Snake in a vivarium

How To Set Up A Vivarium For Your Snake

Snakes are fascinating creatures and make interesting pets if you are prepared to take that little bit more care. They are carnivorous reptiles which have fangs & shed their skin as they grow; the hobby of keeping snakes is called herpetology. There are well over 2500 species of snake originating from various regions of the world but only a few are suitable for the beginner. You need to do some background research on which type of snake to get & what its requirements are, before taking the final plunge. Some species are easier to look after than others because they don’t grow so large, are more docile & they will tolerate a greater range of conditions. Don’t forget that whichever snake you choose as a pet it will probably need to be fed dead mice without you feeling squeamish! Some of the species which would make ideal first time pet snakes include:

  • The Corn Snake or red rat snake, which is asmall, hardy snake which will survive in a variety of conditions. It is also very docile & is available in a lovely range of colours.
  • The Milk Snake, which although it is a great escape artist is ideal for beginners but is quite shy & secretive.
  • The King Snake, a non aggressive & easy to care for snake which is available in a number of colours. They do tend to be cannibalistic so just one to a cage!
  • The Ball Python, a docile snake which can grow quite large but can be a picky eater & needs the correct environmental conditions to survive so may be considered better for someone who is not new to the hobby.

Careful consideration needs to go into the species of snake you choose & its housing & feeding requirements. Think about its eventual size, the amount of interaction you expect from it & how easy it will be to look after. Once you have decided which snake to get you can start planning its new home - a properly set up vivarium!

The final size of your vivarium will depend on the ultimate size of your snake but if you are staring off with a new hatchling, 4-6 weeks old it will feel more secure in a smaller tank until it starts getting bigger. Your vivarium needs to be easily cleaned, escape proof, well ventilated & have a heat gradient whilst giving room for your snake to stretch out yet making it feel safe & secure. There are some additions to your vivarium which are dependent on your snake’s individual requirements but there are a number of items which are essential no matter which type of snake you keep.

  • Heating is essential as snakes are cold blooded, they cannot regulate their own body temperature & will become more lethargic the colder they get, and then die. There needs to be a temperature gradient across the tank so the snake can change position according to its needs, the actual temperatures will depend on the species but may range from 25˚C to 30˚C. One of the easiest ways of doing this is to place a thermostatically controlled or low voltage heating mat under a third to a half of the tank. Monitor the temperatures at each side to ensure they meet the correct requirements.
  • A substrate for the base of the cage is also essential & whilst your snake is small you are better off using newspaper or kitchen towel which is cheap, easy to change & won’t be ingested by your snake. As your snake gets bigger & you want something a bit more aesthetically pleasing you could progress to specialist substrates such as aspen, coconut husk, wood chips (not pine or cedar as these are deadly) or even indoor/outdoor carpet!
  • Water is essential, not only for drinking, but snakes like to immerse themselves in their water bowls, especially as they near the time to shed their skin & the water also serves to keep humidity levels up in the vivarium. Therefore the dish needs to be big enough for the snake to submerge & needs to be stable so that it does not get knocked over. The level of humidity your snake requires is determined by the species, to monitor humidity levels attach a hygrometer to the side of the vivarium.
  • Some form of cover for the snake to hide in will make it feel a lot more secure. You can make your own or buy a purpose made cave, choose one that isn’t too big as they like to be able to feel the sides for security. Get one for the warm end & one for the cooler end so that there is a choice of temperature.

Set up your vivarium at least 24 hours before you bring your snake home & double check it for possible escape routes especially if you have sliding doors on the front as small snakes can slip between the panes of glass. When choosing your snake look for one that is feeding, looks in good condition with bright eyes & no sign of mites (pinhead sized brown insects that are difficult to eradicate), if the snake is due to shed its skin it may have opaque eyes. Initially, your snake may be quite nervous & hide from you for the first week or so but with regular & careful handling it will settle down in its new surroundings. Clean out & replenish water bowls & substrate regularly & always make sure the whole snake is in the tank before closing lids or doors, check heads & tails!

One important aspect of keeping snakes is to keep a note of when they last ate; this will get less frequent with age but is often a sign of an underlying health issue. Frozen rodents can be bought from the garden centre in a range of sizes to suit your snake as it grows. A good general rule is to feed a defrosted rodent which is no fatter than twice the girth of the snake. Hatchlings should take a defrosted ‘pinkie’ mouse every 5-7 days then try on a ‘fluffy’ mouse once a week after 2-3 months. When they are a year old they should be eating small mice, progressing onto large mice or small rats at the age of two.

Most snakes shed their skin about eight times a year, about every four weeks for hatchlings, the process taking one to two weeks. A healthy snake should shed its skin in one piece & this is made easier if they have a damp area in which to do it (a moss box), their cave or hide can double up as this by placing some damp moss or sponge inside.

You may want to provide lighting & further decoration in your vivarium. Extra lighting can make viewing easier and if you use specialised fluorescent tubes they will enhance the colours of your snake whilst not getting too hot. If the vivarium is in a room without natural light this will be essential & the lights will need to be on for about 8 hours per day, putting them on a timer makes this easier. Adding branches & imitation plants will make your vivarium look more natural whilst exercising your snake, giving it something to climb on, explore around & rub against when shedding. Imitation plants are a clean, pest free alternative to introducing live plants.

Julie Parker
My interest in gardening & wildlife stemmed from childhood days spent working in the garden with my parents & reading books on anything from robins to giraffes. As time has moved on these influences have stayed with me inspiring the creation my own garden & leading to interests in fish keeping & the natural world around me. I still love to read & hope that the knowledge I gain will make topical reading through these articles.