Many people like garter snakes since they are active and make for great display snakes. With that said, an increased activity level implies some challenges in snake keeping, and there are many things to keep in mind with garter snakes.
Well, if you are looking to adopt a garter snake, then read on to find out about everything you need to know at the initial stages of snake keeping.
Garter Snake General Information
- Garter snakes are relatively small, mostly growing up to 23-30 inches. Females may sometimes grow up to as much as 5 feet.
- Some garter snake species have two-colored tongues.
- Garter snakes are nonvenomous, but their bites may cause itching or minor swelling in some people.
- Garter snakes’ diet in the wild is very diverse, which sometimes creates problems for their owners. These snakes do eat mice, but they sometimes refuse to eat them since they don’t meet mice out there very often.
- The lifespan of garter snakes is relatively short. In the wild, they live for around 5 years, while captive snakes can live 10 years and longer.
Garter Snake Enclosure
The first thing to do before you even bring a garter snake home is to buy or build an enclosure for it. Below, we’ll talk about the two key things to keep in mind with snake tanks – enclosure material and enclosure size.
The most common materials used in snake tanks are glass, plastic, and wood. Each of these materials has its pros and cons, so let’s talk about them below.
Glass is an expensive but very popular material due to its nice benefits:
- Glass is easy to see through.
- Glass easily lets heat into the enclosure and likewise easily lets humidity out. Due to this, glass is suitable for use in warm and humid areas.
- Many snake tank heaters are designed for glass specifically.
- Glass enclosures look very nice.
With that said, glass isn’t the best option for dry areas precisely because it lets humidity out easily. Likewise, glass lets heat out as easily as it lets it in, so it may not be the best choice for cold areas as well. And perhaps most importantly, glass is easy to shatter.
Plastic certainly doesn’t have the looks of glass, but it can be a better option in the following cases:
- You are living in a dry and cold area where heating and humidifying the tank may be difficult.
- You are going to get a hatchling and need a temporary enclosure.
You don’t necessarily need to get a plastic enclosure if you are living in a dry or cool area – with the right equipment, glass could work as well. But with juvenile snakes, you do want to get a temporary plastic enclosure for the first couple of months.
Young snakes grow quickly, and if you get a 5-gallon enclosure for your juvenile garter snake from glass, it will quickly grow out of it, putting the glass tank to waste. It’s much more cost-efficient to build a juvenile snake tank from plastic.
Wood is opaque and is usually not used in areas that require visibility. Besides, wood is ignitable and can catch a flame if you put it too close to the tank heater.
With this in mind, wood is fairly scarcely used in snake tanks, even though it’s cheap and very widely accessible. It may be used as a frame material or perhaps as a back wall material to save money.
When it comes to cage size, garter snakes need both horizontal and vertical space. Vertical space is desirable since garter snakes are active and like to climb. For climbing, you’ll also need some furnishing, which we’ll cover a little bit later.
Hatchlings may be started in a plastic cage that’s no larger than around 5 gallons. An adult female should be provided with a 25-gallon tank, while adult males will do well in a 15-gallon tank.
Some people may argue that a snake tank cannot be too large, but garter snakes may feel insecure in a tank that’s too large for them. A good rule of thumb is picking a cage whose length plus width is only a little larger than the total length of the snake.
Garter Snake Enclosure Conditions
After picking a tank for your garter snake, you’ll have to ensure proper environmental conditions inside. Among the important things to keep in mind are:
Like it is with many other snakes, garter snakes need to be provided with a temperature gradient in the tank for thermoregulation. Snakes are cold-blooded and, unlike us, rely on the temperature of their environment for thermoregulation.
The temperature gradient is ensured by keeping one end of the enclosure cooler than the other. This ensures that your snake has options when feeling cold or hot. The cooler end is typically maintained at around 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit (21.1-23.89 degrees Celsius) and the warmer end around 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit (26.67-29.44 degrees Celsius).
You don’t need to ensure that the tank temperature is precisely at 70 or 80 degrees. A few degrees higher or lower mostly will not play a role. It’s only important that your snake doesn’t feel too hot or too cold inside the enclosure.
Keep an eye out for common symptoms of overheating such as prolonged soaking in the water bowl or open mouth. If you spot these symptoms, then the enclosure may be too warm for your snake.
