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DeKay’s Brown Snake Care Guide
What are DeKay Brown Snakes?
The Northern Brown or DeKay’s Snake (Storeria dekayi) is often overlooked as a reptile pet, but it has much to offer reptile enthusiasts. This article will use the old name of DeKay’s to differentiate this species from the highly toxic Brown Snake of Australia.
DeKay’s Snakes are widely distributed in the western hemisphere and are found in southern Canada, in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, and in the northern portions of Mexico. They are found in a variety of habitats, from dense woods to open prairies and marshes. They prefer moist soils but are also found in dry areas.
These wide habitat tolerances mean these snakes can often be found in suburban, agricultural, and even urban areas. They spend much of their time underground, but during heavy rains they are sometimes forced into the open. They do hibernate in winter and often choose hibernation dens that they peacefully share with other species, such as garter snakes, red-bellied snakes, and green snakes. When not hibernating, they are most active at night, particularly during the summer, and are mainly solitary animals, except when they congregate at hibernation sites.
Slender and graceful, the DeKay’s Snake averages a mere 9-13 inches in length, although exceptionally large individuals may reach 20 inches. Most sport various shades of brown or tan, but some individuals display an attractive reddish or yellow hue. De Kays are often confused with Garter Snakes but may be distinguished by the two lines of black spots that run along their backs. Mature females tend to be larger than males by about 15%, so sexing by snout to vent length is often possible. Pet owners wanting a longer specimen may find a female appealing, while those with limited space may prefer a male.
This species is viviparous, and young are born alive. Sometimes a whole lot of young. They give birth to 10 to 14 on average in late summer, but as many as 41 have been reported. They reach sexual maturity by the end of their second summer, usually by this time they have doubled in length. Unless the new snake owner wants to be a grandparent overnight, sexing at maturity is recommended if more than one snake is being housed in the same tank. This is not a terribly long-lived species, only reaching 7 years on average with even the best of care.
This snake used to be commonly found in cities around abandoned lots and trash piles. The cleanup of these areas and the use of pesticides are thought to have reduced many populations. Recognition as a species of special concern is not justified, but its apparent decline in numbers warrants continued vigil. Management options include the creation of forest litter habitat in city parks and urban areas, and the control of predators, such as domestic cats.
Shy and always on guard since are a favorite meal of a great many predators, these gentle snakes rarely bite, however, stressed individuals may release a nasty musk, but most take short periods of careful handling in stride. However, when these snakes feel threatened they flatten their bodies to appear larger and place their bodies in an aggressive posture. They will also smear their attacker with that foul-smelling musk that they exude from their cloaca. This is a very unpleasant experience for owners and should be taken as a sign to back off from excessive handling until the snake is more familiar with you.
Dekay Brown Snake Housing Design
It can be comfortably housed in a 10-gallon tank. They are ideal candidates for naturalistic terrariums stocked with live plants, and when kept so they will exhibit a wider range of natural behaviors. A 20 gallon will support 2-3 mature adults. If the tank has a screen lid, it should definitely be secured by cage clips. Although not extremely strong, their very tiny diameter means they can and will expoit the tiniest of gaps to make an escape. A water bowl is recommended for this species.
Unlike most snakes, DeKay’s Snakes do not fare well on newspapers, or in bare enclosures. Their terrarium should instead be furnished with a mixture of a rainforest-type reptile substrate such as Zoo Med Forest Floor Bedding, coco-husk or aspen. Never use sand. Sterilized garden or forest soil is also fine. Sterilize any soil from outdoors at 250F for ½ hour. They seem to love it when large dead leaves are added as well. The depth of the substrate should be at least 4 inches. Small partially rotted bits of bark that provide a hide are a favorite spot for females to hang out. Pothos and viney plant species will give this shy species a sense of security while also increasing its activity level.
DeKay’s really like hiding. Provide a nice big hide or 2 smaller ones. A hide made of something easily sanitized is essential. Plastic hides and branches may look tacky, but may be the most practical, depending on your lifestyle. I love the look of cork wood, but it is somewhat problematic to sanitize and some have rough edges. When providing natural objects from outdoors, bake the items at 200 degrees F for 1/2 hour to sanitize. Whatever sort of hide or other furniture you choose, it must be completely smooth on all edges, to prevent SFD as discussed below.
A very nice feature of this species is their heat requirements, which are pretty much the same as their owners. Many keepers find that a basking area is not necessary and normal room temperature conditions suit this species well.
A basking lamp can be provided if you wish, but it must be carefully placed so that it can never exceed 90 degrees F at the closest possible point to the snake. And remember, although a burrowing species, these guys still climb quite well. No gaps should be accessible at the top of the enclosure.
Most experienced keepers recommend an undertank heating mat for nighttime usage if the house gets really cold at night and you don’t want your snake/snakes to hibernate (brumate). 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 ends is best short term until you are really confident in the temperature gradient.
