The term ‘Milk Snake’ is used to collectively describe a large group of colorful, non-venomous King snakes that are found across Northern & Southern Americas.
They are also called ‘Tricolored snakes’ due to the ornate, three-color bands on their bodies.
The King Snake genus ‘Lampropeltis’ has 14 recognized species which includes ‘Lampropeltis triangulum’ or the ‘Milk Snake’
There are 24 recognized Milk Snake subspecies at the moment. Though scientists opine that in the near future, many of these subspecies will be divided into separate species.
The Milk Snake ‘nom de guerre’ stems from an age-old folktale that these snakes sneak into barns at night and find their way to the udders of nursing cows, to drink milk straight from it.
In reality, Milk Snakes are quite docile and the only possible reason why they’d enter a barn at night is to look for rodents or other small prey.
Be rest assured that your cows are quite safe.
Milk Snakes commonly available as pets
Milk Snakes are considered to be ‘beginner snakes’ due to their temperament and easy-to-handle nature.
And there are about a dozen subspecies that are quite popular among colubrid hobbyists and breeders.
Part of their appeal is due to their bright & colorful appearance. They generally have well-defined, smooth & shiny scales with alternating bands of color in red, yellow, orange, black and white.
In some varieties, the bands are replaced by splotches and they undergo a striking transformation, changing multiple colors from birth to adulthood. Breeders have also created a wide range of morphs with selective breeding, creating unique color combinations that would be impossible to find in the wild.
Sexual dimorphism is rarely observed in milk snakes and both males and females look almost similar.
Depending on the subspecies that you fancy as a pet, these snakes can grow from bootlace-sized 4-inch miniatures to 7-foot giants.
However, milk snake species found in the United States generally do not grow beyond 51-inches, which makes them perfect for captivity.
In a caring environment, a milk snake will live for 18-20 years.
Here are some of the common varieties of Milk snake that are available as pets.
Black Milk snake
‘Lampropeltis triangulum gaigeae’ or the Black Milk Snake is one of the largest varieties of the species that originate in the wet, cloudy forests of Panama and Costa Rica. These high altitude snakes can grow from 4-6 feet in length. But it is not uncommon for some of them to grow up to 7-feet in captivity.
As hatchlings, they have banded bodies in red, black, and white or yellow. But as they mature, they undergo a striking transformation and the bright colors are replaced by dark pigments eventually turning completely black or a brownish-black.
Their appeal among the Colubrid crowd stems from the fact that they make great pets. They are hardy, mild-mannered and easy going. Also, they have an uncanny resemblance to the much higher-priced Indigo Snake.
As it would be obvious, these docile giants need a lot of space and racks are out of the question. A cage with at least 6-square feet of ground space is recommended.
Black Milks mature a tad slower than other Milk snakes and ideally, you should wait until the fourth or fifth year before you attempt to breed them. Breeding behavior is exhibited just after the first shed, a month or so after their winter cool-down.
Eastern Milk snake
The Eastern Milk Snake is distinguished as the northernmost milk snake subspecies and the only one that is found in Canada.
In the United States, their range extends from Maine to Minnesota in the North & North Carolina to Alabama in the South. They thrive in a wide range of habitats including meadows, prairies, rocky hills, woodlands and under artificial manmade cover.
They are also called ‘The checked Adder’ or the ‘Highland Adder’, although they are not venomous or related to the Australian and African Adders in any way.
Eastern Milk snakes range from 2 to 4 feet in length.
But surprisingly, these snakes are least preferred by hobbyists and breeders due to the purported difficulty in acclimatization. Also, these snakes tend to be aggressive when threatened. They coil their bodies, flatten their heads and strike repeatedly.
Eastern milks have shiny, smooth scales with olive red, bright red, or maroon blotches in black, contrasting edges.
They become sexually mature at 3 or 4 years and typically mate in spring after the winter hibernation.
