Rat Snakes often evoke mixed reactions from colubrid owners and ‘wannabe’ snake keepers.
There are some, who are head-over-heels in love with these beautiful creatures. But there are others who wouldn’t even touch one of these even a pair of hooks.
There seems to be a lot of misinformation and fear-mongering happening these days about these snakes on messaging boards.
Well, we have to say that some of the sub-species and some specimens, in particular, do have an ‘attitude’ problem. But it would be unfair to generalize the entire genera as being difficult to handle.
In a lighter vein, if you don’t mind handling a pet with some personality, then this is the genus you were always looking for.
They are also the single most diverse group of colubrid snakes in the pet trade with almost 50 species available in captivity. With such a large variety to choose from, you should be able to easily find a species that’s suited to your pet keeping needs.
Rat Snakes get their name from their favorite food, rats.
These non-venomous colubrids are constrictors, much like the Boa Constrictor and can grow from palm-sized to 8-foot, intimidating monsters.
Rat Snake Types commonly available as pets
Until the early 2000s, it was believed that all Rat Snakes were closely related to one another and were categorized under the genus ‘Elaphe’.
But with the advancement of technology, it was discovered that many of these snakes possess distinct characteristics that separate them from one another. In fact, some of them are closely related to King Snakes.
This led to a major taxonomical revision in 2002.
The genus ‘Elaphe’ is now used to describe what is called ‘Old World Rat Snakes’ or Rat snakes found in Asian & European countries. These rank lower in the list of desirables by pet keepers mainly due to a feisty demeanor. You wouldn’t want to throw open the lid of a terrarium casually with one of these little dragons.
North American Rats are categorized under the genus ‘Pantherophis’ and are called ‘New World Rat Snakes’, which includes some of the popular rat snake varieties kept as pets, like Corn Snakes and Fox Snakes.
There are other sub-species that are also quite popular among colubrid collectors and breeders, like the Ladder Snake (Rhinechis), the Thai Bamboo (Oreocryptophis) & the Tri-Color Rat Snake (Archelaphe).
Rat Snakes are available in an incredibly diverse range of sizes, colors, morphs, and dispositions.
Most New World Rats are medium-sized snakes which are easy to house and care for.
Here are some of the common varieties that you will come across in the local pet store or with breeders.
The Eastern/Black Rat Snake
The Eastern Rat Snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis), also called ‘The Black Rat Snake‘, is one of the largest rat snake species, that was a staple in the North American pet trade until the demand for exotic Asian varieties started to surge.
Characterized by a striking black body with intermittent flecks of white, these snakes resemble the venomous rattlesnake to an extent. To top it off, they share their hibernation dens with Rattles and Vipers, which has earned them the ‘Pilot Snake’ moniker.
But just like other Rat Snakes, the Black snake is a non-venomous constrictor that has a diverse habitat spread across some of the most populous areas of northern America. They can be found in ledges, rocky crevices, suburban lots, attics, farms, and barns.
Their diet primarily consists of mammalian prey like rodents, voles, rabbits, chipmunks and deer mice.
Eastern Blacks can grow up to 8-feet in captivity and live up to 25-years. Wild specimens rarely grow beyond 5-feet though.
Juveniles are vividly colored with black or brown blotches on a gray or black and white body.
The transformation that they undergo as they mature is one of the most striking ones in the colubrid world, rivaled only by some species of milk snakes.
Eastern Blacks found in the Florida Keys have a very distinct appearance.
In fact, two beautiful sub-species of rat snakes, the Everglades’s rat snake, and the yellow rat snake are now considered to be colored phases of the black snake itself.
Mating behavior is observed after they emerge from Brumation, that is typically from March to May.
Texas Rat Snake
The Texas Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoleta lindheimeri) is a very attractive, slender rat snake species found primarily in Texas. But its range extends to at least four other states including Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
These active colubrids are incredibly adept at climbing and swimming and seem to have a penchant for fledgling chickens. This has given the snake a notorious reputation among domestic bird keepers who also call it ‘The Chicken Snake’.
