Keeping Corn Snakes as Pets

It’s not hard to see why corn snakes are considered the best beginner pet snake to own. Not only are they docile and enjoy being handled but they are also extremely hardy and therefore easy to care for. In addition, they come in a beautiful variety of colours and patterns.

Choosing Your Corn Snake

It is always best to start with a captive-bred specimen and corn snakes (Elaphe guttata guttata) are easily available as they breed readily in captivity and large numbers are produced annually.

Choose one that has clear eyes and is alert and flicking its tongue. Its body should be well-fleshed with no cuts or scrapes. Check also for signs of ticks and mites and also for a clean vent. Most corn snakes live for about 20 years and grow to a length of 3-5 feet, which is ideal for a pet. Captive-bred corn snakes are usually docile to handle and in any case, their bite is not venomous to human beings.

Housing Your Corn Snake

While corn snakes will tolerate a variety of environmental conditions, it is still important to provide the optimum living environment in order to preserve your snake’s health and condition. As they are relatively small, corn snakes do not need enormous enclosures and in fact, many people keep baby corn snakes in plastic shoeboxes with holes punched for ventilation. Otherwise, a ten gallon terrarium or vivarium or similar size enclosure would be a suitable choice for a young corn snake, graduating to a standard twenty-gallon long aquarium upon reaching maturity and full adult size at about 3 or 4 years. Even larger aquariums, such as the thirty-gallon breeder tank or the fifty-five gallon tank would also be appropriate. One thing to remember is that corn snakes are excellent escape artists therefore considerable thought must be given to escape-proofing the enclosure, such as a secure-fitting lid that can be clamped down.

The substrate on the floor of your terrarium is extremely important. Cedar shavings and pine shavings are believed to cause respiratory problems in snakes and therefore best avoided, as is corn cob bedding, often used with birds, as this can cause intestinal blockage if swallowed by the snake and may also cause excessive drying of the dermal tissues.

Preferred substrates include reptile bark, which can be bought from most pet stores, and newspaper or paper towels which can be easily removed when soiled and thus help to keep the terrarium clean, although they can look very unattractive. Another option is Astroturf – however, this does have a tendency to rot when wet so it is best to operate with 2 cut pieces which can be rotated so the soiled piece can be cleaned.

One important aspect that is often overlooked is the provision of hiding areas. This is essential in providing the snake with a feeling a security and can be as simple as a cardboard box, although many pet stores now offer sophisticated commercially-manufactured “hiding spots”. Whatever you choose, it must be large enough for the snake to curl up in and be out of sight but not so large that the snake will feel insecure. Pieces of bark half buried in the substrate can also be ideal as the snake can burrow under them. It is important to provide hiding places in both the warm and cool areas of its enclosure so that it can feel secure in any area; it is also good to provide a branch for climbing.

Heating Your Corn Snake

One of the key aspects of keeping reptiles is thermoregulation. As corn snakes, like all reptiles, cannot manufacture their own body heat, they have to rely on ambient temperature to raise or lower their internal core temperature. Proper thermoregulation is essential for health and for specific processes such as digestion and immune function. This means that your snake must have access to at least one area where it can warm itself and ideally, there should be a gradient of 70-85 F (21-29 C) within the terrarium.

To achieve this, there are several methods: you can install an overhead heat lamp (with a metal reflector) above one side of the terrarium to create a basking area; alternatively you can use undertank heating pads to provide a gradient of temperature across the floor of the terrarium. Hot rocks are best avoided as they provide a very localised heat source that is often too intense, with the result that a snake will often burn itself as it tries to curl tightly around the rock. If buried underneath some substrate, it can provide a more dispersed form of heat but in general, it is best to avoid any form of heating that the reptile may have direct contact with. Note that corn snakes are not from temperate areas and as such do not need tropical temperatures.

Feeding Your Corn Snake

Like all snakes, corn snakes are carnivores needing live or freshly-killed prey. Young corn snakes are usually fed ‘pinkling mice’, with the size of the prey increasing to adult mice as the snake grows. As long as they have appropriate heating in the enclosure, corn snakes are not picky eaters and most will thrive on a regime of once- or twice-weekly feeds. Adults may only need feeding once every 10 days. Remember that appetite will diminish around the time of a shed so feeding frequency should be reduced accordingly. Remember also that if there are not enough appropriate hiding areas, corn snakes may become stressed and refuse to eat.

Water is also important and a dish of clean water should be available at all times as corn snakes drink frequently. Unfortunately, corn snakes will often defecate in their water so this must be noted and replaced immediately. Corn snakes will also bathe in the water dish just before a shed.

A Perfect Pet…

With their easy care and handling, corn snakes are justifiably one of the most popular snakes kept as pets. Their availability in a dazzling array of colours and patterns means that they are a favourite with experienced enthusiasts as well as hobby beginners.

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