Hot to maintain enclosure temperatures?
There are plenty of heating devices that you may use for snake tank heating, but the most popular option are under-tank heaters. These are convenient, pose little risk for your snake, and are easy to ensure the required temperature gradient with.
You may alternatively use heat tapes or cables for heating. But avoid using any kind of hot rocks or other heating devices that your snake may come in contact with. These will burn and possibly kill your garter snake.
To ensure the temperature gradient, you just need to shift the heating pad towards the end that you want to keep warm. Then, use thermometers to monitor the temperatures and make sure that they are right.
Do ensure that your heating pad has a thermostat. A thermostat will allow the heating pad to deliver steady temperatures, which is important since heating pads can easily get too hot for your snake.
Keep in mind that it will be easier to maintain the temperature inside the tank if the temperature of the room that the tank is placed in is low enough. If the temperature in the room is no more than 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit – the desired temperature of the tank’s cool end – then you will only need to think about heating the tank’s warm end.
Otherwise, if the temperature is, say, at 80 degrees, you may need to think about cooling in addition to heating.
The humidity inside the enclosure should be kept at around 30-50%. The higher end of this range is usually used to assist garter snakes with shedding, though they shouldn’t have any issues if kept at around 40-50% humidity for a long time.
If the humidity is too low, your snake may get dehydrated, whereas if it’s too moist, your garter snake may have issues with breathing or develop skin conditions such as scale rot.
How to maintain enclosure humidity?
If you need to increase the humidity inside the snake tank, you could do a few things:
- Move your snake’s water dish closer to the heating source to assist with evaporation.
- Add a second water dish to the enclosure.
- Add live vegetation to the enclosure.
- Close the top of the enclosure or cover it if it’s a screen top.
- Mist the tank or the room that the tank is installed in.
To decrease the humidity, you would do the inverse actions.
Since 30-50% isn’t that much compared to other snakes’ needs, you shouldn’t have issues with ensuring proper humidity inside the enclosure. With that said, in dry areas, you may need to work harder to increase the tank humidity. And in very humid areas, you may even need to decrease the humidity inside the tank.
To measure humidity levels, use a device called a hygrometer.
You should place some substrate in the enclosure as well. The substrate serves a few important goals:
- It makes the enclosure easier to clean.
- It allows the snake to burrow (though this depends on the substrate).
- It makes the tank look nicer.
Like with many other snakes, aspen shavings are very popular with garter snakes. Aspen shavings allow the snake to burrow, don’t absorb much moisture from the air, are easy to replace, and are safe for snakes.
Among other very popular substrate options are newspapers or paper towels. These don’t look too good, but they are very cheap and easy to replace.
It’s a good idea to place a layer of insulation under the substrate to protect your snake from burns caused by the under-tank heater while it’s burrowing. You may need to adjust the temperature up a little to compensate for the hindered heat flow, but it shouldn’t be difficult to do.
Avoid substrates that are made from aromatic woods such as pine or cedar since these are toxic to snakes. Aside from that, avoid outside dirt (may contain pathogens) and sand (your snake may ingest it accidentally).
Lighting is important for any snake since snakes need to be able to distinguish between day and night.
Garter snakes are active during the day, and full-spectrum lighting could be very beneficial for them. Many snake owners don’t use any UV lights or full-spectrum bulbs and their garter snakes stay fine, but you should probably make use of these lighting options.
Garter snakes are native to areas throughout North America, so the right length of day for your snake will depend on where its morph is from. Snakes from northern areas of North America may be okay with around 6-8 hours of light per day, while garter snakes coming from southern North America may need as many as 10-12 hours of light per day.
Since the geographical distribution of garter snakes is so wide, you don’t really need to match the tank lighting with the day/night cycle in your snake’s native area. With that said, some snakes may benefit from a more natural distribution of light, and adjusting the length of the day from season to season may allow for a higher probability of success in breeding.
If the days are shorter in your area, then you should make use of full-spectrum lighting to ensure proper length of the day. And if the days are too long, then you may want to place a shade in the room to restrict light in the evening.
If your garter snake morph is native to your area, then you won’t really need any artificial lighting. Just keep the snake tank close to a window but never under direct sunlight since the heat could harm your snake.
