North American Ratsnakes (Pantherophis obsoletus group)
This care guide will cover the commoner species and subspecies of North American ratsnakes: the black (Pantherophis obsoletus obsoletus), yellow (P. o. quadrivittatus), grey (P. o. spiloides), everglades (P. o. rossalleni), Texas (P. o. lindheimeri) and the Baird’s ratsnake (Pantherophis bairdi). The Baird’s was, until recently, classified as a member of the obsoletus complex, so it is included here.
These are substantial snakes, ranging in length from 120 to 180cm (4 to 6’) although usually on the smaller end of this. They are extremely variable in colour and patterning, and natural hybrids (intergrades) are found throughout their range, where the different subspecies overlap.
They are found from Florida in the south to Wisconsin in the north, although there is an isolated population in southern Canada and north New York. They are found in open prairie, woodland, farmland, and swamps. As you might imagine, they are extremely adaptable!
These are active snakes that appreciate a bit of space! They are also accomplished climbers, so although not a truly arboreal animal they do appreciate sturdy branches to explore.
120 x 60 x 60cm/48 x 24 x 24” is a really good size for these snakes, as it not only gives them room to stretch out, but also allows plenty of space for a range of hides, plants, branches and other items to make their habitat a bit more interesting.
Reptiles cannot produce their own body heat, so it is important to keep their environment within a suitable temperature range to help body systems such as digestion and immunity function correctly.
Like all reptiles, rat snakes appreciate a temperature gradient which can be provided in two main ways. A heat mat that is attached to the wall of the vivarium and thermostatically controlled will provide gentle heat, and if this is combined with a small heat bulb there will be a daytime temperature peak similar to what the snake would encounter in the wild.
The other method is to use a ceramic heating element, which must be connected via a thermostat.
Like most snakes, rat snakes will appreciate a slight night time drop in temperature.
A simple 12 hour light cycle is ideal for rat snakes.
UV lighting is not necessary for snakes, although some specialists believe it can be beneficial. This group of species are often seen out and about during the day in the wild, so although not strictly speaking necessary, it is entirely possible that they will gain some benefit from it.
If you are able, why not provide UV?
Read our blog on UV lighting for nocturnal geckos, snakes and amphibians
It is important to provide your snake with fresh water every day, in a bowl that is large enough for the snake to submerge in. This may also help your snake shed its skin.
Hides And Decor
Rat snakes tend to be bold and curious, but still appreciate a large number of hiding places. Any of the dry substrates – with the exception of sand – are suitable, although they do appear to like the substrates that they can burrow in (aspen and lignocel).
Two hides are often recommended, one at the warm end and one at the cool; it is always better to provide more than this. A choice of several different hides allows the snake to thermoregulate whilst remaining secure. A moist hide (sometimes called a shedding hide or a wet box) is a hollow hide made of resin or plastic that contains damp moss. Placed at the warm end of the vivarium this gives your snake a personal sauna that they will often use when shedding.
Plastic or silk plants are also a good choice, as they offer additional hiding, climbing and exploring options while being very easy to clean and disinfect.
Real plants can be used, but snakes do like to knock them over and dig them up! Unless you are going for a full bio-active habitat, real plants are best avoided.
One of the alternative names for the common rat snake – chicken snake – suggests that they are just as happy to eat birds and their eggs as they are to eat rodents. Wild diet consists of rodents, birds and their eggs, lizards, frogs, squirrels, moles/shrews, bats, insects, weasels, rabbits/hares and reptile eggs. This makes them unlikely to be fussy feeders!
Feed your snake one defrosted mouse every 1-2 weeks. The mouse should be no bigger than the largest part of the snake. Rat snakes can eat mice their entire lives – starting off with pinkies as a hatchling and moving up in size as the animal grows. A large adult, however, may well be happier eating rats, and these can be introduced to the diet as soon as the snake is big enough.
As snakes do not use energy to warm their bodies (as mammals do) they need less energy to function. Resist the urge to feed your snake more often or oversized prey as this can lead to the snake growing too fast, which can result in the head of the snake not growing at the same speed as the rest of the body. Obesity can also be a problem. If a snake is overfed they have no reason to move around their vivarium and this is detrimental to their health.
The simplest feeding technique is to place the defrosted food in the vivarium near the snake and leave it to feed. The other way is to offer the food on some tongs or tweezers to the snake; they will often strike very quickly then constrict the mouse.
Snakes sometimes refuse to feed while shedding.
Spot-clean your snake’s enclosure as necessary, removing waste as soon as possible. Clean and disinfect the water bowl on a weekly basis. Monthly or more frequently if necessary, change the substrate and completely disinfect the vivarium and decor using a safe reptile disinfectant. Rinse the enclosure thoroughly and allow to dry before replacing the cage decorations.
Snakes regularly shed their skin as they grow, it normally comes off in one piece and no assistance is required.
The first stage in the process is when the eyes go opaque (cloudy), at this point the snake will not want to feed and will hide away, it is best to leave it to do so. After a few days the eyes will clear again but it won’t shed for another 7 to 10 days.
If the snake has trouble removing the skin it is best to put the snake in a tub with some damp moss to help soften the skin and help by gently rubbing.
These are solid, robust snakes that are – in snake terms – quite clever; if there is a method of escape, they will find it! They are curious and energetic, and respond well to gentle, regular handling. They do have rather a reputation for nastiness which is, on the whole, undeserved; they can be feisty as hatchlings, but grow out of this if handled regularly. When you enter the room your ratsnake will be the first one to pop up and have a look at what you’re doing!
They make excellent second snakes for the keeper looking to further their experience, but can make a fine first snake for the more confident novice.
Natural Habitat: Extremely varied. Open woodland, prairie, agricultural land, and can often be found in close proximity to water – ponds, lakes, and rivers.
Lifespan: The average is 15 years, but they have the capability to go into their 20s with good care.
Adult Size: Between 120 and 180cm/4 to 6 feet, although usually on the smaller end of this.
Temperament: Lively and active, curious and intelligent.
Housing: 120cm/48” wood vivarium would be fine for an adult
Temperature Range: 27º to 31º c (81º to 91º f) at the warm end, with the cool end up to 10º cooler. A night time temperature drop is also appreciated, as long as it does not drop below 20ºc/70ºf.
Lighting: Low level UV (recommended but not essential) 12 hour light cycle.
Feeding: Defrosted rodent once weekly, of the appropriate size.
Substrate: Any of the commercially available dry substrates except for sand. Aspen and lignocel appear to be firm favourites.
Décor: Minimum of 3 hides plus a humid hide.
Multiples? Best kept singly, except for breeding.
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