Which is the best pet snake for beginners?

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Corn Snakes vs Rosy Boas vs Milk Snakes - Which is the Best Snake for Beginners?

Corn Snakes

corn snake for beginners

Corn snakes (Elaphe [Pantherophis] guttata) are among the most common snakes kept in captivity as pets. ‘Corns’, can reach a length up to 6 feet. They have been selectively bred for decades for their color variations, called ‘morphs’.  An astonishing variety of color morphs have been developed from the wild-type, such as amelanistic morphs which are justifiably called lavender, and even snow.  Corn snakes are primarily diurnal by habit, meaning they’re awake during the day and asleep at night, like humans, although in hot weather they can change their habits to being more nocturnal until things cool down.  This activity habit makes them easily observed by their keepers and provided more entertainment and companionship than nocturnal species.

Temperament

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.

Habitat

Housing will depend on this snake’s age and size.  A juvenile Corn will do well in a 10 gallon tank for a couple of years, but at 3 years old, your snake will have more than doubled in length and require a 20-30 gallon tank.  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
  • something for the snake to climb and bask on

The overall temperature of the tank should not exceed 86 degrees on the warm side and 76 degrees on the cool side.  

Habitat Security

Concerning tops of tanks screened for ventilation, if your Corn reaches the top and the screen is not well secured, he/she can and will escape and make a break for it. In winter in most places in the US, 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.

Climbers Paradise

These guys do love to climb, so branches should be provided. In general, 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). 

Feeding Schedule and Diet

Timing for feeding a Corn snake depends on what times he/she is most active. Corns can switch back and forth from day to night, so keepers 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 Corns 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.  The size of prey item will depend 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.  Adult mice and rats are only suitable for snakes over 4 feet long.  At any age, 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. 

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. Although this seldom leads to death directly, it can definitely decrease your pet’s life span.

New owners should be familiar with the laws in their state concerning reptile ownership. For instance, in Georgia a captive bred Corn snake will require a permit. A wild caught one does not, but will not be as docile if obtained as an adult. Acquiring the permit is usually super easy and worth the trouble if planning on ordering a morph that does not exist in the bioregion where the owner resides.

Rosy Boas

rosy boa care guide

The Rosy Boa also makes an excellent pet. Like Corn snakes, Rosy Boas are available in a wide array of color patterns and morphs from reputable breeders, although there aren’t quite as many morphs to choose from. Locality-specific Rosy Boas cost more than generic morphs because a breeder has taken the time to breed Rosy Boas found in the same locale. Be advised that only the captive bred offspring of the certain subspecies are legal.  

Size and age

Young Rosy Boas are approximately 10 inches in length. Adults can reach 4 feet in length, but this is rare, with 36 inches being most common. What they lack in size they make for in longevity; 50-60 years! 

Like Corn snakes, Rosy Boas are primarily diurnal.  In a climate controlled setting, they are most active during the day and can be handled at this time. Gentle handling allowing the snake to explore your hands and arms is a good way to start, and be sure not to grab, squeeze or otherwise restrain, as this frightens them. When alarmed during handling they can excrete a foul musk.  Once a trusting bond has been established, these snakes enjoy physical contact with their owners and examine their keeper’s clothing, especially inside shirts and sleeves.

Habitat

Rosy boas habitat needs are similar to a Corn’s. Horizontal, with a suitable substrate, one-two hides, a warm and a cool side, a water dish/shallow pool and something for the snake to climb and bask on. At maturity, this smaller species requires only a 20 gallon tank. 

Provide your boa with a basking spot temperature of 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and an ambient temperature of 78 to 80 degrees. Nowhere in the habitat should the ambient temperature be less than 67 degrees.  It’s important to take readings at the surface of the bottom of the warm side, the cooler side, and any basking areas.  This species is used to some moderately arid conditions, not exactly temperate but not fully desert either. An average humidity of 40% should work, unless your snake is starting to shed, then 60-65% is better. Unlike Corn snakes and Milk snakes, Rosies are less tolerant of high humidity for extended periods of time. In general, their habitat needs are a bit more restrictive than the other two species, so a little bit more care keeping the temperature up and the humidity down may be required in certain parts of the country.

