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Corn Snake Care Guide
Corn snakes are some of the most popular pets in America. They require less maintenance than a dog, but can offer just as much joy and affection. But caring for your corn snake requires astute attention to detail. Because if feeding or cleaning schedules are neglected, then they can succumb to disease. So here are some critical steps on how to care for your beloved corn snake.
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Corn Snake Facts
- Can grow up to 6' long
- Can live up to 20 years
- will enjoy crawling up owners arms after establishing relationship
Corn snakes (Elaphe [Pantherophis] guttata) are among the most common snakes kept in captivity as pets. Corn snakes, referred to in the pet trade as ‘Corns’, can reach a length up to 6 feet. They have been selectively bred for decades for their color variations, called ‘morphs’. A wide variety of color morphs have been developed from the wild-type. These can include ‘amelanistic’ morphs such as lavender and snow. Many amelanistic morphs (simply meaning ‘ without color’) are lacking any of the brown pigment found in the wild, while retaining the carotenoid pigment that produces the orange tint of the scales. These orange and white morphs are extremely striking and it is no surprise that the value of a Corn can increase significantly based on its color.
Corn snakes are primarily diurnal by habit, meaning they’re awake during the day and asleep at night. But when the weather gets too hot, they can change their habits to more nocturnal. According to Alicia Hudson at the University of Georgia: “Corn snakes spend most of their time underground or hidden under objects such as logs, boards, or pieces of roofing tin. They climb well and young ones are often found hiding under tree bark or climbing in brush. Corn snakes are active both day and night, but become primarily nocturnal in the warm summer months”.
These snakes are good for beginners as they are relatively docile and respond quickly to gentle and consistent handling. If you're looking for an easier snake to care for, hognose snakes are an excellent choice. But that shouldn't discourage you from corn snakes, because they are easy too.
Although they should not be handled right after eating (wait 48 hours) most other times will suit them. Periods of shedding and brumation 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.
How To Build a Corn Snake Habitat
- 10 gallon tank for juveniles / 20-30 gallon tanks for adults
- Heating Pads
- Water Dish
- Climbing Sticks
Corn Snake Tanks
Snakes need room to move, but not too much, as this can make them feel insecure. A juvenile Corn 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 warm and a cool side, a water dish/shallow pool and 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. Let’s examine the substrate options first.
Corn Snake Substrates
Most beginners’ tanks will have a glass bottom. Some advanced models may have a false bottom with some sort of screening to allow feces and urine to sift down. Sort of a fancy cat box type of setup. If you begin with a simpler affair, you will be placing an absorbent material onto paper towel liners that are placed firmly flat against the glass bottom. 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.
Corn Snake Heating Mats
It is advisable to provide an insulating layer such as felt or reptile carpet under the glass and on top of the heating mat to be certain the snake will not fall asleep on top of a too hot mat and burn itself. Snakes can and will choose to rest in an area that ends up being too hot for their safety. Think in terms of the old adage about a ‘boiled frog’. 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 several times weekly to keep your snake safe.
For temperature measurement, a digital laser thermometer is a worthy investment. For less than $20, 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 vivarium, so frequent readings are strongly recommended.
Hygrometers & Reptile Foggers
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Corn snakes come from humid southern climates in the US and Mexico. Keepers in the more arid portions of the US and elsewhere need to bear this in mind, and should consider some reptile foggers for their friend. For instance, snake keepers in the Great Basin states will need to be much more mindful of humidity needs for their Corns than those in Alabama. One easy way to add humidity to the snake’s enclosure is by changing water daily, replacing the water each time with water that feels slightly warm to the touch, which will be about 85-88 degrees F.
If supplying warm water, test it with a food thermometer to get a feel for a proper temperature. Better to err on the side of a bit too cool if uncertain and no thermometer is handy. This 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 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 and preparation for shedding.
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.
Concerning tops of tanks screened for ventilation, if your Corn can reach the top and the screen is not well secured, he/she can and will escape and 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.
Corn Snake Hide Options
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. Otherwise, you can try what some reptile keepers do and bake the wood at 250 degrees F for 2 hours. Regardless, a hide and a climbing object are desirable. So, to summarize, the basic set-up should include (inside): an aspen substrate about 2-3 inches deep, a hygrometer, a hide, a water bowl, and a climb. Outside the set-up should include: a heating mat (required), a laser digital thermometer (highly, highly recommended), a screen that is very secure, and a basking lamp (optional). 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. Half way between the cool and warm sides 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 you Corns, 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.
UV Lamps are Optional
A nice addition 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.
How To Clean Your Corn Snakes Habitat
Cleaning the habitat is fairly easy and should be done once a week. Remove and dispose of all bedding. New paper towels and clean shavings should be provided. Place dish washer safe furniture in the dish washer every two weeks. Remove everything, and spritz with bleach once a month. 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.
What to Feed a Corn Snake and How Often
Feeding your corn snake isn't the same as feeding your bearded dragon. When you feed your snake depends on what times he/she is most active. Corns 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 Corn snakes is that they only need to eat about every ten days. 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.
What do Corn Snakes Eat?
What will you be feeding your Corn? 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.
They Love Mice
- 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.
And They Love Rats
- 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.
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.
What Else Will Corn Snakes Eat Other Than Rodents?
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.
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.
Tricks to tempt your Corn into eating pre-killed meals:
- Use tongs or hemostats to dangle the prey and "walk" it around the cage to make it appear alive and entice the snake to strike at it.
- Sense of smell is very keen in most 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).
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.
Poor Sanitation Can Cause These Corn Snake Diseases
Proper feeding and sanitation can help to prevent most common illnesses in Corns. 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 veterinarian, who will probably administer an injectable antibiotic, followed by a course of topical treatments administered twice daily (by the owner).
Other conditions such as mouth rot, respiratory infections, and fungal infections are often a function of a dirty environment. A pus lined mouth, or bubbling nostrils indicate that something is very wrong and the animal should see the vet ASAP. Antibiotics and mouth rinsing twice a day may be advised for mouth rot, while use of a nebulizer twice a day plus antibiotics will be needed to cure a serious respiratory infection. Another condition, cloacaliths, is blockage caused by uric acid stones that are the result of chronic dehydration. Many of these conditions are treatable if caught early, but can take a great deal of time and money during convalescence. Most of these conditions in an advanced stage will result in the death of the snake. It is much easier to keep your snake’s habitat sanitary and pleasant for all, with clean bedding and a full water bowl, than to have to give a snake with cloacaliths a mineral enema every day in order to get him/her to finally be able to poop.