Other than birds and eggs, the Texas Rat is mainly found preying on rodents, voles, toads, and chipmunks. Its presence in many urbane locales is considered to be beneficial as it keeps the rat population in check.
Remember what we mentioned about the feisty subspecies of rat snakes?
The Texas Rat ranks right up there. Wild specimens will put up a fierce fight if threatened, often rattling their tails, coiling up in the S position, hissing, musking and not reluctant to bite.
Captive-bred specimens though are as docile as their famous cousins, the corn snakes.
Their appeal is mainly due to their striking colors. These snakes have brown or olive-green blotches on a tan or sometimes yellow, body. Some specimens even have orange speckles.
They also exhibit different colors depending on their range and habitat. Further, breeders have created a range of attractive morphs and phases including the popular leucistic texas rat snake and the hypomelanistic one.
Texas rat snakes grow up to 5-feet in length and can live up to 15-years in captivity.
These snakes have very basic care requirements and are definitely worth a consideration if you are looking for a unique colubrid snake that stands out from the crowd.
The Corn Snake
The Red Rat Snake, more commonly known by the name ‘Corn Snake’ is an incredibly beautiful species with an attractive, colorful body.
It is hands down, the most popular variety of rat snake, among hobbyists and breeders currently due to the multicolored phases and diverse range of morphs that have been created with selective breeding.
It gets the ‘Corn Snake’ moniker from its hunting behavior, where it was often found inside containers stacked with corn while hunting for rodents.
The Red Rat Snake is found in varied habitats all over the United States. But is more prominent in the Southeastern states.
It is considered to be one of the easiest snakes to keep in captivity due to a very easy-going demeanor and their apartment-friendly size. Most captive species rarely grow beyond five feet.
Here are some of the popular morphs of the Corn Snake.
- Blood Red Striped Corn Snake: Dark red colored bodies with a faint, almost faded stripes. Dark eyes.
- Blizzard Corn Snake: Created by breeding the charcoal corn snake and the amelanistic corn snake. The Blizzard is pure white and looks quite stunning.
- Caramel Corn Snake: Striking patterns and blotches in caramel, golden, brown and black.
- Miami Corn Snake: Brown or Burgundy saddles against a tan or silver-gray body.
- Reverse Okeetee Corn Snake: Red, orange or yellow blotches against a white body.
- Sun-kissed Corn Snake: Square saddles against an orange body. Has a very copperhead-styled head.
Due to the coloration and the V-shaped blotch on their slender heads, Corn snakes are often mistaken for the venomous copperhead and killed in the process. But these non-venomous snakes rarely display aggression. Their first line of defense is to escape rather than musk or bite.
They are excellent climbers with a curious nature and this also makes them very good escape artists. The terrarium must have a secure lid at all times or they will break out.
Corn snakes are very easy to breed in captivity. Set the perfect environment for Brumation and the males will be ready to mate after their winter shedding.
Gray Rat Snake
The Gray Rat Snake earns the distinction of being the only rat snake subspecies that does not undergo a transformation as they mature.
They are born with black or brown blotches against a gray background and remain the same throughout their lives. However, color variations are found in the wild according to the habitat. One of the most popular phases of the snake found in the wild called the white Oak phase, is almost pure white.
The Gulf Hammock rat snake is another stunning phase with a ladder-like pattern on its back. Herpetoculturists believe that it is a cross between the yellow rat snake and the gray rat snake.
Wild-caught gray rat snake specimens usually have a feisty attitude. However, they adapt very well to life in captivity and can be handled with ease once they get accustomed to your presence.
Growing to a maximum length of 72-inches, with the record being 84-inches, Gray Rats are perfect for small to medium sized homes and apartments.
Just like the rest of their siblings, these snakes are extremely good climbers and can even scale vertical walls looking for prey. They primarily feed on rodents and toads but will fancy their chances with chicken and domestic bird eggs.
Gray rat snakes are very easy to breed, just like Corn snakes. Mating behavior will be exhibited after Brumation, which will be around mid-April to early June. Some varieties of these snakes found in southern states are also known to mate during winters.
So, you’d want to speak to the breeder or the pet store about the origin of the snake before you buy one.
