Kingsnakes are one of the most popular group of snakes currently kept by herpetoculturists and hobbyists. Many are captive-bred, though some are still collected in some numbers from the wild.
There are currently nine recognized species of Kingsnake. These include the Texas Gray-banded Kingsnake, Prairie Kingsnake, Common Kingsnake, Mexican Gray-banded Kingsnake, AKA San Luis Potosi Kingsnake, Arizona Mountain Kingsnake, Ruthvens Kingsnake, Milksnake, Sinaloan Mountain Kingsnake, and the California Mountain Kingsnake. Six of these nine Kingsnake species have their own subspecies, making the Kingsnake one of the largest snake groups out there.
Since the Kingsnake is made up of so many different varieties and subspecies (we’re talking 50+), their sizes when full grown can fluctuate. Some of the smaller species of Kingsnake reach 18 inches in adulthood with others reaching 6 feet in length or more. However, they are all narrow in body frame or width.
If you’re thinking about getting a pet Kingsnake, be prepared to make a long-term commitment. There are many different kinds of Kingsnake, with many different expected lifespans, but on average, a captive-bred pet Kingsnake will live between 12 and 15 years. The oldest captive Kingsnake lived for a record of 33 years.
The Kingsnake is part of a larger group of snakes that can be described as “tricolors,” because they (typically) have a ringed three-color pattern. The rings usually come in combinations of red/orange, black, and white/yellow.
Saddles, or saddling, happens when the bands don’t fully encircle the snake’s body, instead forming a blotchy “saddle.”
The third type of color pattern a Kingsnake can have is being of one solid color, like black or red.
Many color variations exist in the Kingsnake and its 50+ subspecies, with breeders creating more each year. Some common color variations include albino, striped, blotched, and banana.
Many of the Kingsnake’s color variations come from its native geography. For instance, northern species of Kingsnake tend to have black with cream crossbands, while Kingsnakes from the south (like peninsular Florida) can be paler and more faded—to better blend into the swamps and marshlands it calls home, perhaps.
If you’re in search of a specific species or color Kingsnake, your best bet is to contact a reputable breeder.
Some species of Kingsnake tend to be more aggressive than others, but as a whole the Kingsnake is a great breed for both beginning and advanced herpetoculturists. They are typically well-tempered, well-adapted to captivity, do not grow too large, have a simple and easily obtainable food source, and come in lots of beautiful colors and patterns.
Wild Kingsnakes have been known to eat a large variety of food, including vertebrates and invertebrates. Their favorite type of food varies according to species, but you can never go wrong with rodents.
For the budding herpetoculturist, it’s best to choose a species or subspecies of Kingsnake that is large enough to eat a newborn mouse (pinky) when first hatched. Otherwise, it can be tough to find food small enough for the snake to eat. Best leave these subspecies to the more advanced herpetoculturists.
Kingsnakes will eat mice, rats, baby rabbits, and birds, but can happily live on a diet of commercially raised rodents as well. The key to successfully feeding your Kingsnake is regularity. When feeding a hatchling or subadult Kingsnake, the first meal should be small enough that it is easily swallowed, and should leave a small but visible lump in the snake after it is swallowed.
Young snakes eat more frequently than adult snakes; once or twice a week will usually do. Just as with most snakes, they should pass a bowel movement a few days after eating. As your Kingsnake grows you’ll want to increase the size of the prey animal you feed it, starting with one or two baby mice/pinkies and increasing that to up to three adult mice or rat pups. Depending on the species of Kingsnake you have, you can offer it a baby rabbit once it’s reached maturity.
It’s good to know that Kingsnakes will sometimes fast when they are about to shed, particularly when their eyes are cloudy or “opaque.” Kingsnakes have also been known to regurgitate their meals every so often, so if yours does this just clean up the mess, wait a little while, and then try feeding it again.
Don’t handle a snake within 24 hours of eating, otherwise they are more likely to regurgitate.
Kingsnakes are typically healthy eaters, so if you’re dealing with a stubborn snake that won’t eat or constantly regurgitates, take it to the vet immediately.
As a whole, Kingsnakes are extremely hardy. They thrive in nearly every “snake acceptable” habitat, but, like any other pet, there are some problems to watch out for.
Shedding problems are commonplace with milksnakes (a subspecies of Kingsnake) as well as some Kingsnakes. This is because they have comparatively thin skins. Pay special attention to your Kingsnakes in shed. If the snake is unable to shed the entire skin, or if the snake prepares for the shed but then does not, see a vet.