Legality

As with Corn snakes, it is wise for the future keeper to know the state laws concerning this species. For instance, in California no species of Rosy Boa may be caught and then resold. With a permit, they may be caught and used as breeding stock, and then the offspring sold. In fact, it is illegal to just wander down the road, catch a passing snake, and keep it as a pet unless you possess a California Freshwater Sport Fishing License. A little weird and non-intuitive, which is why it’s good to find out the rules in advance. So in California, if you do find a random desert Rosy Boa and you possess the correct license, you can legally take it home with you. But you can’t breed and sell unless you also have a Native Reptile Captive Propagation permit. Therefore, in California it would be easier to just buy Rosies from a reputable breeder, rather than try to collect and breed. On the other hand, nice Rosy Boa morphs will cost 2-3 times as much as the purchase of the Corn or Milk snake. Some really striking Milk snake morphs will cost no more than $150, while some incredibly plain Jane Rosies will start at $250. Gorgeous morphs…plan on spending $400.

Feeding Schedule and Diet

When you feed your rosy boa depends on what times he/she is most active. Early evening is a good time to feed your Rosy in summer if you are offering live food.  Observe your snake the entire time that a live prey animal is inside the habitat. Since this snake alters its waking/sleeping behavior seasonally, knowing when he or she is most active anyway is by default the best time to feed. The size of the prey you choose will depend on whether or not the snake can both swallow and digest it. Choice of prey size for this species is the same as the advice given above.  Should you feed only rodents?  Not necessarily.  Like Corn snakes, an older rosy can be offered day old chicks now and then. 

Habitat Sanitation

Cleaning the habitat is fairly easy and should be done lightly once a week, thoroughly once a month.  Attending to sanitation weekly is something you will thank yourself for, because snake feces can become rank is a musty way that is distinctively snake and definitely unpleasant. Some Rosies have a fondness for pooping in their water bowl. When this is the case, the bowl must be cleaned daily and refilled, and sterilized once a week. Despite being a desert species, a water bowl is a critical resource for good health as well as for relief from the torment of snake mites.

Poor sanitation can cause conditions such as mouth rot, respiratory infections, and fungal infections.  Mouth rot is a very common outcome of a filthy habitat for all of the species listed in this article. It is often first noted as a pus lined mouth, or bubbling nostrils. 

Diseases

A disease that is particularly prevalent and virulent for Rosy Boas is inclusion body disease (IBD).  This is a virus that is spread by a snake mite.  Use monthly sanitization techniques before introducing a clean snake to any previously used enclosure. This species is also particularly susceptible to snake mites and internal parasites. Of the three species listed in this article, and despite the fact that it is most long lived, this is the species that is the least hardy of the three and the most susceptible to disease.

Milk Snakes

milk snake for beginners

Milk snakes (Lampropeltis sp.) are among the most common snakes kept in captivity as pets. These relatives of the king snake range in size from 2 feet in length to 5 feet. Most subspecies tend to be about 20% smaller than the average Corn snake, but larger than a Rosy Boa. The exception would be the Honduran Milk Snake, which can reach a length of 6 feet. Milk Snakes and Corn Snakes have similar life spans of about 15-20 years, making them more ideal pets for owners who can’t imagine caring for a pet for 50 years, as with the Rosy Boa.

Temperament

These snakes are good for beginners as they are relatively docile and respond quickly to gentle and consistent handling. Hatchlings and juveniles are much more hyperactive and nervous than adults, so infrequent handling is recommended. They are also much faster than Rosy Boas, so handling by adults rather than small children is recommended. Once a trusting bond has been established, adults  enjoy physical contact just as much as the other two species. 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 its immune system. Many experienced keepers consider the Corn snake to be slightly more docile than Milk snakes, so even though they are not quite as colorful, Corn snakes may be a better choice for a nervous beginner. A stressed milk snake is more likely to bite than a stressed Corn snake.

Handling

When it comes to ease of handling, both Corn and Milk snakes are faster than Rosy Boas. Of the three species mentioned in this article, the Rosy Boa is going to be the most chill for hanging out with. Both Corns and Milks will display restless, exploratory behaviors that suit some owners quite well who want to actively participate in their snakes motions. For owners who wish to enjoy some quality time with their pet while reading a good book and sipping wine, a Rosy would be the best choice. 

