The California Kingsnake was considered a subspecies of the common Kingsnake until 2009, when it was upgraded to its own species. California Kings have a natural range that spans throughout California and into parts of Oregon, southern Nevada and Utah, and most of Arizona.
The California Kingsnake lives in a wide variety of habitats, from marshes and grasslands to deserts, ranches, forests, coastal areas, and even the suburbs. They can be easily found hiding under man-made structures, hiding in debris, and under leaves.
California Kingsnakes are moderately sized, yet slender, growing to be an average of 4 – 5 feet (1.3 – 15. m) in length. Most California kings will reach adulthood within three to four years of age.
Under optimal conditions and in captivity, California Kingsnakes can live to the ripe old age of twenty years or more, the average lifespan being somewhere between 10 and 15 years.
Because of its wide range and popularity as a pet, the California Kingsnake has a variety of color morphs and patterns. The typical California Kingsnake is a member of the “tricolor” snake group.
Most California Kings are banded in colors of dark brown and white/yellow. Some of the common pattern phases are described below.
This pattern is usually marked by a white or light yellow stripe on the back of the snake.
This phase is marked with a dark belly and lateral striping.
This type of banded California Kingsnake has a dark underside and lots of banding.
The desert phase is marked by highly contrasting bands of dark black and bright white.
The coastal phase differs from the desert phase in that the coastal phase has reddish-brown bands alternating with white or yellow.
In addition to the different pattern phases, breeders have successfully created different California Kingsnake colors, including albinos, banana (high yellow), speckled, lavender, and more.
While California Kingsnakes are highly adaptable, most species need to have an easily secured food source consisting of rodents. Though they can grow up to 5 feet (1.5 m) in length, they are slender enough to be a manageable pet. It is nonvenomous and the most commonly bred and kept Kingsnake in captivity, so it makes a good pet for herpetoculturists of all levels. However, if your main reason behind wanting a California King is to have a cool-looking animal to pet all the time, consider a corn snake instead. California Kings are generally not aggressive but they tend to be on the nippy and nervous side.
California Kingsnakes love meat. In the wild, they’ve been known to eat mice, lizards, small birds, even other snakes. For California Kings in captivity, rodents make the best diet. California Kings aren’t picky eaters, so many will live their whole lives eating nothing but mice.
When feeding your California Kingsnake, consider using tongs to avoid accidental bites. You should choose between fresh killed or frozen thawed prey from a pet store or wholesaler. Do not use wild-caught mice as many of them are crawling with parasites and disease and will infect your snake and/or collection.
When preparing a pre-killed animal for your pet, thaw it by running it under warm water or setting it in the sun. Take care not to let a pre-killed meal sit for too long, though, as harmful bacteria can start to form on it. Baby California Kingsnakes do well eating one pinky (hairless newborn) mouse once every week or so.
As your snake grows, you’ll want to increase the size of the rodent appropriately. An appropriately sized meal is one that a) is no larger than 1.5 times the width of the snake’s body, or 2) leaves only a slight lump in the snake after being consumed; anything that is too big will be regurgitated.
Once your California Kingsnake has reached adult length you can feed it 1 – 2 large adult mice every week or two. Always feed your snake its prey animals one at a time and never leave live prey unattended in your snake cage for long. If your snake is not hungry, it won’t eat, while will leave the mouse to claw, scratch, and bite your snake. Snakes can get injured and sometimes die from prey bites and injuries.
California Kingsnakes are a hardy species. Aside from normal snake diseases and health concerns, the California King has no special health requirements. Like any other snake, there can be occasions when health issues arise.
The following is a short summary of California Kingsnake diseases and disorders.
California Kingsnakes are at risk for infections of the respiratory tract, like colds and pneumonia. More often than not, the cause of these “colds” is a suboptimal temperature in the snake’s enclosure. If your snake holds its head up and mouth open, or emits a wheezing sound when breathing, seek veterinary assistance.
Sometimes if the condition is caught early, fixing the temperature gradient in the enclosure can effectively treat the cold.
Mouth rot, or infectious stomatitis, is a cheesy substance around your snake’s gums and teeth is the main symptom of this infection, caused by debris getting stuck in the snake’s mouth or even striking at the perimeter walls. If you notice these secretions, see your vet at once.