Baird’s Rat Snake
The Baird’s Rat Snake is one of the most beautiful rat snake subspecies which was for long considered to be a part of the Obsoletus group. However, it has been reclassified and is now considered a distinct species called Pantherophis bairdi.
Juveniles have grey-brown dorsal bodies with dull blotches that fade away as they mature and reach adulthood. Adults are yellow or orange or a slightly darker, salmon color. There are four stripes that run from the neck to the tail and the color of the scales starts to darken towards the tail.
Despite having a very colorful and striking appearance, the Baird’s Rat Snake is relatively lesser known in the pet trade. This means that you can find one for a lot cheaper than what a popular morph of a Corn Snake would cost you.
The Baird’s Rat Snake grows up to 5-feet. However, exceptional specimens can grow much longer.
These snakes are voracious eaters, much like other rat snakes and adjust easily to life in captivity.
Captive-bred specimens are hardy and docile and very easy to care for. Breeding months are April-June and Brumation is highly recommended. However, there have been instances where these snakes have bred without Brumation.
Fox Snake is used interchangeably to describe two colorful species of Rat Snakes that are found in different parts of Northern America.
There’s the Eastern Fox Snake or Pantherophis gloydi, a protected species which is found only in Michigan, Ohio and some parts of Ontario, and the Western Fox Snake or the Pantherophis vulpinus, which is found from Michigan up to South Dakota.
The Fox Snake moniker comes from their habit to musk when threatened, which apparently smells like a fox passing wind. You don’t want to be anywhere close when these guys musk.
Both these snake species are slowly becoming more popular among snake keepers. But are not as commonly found in the trade as other rat snake species.
Fox snakes can have yellow, green-brown, gray or tan colored bodies with chocolate or black blotches on the back. There are slightly smaller blotches on the side and a checkered pattern on their bellies. The head is usually orange in color.
If you look at it closely, the appearance is somewhat similar to two very venomous snakes in North America, the copperhead and the Mississauga rattlesnake often leading to mistaken identifications.
To top it off, Fox Snakes rattle their tails and hiss when threatened, which ends up pretty badly for them in populous areas.
Nevertheless, Western Foxes make great pets. They grow up to 5-feet in length and can live for up to 15-years in captivity. They are calm and easy to handle.
Mating seasons starts in late spring and continues until the end of summer.
Can you breed Rat Snakes in Captivity?
Rat Snakes were one of the first colubrids to be successfully bred by collectors and snake keepers, much before the more exotic varieties arrived.
These docile snakes are iteroparous, which means that their reproductive cycles are predictable and repetitive, making it easy for even first-time pet owners to breed them.
Most subspecies of rat snakes reach sexual maturity at around 2-3 years and mating period begins in April, lasting until June, during which the male rat snake will exhibit mating behavior.
Sexually mature rat snakes should be able to mate without any assistance or external interference, which means that there may be no need to brumate the snake. This is very important if first-time breeders find it difficult to maintain accurate temperatures.
However, preparing the snakes for mating betters the chances of successful breeding. It stimulates the male’s reproductive behavior and assists in the formation of the gamete.
Rack systems might work. But it is always better if you house sexually mature adult rat snakes in large cages or terrariums.
Start by weaning the snake off food. An apt time to start this would be late October. Undigested food and a slowed down metabolism are a recipe for disaster.
Ensure that the snake has excreted any remaining food and that their digestive tract is clear. This might take a couple of weeks from the last meal.
Slowly, start reducing the temperature of the cage to 45-60 degrees. The Brumation period lasts for 50-70 days and the snakes must be disturbed as little as possible during this phase. Periodically check the cages, replace any water that’s been soiled and ensure that there’s ample ventilation.
After the Brumation period, gradually warm the environment to the normal temperatures over the course of two weeks. It’s time to reintroduce food.
Snakes feed voraciously for the first couple of weeks after emerging from Brumation. This also reduces the risk of the snakes cannibalizing when they are introduced for mating. Rat snakes are usually not known to kill and eat other snakes. But after a prolonged period of hunger, the desperation might fuel unpredictable behavior.