Honduran Milk snake
The Honduran Milk Snake is one of the most popular captive-bred milk snake subspecies. It is found in the grasslands and subtropical forests of Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Just like Black Milks, Hondurans can grow up to 4-5 feet in length in the wild. But captive-bred specimens that are up to 7-feet have also been recorded.
These powerful, constrictors have bodies that are tailor-made for burrowing. So, the cage that you choose to house them must be absolutely secure.
Also, like other King Snake species, Hondurans are ophiophagus or cannibalistic. This means that you’d have to house them singly.
There are two common varieties of Hondurans that occur naturally in the wild. These are the tricolored phase that has a red ground color with bands or rings of black and yellow, or the tangerine phase with orange rings instead of the yellow ones.
In captivity, several morphs of Hondurans have been created by breeders. Some of the popular ones are:
- Snow: Double recessive (Anerythristic and Albino) morph with phases of yellow, pink & white.
- Albino: Lacks the black pigment and looks very unique. Breeders have created different phases of this morph.
- Ghost: Double recessive (Anerythristic and Hypo) morph that lacks both red and yellow pigments.
Hondurans become sexually active at 3 years and will be ready to breed right after coming out of brumation.
Nelsons Milk snake
Along with Hondurans and Peublans, Nelsons are one of the most popular captive-bred milk snake subspecies.
These active colubrids are mainly found in dry shrubs and bush areas near waterways in Mexico.
In the wild, they grow anywhere from 36-60 inches in length. Although, the average size is a much smaller 42-inches in captivity.
Nelsons have smooth, shiny scales with 13-18 distinctive, wide, red rings that are edged with thin black bands and even thinner white bands. The snout is predominantly black.
Females are slightly larger than males.
Juvenile nelsons tend to be more skittish as compared to other milk snake subspecies and might musk (a lot) as their first line of defense until they settle down.
However, the overall demeanor of the snake is very docile and within a few months, they become very easy to handle.
Besides their natural colors, Nelsons are also available in Albino, Aberrant and T + (Tyrosinase-Positive) morphs.
Nelsons achieve sexual maturity at 3 to 4 years and will exhibit breeding activity after their winter cool down.
Pueblan Milk snake
The Pueblan Milk snake is a favorite among breeders and hobbyists due to their attractive colors and modest size.
In the wild, this snake is found in diverse habitats ranging from tropical woodlands to urban areas in southern Puebla and in parts of Oaxaca, Mexico.
The Peublan grows from 2-4 feet in length and is distinguished by wide, alternating bands of red, black, and white on its shiny body. In fact, it looks very identical to the highly venomous Coral Snake.
This is called Batesian Mimicry, which helps the snake survive predators in the wild. Unfortunately, it works against it in the urban landscape, where it is frequently killed due to fear of a fatal bite.
Peublans normally brumate from November to early March, following which the female exhibits mating behavior. Around 30-days after mating, it lays up to 15 eggs. Hatchlings emerge after two months.
New Mexico Milksnake
The New Mexico Milk snake is a pocket-sized subspecies that grows just 18-24 inches in size. What’s it lacks in size, it makes up in color though.
For it has one of the most vivid color combinations that you’d ever see in the colubrid world.
The New Mexico Milk Snake has shiny, glossy scales with 20-22 shiny, red or orange bands edged by narrow black bands. These black bands are separated by white or cream-colored bands that are slightly wider.
The snout is not completely black. There’s a hint of white from the cheek downwards and there are a few speckles of white on the nose as well. At times, the red band encircles the entire body while the white doesn’t.
These snakes are found in parts of Texas, Arizona, and Coahuila in Mexico and survive in a diverse range of habitats including grasslands, rocky crevices & canyons.
They bromate during the coldest months of the year during which, the male generates the sperm and the female, the eggs needed for mating. Mating behavior is exhibited in the months of March and April.
In the wild, these snakes inhabit the dry and semi-arid areas near Mexico. But it isn’t uncommon to find them resting under rock-piles in urban areas.
Mostly sedentary, these snakes do well in captivity and are known for their ravenous appetite right from birth.