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 DeKay’s, or it can be accidental due to heater malfunction. In captivity, brumation is not strictly necessary for health and may actually 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.
Light and Humidity
Both humid and dry areas should be provided. A corner cave or rotted log stocked with some sphagnum moss that is spritzed well every other day makes an ideal moist retreat.
This species is used to some moderately humid conditions, not exactly tropical but certainly not desert-like. An average humidity of 40% should work, unless your snake is starting to shed, then 60-65% is better.
If you choose to mist your shedding snake twice daily, be sure to spritz the entire habitat with warm water, not just the snake. To spray your snake with cold water is just asking for a traumatized animal. If you must be away for the day and it looks like your guy/gal is beginning to shed, you can supply a second source of water, such as a second bowl or damp sphagnum moss. This burrowing species that loves to hide under rotten bark and leaves will probably do best with a moist hide.
Because the humidity level throughout even large habitats will be more consistent than temperature gradients, an hygrometer attached to any inside wall of the enclosure will take the guess work out of managing humidity. Check the humidity daily. A successful keeper never assumes that once temperature and humidity provisions seem optimal, they will always stay that way. That is seldom true, and good monitoring of the conditions with the changing seasons will prevent problems.
Lighting can be very elementary. Some keepers use fluorescent lights that they are sure will not add heat to this coolness loving species’ environment. Any artificial lights provided should definitely be on a timer that allows only 12 hours a day of illumination. Pale ceramic red night lighting may help you to enjoy your pet more in the evenings, but it too should be on a timer and turn off after 6 hours past dusk.
Primarily Insect Eaters
They’re natural diet includes composting worms, beetle grubs, slugs, caterpillars, crickets and other soft-bodied invertebrates. Large mature adults have been known to consume salamanders, but this is unusual. Captive snakes do fine on a diet of earthworms, black soldier fly larvae and butterworms, mealworm pupae, and canned silkworms. They have specialized teeth and jaws that allow them to pull snails out of their shells and eat them, so it’s fun for the owners to provide these as a treat and observe the process.
Crickets can be offered periodically, but a steady diet of these alone is not recommended and they should never be left in the habitat for extended periods of time, as they will chew on your snake. Red wigglers should never be offered, and if wild-caught snails are provided, the pet should be de-wormed once a year. Waxworms and adult mealworms should be avoided. Well-fed and gutloaded compost worms are a tremendously nutritious staple. For snakes fed a limited diet, a once weekly dose of ZooMed Repti-Calcium or a similar product is essential. They can eat a worm that's almost as big as they are with no problem, if they're ready to eat, but smaller ones would be better initially.
How often to Feed a Dekay Snake?
DeKay’s Snakes do best when fed several small weekly meals. Allowing earthworms and other invertebrates to establish themselves in a bioactive terrarium will provide your pets with hunting opportunities, and yourself with a good deal of entertainment.
Gut Load your Feeders
As with any pet that is more or less strictly insectivorous, calcium and protein can sometimes be an issue. To assist with this, well-gut loaded insects should be the only ones offered. In addition, some DeKay’s will take very small fish like feeder guppies from their water bowl. This can be a nice option, but stick to guppies, even for very large adults. Feeder goldfish contain thiaminase, an enzyme that inhibits the absorption of thiamine by the snake. Thiamine is crucial to good health for snakes, so these food items are a no-no. Some creative keepers ensure that their DeKay’s get plenty of protein and calcium without adding fish by rubbing slug juice all over a pinky mouse and then presenting it to the snake’s nose. (Eeyouuuuuuu, yuckie!) This species hunts by scent, so this technique can serve to fool the snake into eating something that is nutritious for it that it seldom gets a chance to enjoy. These should be offered infrequently, once a month being plenty.
Cleaning their Habitat
Attending to sanitation weekly is something you will thank yourself for, because snake feces can become rank is a musty way that is distinctively snakey and definitely unpleasant.
Daily: Spot remove any feces that you see.
Weekly: Remove and dispose of the top 1 inch of bedding and replace with fresh.
Bi-weekly: Place dishwasher safe furniture in the dishwasher every two weeks.
Monthly: Remove everything, and spritz the habitat interior with 10% bleach solution. If the terrarium is glass, spray sides with vinegar after the bleach has been applied and removed 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 it has soaked in bleach for ½ hour. After wiping down, wait another ½ hour, install fresh substrate and reposition the sanitized furniture. Only then should you place your snake back in. This is one time where a separate container for you snake is handy. A Tupperware box with tight fitting lid, a thick rumpled terry cloth towel in the bottom, and a warm location (or you can but the box right next to the aquarium/vivarium, remove the undertank pad from the underneath the primary habitat and slip it under the secondary holding container) are all that is needed. If using supplemental heat beneath a Tupperware or other plastic box, be sure to slip a hand towel over the heating element so it does not come into direct with the plastic. Also, preheat the box for at least 10 minutes before placing the snake inside. This reduces stress.
