What you need to know before getting a pet snake

While many of us are more comfortable with kittens or puppies, snakes are beautiful in their own way. Should you prefer your animal friend more on the scaly side, it is true that snakes can make great pets.

However, you need to be 100% certain that you are ready for the commitment before you acquire a snake. The lifespan of a well-cared-for snake in captivity is generally between 15 and 20 years. During this time his wellbeing is your responsibility, and to make sure you know what your snake needs it’s important to arm yourself with knowledge!

Feeding time challenges 

The biggest obstacle for many owners is the dietary needs of snakes. For most commonly-kept snakes, owners must be willing to feed whole prey such as pre-killed mice or rats. It is not allowed to feed a snake live animals. Provision of food requires planning, and can be costly. The keeper will need to either maintain a breeding colony of rodents, or purchase frozen stock from a commercial source. In the interest of continued family acceptance of having a snake in the house, a separate dedicated freezer should be acquired to store rats and mice. However, snakes have the advantage of often only needing to be fed once every two weeks or less, so they can be left on their own for a few days without a pet sitter.

Snakes don’t use food to warm their bodies, so they need less than a mammal of the same size. External heat is vital for the snake to aid in digestion. A snake must also be left alone for at least 12 hours after eating as he will regurgitate his meal if stressed or handled.

A natural life

All our pets deserve long, happy lives, and we need to do our best to replicate their natural habitats. The expenses incurred in the purchase of a snake is only the beginning of the costs that will have to be met – the most upfront of these being appropriate specialised caging, which needs to be 100% escape-proof. The last thing a new pet owner wants is to check in on his or her new friend and discover that he is missing. Snakes are notorious (some species more than others) at being excellent escape artists. Snakes are active and agile, and can squeeze through incredibly small spaces.

When it comes to housing, the size of the living area should be determined by the adult-size of the snake. The terrarium should be at least twice as long as the snake and as high as half the snake’s length. Many species of snake enjoy some alone time, and therefore sufficient hiding places are a must. It is not advisable to keep your snake in a fish tank, and your choice of terrarium must be secure and easy to keep clean.

Light and heating

Snakes are ectothermic, more commonly known as cold-blooded. ‘Cold-blooded’ is an unfortunate term indeed, since the blood of an active snake may be as warm as or even warmer than your own! Reptiles control their own temperature, which means that they move between hot and cold spaces to maintain an average internal temperature (known as thermoregulators).

The lighting and heating system must be divided so one side of the terrarium is warm while the other side is cool, with a distance between the two. Never use a hot rock in your terrarium because snakes lie on them and get burnt badly as they don’t realise they’re getting too hot until it is too late. This happens because it is not natural for them to receive heat from below. A better alternative to a hot rock is an underground heater or heating pad. Place this under a part of the terrarium.

The terrarium cage should be placed away from windows or any other draughty areas, as an inadvertent chill may cause respiratory infections in snakes. Place the terrarium somewhere where the temperature will remain fairly stable, out of direct sunlight.

Responsible buying

If you considered simply catching a snake and keeping it as a pet, beware that this is a criminal offence. Wild-caught snakes also often carry internal and external parasites which would be a health and safety concern. Only buy captive-bred animals from someone who is prepared to support you and give you a contact for any further advice that you may require. Don’t buy unhealthy animals privately or from shops because you feel sorry for them, as this will usually be replaced with another neglected animal and you will be putting cash into the pocket of someone who perhaps doesn’t deserve it.

Can snakes be dangerous?

Snakes come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colours. Most ‘pet’ species are smaller and really aren’t capable of inflicting any serious wounds. Boa constrictors and pythons become large and potentially dangerous. Some can reach quite large sizes and under the right circumstances are capable of inflicting serious injuries or even cause death.

The grand majority of these animals have little desire to do their keepers any harm. This is no different from wild specimens, which also don’t wish to inflict harm on people. They merely defend themselves when provoked – nothing more and nothing less.

Cleanliness also plays a role in staying safe with a snake in the house. Without adequate attention to hygiene, reptiles can pass diseases on to their keepers, ranging from protozoa to bacteria, including salmonella.

Handling your snake

Although most snakes may become tolerant to being handled, they are not affectionate animals and do not crave human contact. By following these steps you can help your snake get used to being handled.

  • Never surprise the animal and just grab him. Rather, enter the room slowly and give the snake time to see that you are in the room. Reach slowly into the snake’s enclosure and gently grasp the mid-body as this is the heaviest part of his body.
  • Remember that even ‘tame’ snakes may bite if you smell like food. If you have been handling rodents, the smell may excite the snake into striking. Always wash your hands with mild soap before and after handling your pet snake.
  • Handling should be done in a slow, relaxed and non-hesitant manner. Hold your snake firmly, but be gentle.
  • Keep a close eye on how the reptile reacts, and take care to avoid dropping him.
  • Never use your snake to scare someone! A loud reaction from a frightened person can be very stressful for the reptile.
  • If the snake responds with excessive struggling or attempts to bite, immediately return him to his enclosure.
  • After some time you will grow more confident with handling your snake, and the snake will have built up a tolerance to being handled.

Reptile rescue and adoptions 

Did you know that releasing a captive exotic animal into the wild is not only illegal, but the animal will most likely not survive? The Reptile Education Awareness Consultants (REAC) provides a sanctuary for unwanted arachnids, snakes and other reptiles. If you have a snake who needs to be adopted due to medical or personal reasons, you are welcome to contact REAC director Shaun McLeod on 082 532 5033 or macadderbite@yahoo.com.

4 snake tips

  • If you are considering keeping a snake as a pet, choose a common species that does not require specialised care or housing (ideally a captive-bred individual) and about which adequate information exists.
  • Acquire all necessary housing equipment and facilities before bringing the animal home.
  • Having decided what sort and species of snake you want, learn as much as possible about the species by reading all the available literature before you buy.
  • Making contact with a respected snake keeper and/or visiting a facility to learn as much as possible about the requirements would be in your and your snake’s best interest.

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