Sinaloans grow from 35-59 inches and have bright, red (occasionally orange) bands with dark or light colored rings around them. The red bands are considerably wider than what’s normally seen in other milk snake species which allows you to easily distinguish a Sinaloan from the rest.
They often mimic copperheads and coral snakes to deter predators. Mnemonics are used to identify and distinguish them from venomous snakes.
Sinaloans tend to be skittish as juveniles and frequently musk until they tame down. As snake keepers, you must be prepared to frequently wipe off musk and feces off the glass or the cage.
But once they get more confident, they are extremely easy to handle and are very docile.
Brumation occurs from late November to February and the snakes will be ready to mate starting April to May.
Red Milk snake
The Red Milk snake looks very similar to the Sinaloan, so much so that inexperienced pet keepers might sometimes find it difficult to differentiate between the two.
It has a white, tan or yellow colored body with an average of 19-30 red blotches edged by black. The belly is mostly white with a few blotches of black seen in some specimens.
Red Milk snakes grow up to 28-inches and make excellent beginner snakes.
In the wild, these snakes often inhabit grassy plains and dry rocky outposts in parts of Alabama, Indiana, South Dakota, Iowa, Oklahoma & Illinois.
Brumation begins late October and lasts till March following which, these snakes will be active and ready for matin.
Lousiana Milk Snake
The Lousiana Milk Snake is another coral snake mimicker from the state of Texas. It inhabits sandy woodlands and are often found hiding beneath moist logs and driftwood.
It has traversing bands or red & black, black & yellow on its shiny, smooth body and has a slightly pointed head.
The snout is usually solid black. Although white snouts with red blotches are also seen in some specimens.
The Lousiana Milk grows from 16 to 24 inches and just like other milk snake subspecies, is very mild mannered.
Can you breed milk snakes in captivity?
Along with Rat snakes and Pine snakes, Milk Snakes happen to be one of the most popular species with colubrid enthusiasts.
As we briefly hinted earlier, their appearance and their docile demeanor are considered to be the primary reasons for their popularity with collectors and hobbyists. But an often overlooked factor is the ease of breeding these snakes.
With some basic know-how, you can breed any one of the 24- subspecies of Milk Snakes in captivity.
Almost like following a recipe to the T.
Most breeders allow the milk snake to cool down for three months as they believe that it sparks better follicle growth in females and better sperm development in males.
Stop feeding the snakes in the first or second week of October while maintaining the normal ambient cage temperature. This allows the digestive tract to clear off completely and any remaining waste is excreted before the cooldown or Brumation begins.
In the first or second week of November, start the cool down process by lowering the temperature in the cage by five-ten degrees for a couple of weeks. And then all the way down to 55 degrees (depending on the subspecies) until the first week of February.
In the second week of February, slowly increase the temperature bringing it back to the normal temperature over a four-week period. Start feeding them small meals once a week gradually increasing it to twice a week.
Some milk snakes will be ravenous after Brumation. You can feed the females aggressively during the mating period.
About a month after they warm up, the snake will shed. This is called the breeding shed and is an indicator that the snake is ready to copulate.
Start introducing the male into the female’s cage and leave them overnight only to remove the male in the morning. Follow this routine for a few times every week for four to five weeks.
If everything goes well, the female will gain weight in about four weeks after mating and start to refuse food. She will shed once before she lays eggs and you will need to place an egg-laying box in her enclosure.
The snakes adapt well to this annual breeding routine and can lay up to 16 eggs. Transfer the eggs into an incubation box and maintain the optimum temperature and humidity needed for incubation.
Depending on the subspecies and the mutation (morphs), the hatchlings command a premium price in the pet trade.
How much does a milk snake cost?
Much before the advent of the internet, Milk Snakes were quite expensive, with albino hatchlings and other morphs being sold for as much as $2000-3000 apiece.
But in the late 90s, the reptile trade just exploded. What was a niche market, was suddenly flooded with snake breeders, racing to meet the rising demand for these exotic pets.
Why even the average hobbyist was breeding snakes as a side business back then.
