Caring for a Kingsnake

Perhaps you are looking into buying a Kingsnake, or have recently acquired one, but are unsure of their characteristics and needs. This article will serve as a basic care guide for beginner Kingsnake owners. All information in this care guide is relevant for a store bought Kingsnake. The care requirements of wild-caught Kingsnakes vary greatly, and I highly discourage anyone from attempting to domesticate a wild snake.

Selecting your snake

If you have not yet purchased your Kingsnake, there are a few things you should check for before choosing one:

What is its activity level in the cage? Is it active, or is it lying around, sluggish, and dull looking? Keep in mind that if it’s not moving, it may be sleeping. Ensure that it is awake before moving on. The snake should be active and alert. If it is not, and no outward signs of illness are visible, then it likely has an internal disease.

What is the physical condition of the snakes’ body? Does it have any scars, missing scales, lumps, open sores, oozing, or bruised spots? If so, it is ill and should not be bought. DO NOT purchase a sick snake out of pity in hopes of nursing it back to health. It can be extremely expensive, and usually the snake is already beyond help.

Carefully examine its body for mites. These will be tiny, almost invisible red specks that will be crawling over the scales. You should not purchase a parasite infested snake.

Ask about the snakes’ diet, and how often it has eaten. Some stores will purposely starve a snake to keep it smaller.

If the snake demonstrates none of these, more than likely it is in good health and safe to purchase.

Housing your snake

There are several kinds of snake cages, and you must understand the requirements of your snake before purchasing one. Kingsnakes are terrestrial snakes; while they may do a little branch climbing, they mostly stay on the ground. Because of this, a Kingsnake will fair better with a long cage. The cage should be about 2x the length of your snake, and its height should be about half of your snake. Usually a 30 gallon tank will be more than adequate.

While Kingsnakes are fairly easy going, they are wonderful at escaping, and will actively search for an escape. Because of this, you need to be sure your cage is secure and has no holes for escape. The lid needs to be secured with at least two latches, one on each corner.

The cage needs to have a vent somewhere, either on the top or side. If you are planning on housing your Kingsnake in a glass aquarium, then the venting will need to be on top. The venting can be as simple a piece of plastic peg board with locks on it. Whatever you choose, be sure that it is secure and escape proof.

The next step will be substrate, which is a substance put on the bottom to make the cage easy to clean when the snake defecates. Butcher paper, newspaper, Astroturf, or snake bedding available in pet stores are all options. Newspaper is the easiest to clean, but the most unattractive. Astroturf looks best, but has to be removed every time it requires cleaning, and you will have to have a spare piece to put in its place. What you use is simply a matter of how much work you want.

Absolutely necessary to a snake cage is a hide away box. Your snake will desire privacy just like any other creature, and may become depressed if some is not afforded. A hide away box can be as simple as an upside-down shoebox with a hole cut in the side. If you desire something a little more exotic, you can buy plastic caves, or even stone caves, to place in the tank.

Be sure to have a water dish in the cage that is large enough not to be easily spilled, and that the snake can take a dip in when desired.

Lastly, there is lighting and heating. Heating is essential because snakes are cold-blooded creatures. Avoid heating rocks completely as they are dangerous to a snake, causing thermo burns and possibly even electric shock. I recommend under-tank heating pads. They are simple and work very well; one designed for a 30 gallon tank costs approx. $15 USD at PetsMart. Place the heating pad under 1/3 of the cage on either the right or left side. You can also get a large flat stone, and shine an incandescent lamp [40 to 60 watt bulb] on it from the top of the cage. The snake will bask in the heat when necessary. Note that a heating pad may still be necessary.

Kingsnakes are amazingly versatile when it comes to temperature, usually fairing quite well at room temp, though about 85 F is the optimal temperature for them. Be sure watch its feeding habits. If your Kingsnake stops eating and doesn’t appear to be sick, then increase the heat. If the cage is too cold, your Kingsnake will not be able to digest properly, and the food will literally spoil in its stomach, causing severe illnesses.

Humidity should be kept low, about 30%. When it comes time for your Kingsnake to shed, it is best to increase the humidity level slightly.

Feeding your snake

All snakes are carnivores and eat meat. Kingsnakes are called ‘king’ snakes for a reason – they will eat anything, including rattlesnakes and other Kingsnakes. They start on a diet of strictly Pinkies (little hairless baby mice) and slowly work their way up to other food types, such as birds and lizards. However, mice provide full nutrition for a snake, and can be fed a diet consisting of only such.

Adult Kingsnakes will eat once a week, younger ones will eat two or three times a week; also, if your adult snake is really active, it may eat twice a week.

You will need to feed your snake mice that are either alive or dead. I prefer frozen mice, because you do not have the hassle of housing and taking care of them. Most snakes do not care if it is alive or dead, only that it is not too large or small.

If you choose to use frozen mice, follow the instructions on the package to properly thaw; do not thaw in the microwave! If you choose live mice, you need to stun them before putting them in the snakes’ cage. If you do not, the mouse will go into survival mode and may end up injuring your snake. You can stun a mouse by putting it into a paper or plastic bag and giving it a good whack on a wall, counter, or floor. Don’t hit too hard, though, or you will kill the mouse.

The rodent should be no more that two and a half times the width of your Kingsnakes head. Anything bigger is too large and your snake will have to unhinge its jaw to swallow, leading to possible health problems.

Do not hold your snake for three days after it has eaten so as to allow proper digestion time. If you hold your snake too soon, it will regurgitate its meal, which will neither look nor smell pretty. Your Kingsnake may not like you watching it eat, because you are a predator and it is vulnerable during feeding times. After it is finished eating, it will likely go into its hide away box to digest and sleep.

Handling your snake

Have you ever held a snake? It is probably a wise choice to hold a snake at least once before purchasing one. Kingsnakes are generally calm, easy-going creatures, and after they deduce that you are not a threat, they will readily welcome your warm touch. However, if you do not frequently handle your Kingsnake, it may become aggressive when held. It is important for your snake to become familiar and comfortable when held.

When you pick a snake up, ALWAYS make sure it has seen you first. Never sneak up on a snake, you will surprise it and it will bite you! Look at it through the cage first; make sure it has seen you. Then touch it a little before grasping it gently in the center of its body. Wrap your fingers under its belly and rest your thumb gently on its back. The center of the body must be supported, because it is heaviest. Put your other hand between its head and the hand you are grasping the center of the snake with. Be careful not to smack its head when removing it from the cage.

Allow the snake to glide between your fingers if it’s a smaller sized snake; if it is a larger snake, allow if to glide over your arms. Change its direction with a guiding hand, never forcefully.

Snakes seem to have a thing for shirts. Do not panic if your Kingsnake goes up your sleeve, and certainly do not run around screaming, as this will panic the snake and it will either bite or constrict in an attempt to keep from falling. Also, you may step on it if it does fall to the ground. Simply reach in and grasp it gently, or take your shirt off, which ever works best.

After your Kingsnake becomes comfortable with you, it will likely wrap itself around your arm or between your fingers and promptly go to sleep, where it can be happy for hours.

Lastly, DO NOT CHASE PEOPLE WITH YOUR SNAKE! Never, ever run with the snake, especially chasing people with it. They will likely scream and even smack at it, which will throw your snake into a panic and possibly cause it to bite. It will also put great stress on your snake, which will in turn lead to illness.

There you have it! The basics of Kingsnake ownership. You are now equipped with the knowledge to adequately care for your Kingsnake. Remember that this is general info. If you seek more specific knowledge in a certain area, contact a vet that specializes in reptiles, or your local herps society.

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