Table of Contents
Rough Green Snake Care Guide
What are Rough Green Snakes?
An interesting snake for a certain type of beginning keeper is the rough green snake, Opheodrys aestivus. This guide will address the husbandry needs of the rough green, but the smooth green is so similar in nature that the guidance here can easily be applied to smooth as well as rough green snakes.
These small, thin-bodied snakes are native to North America, and although once extremely common, their numbers are becoming threatened or endangered in many states. They are a bright emerald-green in color with a pale yellow or cream-colored belly and can take on a bluish tone when stressed.
Although gentle and attractive, they are very shy and do not take well to handling. They are excellent "look only" pets. Since they are shy feeders and prefer quiet habitats, they are not the best match for a nervous first-time reptile keeper or in household environments with young children. For adults who believe they have the skills to enjoy this lovely creature in the kind of lush, vertical set-up that it requires and do not need the tactile experience of handling the pet, this snake may be a very nice choice.
Size and Age
Rough green snakes are roughly 2 to 3 feet long and live 6 to 8 years as a rule, although 15 years has been reported. Rough greens are very non-aggressive species and rarely if ever even attempt to bite. Their gentle shyness should not be mistaken for friendliness and handling of your captive rough green snake to a minimum, such as that needed to relocate the snake briefly for enclosure cleaning, because they tend to stress very easily when out of the safety of their enclosure and its dense protective foliage.
Remember rough green snakes are designed to be tangled among the leaves and twigs of their natural environment and they know they are invisible there; bringing them out into the open can have very traumatic effects on this species of snake, even leading to the diseases discussed below. If you must handle your rough green snake, handle it securely and close to your body, without letting it hang loosely from your hands, which makes them feel very exposed and vulnerable.
Rough Green Habitat
These arboreal snakes are small, so while you don't need a huge tank, you do need to provide vertical space for climbing. One really nice feature of this species is that they are somewhat communal so three can live comfortably in a 30-gallon enclosure, which makes for a very nice display.
A 30-gallon hexagonal tank is a good choice because it provides lots of space for greenery as well as hiding spots. The tank will need a very tight-fitting fine mesh screen lid to prevent escapes. Clamped down lids work best.
Green snakes that do not have lots of greenery to hide amongst will become stressed. These snakes are small enough that live plants such as pothos, ivy, fake vines and even silk plants will work. The greenery should fill at least 50 percent of the tank. Also, some hide boxes should be provided on the bottom of the enclosure.
Substrate in the enclosure should be in the form of small stone or gravel, such as the Exo Terra Small Natural River Pebbles. This will enable easy cleaning and reduce the risk of harmful external parasites such as snake mites. Dry feces are easily visible on the gravel, meaning that there is no searching needed, which allows the keeper to more easily spot and remove them.
One advantage of this species is their temperature comfort zone. A suggested temperature gradient for this species is 70 to 85 F during the day, and a drop to between 65 and 75 F is permissible. If your home tends to be on the chilly side, then an under-tank heat mat can be used as long as the substrate is at least two inches deep.
Being diurnal (day active), these snakes should also have a UVA/UVB bulb on for 10 to 12 hours per day situated in such a way that they can bask when they choose. Any visible light and any UVB light source should be turned off at night to give the snake a light-dark cycle. Full spectrum lighting can be provided by snake heat lamps such as the Exo Terra Solar Glo All in One Reptile Lamp. This will not only enhance the captive environment and your captive’s natural colors, but it will benefit the snakes’ psychological well-being and keep any live plants growing strong. ZooMed's reptile or iguana lights, and Durotest's Vita-Lite are also two good products. Be sure to replace the UVB light sources every six to eight months.
Another easy husbandry feature of this species is their non-tropical humidity needs, which are pretty much within the usual human comfort range of 40 to 50 percent. In addition to some occasional misting, the snake's water dish will provide sufficient humidity. An inexpensive hygrometer will help to monitor humidity during dry winter months or extremely arid parts of the country. A temporary increase of up to 60 percent humidity will assist your pet during its shedding process.
A real selling point for keeping these snakes amongst squeamish new keepers is their diet. Rough green snakes are insectivores and are among the few snakes that eat a diet consisting entirely of insects and worms. In the wild, they consume a variety of prey such as crickets, moths, grasshoppers, caterpillars, fly larvae, spiders, and worms. No need to provide rodent items for these guys.
Mealworms, grasshoppers, and crickets are great items to be fed to green snakes regularly, but should not comprise the entire diet, as any insects with a tough exoskeleton may pose a risk of impaction if eaten too often. Soft feeder worms, such as wax worms, should be offered weekly. Be sure that you don't offer any prey items that are wider than your very slender snake's body.