In case, the male does not display any breeding activity, some breeders recommend making a paste of the white excrement that the female excretes and applying it on the back of the female before introducing her into the male’s enclosure.
That should stimulate the male’s reproductive instincts.
After two to three copulations over the course of a week, the female will display signs of increased hunger. You can feed her aggressively to assist in the breeding cycle.
This will mostly be followed by the pre-partum shed, which indicates that the female is ready to lay eggs. Introduce two egg-laying containers to the enclosure.
How much does a Rat snake cost?
Most new world rat snakes can be bought for cheap from any reputed local breeder.
The average cost for a yellow rat snake hatchling, for example, can be anywhere from $50-$70.
The Red Tailed Green can cost you around $75 for a hatchling whereas corns are even cheaper with the average cost ranging from $30-50.
The exotic Asian varieties cost a premium though. An albino indo-Chinese morph can set you back by $1000 at least.
A Yearling Yunan will cost at least $500.
Rather than just using the price of the snake as a yardstick, you should also consider the size of the snake, the care requirements and the disposition of the subspecies, as it will greatly affect your ability to provide a healthy and caring environment for your pet.
Do not forget to account for the cost of the equipment, like the terrarium, climbing systems (rat snakes love to climb), temperature control, humidity control, lights, food, and substrate.
On average, it would cost you at least $250-300 for the equipment alone.
Are Rat Snakes venomous?
No, they aren’t.
Although they share a striking resemblance to some of the most venomous snakes on the continent, Rat snakes are harmless to humans.
In fact, these snakes are extremely beneficial in pest control in urban settings as well as in farmlands.
One of the easiest ways to distinguish between a rate snake and a venomous snake, like the copperhead is to observe the pupils.
Venomous snakes usually have an elongated pupil, somewhat like a slit in the middle of the eye. A rat snake, on the other hand, has round pupils.
The only exception to this is the coral snake, a highly venomous snake that has a round pupil and resembles the non-venomous milk snake.
Do Rat snakes have fangs?
Yes, they do.
But the fangs are tiny and are solely used to restrain small prey, like rats and rodents, when the rat snake constricts them.
Since the snakes are non-venomous, the fangs are not as large or powerful as in venomous species like vipers or rattlesnakes.
However, just because rat snakes do not have large fangs does not mean that they can’t inflict a painful bite.
The only probability of getting bitten though arises when the snake is handled incorrectly or is not used to being handled. Think early days in the terrarium. We will talk about this in a bit.
If your pet rat snake does bite you, just wash the wound and disinfect it. Rat snakes do not carry parasites that can be passed to humans, so you do not have to worry.
What type of environment do Rat Snakes need?
Rat snakes are easy to keep as pets.
Their care requirements, including the environment, is not too different from other colubrid snakes.
The right amount of space, a couple of places to hide, a tree or two to climb and they’ll be happy pets.
Here’s a brief guide to setting up a comfortable environment for your rat snake.
The first question that you need to ask yourself is how you wish to house the snake.
Do you wish to display the snake? Then the only option that you have is glass.
And glass definitely has its advantages. There’s nothing more appealing visually. Throw in some décor and some reptile lights and you have an attractive focal point in the room. You can easily spot feces or other smudges which if left unattended can quickly become a germ magnet.
Under Tank heating, which is the most preferred form of cage heating works the best with glass tanks.
But to house a five or six feet rat snake, you need at least a 5-6-feet long glass tank, which will be ridiculously heavy and a chore to clean.
Think about the monthly rinses when you will empty the enclosure and scrub the entire tank.
Suddenly, you start to think of something that’s lighter and easier to handle. Also, glass doesn’t retain heat that well.
You will have to monitor the temperature and the moisture in the tank. Glass tanks with screen lids, in particular, need constant monitoring.
HDPE plastic cages are a strong, lightweight and relatively inexpensive option to house snakes. They hold on to heat and retain moisture very well. Are easy to clean too.
The tradeoff is that they look like plastic boxes ought to look. Which isn’t very aesthetic.
