If you’re relatively new to reptiles and are keen on getting a pet snake, you can’t go far wrong with a king snake. These are beautiful snakes that are quite docile and easy to tame – the only potential drawback is the fairly large adult size, up to 7 feet in some species.
King snakes in the wild range from the southern regions of Canada, all through the United States and down through Central and parts of South America. They can live to 20 years, so are a long-lived pet and they are constrictors, killing their prey by suffocation.
Choosing a King Snake
Always purchase a captive-bred specimen and this should be easy to find as these are popular pet reptiles with many bred in captivity. Look for a rounded, firm body that has shiny, smooth skin with no scabs or sores and which moves smoothly with no tremors. Check around the head – the eyes should be clear (unless it is due to the pre-shed cloudiness) with no discharge and there should be no signs of mites. Check the inside of the mouth as well to make sure that it is uniformly pink and healthy and observe the snake to make sure that it is not opening its mouth to breathe or gasping for breath. Always take a new reptile pet to the veterinarian immediately for a check-up and in particular, do a faecal check for parasites.
While it may initially be frightened and unsettled, most king snakes will settle down after being handled gently for a bit and curl itself around your hand. If it waves its body in the air, trying to escape, it is showing distress. Leave your new pet snake alone for a few days to settle in before starting to handle it.
You will need several short gentle handling sessions a day to build trust and accustom the snake to you. If the snake wraps itself too tightly around your arm, gently unwind them from the tail end – although they are constrictors, they will not harm you. Note that if your snake is regurgitating a lot, you could be handling it too soon after a meal. However, keep in mind that these snakes regurgitate quite frequently and that it could also be due to other causes such as enclosure temperature (too cool), illness or the prey being too large. If in doubt and if the regurgitation persists, consult a veterinarian.
Housing a King Snake
Like many other snakes, king snakes are great escape artists! They are particularly good at escaping even from the smallest gaps. So a secure enclosure is a must and make sure that it has a latched top. Most juveniles can be started in a 10 gallon tank but adults will need a large enclosure, such as a 60 gallon tank. In addition, these are active snakes and so like a lot of room to stretch and move around in.
Substrate can be a variety of things, such as indoor/outdoor carpeting (Astroturf), reptile bark, mulch or aspen shavings (avoid cedar, redwood or pine). Make sure with shavings that the snake is not likely to ingest any with its food. In general, the substrate should be easy to clean as you will need to clean out the enclosure regularly. Provide hiding places for your king snake using bits of bark, commercial reptile rock hides, cardboard boxes or even overturned flower pots. Add some branches and rocks for interest.
Like all reptiles, having the correct temperature gradient is the key to the health of your king snake so make sure you provide the correct temperature range using under tank heaters, both horizontally and vertically. Place at least one hide at each end of the temperature gradient. If your king snake is a nocturnal species and you’ve opted for overhead heating, use a radiant heat source (e.g. ceramic elements) rather than incandescent bulbs.
Humidity levels do not need to be that high so a shallow bowl of water placed in the enclosure should be sufficient. This will also double as the water source although it will have to be changed frequently as king snakes, like a lot of reptiles, often defecate in their water. Occasionally, especially during the shedding period, you may need to increase the humidity in the enclosure by misting the air lightly.
Feeding a King Snake
King snakes in the wild eat a variety of prey, from rodents to birds, amphibians to lizards and even, frequently, other snakes! In fact, they will eat each other if kept together so these snakes must be kept alone in their cages. Pre-killed mice or baby rats are usually the main food fed and always make sure that the size of prey does not exceed the width of the snake (excluding the head). Adults may only need to be fed once a week but juveniles will need to be fed at least twice a week.
With their wonderful array of colours and patterns and their relatively docile natures, king snakes can make very rewarding pets, especially for the beginner reptile enthusiast.