American Rat Snake Care
Closely related to the ever popular corn snake, the American ratsnakes (Pantherophis) are a varied and interesting bunch. They have a wide array of common names, and the overall taxonomy appears to be ever changing – but thankfully that doesn’t affect the care requirements!
From one species (the common ratsnake, Pantherophis obsoletus) with five subspecies (the grey, Everglades, Texas, yellow, and black ratsnakes) to three with no subspecies (Eastern, Western and Grey ratsnakes), knowing exactly which type of ratsnake you have can be rather confusing. But regardless of where their wild ancestors came from, the care requirements are broadly the same.
They can be found in a variety of habitats across central and eastern North America up to the southern edges of Canada, all the way down to Florida. They can utilise open grassland, rocky scrub, pine forest, deciduous woodland, swamps, and even urban areas. As you might imagine, their diet is similarly eclectic; rodents, birds, lizards, amphibians and even other snakes will all be taken if available.
A large, robust colubrid that can reach lengths of up to 2.4m (8 feet) although most are a little smaller than this, especially the western races. They are active and curious, so the more space you can give them the better; Easterns in particular like to climb, so provide plenty of branches to give them exercise. A wooden vivarium of 120cm x 60cm x 60cm (4’ x 2’ x 2’) allows plenty of floor area but also headspace for branches and climbing areas. But if you can provide more space it will be appreciated.
Lighting is simple; UV should be provided as they will certainly use it, a low output T5 strip light will be plenty. A basking lamp provides a hot spot of 30ºC to 32ºC (85ºF to 89ºF), with a gradient down to 24ºC (75ºF). At night this can drop down to 18ºC (64ºF). A deep heat projector controlled by a thermostat mounted on the ceiling at one end will prevent the temperature from dropping too low at night. Always check your temperatures with a good quality digital thermometer, never guess.
Provide your ratsnake with plenty of hides, either resin or natural. Cork bark works well, either as flat pieces or piles of half tubes. Branches should be sturdy, and possibly screwed to the wall or floor to prevent them falling down when climbed on. Substrate choice is wide; as they come from such a varied range of habitats, any of the dry substrates except for sand are absolutely fine to use. Lignocel is especially popular, as they can burrow in it and it holds the shape of the burrow, plus it is absorbent and easy to spot pick.
Feeding presents no problems either. They are quite happy on the normal rodent fare of rats and mice, although the very largest individuals will certainly need rats when they reach their full size. For adult snakes chicks are great to vary the diet, although juveniles or breeding females will need a little bit of calcium powder added to chicks to boost their calcium content.
All three species of ratsnake have a bit of a reputation for being snappy. Whilst they can be highly strung, a lot of this behaviour is purely defensive. They all respond well to gentle, patient handling, and can really become very tame indeed. They are, when compared to other snakes, clever and observant; make sure that you always remember to close the vivarium door, because they will be out in a heartbeat!
If you like corn snakes but fancy something a little more advanced, consider one of the Pantherophis ratsnakes. Big, bold, and beautiful, there’s never a dull moment with one of these beauties around!