Wooden enclosures offer the best heat retention and security. The sliding lids make them easy to access and clean too. The caveat is that if you do not seal it well, porous wood clubbed with the humidity in the tank becomes a magnet for bacterial contamination.
If you are opting for a wooden enclosure, ensure that it’s sealed and treated. And that it does not emit toxic fumes.
Rat Snakes are ectothermic. Their bodies cannot produce heat, which means that they rely on environmental temperature to keep their metabolism functioning.
So, it is critical that you simulate the precise temperature that they would find in their natural habitats.
Talking about habitats, these snakes are found in an incredibly wide geographical range around the world. It is recommended that you review the most recent data, peer-reviewed resources and care sheets for the subspecies that you select.
The ideal temperature in the terrarium should be set according to the origin of the snake.
The Russian Rat Snake, for example, lives in the cooler parts of Asiatic Russia, Korea and in some parts of China. It requires an average ambient temperature of 75 degrees F, with the cool end of the tank set to 70 degrees F and the warm end at 80 degrees F.
The Night time temperature can be set to 65 Degrees F.
The Black Rat Snake, one of the commonest subspecies kept as a pet, needs a slightly higher ambient temperature, say around 80 degrees F, with the warm end of the tank at 85 degrees and the cool end at 75. The nighttime temperature can drop to 75 or even 70 degrees F.
There needs to be a temperature gradient with two distinct thermal zones in the terrarium to allow thermoregulation.
Over Tank (OT) heating is an obvious and easy solution to heat one end of the tank. You can hang a spot bulb and the temperature can be monitored using a thermometer hanging an inch or two above the substrate layer.
However, OT heating is frowned upon by experienced snake breeders and is generally considered unsafe. In case of a sudden rise in the ambient temperature of the room, the OT light can emit more heat than what’s required.
Your pet can be dehydrated or it can even cause kidney damage in extreme cases. Also, there have been instances where the snake’s skin was scorched due to excessive heat.
Under Tank (UT) heating is considered safer and provides a closer simulation of how rat snakes achieve body heat in their natural environment. The heat is focused on one area only and there’s a buffer layer produced by the substrate that prevents the temperature from rising too much.
The UT heating pad should cover only 1/4th of the tank area or less.
Rat snakes never burrow under the substrate if the temperature is too high, unlike ball pythons which tend to get skin burns due to their natural instinct to burrow and lie on the glass surface under the substrate.
Always use three thermometers to monitor the temperature. One at the warm end of the tank, one at the cooler end and one near the basking site.
Rat Snakes are the least demanding colubrid snakes when it comes to humidity levels.
They adjust perfectly to humidity levels between 40-50% which can be achieved by just placing a large water bowl in the habitat.
If you feel that the water bowl is inadequate and the humidity levels are dropping, then you might have to use a fogger or a mister.
Spraying water every day will also help maintain humidity levels. But the substrate may get soaked which makes it more difficult to maintain the right humidity levels.
Always use a hygrometer to monitor humidity levels.
Rat snakes love to burrow and explore their environment.
So the substrate that you select must allow them to cater to their instincts. At the same time, it must be easy to clean and hypoallergenic.
Here are the three best substrate choices for Rat Snakes.
- Newspapers: Cheap, easily replaceable, easy to dig and burrow through. However, it tends to get soaked with excretion and musk which leaves a lingering odor in the tank. You might have to replace it more frequently than you expect to, especially while housing juvenile snakes who tend to be skittish and musk at the slightest perceived threat.
- Aspen shavings: Cheap, aesthetic, easy to replace and easy to burrow through. It allows the cage to be ventilated, doesn’t retain too much humidity either. However, if the chips are too small, then there’s the risk of your snake accidentally swallowing it during feeding. If you are using Aspen shavings, you will have to feed the snake outside the enclosure, which deters a lot of pet keepers from choosing this as a substrate. As a workaround, ensure that the rodent or other food that you feed the snake is as dry as a bone. Wipe it thoroughly. The general consensus is that ingesting the occasional tiny piece of substrate probably won’t hurt your pet. But it’s up to you. You always have the option to feed them outside.
