By Cheryl Lock
If you or your child are interested in taking home a snake as a pet, but not quite as interested in dealing with a pet that can grow to be humongous, there may be a compromise. While larger snakes might be difficult for a number of reasons — keeping them fed and housed, for one thing, can be quite the chore — snakes that stay on the smaller side can make great pets.
“For families that choose to keep a snake as a pet, it can be a rewarding, educational experience that teaches a child the lesson of responsibility,” says herpetologist Leo Spinner. “Families and children also benefit by learning together the needs that each species of snake requires and how the animal’s captive life parallels that of their wild kin.”
The lack of hair and fur is another pro, especially for families that deal with allergies. In addition, they urinate and defecate infrequently, and they are easy to clean up after. “A clean snake environment is virtually odor free,” says Spinner.
If all of that sounds appealing, you might be surprised at how easy it is to find a snake that stays on the smaller side.
“There are many species of snake readily available through the pet trade,” said Spinner, “several of which average between three and five feet in total length.” Female snakes also tend to be larger in length and girth than male snakes, in general, so that’s something to keep in mind.
The following are some of the more common smaller snake breeds, along with some things you should know about them before taking one home.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Dipl ABVP
The Pueblan milk snake, or Tri-color, is very popular with pet store chains because they only grow to about 36 inches and they are brightly colored in red and peach, and in white and black. Feeding them is easy, too, since they can easily live on small frozen and thawed rodents you’ll find at your pet store, says Spinner.
“A Tri-colored milk snake can live as long as 15 years, and have been known to reach a longevity of 20 years,” he added. “Most milk snakes are squirmy when held, but rarely bite once they have become used to handling.”
Actually, milk and king snakes (another on our list) are related species, both being of the genus Lampropeltis, which is Greek for “shiny skin,” says Heidi Hoefer, DVM. Hoefer is board certified with the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners as well as an adjunct associate professor of biomedical sciences at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine. Milk, snakes, Hoefer explained, “do well with slightly lower humidity and temperatures than tropical species, so the environment might be easier to maintain.”
“These snakes will ‘musk,’ or give off a noxious odor from the scent glands, when frightened or stressed, but with gentle handling this can be reduced or eliminated,” saod Hoefer.
Thanks to selective breeding, the corn snake can be bred into virtually any color to satisfy the preference of the buyer (although their natural color is primarily shades of orange with a saddle-like pattern outlined in black and white), and they only reach an average three to five feet in length.
“Corn snakes are not usually fast-moving snakes and they handle very well,” said Spinner. “They rarely if ever refuse food in captivity, and often accept frozen and thawed rodents. Many will often take fresh raw chicken right out of the package.”
Hoefer also describes this type of snake as one that tends to be docile and generally easy to handle, making them a good choice for families. Keep in mind, said Hoefer, that “they are ground snakes and like to burrow, so will need a substrate like shredded paper that they can burrow into.”
The downside to burrowing, of course, is that corn snakes can spend a lot of their time hidden.
The Western hognose snake has become increasingly popular through the years due to its whimsical facial features and small size.
“The average captive size of the Western hognose is one to three feet, though older specimens have been known to reach lengths of nearly four feet,” said Spinner. Although this snake takes a variety of food items in nature, they readily accept frozen and thawed rodents and sometimes even strips of raw chicken in captivity.
“Western hognose snakes tend to be squirmy while young, but will lose that with handling,” Spinner said, adding that “biting rarely, if ever, occurs.”
You’ll find the Western hognose in beige, brown, and white, with dark brown saddles, although selective breeding has made many color schemes and patterns available. The average Western hognose lives eight to 10 years.
Western hognose are a bigger commitment than a garter snake, says Hoefer, and they can have unusual hissing and striking behavior that may scare a younger child. However, “if acquired young and handled often, they make good pet snakes,” she said.
Ball pythons are Hoefer’s personal favorite because they tend to be very calm and are happy to wrap around your wrist or curl up in a ball on your lap. This snake’s short length and stocky body also leaves you with the feeling of a large snake in a small package. Traditionally you’ll find this snake in shades of brown, beige, white, and black, with spots and saddle patterns, but numerous color schemes and patterns have become available through selective breeding, including albino individuals and patterns of pin striping.
The average length of this type of snake is between three and five feet, and they typically reach 25-30 years of age.
“Ball pythons are naturally shy snakes and are known for hiding their head within their coils in a ball-like fashion, rather than biting, when frightened,” said Spinner.
While captive born ball pythons readily accept frozen and thawed rodents, and many individuals will readily take fresh, raw chicken as well, Hoefer recommends getting an established feeder when purchasing this type of snake because they can be finicky when transported to new environments.
Typically a larger variety of the milk snakes, king snakes are known for eating other snakes, including venomous types, in nature, and will often consume any cage mates, so they must be kept individually, said Spinner.
“King snakes average three to four feet in captivity, with some exceptions reaching lengths of five and six feet,” Spinner said. “On average, the captive king snake lives approximately 10-15 years.”
There are many different varieties of this snake available at stores, the most popular being the striped or banded California king snakes. They are a chocolate brown or black base color with brilliant white or cream-colored bands or stripes.
“King snakes tend to handle very well, though younger specimens can be quite squirmy and will sometimes bite,” said Spinner. “All king snakes readily accept frozen and thawed rodents in captivity, and some will accept fresh, raw chicken.”
One of the things to be aware of with this snake is that they tend to be escape artists. A secure enclosure is a must, but they also need a hide box to prevent them from spending all day, every day, seeking an escape, said Spinner.
This under-rated species is related to the water snake and is sometimes available through pet store chains. “They are primarily fish eaters but will often take earth worms and sometimes frozen and thawed rodents,” said Spinner. These snakes can be squirmy when first handled, but they lose that tendency quickly, he said. “Garter snakes handle very well in captivity and rarely bite.”
“Garter snakes average two to three feet in captivity, with some individuals reaching slightly larger sizes, and they may live eight to ten years on average,” Spinner said.
They come in many natural shades of color and patterns, with the most common being red, brown, yellow, and green, and a pattern of stripes and bars.
For housing, garters are great in reptile terrariums because they like to explore, said Hoefer. An added bonus? “They can eat fish out of a bowl, which is fun to watch!” she added.
Although most of the species listed here can exist comfortably at room temperature, some, like the ball python, require a regulated temperature of approximately 82 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in the day and cooler temps of about 75 degrees Fahrenheit at night.
“Purchase your reptiles from a reputable dealer, and be sure the dealer will work with you if you and your new pet are not a good match,” said Spinner. “Always further research your chosen pet before purchase,” he added, “and that will make for a much better experience for you and your family.”
Additionally, once you’ve purchased your snake, a post-purchase exam and consultation with a qualified reptile veterinarian located in your area is highly recommended, said Hoefer.