Cut to today, you can pick up a milk snake for quite cheap at an expo or with a small but reputed, local breeder.
A basic morph can be bought for just $50.
The more exquisite or rarer morphs though, still command a hefty price.
For example, the tangerine morph with its stunning orange colored bands is a rarity that can cost you up to $1000 for a hatchling.
All said and done, there’s more to owning a snake than the cost of the hatchling alone.
You also need to account for the equipment, like an enclosure, décor, the heating system, lights, food, substrate, thermometer, and a hygrometer.
On average, most snake keepers spend close to $300 upfront on tools and equipment alone.
Are Milk Snakes venomous?
No. They are not.
Milk snakes are non-venomous, harmless colubrid snakes. They have the largest geographical range of all land snakes in North America.
Many a time, their territory overlaps with the highly venomous coral snake, which it resembles.
This is called Batesian Mimicry, a survival mechanism that’s used by harmless species like the milk snake to thwart off potential predators in the wild, by mimicking a more dangerous species, which in this case is the coral snake.
To the untrained eye, it would be impossible to distinguish between the two.
An old mnemonic is often used to differentiate between milk snakes and coral snakes.
It goes like this, ‘Red on yellow, kills a fellow; red on black, venom lack/is a friend of jack’
This describes the alternating bands of color on the snake’s body.
Milk snakes have red and black bands that are separated by thin, lighter colored bands. Coral snakes, on the other hand, have red and yellow bands which can be spotted easily.
While this mnemonic can be pretty useful in the United States, it doesn’t hold water in Latin America because the venomous snakes in these parts often have different colorations.
You can also use the shape of the blotches to distinguish between a Copperhead and a milk snake.
Copperheads have hourglass-shaped blotches on their bodies whereas the harmless milk snake has round and thick or saddled blotches.
What type of environment does the Milk Snake need?
Milk snakes are one of the easiest snakes to keep as pets and have very basic care requirements.
Even specimens caught in the wild adapt easily to life in captivity and are non-fussy eaters usually accepting frozen or thawed rodents.
Herpetoculturists, hobbyists, and breeders have been working with milks for over forty years now.
And almost everything that you need to know about these snakes have been documented in detail.
Milk Snakes need a secure and strong enclosure that they cannot sneak out of.
Many new snake keepers make the rookie mistake of going overboard with the size of the enclosure.
However, it shouldn’t be too big because milk snakes tend to get very nervous in large open spaces.
If it’s too cramped, then they get stressed and worked up.
It has to be just the right size that feels snug and cozy, but not restrictive.
Thankfully, it’s not a tricky as it sounds to get this right.
Depending on the subspecies, you will need a vivarium or an enclosure that’s at least one and a half times the length of their bodies. This will give them the room that they need to move around and explore.
While there’s no standard sizing-chart to go by, this is a general rule of thumb that pet owners follow.
- 20-gallon tanks for snakes that are up to 3-feet in length.
- 30-gallon tanks for snakes between 3-4 feet in length.
- 40-gallon tanks for snakes larger than 4-feet.
Glass enclosures with secure, breathable lids are ideal if you are looking to display the snake, which a lot of people do, because of the vivid coloring on these beautiful creatures. However, glass enclosures don’t retain heat as well as other materials do. Maintaining optimum temperature at different times of the day can be a pain, as glass will give off heat pretty easily.
Also, if you have one of the larger milk snake subspecies, like Blacks or Hondurans, then you are looking at a behemoth-sized, heavy glass enclosure. Not a very cost effective option either.
Plastic is cheap, lightweight and effective.
But it’s generally looked down upon by experienced breeders and snake keepers. Might be a good option if you are looking for a temporary enclosure to house hatchlings though.
Wooden enclosures are the best bet.
Wood insulates the heat and the all-enclosed design makes the snake feel secure and snug.
The caveat is that you can’t see inside the enclosure like you can with glass enclosures. Most manufacturers offer a sliding panel these days that allow pet owners easy access to the insides of the enclosure for cleaning and maintenance.
Remember what we mentioned about the geographical range of milk snakes?