Garter snakes love privacy like many other snakes, so you should provide your garter snake with a few hide boxes. It’s best to have at least two hide boxes – one in the cool end of the enclosure and the other in the warm end.
You may opt for ready-made hiding boxes widely available out there, or you may build them yourself – for example, you may use an unused bowl as a hide box by just cutting an entrance in it and placing it upside down inside the tank.
Garter Snake Enclosure Furnishing
You don’t need to work hard to make the cage realistic, but it’s beneficial to provide your garter snake with some basic furnishing. Tank furnishing can serve the following purposes:
- Your snake may feel more secure in a tank that’s a bit more natural.
- Furnishing such as twigs or branches will provide your garter snake with some climbing opportunities.
- During shed, your garter snake may rub against the tank furnishing to assist with the shed.
You may add just a few basic things like twigs and logs, and your snake will have everything it needs for a healthy life. You may add smaller stuff like artificial foliage or a backdrop, but your snake probably won’t care about them. Just make sure that your snake tank has the basics that can serve the three purposes listed above.
Garter Snake Feeding
If you’ve ever had a pet snake, then you shouldn’t have any struggle with a garter snake. With that said, garter snakes have pretty specific diet needs, and while general snake feeding rules will work with them, there are some other things to know about as well.
We’ll have an overview of the food items served to garter snakes a little later. Right now, let’s talk about the rules of thumb of garter snake feeding.
In terms of food sizing, you should feed your snake on rodents or portions of food that are no larger than your pet’s girth. Large food items may cause regurgitation, not to mention that excessive eating may lead to obesity.
Hatchlings and juvenile garter snakes are typically fed once around every 5 days, while adults are fed once every 7-10 days. There’s no right feeding frequency with snakes – you’ll have to monitor your snake’s weight to see whether it’s overeating or undereating.
Food is typically served with tongs to avoid being bitten. You may also place the food in front of the snake’s hiding spot for it to eat when it so wishes. This won’t work with all food items – some foods may not interest your snake at all. If your snake doesn’t show interest in the food, then you may try to shake it around to attract its attention.
Mice aren’t quite natural for garter snakes, but they are preferable since they are easy to find and provide complete nutrition.
In the wild, garter snakes have a fairly versatile diet consisting of worms, fish, amphibians, and rodents. Some people do think that it’s best to ensure a naturally-varied diet for garter snakes, but you don’t really need to do so – mice-only diets work well for garter snakes since they have everything snakes need.
You may offer your garter snake other food items every once in a while, especially if it refuses to eat, but don’t worry if there are only mice available in your area. Mice are just enough to keep your snake healthy.
The big issue with mice is that they don’t always occur naturally where garter snakes live. Due to this, some garter snakes may actually be very stubborn and refuse to consume mice. Garter snakes may especially refuse to eat frozen-thawed mice since they aren’t moving and thus aren’t interesting.
Some snake owners may rub fish or earthworm on mice to transfer the scent and make them more appealing to garter snakes, and this method seems to work fairly well.
When it comes to mice, you have two options – live mice or frozen-thawed mice. Snake owners mostly opt for pre-killed frozen mice due to a couple of reasons:
- Frozen mice can’t fight back and injure your snake, unlike live mice.
- Frozen mice are usually painlessly euthanized, whereas feeding your snake on live mice brings pain and suffering to the rodent.
- Frozen mice are very easy to store and transport. Due to this, frozen mice are easily accessible and can be found no matter where you are.
Some people may argue that live mice are good for variety, especially for snakes that refuse to eat frozen-thawed mice. But the counterargument to this position would be the availability of many other safer food items that are likely to get your snake interested.
So unless you have very specific reasons to choose live mice over frozen mice, you should probably stick to frozen mice.
Frozen mice need to be thawed before the meal. You could do this by just leaving the mouse out of the cold for a few hours. Alternatively, place the mouse in a plastic bag and then place the bag into warm water for quicker thawing.
If you don’t have access to mice or your snake doesn’t like them, then you will have to ensure a varied diet since mice are among the only few food items that provide garter snakes with complete nutrition. If mice aren’t an option, then you may serve a combination of earthworms, platies or feeder guppies, and pieces of fish fillet.