- Coconut fiber: Aesthetic, lightweight, easy to clean. Slightly expensive though and notorious for soaking water. You will have to be doubly diligent while monitoring humidity in the tank.
- Hemp Bedding: Hemp bedding is a new material that has all the qualities of a good substrate for snakes. It’s soft, absorbs odors, easy to burrow through and completely biodegradable.
Sand, soil or anything fine enough to get trapped between the scales is best avoided. Oily and aromatic woods like cedar, pine and fir can cause allergies and irritate the snake’s skin.
Most rat snakes are diurnal, except for the corn snake which is nocturnal.
In the wild, they are mostly active during the day hunting for prey or just exploring their turf. During the hot summer months, they spend the day time hiding under rocks or in dens and come out to hunt at night.
This means that they would love to coil up in a dark, cozy place every now and then. Not to mention that their poor long-range eyesight stresses them in a large open space, like a glass terrarium.
Add a couple of hides to the terrarium. One in each thermal zone, if possible. This can be something as simple as a cardboard box or a plant pot turned upside down with a tiny hole cut out in it.
And if you want to replicate the wild environment as much as possible, source a hollow log. Clean it thoroughly with mild bleach & water solution to get rid of any parasites or mites. Also, treat the wood as you do not want it to get rotten or mildewy due to the humidity.
You can also find premade snake hides in pet stores. Some snake keepers stuff a part of these hides with paper towels to create a snug and cozy retreat that’s in contact with the snake’s body.
Rat Snakes are semi-arboreal. They are excellent climbers and often scale vertical walls trying to access attics which may be harboring rats. In the wild, they are frequently encountered on tall trees trying to raid bird nests.
A climbing branch will be a wonderful addition to their environment which will keep them active and provide some much-needed exercise.
A real branch will be too difficult to maintain. You can buy a Plastic replica that’s aesthetic and easy to clean.
Always keep a large bowl of fresh water in the terrarium. Large enough for your pet snake to soak in it whenever they want to regulate the humidity.
Rat snakes love water and you will find your snake in the bowl every now and then.
So, the bowl needs to be sturdy and tip-free. Also, the water must not overflow when the snake enters the bowl.
Look for a deep, tip-proof dog water bowl. This should suffice if you have a small or medium sized rat snake.
If you have one of the giants, then you might need something bigger.
Rat Snake Care 101
Most captive bred Rat Snake subspecies are exceptionally easy to maintain and have only a handful of basic care requirements which can be catered to, even by first time snake owners.
A secure terrarium
All rat snake subspecies are pretty resourceful and will try to sneak out of their terrariums given the chance.
Neonates, in particular, can break out of holes as tiny as their snouts.
So, ensure that it has a tight and secure lid.
Wire lids, such as the ones made of chicken wire are not recommended because they are easy to break out of and they can also cause serious injuries if the snake tries to squeeze out of a tiny outlet and gets trapped in it.
Rat snakes require fresh air. But too much ventilation can actually hamper temperature maintenance.
This is why a lot of expert snake breeders recommend glass cages with screen-lids. It keeps the cage airy and your pet safely tucked in.
Safe Electronic components
There’s a reason why Herpetoculturists recommend against using hygrometers and thermostats. They are prone to malfunctioning and should they fail, the temperature in your snake’s environment can rise or fall pretty quickly.
An old fashioned thermometer is a foolproof way of monitoring temperature.
But if you are using other electronic components, like UT heating or OT heating, then monitor them once every day to ensure that they are working properly.
Clean and hygienic terrarium
Spot clean the cage as and when you spot feces or urine. Even tiny smudges need urgent attention. Shed skin should also be removed promptly. Clean the water bowl once a day or when soiled, whichever happens, sooner.
You can use a solution of 25% vinegar and water to clean it. But even a mild antibacterial soap should do just fine.
Once a month, do a thorough cleaning by emptying the entire terrarium. Relocate your pet to a holding cell, remove all components and clean them scrupulously with any chlorhexidine-based cleaner.
Scrubbing pads might leave scratches that can be a breeding ground for bacteria in the future. So, use a toothbrush if you feel that rubbing with the fingers is inadequate.