Snake Fungal Disease
Ophidiomycosis, often referred to as Snake Fungal Disease (SFD), is caused by the fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola. This fungus is thought to be an emergent pathogen on the North American landscape and poses a significant threat to snake health and population sustainability. To date, O. ophiodiicola has been documented in over 15 genera of wild and captive snakes and has been found in at least 38 states, as well as Puerto Rico and one Canadian province (Ontario). In some species, the mortality rate may be over 90%.
Infection begins through breaks in the skin, permitting the fungus entry into the epidermis. Within days, the infected epidermis becomes necrotic and thickened, producing the conspicuous yellow to brown crusts that are characteristic of SFD. Within necrotic skin, the fungus begins rapid proliferation, often making the lesions expand in size rapidly. In severe cases, the fungal hyphae may invade underlying skeletal muscle and may even attack the face and eyes. A snake with SFD may need to molt several times in rapid succession to rid itself of the infection. Portions of the old, infected epidermis sometimes adhere to the new skin, potentially facilitating reinfection. This disease is spreading rapidly in the US, with DeKay’s snakes being listed as new host species in 2017.
At this time, it is not well understood how the fungus causing SFD is spread. It seems most likely that the pathogen is shed into the environment by infected snakes and spread from the environment to other snakes (i.e., snakes that inhabit communal hibernation dens as the DeKay’s does). Some species are more susceptible to this illness than others and in DeKay’s the virulence of the disease and its mortality rate are still unknown. It can be diagnosed by a veterinarian through observation of classic clinical signs in combination with either molecular detection (PCR or qPCR) of the fungus, histopathology, and/or a positive fungal culture.
Treatment with an antifungal, Terbinafine, either by a slow-release, long-lasting implant or nebulization has been found to reach therapeutic levels for some species. So although there is hope, the minute size and fragility of this species will make treatment tricky, and after-care will require a great deal of patience and observation. Prevention through extremely sanitary conditions and snakes acquired from reputable breeders only is the best means of excluding this little known but horrific and disfiguring disease from your collection.
Mouth rot, more properly called Ulcerative or Infectious Stomatitis, consists of cankers or ulcers of the oral cavity accompanied by increased mucus. Mouth rot is common in colubrids, the family to which DeKay’s belong, and like pneumonia have a similar cause – decreased immunological function or immunosuppression caused by stress. Poor nutrition is considered by many exotic species veterinarians to be the number one cause. Inappropriately temperature-regulated environment, overcrowding, internal or external parasites, trauma, vitamin C deficiency and inappropriate calcium/phosphorous levels in the diet have been implicated.
Any of these stresses suppress the immune system of the reptile and make it much more susceptible to infections. Pseudomonas, Aeromonas, Salmonella, and Klebsiella are the usual culprits. However, Mycobacteria (the same family of pathogens that brings us tuberculosis and leprosy) can also be involved.
The appearance of this disease is somewhat different than SFD. While SFD usually appears first on the epidermis of the body proper before migrating to the head, mouth rot starts in the mouth and throat, although it can spread to the blood stream and cause septicemia in advanced cases, as well as loss of an eye.
Pus in the mouth, excessive mucous (salivation) in the mouth, swelling or reddening around or in the mouth, inability to close the mouth, reduced or absent tongue flicking, and gingival swelling or necrosis may be observed. If the lining of the mouth is being eroded, a "cottage cheese" appearance that is either yellow- or whitish-gray in color will be seen.
Fortunately, diagnosis is fairly straight forward based on observable clinical signs. In snakes where the only external sign is loss of appetite (so far), a husbandry history can yield important clues. When mouth lesions are present, a sample is generally taken to determine if the cause is bacterial or fungal.
Prognosis for recovery will depend on the severity, although many pets do recover quite well with the proper care. Mouth lesions can be cleansed with 1.5% hydrogen peroxide solution or organic iodine (Betadine®, Povidine®, povone iodine) solution. Topical antibiotics or silvadene cream may also be prescribed. These procedures need to be repeated daily until the lesions are healed. Supportive care may include supplemental heat and respiratory support by way of humidification. Nutritional supplements may be injected into prey foods that are offered. If emaciation has occurred, then recovering snakes often must be force-fed, very difficult to do with such a small species. Tube feeding is generally used as a last resort.
Prevention is again the best course of action. In addition to a sanitized habitat, the illness, considered a secondary infection that can get a toe hold only in the face of an ongoing prior insult, can be averted with conscientious attention to dietary variety and supplementation.
Keep a sharp eye on those slender cuties, feed them well and keep their habitat neat and they will entertain for years.