards. This addition will depend very much on the keeper’s lifestyle, but if in doubt it might be good to add one to the top of the vivarium, using a guard so that it can’t come into contact with the screen.
Feeder Mice and Rats
What will you be feeding your Rat? Depends on how old he/she is. A very young snake can only manage pinkies for quite a few months. After that they will graduate to fuzzies, and then hoppers. Well for the love of Mike, what do all of those terms mean? The terms mentioned above refer to feeder mice, rats have their own designations.
- Pinky: A pinky is a newborn mouse. Ranging from one to three grams in weight, depending on where you purchase them. They have no fur and are high in protein.
- Fuzzy: A fuzzy is a slightly older baby mouse, with the beginnings of fur. They are slightly bigger in size and weigh around 3-5g.
- Hopper: The next age stage. These are around 5-9g in weight and are fully formed, but not fully grown.
- The rat equivalent of a pinky would be a ‘rat pup’. These are slightly bigger in size, around 5g.
- The rat equivalent of a fuzzy is called a ‘fluff’. And around 10-25g in weight, so quite a substantial difference.
- The rat equivalent of a hopper would be ‘weaner’ rat, at around 25-50g.
Adult mice and rats are only suitable for snakes over 4 feet long.
What size prey?
The size of the prey you choose will depend on whether or not the snake can both swallow and digest it. When in doubt, consider the width of the diner. That is, prey should be no wider than the widest part of the snake's body. Choosing prey that is too large, if it is actually swallowed, can result in regurgitation at the very least (if you’re lucky), with injuries, seizures, partial paralysis, gut impactions, and death being unpleasant possibilities as well.
Should you feed only rodents? Not necessarily. Everyone enjoys a change of pace and an older snake can be offered day old chicks now and then. Does the prey have to be alive? Some keepers believe that the live prey offers the ability for the snake to perform natural behaviors. Others claim that this is nonsense and that a rich environment and positive interaction with a human handler should provide sufficient stimulation. The advantages of pre-killed, frozen dinners over live chow are:
- Live prey can be too active for young snakes.
- Sometimes dinner bites back. Attacks by live prey can permanently disfigure your snake. Injuries caused by live prey can include lacerations to the snake's mouth area and eyes. Cutting through his/her tongue sheath is not uncommon.
- Attacks by live prey can traumatize your snake, and it can be very difficult to get that snake to feed on that prey item again.
Pre-killed offerings can last in the freezer for up to six months. Remember to thaw it completely in the refrigerator and warm it to slightly above room temperature before feeding it to your snake. Do not use a microwave for this. Sense of smell is very keen in these snakes. Make sure the prey is warmer than room temperature; it will smell more appetizing to your snake that way. You can also pith (pierce) the braincase of the prey with a pin or nail to release even more enticing odors (yum).
If you feel that you must feed live prey, be sure to provide food for the prey animal if it is not consumed immediately. Watch it closely for any signs that it may be biting or gnawing on the snake. If this happens, remove it immediately and take your snake to the veterinarian.
The act of brumation was mentioned above. If choosing to brumate your snake for breeding purposes, your snake must be ‘cleaned’ first. This is nothing more than withholding food for 2-3 weeks as you lower the temperature in the snake’s habitat.
Cleaning the habitat is fairly easy and should be done once a month. Spot cleaning should be done daily, but even then a monthly treatment is still recommended. Remove and dispose of all bedding. Place dish washer safe furniture in the dishwasher or a bleach bath. Remove everything, and spritz with bleach. If the terrarium is glass, spray sides with vinegar and wipe down for better visibility. Do not use bleach stronger than a 10% solution and do not place your snake back inside without wiping down all damp areas after soaking for ½ hour. Wait another ½ hour, replace furniture and bedding and only then place your snake back in.
Health Concerns and Illnesses
Proper feeding and sanitation can help to prevent most common illnesses in Rats. For example, blister disease is associated with damp, filthy environments, and effects the bottom most scales, the scutes, that are in constant contact with the filth. The scutes develop a reddish appearance and if untreated they become swollen and infected by bacteria and fungi. The habitat must receive a comprehensive cleaning immediately and the snake must see a vet, who will probably administer an injectable antibiotic, followed by a course of topical treatments administered twice daily (by the owner).
Rat snakes can suffer from Snake Fungal Disease, an increasingly virulent disorder found in the eastern US, and spreading rapidly. This disease, Ophidiomyces ophidiicola, attacks the mouth and face area of several species of snakes, thereby preventing them from eating and drinking. Owners of wild caught snakes, or large collections, should be aware of any signs of scabs and crusty scales on their pets. The snake’s face may become swollen and the eyes may become cloudy even though the snake is not shedding. Some species don’t show any outward signs of the fungus, but when they are necropsied, the fungus is found in the lungs.
Treatment with certain antifungal therapies have proven to be somewhat effective, but there are no guarantees yet with this disease that any treatment will be 100% effective, and mortality tends to be high. Prevention is definitely the best course of action. Fungal diseases like SFD and Chytrid (affecting amphibians) are particularly dangerous because they can infect a variety of species and can survive in the environment outside of a host. Animals even remotely suspected of harboring SFD need to be immediately quarantined from any other specimens or reptile pets and taken to a vet for treatment without delay.
Careful selection of pets from a disease free, reputable breeder, and supplied with an excellent diet and clean surroundings will help you to enjoy the company of your rat snake for many years.