Gut Loaded Insects
All prey items should be gut-loaded, meaning that they have been fed a nutritious diet themselves—including a vitamin and mineral supplement—before being offered to green snakes. Prey items should also be dusted with a calcium supplement.
Feed your green snakes twice on feeding day, the amount totaling what they will eat over a 20-minute period. Some keepers report that these shy snakes can be a problem to feed, therefore, to avoid stressing them, feeding days should be only two to three days per week. Because they do not feed on high protein items such as pinkies, juveniles will need to be fed 3 times per week until maturity. Feeding times at dawn or dusk will tempt a finicky eater the best. Some experimentation may be needed to find out what works consistently, but if your snake seems habitually uninterested in food while you observe, you may need to leave the room and return after an hour or so. Family members and other pets will need to be excluded from the room as well.
Newly acquired snakes may go on a hunger strike for the first few days in captivity or transference to your home from a breeder. If this is the case, resist, resist, resist the urge to check on the snake’s wellbeing by taking it out and handling it. New owners should just put their new pet in its fully prepped habitat and leave it completely alone for the first 5 days. No food offered until day 3, and water changed every other day only until your pet has fully settled in. Also, new owners should be advised that rough greens purchased from a pet store often die. They may have been recently wild caught and are chock full of parasites, plus the activity of store patrons staring at them constantly keeps their systems in perpetual freak out mode, and this is a species that can only take so much of that.
Like the arboreal lizards, these snakes prefer drinking water droplets off of leaves rather than from a bowl or other groundwater source, so a daily misting of the greenery is recommended. However, it is still important to provide a shallow dish of water that is large enough for the snake to climb into for a full-body soak, but shallow enough to prevent drowning. If your new pet is not eating and you are worried, a tsp of Pedialyte in the water bowl daily or the mist will help with nourishment until your pet/pets are secure enough to start eating the insects you provide.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
An ailment common among snakes, but especially problematic in rough greens, is mouth rot, or infectious stomatitis. This infection of the mouth can be caused by all sorts of ills and pathogens, from bacteria to fungi to parasites. It usually begins with injury to the mouth or snout, combined with inadequate husbandry or environmental conditions. A snake that is mouth breathing or gaping for long periods of time probably has it. Pus, which presents as a cheesy appearing substance, tinged with pink (blood) may be present in advanced cases. Bubbles and gum inflammation may be easily observed as well. This is a painful condition, and if left untreated, the snake's teeth may be lost when the infection reaches the bone.
This is a problematic condition for green snakes in general because of their reclusive nature. They can be hard to observe on a daily basis, since they spend more time hiding than basking. Often, by the time the keeper is aware of the problem, it is fairly advanced. A trip to the vet will definitely be needed. Radiography in some form will be needed to examine the bones of the head and, if diseased, expertise in handling will be required to prevent any fractures during handling and cleaning of the mouth. The examination will also provide clues as to whether the stomatitis is secondary to a much greater problem involving the esophagus or even the stomach. Therefore, where the lesions extend down the throat the use of endoscopy (fibre-optics) to examine the esophagus is warranted. If this sounds expensive and complicated for a simple rough green, it is. The expense might be warranted for a pricey python, but most beginning owners of snakes will simply choose to have the animal euthanized.
Prevention is definitely the best cure for this very common disorder. Overcrowded or too closely confined snakes in a small enclosure may snout rub incessantly, trying to find a way to escape. The subsequent bruising (called rostral abrasions) then invites infection. Stress lowers the immune system and makes it harder to the animal to fight off incipient infection. Dirty housing encourages mites. Although not a direct cause, mites can transmit infectious organisms associated with the disease, such as Aeromonas and Pseudomonas bacteria, when they bite and suck blood.
A monthly removal of all substrate and cleansing of any hides or inorganic furniture such as vines will help greatly improve the chances of prevention. For this easily stressed animal, if they seem sick then daily spot cleaning may be unwise, and certainly not recommended for a newly acquired snake. Therefore, monthly cleaning that will require the removal of the snake for a couple of hours is critical. A mature snake that has been in the keeper’s possession for several months, who is good eater and does not attempt to hide at the first sign of the keeper’s approach, may be a candidate for daily spot cleaning, which makes the need for monthly cleaning less urgent. A bioactive set-up might really be the best call for this species. Although a little more expensive and complicated to set-up, the dividends of non-intrusive husbandry may pay off hugely.