Different subspecies of this snake are found in such diverse landscapes that their temperature requirements are equally diverse.
The Andean Milk Snake, for example, lives in the mountainous terrain of the Andes, where it’s cold despite it being closer to the equator, whereas the Mexican Milk Snake lives in the semi-arid, hot deserts of Mexico.
So, the best way to ensure that you provide your pet with the optimum temperature in their environment is to know about its natural habitat and adjust accordingly.
Milk snakes require an artificial temperature gradient in the enclosure that allows them to thermoregulate.
A warm basking area in one part of the enclosure can be achieved by using a 25- to 50-watt spot bulb.
But if you can maintain the temperature with a heat pad alone, then you can avoid the bulb and the extra brightness that comes with it.
Milk snakes are crepuscular and do not like bright lights. You can also use reptile lamps which emit red, blue or green light to minimize the brightness if need be.
A timer, when connected to the bulb will automatically switch it off at night time when the snakes need total darkness and a drop in temperature.
Bulbs must always be hung outside the enclosure. Never keep it inside the terrarium as snakes can accidentally burn themselves curling up near a heat source.
Night time temperatures can be maintained using a reptile terrarium heating pad or a heat tape with a thermostat.
The heat map must cover at least one-third of the tank and should be easy to adjust.
The advantage of a thermostat is that it automatically monitors the temperature in the vivarium and switches on the heat map whenever required based on preset settings.
If you aren’t looking to spend as much up front, then you can use a heat tape with a manual dimmer. The caveat is that you’d have to manually monitor the temperature and adjust accordingly, which can be cumbersome.
Always use a thermometer in the enclosure to keep an eye on the temperature.
Here’s a brief overview of the temperature requirements for some of the milk snake subspecies that we spoke about earlier.
Black Milk Snake: Found at an elevation of 4000-7000 feet. And hence, they do well with an ambient temperature of 72 to 78 degrees. A basking light is needed for four to six hours during spring. The night time low temperature can be as low as 58 degrees.
Eastern Milk Snake: Approximately 82 degrees at the warm end of the enclosure and between 70-75 degrees on the cool end. Night time temperatures can drop a tad below 70s. During Brumation, you can maintain an ambient temperature of 52 to 56 degrees.
Honduran Milk Snake: Up to 88 degrees on the warm end and between 78 to 82 degrees on the cooler end. Night time temperatures of 72-74 degrees.
Nelson’s Milk Snake: Between 85-90 degrees on the warm end and between 75-80 degrees on the cooler end. Night time temperatures can drop to 65-70 degrees for these snakes.
Peublan Milk Snake: Between 80-85 degrees on the warm end and between 75-80 degrees on the cooler end. Night time temperature can be between 70-75 degrees.
New Mexico Milk Snake: Between 80-85 degrees on the warm end and between 75-80°F on the cooler end. Night time temperature between 70-75 degrees.
Sinaloan Milk Snake: Between 85-90 degrees on the warm end during the day and 80-85 degrees on the cooler end. Night time temperature between 70-75 degrees.
Once again, the optimum humidity level for your pet milk snake will depend on where the subspecies originates.
Milk snakes that inhabit the southern part of their range typically need more humidity than the snakes that inhabit the dry arid parts of the north.
Having said that, most Milk Snakes do well when the relative humidity is between 40 to 70%.
This prevents dry skin as well as respiratory problems.
Use a hygrometer to ensure that the humidity is appropriate at all times.
Milk Snakes are fairly shy and spend a large part of their lives burrowing.
So, they need a relatively deep substrate in the enclosure.
Using dry substrates prevents excessive moisture build up in the vivarium.
Beech woodchips are an excellent choice. So is Aspen.
Good quality aspen bark not only looks great, but it’s also dust-free and does a great job at absorbing off-odors in the enclosure.
About 2-inches of the substrate is right for young hatchlings as it allows them ample room to burrow and explore.
3-4-inches of the substrate should be about right for adult snakes depending on the subspecies.
