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Different snake species require different husbandry protocols and habitat types, but care is broadly similar for most snake types. Snakes require a secure enclosure that's furnished with an appropriate substrate and places to hide. You must also manage the climate of the terrarium to keep the temperature, humidity and light levels appropriate for the species you keep. Finally, you must provide your pet a suitable diet and plenty of fresh drinking water.
Modern snake keepers have a variety of caging options. Aquariums fitted with screened lids are among the most common choices, but you can select commercially produced cages, modified plastic storage boxes or custom-built cages instead. Regardless of the type of cage you select, it must be secure, offering your snake no chance of escape.
It is important to provide a suitably large enclosure for your snake to allow enough room for exercise, mental stimulation and comfort. Contrary to myths stating otherwise, snakes do not restrict their growth based on the sizes of their cages. As a basic rule of thumb, provide a cage with a perimeter that is twice the length of your snake; for example, a 3-foot-long snake requires a cage that is 2 feet long and 1 foot wide. However, active species such as racers (Coluber spp.), beauty snakes (Orthriophis spp.) and garter snakes (Thamnophis spp.) require more space than sedentary species such than ball pythons (Python regius) or rat snakes (Pantherophis spp.) do.
While it is advisable to provide the largest cage possible, an empty, spacious cage may cause your snake to feel exposed. Each cage should feature at least one -- and preferably several -- hiding places. Tight, dark, solid hiding places are ideal; several types of commercial hide boxes are on the retail market, although you can invert a plastic plant saucer and cut a door into the side to make a suitable and affordable hiding space. Live or artificial plants provide additional visual barriers that will help make your snake feel even more comfortable.
Some snakes rarely climb, but others suffer considerable stress if not afforded climbing and perching opportunities. If your pet requires climbing branches, attach them securely to the sides, top or bottom of the cage to prevent injuries. Use branches from hardwood trees, such as oak (Quercus spp.), maple (Acer spp.) or dogwood (Cornus floridana).
The simplest substrate for species that do not burrow is newspaper. Use several layers of newspaper to ensure adequate absorbency. Crumple and straighten a few of the top pieces, allowing your snake to crawl under the paper to hide and explore. Change the newspaper weekly or anytime it becomes soiled.
Particulate substrates, such as cypress mulch, aspen shavings and hardwood bark, are also good substrates for most snakes. Use cypress mulch or hardwood bark for snakes from humid habitats, but opt for aspen shavings for those hailing from drier regions.
Snakes are ectothermic animals who warm their bodies via external heat sources. This means that you must maintain the cage within a relatively narrow temperature range and provide a heat source. You can use heating pads, heat tape or heat cables to provide this warmth, but heat lamps or radiant heat panels are usually preferable. Place the heat source over one end of the cage to provide a thermal gradient that allows the snake to access a variety of temperatures.
Always monitor the cage temperatures with a digital thermometer. The area directly under the heat source -- the basking spot -- should be between 85 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit for most species, while the ambient air temperature should gradually fall into the 70s at the opposite side of the cage. Most keepers turn off all heat sources during the night, but others leave non-light-emitting heat sources on 24 hours a day. Few snakes need anything other than ambient room light. Maintain a suitable day-night cycle for your specimen.
Food and Feeding
All snakes are carnivores, although many well-adjusted captives will readily accept pre-killed prey offered via long forceps or tongs. Offering pre-killed prey reduces suffering for the prey animal and prevents injury for your snake; frightened rodents, for example, may inflict terrible bite wounds while struggling with a hungry snake.
Most snakes thrive on a diet of one suitably sized prey item per week. Ideally, your pet is a species that will accept rodents for food, as these are readily available via commercial sources. However, some species require birds, lizards, eggs, insects, mollusks, fish, frogs or other snakes.
Water for Wellness
Except for a few species, all snakes require access to fresh, clean drinking water. Tap water is usually safe, but if you prefer, you can offer your pet bottled spring water. Provide the water in a wide dish. Aquatic and semi-aquatic species often spend long periods of time soaking in their water dishes, so try to provide yours a suitably large water dish.
Some tropical species, such as rainbow boas (Epicrates cenchria ssp.) and sunbeam snakes (Xenopeltis unicolor), require high cage humidity. You can accomplish this by adding water to the substrate or misting the cage with room-temperature water. It is wise to provide a hide box filled with damp moss or paper towels, which will help him shed cleanly.