For baby Kingsnakes the shedding process is even more important, take care to closely monitor the babies.
If you’re dealing with a problem shed and the old skin seems to be stuck on your snake, find a round-bottomed container, which the snake, when coiled, goes around twice. Put ventilation holes in the top, add water to a depth of ½ the thickness of the snake, and put the whole thing where it will be between 82 and 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Lubrication from the water combined with the friction of the snake crawling against its own body should remove an excess skin. It may take up to 24 hours but is a good method for assisting your Kingsnake’s shed.
Remember that snakes also need to shed their eye caps (spectacles); if they don’t come off within two sheds, you should seek veterinary care.
Parasites both internal and external are another problem common to all snakes. External parasites include ticks and mites, the first of which are common on wild-caught snakes.
Snake mites are like reptile fleas; they come out at night to suck the blood out of your snakes. A mite infestation looks like a bunch of white, red, or black dots crawling all over your snake and can sometimes be taken care of with commercially available miticides. It is important to note that reptile mites and ticks don’t live or human or mammal skin.
Always quarantine new snakes in a room separate from your collection for a minimum of 3-4 weeks. If your collection has become infested with mites you’ll need to clean the entire environment, as well as your snake.
If you suspect your Kingsnake is suffering from internal parasites, a veterinarian will be able to test its stool samples and suggest the right treatments.
Kingsnakes are generally very resistant to both mouth rot (infectious stomatitis) and respiratory infections (like pneumonia). However, if they become stressed, the chances of them contracting one of the diseases increases.
If you spot small reddish spots along your Kingsnake’s gum line (signs of mouth rot) or your snake seems to be blowing bubbles (signs of pneumonia or respiratory infection), see a vet immediately.
Kingsnakes have better temperaments than pythons, but adults can bite and nip when they feel threatened or uncomfortable. If your goal in getting a snake is to have a pet that you can “play” with and pet frequently, you should consider a different species, like a cornsnake.
Housing for your Kingsnake can be as simple or extravagant as you want it to be. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to clean the enclosure and its furnishings on a regular basis.
You will need an escape-proof enclosure designed for keeping snakes. It doesn’t necessarily need to have a locking mechanism but it should use sturdy clamps. Avoid extreme sizes as Kingsnakes will get “lost” in large cages and feel cramped in small ones. A good rule of thumb when choosing an enclosure size is one where if the snake crawls around the perimeter, it will cover half the length. A standard 20-gallon high aquarium or 15 gallon low vivarium is suited for all but the largest species of Kingsnake.
Bedding. Aspen or reptile bark works well, and your snake can use it for hiding or rubbing off shed. However, don’t use cedar or pine as the dust and aroma can cause problems. Astroturf or newspaper are simple items that can be used instead.
A nice water dish for drinking and soaking. Except when treating a medical problem, keep a water dish in your snake enclosure and fill it with fresh water once to twice each week. Always clean the dish if when your snake defecates in it.
A shelter or hide box. Kingsnakes like a little peace and quiet sometimes, and who can blame them? Giving your snake a place to retreat and rest will not only make them happy, it will help keep them healthy and stress-free. Your snake hide box can be as fancy or simple as you like. Something like a shoebox or plastic plant saucer with holes cut in it will work just as well as a fancy store-bought version.
When using a screen top enclosure, make sure that there is adequate ventilation. Be aware of the humidity and heat that escapes from your snake’s home and use thermometers and a hygrometer make sure to maintain proper levels.
Temperature gradients. Having a range of temperatures within the enclosure is key for your snake to regulate its own body temperature (thermoregulation), something snakes do in nature all the time. Aim for one end of the enclosure being 75 degrees Fahrenheit and the other at 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Always, always use multiple thermometers placed throughout the enclosure to ensure temperatures are maintained. Kingsnakes don’t usually bask, thus hot lights are not mandatory as a heat source. Instead, opt for commercially available heat mats. Kingsnakes love sub-floor heat, just make sure to keep it regulated.
There are a couple of theories as to how the Kingsnake got its regal name. One theory is that it is because the Kingsnake inhabits such a huge range. The other is due to the fact that the Kingsnake has been known to devour other poisonous snakes.
Whatever the reason, Kingsnakes are part of one of the largest families of snake and continue to grow in popularity as pets.
Kingsnakes are the only snakes that are only found in the Americas. They and all their 50+ subspecies can be found spread across North, Central, and parts of South America.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Adam Denish, VMD.