That said, for owners who want to be able to handle their pet extremely frequently, a Corn would be the best choice. They seem to positively relish the human contact, rather than just tolerating it. Rosy Boas and Milk snakes stress out with over handling much more easily, with Milk snakes tending to bite, and Rosies tending to musk. 

Best looking?

On the aesthetic  preferences scale, Milk snakes display the most striking colors. Because they are so naturally blessed with gorgeous garb, there are very few morphs available. Sort of like ‘gilding the lily’ in the minds of many reptile fanciers. For display purposes, these snakes may be the best choice. Yes, they can be handled, and don’t burrow nearly as much as Rosy Boas, but their activity level and aesthetic appearance just begs for owners who have a terrarium in pride of place in their living room to choose this snake.

Habitat Set Up

Their habitat set-up and environmental husbandry is identical to the Corn snake, with the exception that some subspecies can get by with a 20 gallon tank (instead of 30 gallon which is pretty mandatory for an adult Corn). Diet is similar too, with one exception. Many experienced keepers have reported that Milk snakes refuse to be fed with tongs, while this sort of fussiness is extremely rare in Corn snakes.

Cost

As mentioned under the Rosy Boa heading, this is a very affordable, very attractive, hardy snake. They do cost about 20% more than some really striking Corn snake morphs, but display much deeper and more dramatic colors than Corns.

The Verdict - Which is the best snake for beginners?

All three species have pros and cons. To help a future owner decide below is a quick rating.

Scorecard of attributes for the three species where 1 indicates a less desirable situation and 5 being maximally desirable.

Expense at purchase:

Corn Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

Rosy Boa: 1  2  4  5  

Milk Snake: 1  2  3  5  

Monthly Expense: 

Corn Snake:  1  2  3  5  

Rosy Boa: 1  2  3  4  5  

Milk Snake:  1  2  3 

(Rosy Boas, being the smallest, will be the most economical to feed)

Set Up Expense

Corn Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

Rosy Boa: 1  2  3  4  5  

Milk Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

(Tank size will be similar for Corns and Milks, but although Rosy Boas may do fine with a smaller tank, they need double depth of substrate and frequent replacement. )

Cleanliness

Corn Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

Rosy Boa: 1  2  3  5  

Milk Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

(All three require regular spot cleaning, Rosies may need daily water bowl changing).

Temperament

Corn Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

Rosy Boa: 1  2  3  5  

Milk Snake:  1  2  3  5  

(Corn Snakes love human contact but are active, Rosies like human contact a little and are slow and cuddly, milk snakes like human contact somewhat and occasionally bite. All three can be handled easily with proper socialization as adults).

Hardiness

Corn Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

Rosy Boa: 1  2  3  5  

Milk Snake:  1  2  3  4   

Safety

Corn Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

Rosy Boa: 1  2  3  4  5  

Milk Snake:  1  2  3  5  

Appearance

Corn Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

Rosy Boa: 1  2  3  5  

Milk Snake:  1  2  3  4 

This depends on the Rosy Boa species under consideration. 

Ease of Maintenance:

Corn Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

Rosy Boa: 1  2  3  5  

Milk Snake:  1  2  3  4 

Cleaning and Hydration needs are virtually identical for Corns and Milks. Rosies need more humidity control and water management than the other two.

Convenience:

Corn Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

Rosy Boa: 1  2  3  5  

Milk Snake:  1  2  3  5   

Availability:

Corn Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

Rosy Boa: 1  2  3  5  

Milk Snake:  1  2  3  4  5   

Corns and Milks are often available in pet stores.  All can be ordered from reputable breeders online and shipped to your doorstep.

Ability to leave alone for travel:

Corn Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

Rosy Boa: 1  2  3  5  

Milk Snake:  1  2  3  4  5   

Adults of all three species can be left without food for a week, but water resources may become an issue. Pet sitters will need to be selected who do not mind putting a hand inside the habitat to retrieve the dish or freshen the water, especially for Rosies.

Friendliness:

Corn Snake:  1  2  3  4  5  

Rosy Boa: 1  2  3  5  

Milk Snake:  1  2  3  5   

A new keeper will not go wrong with any of these snakes. Choice will depend on personal preferences, handling style, keeper’s lifestyle, and budget.

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