Many California Kingsnakes are bred in captivity, which minimizes the chances of your new pet having internal parasites. A simple stool sample (fresh and moistened) can help you detect internal parasites, but you’ll need to see your vet for them to evaluate it.
External parasites include ticks and mites. Heavy mite infestations look like crawling white, red, or black dots on a snake and its habitat. A mite infestation can be extremely dangerous and sometimes deadly, but it can be treated with a number of commercially available products.
If you’re dealing with a mite problem you’ll need to rid it from your pet AND its entire habitat and environment.
California Kingsnakes are relatively docile when compared to similar sized snakes, but they tend to be anxious. They generally won’t become aggressive unless agitated.
Signs that your California King is feeling stressed include hissing, rolling into a ball, and vibrating the tail quickly (like a rattlesnake).
Adult California kings that have been raised in captivity are usually very calm, though hatchlings can tend to be nippy. If you’re dealing with nippy California Kingsnake babies they should settle down after some gentle handling.
The proper way to handle your California Kingsnake is to gently hold it and allow it to move between your fingers. Never allow your snake to dangle unsupported, as it can hurt their spines.
There are different types of snake habitats available to purchase, including glass cages, vivariums, plastic cages, and even homemade options. The California Kingsnake can be considered a medium-sized species and, in most cases, a 15-20-gallon aquarium should do the trick.
The exception to this is when you’re housing hatchling California Kings. Baby snakes can get “lost” in large enclosures, so until they grow a little larger it’s best to house them in something smaller, like a plastic shoe-box. This way you can easily monitor their health and keep them well hydrated.
Substrate or bedding options for a California Kingsnake enclosure can vary. Newspaper, snake carpet, rabbit pellets, and vermiculite can all be used as bedding options.
One excellent option is Aspen bedding. The Aspen’s natural structure makes it easy for the California Kingsnake to burrow and tunnel. Whatever you do, don’t use pine or cedar shavings as they contain oils that are toxic to snakes. Keep in mind that whatever you choose to include in your snake enclosure you will also need to clean periodically.
Last but not least is your snake’s water dish. Whether you see your snake drinking or not, it’s important to provide your animal with clean drinking water. Plus, if your snake soaks itself for extended periods, that can signal that there is some sort of a medical issue going on that needs attention. Always be sure to clean your snake’s water dish every few days to prevent harmful bacteria from building up.
California Kingsnakes aren’t arboreal so they don’t need branches to climb on, but you can put some in the cage if you like how they look. One thing that the California Kingsnake absolutely needs to thrive is a hiding place. Something as simple as a shoe-box with holes cut out of it can suffice, or you can opt for the fancier store-bought varieties. Just remember that whatever you put into your snake cage you’ll also need to clean regularly.
As long as your California Kingsnake’s enclosure is in a room with natural sunlight, you don’t need any supplemental lighting. Some herpetoculturists like to put full-spectrum lights on their snakes to show off unique patterns and colorings. Whatever you decide, Kingsnakes require periods of darkness every day, so don’t forget to turn off the lights at night to give your snake its beauty sleep.
An essential component of every good snake enclosure is its temperature gradient. California Kingsnakes like to regulate their own body temperatures (called thermoregulation), so having the right equipment is crucial. You’ll need multiple thermometers, a heat source (under-tank heating options like reptile heating pads work best), and a rock for basking. But remember hot rocks aren’t very good for snakes as they won’t feel their skin getting too hot and burned.
The cool side of the enclosure should be between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and between 85 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit on the warm/basking side. Place your thermometer or thermometer probe on the basking rock surface, one on the cool end of the enclosure, and one on the hot end. This should allow you to keep watch over your Cal King’s environment while allowing it the ability to thermoregulate.
A note on heating: Whatever you choose to heat your Cal King’s enclosure, never ever place a light bulb inside the cage. Snakes don’t know any better and will curl themselves around it, causing injury and death.
California kings have a diverse natural habitat, thriving in both coastal and desert environments. They aren’t arboreal snakes (i.e., they don’t climb trees), but they do like to burrow, bask, and hide. One of their favorite natural habitats to take over and make their own is the rodent burrow.
Historically, the California Kingsnake was thought to be a subspecies of the common Kingsnake, but it was named as its own species in 2009. There are a couple of theories as to how the California Kingsnake got its royal moniker, but most believe it’s due to the fact that the California King will devour other snakes, even poisonous ones.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Adam Denish, VMD.