Such a diet isn’t ideal for garter snakes though since it bears the risk of parasitic infection. A mouse diet is thus the best all-around option for garter snake feeding, and you should try to feed your snake on mice.
With that said, garter snakes rarely refuse earthworms, except for some garter snake species such as ribbon snakes. Earthworms can be great if your snake refuses to eat anything else, but you should avoid long-term earthworm feeding since earthworms can be laden with parasites and toxins. After an earthworm meal, it’s a good idea to have a vet checkup.
Garter snakes may also eat nightcrawlers from a bait store. But since these worms are big and strong enough to harm your snake even after being swallowed, be sure to cut them into quarters before serving.
Also, don’t feed your garter snake on red wigglers – these have been reported to be toxic for garter snakes.
Dechlorinated fresh water should be provided to garter snakes at all times. Make sure that the water bowl is large enough to fit your snake – garter snakes love to soak, especially before shedding. Some owners provide their garter snakes with a water area for swimming, but it’s not a must.
Garter snakes sometimes defecate in water, so you should check the water bowl every day to make sure that the water in it is clean. And generally, replace the water and wash the bowl around once or twice per week.
Garter Snake Feeding Issues
Garter snakes are pretty aggressive feeders and more often than not won’t refuse a meal. However, there are certain cases where your garter snake may refuse to eat:
- In the mating season, garter snakes get preoccupied with the mating and can eat very little without significant health harm.
- If you’ve just brought your garter snake home, it may be stressed out for a while and refuse to eat.
- The dietary preferences of garter snakes aren’t identical – for example, some species won’t mind mice, while others will only readily consume live fish or earthworms.
The biggest problem with garter snakes is that some snakes refuse to eat certain types of food. Some garter snakes may refuse frozen mice, others won’t eat whole worms. You may encounter many similar situations where your snake doesn’t want to eat the food for no apparent reason.
If this happens to you, you may need to experiment with the food. You might try to wiggle the mouse in front of the snake with a pair of tweezers, try larger or smaller pieces of worms, or switch to other food types altogether.
Some garter snakes will also lose their appetite with the arrival of winter. Snakes need to be warm to digest food – in cold temperatures, their digestion slows down, and anything left in their systems will decompose before the snake is able to digest it. This could lead to deadly intoxication, which is why snakes stop eating in winter to clear their systems.
This won’t happen necessarily, but if it does, you may want to brumate your snake to avoid weight loss.
Like it is with many other snakes, garter snakes are very easy to overfeed – they don’t need much food in the first place, so if you overfeed your snake a few times, it will probably quickly gain weight.
If you notice that your snake is getting chubby, cut back on the diet to avoid obesity.
Given that garter snakes sometimes refuse food, underfeeding is also possible. While garter snakes can go without food for a few weeks, you should consistently feed your snake by schedule to avoid any long-term complications.
If your snake got skinny, then you may be underfeeding it. But if you are sure that your snake has been eating alright, then weight loss may be a symptom of underlying digestion issues,
Regurgitation is a huge problem for snakes because it’s very taxing on them. When your snake vomits, it loses a good share of its stomach fluids, not to mention that the food you’ve just given to it goes to waste. It can then take about a week or two for your snake to recover.
How to avoid regurgitation? Given that your snake is healthy, you could avoid regurgitation by:
- Avoiding overfeeding your snake.
- Giving your snake properly stored and fresh food.
- Avoiding giving too large food to your snake.
- Avoiding handling your snake a day or two after the last meal.
Overfeeding, large or poor-quality food items, and handling shortly after feeding are the most common causes of regurgitation in snakes. Just following the four tips above should allow you to avoid regurgitation in cases not connected with health.
After regurgitation, don’t feed your snake for about a week and then try to give it a small portion of food. If your snake doesn’t regurgitate, then you may try to go back to the regular eating schedule.
If your garter snake does regurgitate again, it may be caused by a vast array of reasons – maybe, you’ve again given it badly-sized food, or maybe your snake has a health issue that triggers vomiting.
If you are absolutely sure that you are feeding your snake properly, then your best bet would be to take it to a vet.
