Milk Snake Care Guide
Table of Contents
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Introduction to Milk Snakes
Milk snakes (Lampropeltis sp.) are among the most common snakes kept in captivity as pets. They come in 24 subspecies and are found from the US down to South America. They are relatives of the king snake, and range in size from 2 feet in length to 6 feet. The colorful Honduran milk snake reaches the 6 foot status.
The milk snake's temperament and coloration make this species such a popular pet. With a few exceptions, nearly all milk snakes sport the red, yellow (sometimes white) and black bands that contribute to a milk snake‘s striking appearance. These bands are called “triads”. Variations in the configuration and arrangement of these triads of coloration helps identify the different milk snake subspecies.
Milk Snakes look like Coral Snakes
Milk snakes are often found in the same habitat as the deadly coral snake. Over eons of evolution, milk snakes have taken advantage of the coral snake’s coloration. The coral snake (Micruroides spp.), is the second most venomous snake on the planet. Coral snakes have small mouths that are unable to deliver much of a punch, and they have to chew on a predator, or a person who picks them up, to really deliver much venom. Still, the venom is pretty deadly.
Knowing this, in an evolutionary sense, harmless milk snakes have taken advantage of the venomous snake’s distinctive coloration. Intended as a warning sign, much like a rattlesnake’s rattle, this distinctive coloration of coral snakes signals ‘back off’.
This is called biomimetic. And its purpose is for the non-venomous milk snake to pose as the more deadly coral snake, which signals to potential predators that they might be poisonous (which they aren't).
Different Appearance between Coral Snake and Milk Snake
And it can be hard to distinguish the difference, even for humans, hence the need for pneumonic device such as "Red next to yellow is a deadly fellow, and red next to black is a friend of Jack.”
Origination of the name Milk snake
These harmless snakes have their odd name because sometime back in the dim recesses of human imagination, their frequent presence in barns and around dairy animals made some silly bugger think they were deriving their nourishment by sucking milk from the teats of the farm animals. Sheeesh.
Great Snake for Beginners
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. Hatchlings and juveniles are much more hyperactive and nervous than adults, so infrequent handling is recommended. 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. Once per week for no more than one hour seems to be the sweet spot for maintaining trust and docility. More is not better, as this can stress the snake and lower it’s immune system. To see your pet live up to its fullest life span of 12 years, good husbandry and moderate handling are the keys.
Milk Snake Habitat Design
These snakes need room to move, but not too much, as this can make them feel insecure. A juvenile milk snake 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 for smaller species, and a much larger custom tank will be needed for snakes the size of Hondurans.
Despite their tendency to climb, most keepers have had the best success with a horizontally oriented tank, rather than a vertical arrangement.
Clamp the Top Down
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. These guys are escape artists, and if your milk 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.
These snakes are burrowers, and so will need deep bedding. 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. Three to four inches of covering with these materials provides a light and sanitary bedding that the snake will often disappear under as an alternative to its hide. That’s quite alright, but it is advisable to provide an insulating layer such as felt or reptile carpet under the glass and on top of any heating mats used 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.
The overall temperature of the tank should not exceed 86 degrees F on the warm side, and hover at 76 degrees F on the cool side. 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. 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. A thermostatically controlled under tank heating pad or heating tape will be the most trouble-free and goof-proof.
If a UVB heat lamp instead of under tank heating is in use, it must be turned off for 12 hours per day to maintain a natural diurnal cycle for this diurnal species. That said, when the light is off, the temperature at night should not drop too low. This species does not have to have additional UVB light, but many keepers feel that it gives the animal’s immune system an added boost. Others like the convenience of thermostatically regulated under tank heating.
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 your milk snakes, or it can be accidental due to heater malfunction or poor maintenance of temperature regime. 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. To avoid brumation, nighttime temperatures in the habitat should not be allowed to drop below 65 degrees F.