Replace the substrate.
Once everything is cleaned and dried, place it into the cage. Before reintroducing your pet, check the electronic components once again to ensure everything is working and in order.
Do Rat Snakes make good pets?
Rat snakes are unfairly maligned as being feisty when in reality, they are among the friendliest snakes with a bold and inquisitive nature.
They aren’t a show rock, like a ball python or livewires like racers. Instead, they have very distinct personalities and usually love being handled.
Of course, there’s always the probability that you land yourself a specimen that’s nippy.
But even the shiest rat snake tames down pretty soon and you should have no problems ‘meeting and greeting’ your pet after a while.
Almost every instance of a rat snake being temperamental can be linked to inexperienced handlers or wild-caught specimens.
So, you’d want to speak to the breeder about the disposition of the snake and whether it’s a captive-hatched one.
How big do they grow?
As we mentioned at the start of this blog post, there are almost 50 subspecies of rat snakes that are found in the pet trade.
Most new world rat snakes grow to an average length of 3-5 feet. Corn snakes grow from 3-6 feet.
Baird’s rat snakes grow from 2-5 feet. Everglades grows from 3-6 feet and so do black rats. Some subspecies can grow up to 7-feet but that’s about it.
It is extremely rare to find specimens beyond 7-feet.
What do they eat?
Rat Snakes have a diverse diet in the wild.
They can prey on rats, mice, voles, chipmunks, deer mice, toads, frogs, other snakes, birds, and bird eggs.
In captivity though, they adapt very well to a diet solely made up of frozen and thawed mice or rats.
Frozen mice are easily available, are cheap and you can even stockpile it if you have multiple snakes at home.
If you have hatchlings or neonates, you can feed them pinkies twice a week. With a good diet, they should grow well into healthy adults in about four years.
Some hatchlings might refuse to take pinkies initially as they are naturally inclined to feed on small lizards or tree frogs.
If your hatchling acts fussy when fed pinkies, keep a frozen frog and rub it on the pinkies to scent them. They usually start to accept it after a couple of attempts. Once they start eating pinkies, then you won’t have a problem feeding them, ever.
For adult rat snakes, follow a weekly feeding schedule. Feed a size-appropriate rat to the snake, wait for a few days until it excretes. This signals the end of the digestive cycle and your snake is ready to eat again.
Wait for a day or two and feed again.
Adding Variety to your snake’s diet
A lot of first-time snake keepers wonder if their pet snakes get bored of eating a frozen and thawed rat every week and are looking to add some diversity to their pets’ diet.
That’s not a bad idea. But not necessary either.
Nutritionally, a rat provides everything that your pet snake needs. And contrary to what a lot of people believe, snakes do not really fancy a gourmet meal every time.
They will accept a rat without fuss every week for the rest of their lives.
But, if you still wish to tickle their taste buds, you can add some newborn chicks or quails every now and then.
Some subspecies of rat snakes even take eggs. If you are feeding them a store-bought egg, warm it up in some water before introducing it into the cage.
Live prey is best avoided. We will touch on this in a bit.
The benefits of using frozen prey over live prey
The Live vs. Frozen prey debate will rage on forever. In all fairness, it’s up to you to decide what you want to feed your pet.
There are many snake owners who regularly feed their snakes live prey without any untoward incident.
But there are also stories galore of a scared and cornered mouse attacking a pet snake and fatally injuring them in the process.
At times, your snake isn’t in the mood to feed on the rat, the moment it is introduced into the cage. The rat, however, sees a large predator with no room to escape. This leaves it with just one choice, defend itself.
In the wild, the snake can avoid a stressed and angry rodent. In captivity though, the snake rarely exhibits the will or the skill needed to defend itself.
The longer the live prey stays in the cage, the higher the risk of injury to your pet.
Even if your snake instantly latches on to the live prey and constricts it, there’s the humane side to consider. The prey animal will undergo a lot of stress and fear, which can be avoided easily by opting for frozen, pre-killed prey.
Before you decide on a choice, consider the following reasons.