If you cannot afford Aspen bark, which is pricier than some of the other options, then Cypress mulch is another good choice.
It resists mold buildup and is perfect for temperate zones where the moisture levels tend to be high.
Paper towels or even newspapers are a cost-effective choice for the substrate. They are easy to clean and replace. So are coconut husk mix and even gravel.
Some seemingly good choices that can cause potential problems are cedar chips and Sand. The essential oils released by Cedar can be toxic to your milk snake. Sand is easy to burrow into. However, it can cause skin problems by getting trapped underneath the scales. Moreover, some snakes also tend to swallow it accidentally.
Snakes have a natural instinct to hide under rocks, crevices, and logs. And they will display this behavior even in captivity.
So, ensure that there are at least two hide boxes in the enclosure, one in each temperature zone.
You can cut holes in plastic or wooden boxes that are large enough for the snake to curl up in, and line them with moist sphagnum moss.
Hides made of stone or ceramic are a better choice than plastic because these are heavier and less likely to slide or move in the enclosure when the snake enters or exits the hide.
Never use cardboard boxes, such as shoe boxes because they get soaked in fecal matter and uric acid and quickly become a breeding ground for bacteria.
Look for materials that will last for the lifespan of your pet and one that is easy to clean.
Milk snakes are not arboreal. Moreover, a lot of the subspecies are terrestrial and prefer spending their time on the ground or under hides during the day.
So climbing furniture is not really a necessity for these snakes.
Having said that, they are enthusiastic climbers and do climb on trees or on objects occasionally to keep an eye on their surroundings.
So, you can add a couple of pieces of driftwood or climbing branches in the enclosure just to add some diversity in the environment and to keep the snake happy.
If the wood is wild-collected, ensure that you sterilize or disinfect it with bleach to kill any parasites.
Keep a water bowl in the unheated part of the enclosure at all times as snakes usually drink water when no one is around.
Ensure that the bowl is sturdy enough to not get tipped over or tilt when the snake drinks water.
Change the water once a day. Sometimes, snakes may defecate or pass uric acid in the water.
If you notice this, change the water immediately.
If possible, wash and clean the bowl once every day.
Clean water must be provided to the snake even during Brumation.
Milk Snake Care 101
Milk Snakes are extremely easy to care for and maintain.
Part of their care is providing them with a clean and hygienic environment:
Spot clean for feces every day. They excrete very little quantities of semi-solid feces which can easily be scooped out with a scooper, especially if you are using solid substrates.
If you are using newspapers or paper towels, replace them as and when they get soiled. This reduces the risk of bacterial contamination and will keep the enclosure from smelling foul.
At least once a month, discard the bedding, remove all furniture and accessories and wash the tank and hides with any reptile-safe disinfectant.
Dry the enclosure and add fresh bedding before you reintroduce the snake into it.
Monitor the electrical components of the enclosure
Thermometers, hygrometers, heating pads and bulbs are all prone to malfunctioning. And even the slightest variation in temperature and humidity can be problematic for your pet.
So, monitor the electrical components every day as part of routine maintenance.
Do Milk Snakes make good pets?
If we haven’t answered this already, then it’s a resounding yes.
Milk Snakes make great pets, both for beginner snake keepers as well as seasoned herpetoculturists.
They are easy to care for, adapt well to life in captivity and are very resilient to common diseases.
They are docile and will rarely bite.
Even when provoked, their first reaction is usually to escape and hide or in some cases, release ‘musk’, a nasty smelling fluid through their cloaca. Musking is a defense mechanism and juveniles are more likely to do this when they are being handled for the first few weeks.
With constant, delicate handling, the musking will stop and the snake will get used to you.
Musking isn’t pleasant and most first time snake keepers might be thrown off by the stench. But it’s a part of snake keeping that you must get used to, especially if you intend to keep milk snakes.
More importantly, the musking will teach you to handle the snakes more delicately. If the snake continues to musk as it grows, it means that it still feels threatened or scared when you handle it.
How big do they grow?
There are 24 subspecies of milk snakes that range from 14 to 69-inches in length.