Light and Humidity
These snakes generally do not need extraordinary levels of humidifying. Misting once a week is usually enough except during shedding. During shedding, either provide a shedding box filled with dampened sphagnum moss or mist the vivarium twice per day.
A hide made of something that can be 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.
So, to summarize, the minimal basic set-up should include (inside):
- an aspen substrate about 3-4 inches deep
- a hide
- water bowl.
This is minimalistic, and although many keepers would provide only these items, we feel that such a sparse set-up is inadequate for the animal’s happiness. We recommend including
- a second hide
- a plant
- a couple of rocks as environmental enrichment.
Of course, if you are using a bioactive set-up to minimize cleaning, the mandatory substrate and plants should be sufficient that are an essential part of that system will be plenty, in addition to that water bowl and hide.
Diet and Feeding
Feeding Schedule Depends on Milk Snake Age
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 2-3 times per 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 milk snakes is that they only need to eat about every 7 days. Food can be provided right within the habitat or in a separate enclosure.
Should I use a Separate Feeding 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, 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 vivarium.
What will you be feeding your milk snake?
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. They are middle school phase of mouse development.
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.
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. After ingestion, the prey item should make a noticeable bump in the snake’s torso. Just a small one, not one that looks like a softball. That is just asking for trouble.
Should you feed only rodents?
Not necessarily. Juveniles may enjoy crickets now and then, while adults can be offered day old frozen and thawed chicks occasionally. 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, but rather a warm bath.
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 milk snake 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).
Cleaning and Sanitation
Cleaning the habitat is fairly easy and should be done once a month for large snakes and once every two months for smaller snakes in a generously sized habitat. Spot cleaning should be done daily, and examination of the habitat for ‘gifts’ left for you after feeding should be performed twice daily for 48 hours after a meal has been consumed. This will lengthen times between mega-cleanings and keep your snake’s habitat and your snake smelling sweet.
For the monthly/bi-monthly cleaning, remove and dispose of all bedding. Place dishwasher safe furniture on the top rack of your dishwasher an wash on pots and pans setting. The sides of the now empty terrarium/vivarium may now be spritzed with a bleach solution and allowed to dry.
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. If the terrarium is glass, and you live in an area with hard water, you can create a clear viewing experience at this monthly cleaning time if you spray any glass sides with vinegar.
Let it do its thing on any calcium build-up for 30 minutes and then wipe down. Wait another ½ hour, replace sanitized furniture on top of new, clean bedding and only then place your snake back in. Of course, if you have bioactive habitat, you need only do this once per year at most as long as you spot clean diligently.
Common Illnesses and Ailments
Proper feeding and sanitation can help to prevent most common illnesses in milk snakes. For example, blister disease is associated with damp, filthy environments and effects the bottom most scales, the scutes, that would be in the most constant contact with any 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).
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 mouth rot is developing and the animal should see the vet ASAP. Antibiotics and mouth rinsing twice a day may be advised for mouth rot, so prevention is really well worth the time and effort.
If you have recently acquired your snake from a pet store or a breeder that you are not familiar with, or a seller who has shipped your snake to you, and you see lots of white, red, or black dots moving around on your snake, it is time to be concerned. Reptile mites are as common as mites on mammals, but can actually be a lot more harmful. Mites come out at night to feed on the blood of snakes and can cause serious stress, and in some cases death. The first line of defense is to give your milk snake a quick bath in olive oil, and then carefully rub it down with a paper towel to remove excess oil. If this doesn’t solve the problem, you can try a commercial miticide if the animal is an adult. The habitat will need to be stripped, disinfected and treated with the miticide as well. If the snake is a hatchling, or young juvenile then a trip to the vet for a safe prescription miticide is the safest option.
Prevention is the best medicine for these and other conditions. Observe your snake daily, know it’s appearance and behavior like the back of your hand and you will be able to catch any husbandry or sanitation issues quickly. This is better for you, your pet, and your wallet than the alternative.