- Live prey can injure your pet
- It’s inhumane to feed live prey to a snake when you can opt for humanely killed frozen rats which are a complete nutritional package
- Do you have the room to house live prey? For one snake, it’s just too many hassles to keep live prey or breed them.
What are the common diseases that they suffer from?
Rat snakes are very hardy and captive-bred specimens are resistant to common diseases in a caring and hygienic environment.
Having said that, equipment failure, temperature fluctuations, injuries, and even stress can sometimes trigger common diseases in these snakes.
Mouth rot: Mouth rot is a bacterial infection caused due to injuries which can occur during feeding. Thankfully, it can be spotted and treated rather easily. Look out for pinhead sized dots on the gums of your pet snake. In some cases, there will be a thick layer of mucus on the inside of the lips or excessive swelling on the mouth. Snakes with mouth rot refuse to eat and it’s a telltale symptom that’s something’s amiss.
Parasites: Captive-hatched rat snakes usually do not carry parasites or mites. However, wild-caught specimens might harbor them and can introduce them into the environment, especially if you have multiple snakes at home. Look for tiny red or white dots on the scales. If they are moving around, it’s mites. Miticides bought over the counter can help treat mild infestations. But you should always consult a vet before using any OTC product. Examine your snake regularly to spot an infestation before it becomes too severe.
Blister Disease: Blister disease or vesicular dermatitis is caused due to excessive moisture in the terrarium. These appear as tiny, pus-filled blisters on the underside of the snake’s body and hence may go undetected until it progresses into a full-blown bacterial infection. In extreme cases, it can even lead to abscesses and ulcers.
Shedding: While it’s not exactly a disease, Rat snakes sometimes find it difficult to shed the skin completely and retain dead skin on the tail. This needs to be spotted early though. If left unattended, the dead skin cuts off the blood supply to the tail and it will have to be amputated. Thankfully, there’s an easy fix to this condition. Take some lukewarm water in a bowl and let your snake soak in it for 5-10 minutes. This loosens the dead skin and you should be able to pull it off. If you are unsure about this, speak to your vet who will remove it in no time.
Signs that your snake is sick
Unfortunately, there are no generalized symptoms of diseases to watch out for, except lack of appetite and lethargy.
Open mouth breathing is an indicator of a respiratory infection or mouth rot. A cottage cheese type discharge again indicates mouth rot.
Basically, anything that’s out of the ordinary warrants a detailed inspection from your vet. If you are a first-time snake owner, don’t be reluctant to reach out to your vet even if you have the slightest suspicion about your snake’s behavior.
Handling a rat snake
Rat snakes usually are calm, docile and extremely easy to handle. However, juveniles will be shy and skittish. That’s part of their personalities which will change dramatically once they get used to your presence and to being handled.
Be confident when you lift the snake. You can use a small hook to lift them off the surface (while supporting 2/3rd of their bodies with your hand) until they get used to being lifted.
This is called ‘Breaking the hunt’ and it teaches the snake that being lifted on a hook means that there’s no food coming. This reduces the chances of being nipped, particularly the first few times that you are handling the snake.
With time and practice, you should be able to easily handle even 7-foot giants.
All said and done, some specimens develop a fierce personality and go defensive every time the lid is opened. This happens very rarely though. But if it does, then congratulations for you have landed yourself a dragon.
Choosing the right Rat Snake
One of the advantages of choosing a rat snake over other colubrid snakes is that you have such a diverse pool to select from.
You can narrow down to the tiniest of details, right from the size to the color to the morph and even the disposition, to an extent.
Consider your requirements as a snake owner. Are you looking for a small snake that’s friendly, easy to care for and can be handled without the risk of bites and musking?
You might want to check out Baird’s rat snake or the Trans Pecos. Both are extremely beautiful snakes that don’t grow too big.
If you want a colorful display snake that you cannot go wrong with, then we recommend the Corn snake or one of its morphs.
The everglade and the black have very distinct personalities too.
And if you prefer to buy one with loads of personalities, then check out some of the Asian rat snake subspecies, like the Mandarin rat. Will keep you on your toes at all times.
Do your research and make an informed decision while selecting a rat snake.