The size will depend on the subspecies, their diet, and their genetics.
Generally, large specimens give birth to large offspring. So, if you are concerned about how fast that pocket-sized snake has been growing, you’d want to reach out to the breeder or the dealer that you bought it from and enquire about the size of the parents.
Most reputed dealers would be willing to help you with the details.
Hatchlings can be just 12-14”
On average, it takes a milk snake 3-4 years to reach its full size.
What do they eat?
Milk Snakes are non-fussy eaters and are easy to feed in captivity.
In the wild, they prey on just about anything that they can overpower. This includes worms, caterpillars, grasshoppers, frogs, lizards, voles, rodents, birds, eggs and other smaller snakes.
In captivity, the easiest and most readily available food source is rodents. You can buy feeder mice easily on the internet or at any pet shop or through a reputed rodent breeder.
The size of the rodent that you feed them, depends on the subspecies and the size of the snake.
Newborn mice, also called Pinkies are ideal for hatchlings as well as small-sized snakes.
As they grow, you can switch to Fuzzies or a more size-appropriate rodent that’s not thicker than the widest part of their body. That’s the ground rule.
- Newborns and hatchlings can eat up to two pinky mice once every 7-days.
- Yearlings can eat up to two pinkies or fuzzies once every 7-days
- Adult milk snakes can eat up to two adult mice per feeding.
Larger Milk Snakes can possibly eat more. But you’d want to check their weight, their size and adjust accordingly.
Uneaten meals, irrespective of whether they are live prey or frozen or thawed mice should be removed immediately.
If your milk snake refuses to eat, then a trip to the vet might be on the cards for these generally have a voracious appetite and are hearty eaters. They’d rarely let a meal pass.
Adding Variety to your snake’s diet
It’s probably a good idea to change your snake’s diet every now and then, considering that the milk snake has one of the most varied diets in the reptile world that ranges from tiny insects to fellow snakes.
If anything, it would motivate your snake to eat.
However, always remember that your snake will live its life in captivity and there’s no reason to feed them a natural diet that mimics their eating habits in the wild.
Not only would it be too difficult to sustain, but there’s also always the risk of exposing your pet to parasites or other dangerous organisms.
Day-old chicks, as well as baby quails, are good choices for the occasional snack provided that it’s pre-killed, thawed and dried on paper towels before being fed.
Amphibians, like frogs, toads, geckos, and salamanders are also reasonably good options but these are difficult to harvest in the wild. If you are able to harvest them from an environment that is not exposed to pesticides or other pollutants, always pre-kill, freeze and thaw the food before feeding.
Follow the same size restriction as you do with rodents. Any prey that’s thicker than the widest part of the snake’s body poses a potential risk of gut impactions and in extreme cases, can even be fatal.
The benefits of using frozen, pre-killed prey over live prey
The ideal diet for a pet snake is a highly debated topic among pet keepers.
While most experienced reptile keepers and breeders are in agreement that frozen/thawed food is the safest and that pet snakes can easily be conditioned to such a diet, a lot of new pet keepers opine and recommend feeding live prey to their pets.
That’s despite being aware of the potential risks that this can pose.
- Injuries: Live prey, like rodents, will defend themselves when they are confined in a small terrarium with a large predator. Many a time, they can inflict serious injuries to the snake that can require timely medical intervention and prolonged care. In extreme cases, the injuries can also lead to death. It has been noted that captive snakes rarely exhibit the skill or the desire to defend themselves against live animals.
- The desire to hunt: There are various reasons why your snake might not exhibit the desire to hunt the prey the moment it is introduced into the environment. It might not be hungry enough. The sudden movements of the prey may startle them to the extent that they lose the desire to hunt. The longer the live prey is left in the environment with the pet, the higher the risk of injury.
- Inhumane: It’s plain inhumane to introduce a live food animal into an enclosure with a potential predator. The fear and subsequent pain that it may undergo is unnecessary and can be avoided by using frozen/thawed food that was euthanized in a more humane way.