Garter Snake Handling
Garter snakes are generally gentle and do not mind being handled. With friendly garter snakes, handling just comes down to taking them out of the cage and allowing them to explore. Initially, your snake may get stressed out after a few minutes of handling, but as time goes on, you should be able to extend the handling sessions.
Remember that garter snakes aren’t constrictors, which means that you should support their body as much as you can while handling. They don’t hang their coils as constrictors do, and letting the coils hang freely may lead to spine injuries.
Some garter snakes may be very defensive when you try to approach them, and some may never get used to you. Stressed and scared snakes may bite you, release musk, or thrash in your hands. These usually aren’t dangerous for either you or your snake.
Garter snakes usually don’t hang on after biting, but if your snake does so, then gently push its head forward to remove its backward-pointing teeth from your skin. Be very gentle since mouth wounds could become a catalyst for infection in your snake.
Garter snakes aren’t venomous, but their saliva can be irritating to some people. It’s generally recommended to wash your hands with soap after being bitten, but if you feel bad, you may want to pay a visit to a doctor.
Garter Snake Shedding
As your garter snake grows, it will shed its skin. Snake skin isn’t elastic and thus restricts growth, which is why it needs to be shed occasionally.
Garter snakes will shed the most often when young, perhaps once every week. And as they become older, they shed less and less often, settling at around one-two times per month.
Before the shed, your snake will show the common shedding symptoms – blue/milky eyes and dull skin tones. These symptoms will disappear a few days after, and your snake will shortly begin to shed. The whole shedding process usually takes around a week or a week and a half to complete.
Given that your snake is hydrated enough, it shouldn’t have any issues with shedding. In the ideal case, the skin will come off in one piece without struggling. Issues with shedding do happen sometimes though, and you should be ready to deal with them.
Garter snake shedding issues
It’s fairly easy to spot a problematic shed. Among the signals that give a problematic shed away are fragmentary shedding and patches of skin stuck to your snake’s body.
If your snake is struggling to shed its skin, then you may first try to increase the tank humidity to 50-60% temporarily. In less severe cases, an increase in humidity should be quite enough to help your snake shed its skin.
If this doesn’t help, you may place your garter snake into a bowl with lukewarm water. This should help your snake shed successfully in most cases, but if it doesn’t help either, then you may manually help your snake by either gently removing the skin. You may alternatively hold a damp towel and allow your snake to slither through it.
Make sure that there are no skin patches left on your snake’s body, especially in the eye area. The eye caps should come off as well. If there’s anything left, then gently remove the skin fragments from the body of your snake.
Garter Snake Cleaning
Garter snakes like to soak in water, so you don’t need to think about bathing your snake. Just make sure to provide your garter snake with fresh water and make sure to replace it often.
If you notice that your snake hasn’t soaked in water and bathed for a while, then your snake may be unhealthy. The same applies to soaking too much since it’s a common symptom of mites. Take your pet to a vet just to be sure.
Garter Snake Enclosure Cleanup
You should regularly check your garter snake’s enclosure for feces, moist or dirty substrate, as well as check the cleanness of the water in the dish. If you spot any messes, remove them immediately and refresh the water, replace the substrate, and do anything else that’s necessary to ensure a clean enclosure.
Occasionally, you should also perform a deep tank cleanup. This is usually done with a 5% bleach solution in the following way:
- Place your snake in a temporary tank.
- Empty out the main tank.
- Apply the bleach solution to the tank’s surfaces.
- Allow the tank to sit for about 15 minutes.
- Rinse the tank out thoroughly to remove the bleach.
- Let the tank dry.
- Put everything back together.
Garter Snake FAQ
Can you house a few garter snakes together?
Housing more than one snake in the same enclosure is a fairly challenging deal. Many people avoid it altogether since snakes may compete with each other for food, or they may simply not get along with each other. Cannibalism is possible as well.
With careful observation and health monitoring, you could house two garter snakes together. If you are a newbie though, you should avoid it until you get a hang of maintaining garter snakes.
Do you need to give any food supplements to garter snakes?
If your garter snake is on a mice diet, then it doesn’t need supplements. On the other hand, if your snake is on a fish diet, you may want to provide your snake with additional vitamin B1.
Also, remember that if you feed your snake on anything other than mice, you’ll have to keep the diet diverse to ensure that your snake gets everything it needs.