A brand new pathogen that seems to be unique to green snakes comes from the family of Orthoreoviruses. This is nasty stuff, and infected reptiles often display central nervous system disorders, skin lesions, and pneumonia. Sudden death is quite common. Pneumonia is usually the first sign, followed by neurological signs such as head tremors and skin lesions may eventually become apparent. Or none of those symptoms may happen at all and the owner finds a previously healthy specimen dead on the floor of the enclosure. Currently, this disease has only been described in wild specimens, but because it is emergent, it may begin to show up in captive populations as well. Transmission is oral-fecal, so this is one disease that buyers should be mindful of when purchasing new animals to be introduced into a collection. All new specimens, whether wild caught or purchased from a breeder should be quarantined for at least two weeks (longer is better) before being allowed to co-mingle with other specimens in communal housing. So far, this disease is rare, but there is no reason to think it may never become more common, like the disease described below.
Cryptosporidium serpentis affects a whole lot of snake species, as one can conclude from its scientific name. This common disease of both captive and wild snakes infects the digestive tract, making affected snakes unable to digest food properly. Sick snakes will vomit regurgitate undigested food items three to five days after eating. Keepers may notice a bulge in the stomach area, an indication of backed-up food. If the small intestine is involved in the disease process, keepers may also notice diarrhea, weight loss, and, if the animal lives long enough, poor growth. Untreated, affected snakes and lizards usually die from starvation.
Unfortunately, captive green snakes may show no signs at all and simply fail to thrive, and then finally expire. For this reason, beginning keepers need to find a way to observe their pets unobtrusively. Shy does not mean sick when it comes to rough greens, but a noticeably more prominent spine may. Food intake will need to be monitored and the enclosure examined for signs of barfing.
Diagnosis involves a veterinarian performing a physical examination, a fecal exam and possibly a blood sample. If this expensive batttery of tests is performed and the results are positive for cryptosporidiosis, well, that is not good news. Cryptosporidium is difficult to treat and highly infectious to other household reptiles. It can be contained, not cured, by injections of paromomycin. This very easily stressed species will not respond well to handling required to administer an injection, however, there is new research on king cobras that indicate that this drug can be effectively administered through injection of prey items, which is nice for both the snake and the handlers. Under the advice of a veterinarian, a keeper who suspects this disease or who has submitted feces for examination and knows a snake has it at subclinical levels, could try injecting the insect food items with the drug. Dosage will matter, so that is why consultation with a vet is advisable.
As a general rule, a new reptile should be eating well, maintaining or gaining weight, free from common detectable infectious diseases and appear healthy for three months for snakes, before it is released from quarantine or isolation. That may seem like a long time, but the pervasiveness of this disease and the lack of a cure makes this step the only prudent measure for best husbandry practices. To preclude this disease from spreading, a two week quarantine is not sufficient.
You may be tired of hearing this, but prevention is worth far more than a dubious cure. The goal is to keep cryptosporidiosis out of the collection, as it is highly transmissible, difficult to treat and even more difficult to disinfect against. The only good news here is that this disease appears to be non-transmissible to humans or other mammals, or birds. However, big caveat here with that statement, there has been one documented instance of C. serpentis in a cow. If this very ubiquitous pathogen can jump once, then perhaps it will again. Therefore, if there are birds or mammalian pets in the house, be extra careful when handling infected feces of a diseased snake. Gloves should be worn, or the feces picked up with tongs and placed in a zip loc bag. This should be done right in the enclosure unless it weirds out the snake too much. The tongs should be kept in a 10% solution of bleach. Humans do host their own type of crypto (sporidium, not currency) which has been shown not transmissible to reptiles. There are at least 25 types of cryptosporidium globally, some of which infest dogs and cats as well as humans, camels, chickens, frogs and fish. Although it’s everywhere, this nasty seems to like to confine itself to a primary host species, but why take a chance? Excellent sanitation can protect you, your reptiles, and your other pets from exposure.
I have gone into detail about disease for this species more than most other reptiles, amphibians, arthropods and mammals that are covered on this site for two reasons;
One: their natural shyness can make them hard to observe. The new keeper has to walk a finer line with this species than with a newly acquired ball python. Thought and preparation for providing a viewing area that screens the animal from close eye contact with the owner should be part of the initial husbandry plan.
Two: their small size and current low price makes it easy to leap into an acquisition, and makes expensive veterinary care seem impractical. It will cost the owner of a rough or smooth green snake just as much to diagnose and medicate a sick $20 pet as it would the owner of a $350 ball python. Causing the death of a new pet through neglect or ignorance is never a pleasant experience. Because of their extreme affordability, I felt a little heads up on their unique medical needs and potential expense of those procedures to be warranted.
For those of you adults out there who are dying to enjoy these lovely and gentle creatures as they wind, slither, climb, and dangle throughout the delightful verdant habitat that you have provided for them, then definitely enjoy, and happy herping to you!