- Storage: Storing live food animals requires a lot of space, care, and maintenance, which are quite difficult for the average pet lover. If you cut corners on any of the above, it can result in serious health issues. Not to mention that the odor might linger around the house for days.
Pre-killed food, on the other hand, is easy to store. You can buy size-appropriate food in advance and stockpile them in the freezer rather than making a beeline to the pet store every time your snake needs to be fed.
There is no odor, no risk of disease nor injury.
What are the common diseases that affect Milk Snakes?
Milk Snakes are generally very resilient and rarely suffer from serious health problems if you monitor them regularly and provide a caring, hygienic environment.
As part of regular monitoring, here are some of the diseases that you need to be aware of.
Just as canines and cats get flea infestations, snakes can pick up mites from other infected snakes or even from the breeder that they were bought from.
Mites in snakes appear like dots on the scales that are either red, black or white in color. If you observe them closely, you will find them moving around. These tend to be concentrated mainly around the eyes or the nostrils.
Mites feed on the snake’s blood at night and can cause quite a bit of discomfort to the pet. In severe infestations, it can even kill the pet.
Miticides are easily available in pet stores. But speak to your vet before you use any OTC treatment for mite removal. You will most likely, also have to clean, disinfect and treat the terrarium to completely remove the infestation.
Captive milk snakes usually do not harbor parasites as is the case in wild specimens. However, unhygienic husbandry practices by the breeder can result in worm infestations. One of the common parasites is Trichomonas. It can be treated easily though.
Mouth rot is a bacterial infection that occurs in the mouth of milk snakes when food debris gets left behind or an injury is left untreated. The bacteria form a thick yellow coating on the mouth and eventually starts to eat the tissue.
Milk Snakes generally do not get respiratory infections unless they are severely stressed.
Stress can be caused due to unsanitary conditions, lack of food (particularly after egg laying) and random fluctuations in the temperature in the environment.
Symptoms to watch out for are long periods of inactivity, refusing food, blowing bubbles or a large quantity of mucus in the mouths. In extreme conditions, it can cause mouth rot or pneumonia.
Respiratory infections can be remedied easily provided that they are spotted at an early stage.
Despite being labeled as ‘Beginner Snakes’, milk snakes can be quite tricky to handle, especially for first-timers. In fact, many subspecies aren’t an ideal choice for beginners.
That’s because they tend to get extremely nervous, especially neonates and juveniles.
However, they rarely display aggression even when they are petrified or stressed. Instead, they are most likely to musk you to express their disapproval of being (man) handled.
How to handle a milk snake
The trick is to get the milk snake accustomed to being handled so that they don’t associate you with a threat.
- Stand near the enclosure to allow the snake to get used to your presence. At first, they might go defensive or even try to strike or bite. Stay calm. Continue this until they get comfortable with your presence. This should take around a week in normal circumstances.
- Stay calm while handling the snake. If you grip them hard or make sudden jerks or movements, the snake will interpret it as a threat.
- Keep the handling sessions short and positive.
- Always use two hands while handling the snake. Use one hand below their belly for support and cusp the other one as a hide allowing them to move around the hands easily. The two hands will also prevent any escape artists from breaking away from you.
- Do not handle the snake after they’ve eaten or when they are hungry or about to be fed.
Choosing the right Milk Snake
Due to the wide variety of milk snake subspecies that do wonderfully well in captivity, it is easy to find one that is suited to your preferences.
Right from the small, inexpensive Eastern milk snakes to the 6-foot black milk snakes, there is no dearth of choices.
Ensure that you buy from a reputed breeder. Check the body of the infant for signs of disease or injury.
There must be no bumps or blisters. The scales must be even, shiny and smooth.
Check the head and the eyes. Are the pupils the same color? Check for mites.
Examine the vent for signs of diarrhea. Crusting is a telltale sign that the snake has an underlying health condition.
Handle the snake. Don’t be alarmed if the juvie milk snake musks. Peublans are notorious for musking.
Once you have handled the snake, check your hands for any signs of mites.