Corn snakes perfect choice for novice reptile hobbyists

Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2003

So you want a pet snake? The very idea turns many people queasy, but for those who find reptiles, and snakes in particular, interesting, the decision on that first pet purchase can be a difficult one. There are many species to choose from and not all are suitable for a novice reptile hobbyist.

What type of environment does the animal require? What will it eat? How big will it get? Is it safe for children to maintain without parental supervision? How hearty is the species? What is the animal's temperament? How much does it cost?

These are all important questions to ask before making a reptile purchase. Unfortunately, the reality is people often buy pets first, and then ask questions or learn about the animal's needs later.

One of the best snakes for beginners is the corn snake (Elaphe guttata). These are attractive snakes that typically have an overall orange body color with red blotches outlined in black borders down their back and sides. The ventral surface, or belly, is white with a black checkerboard pattern.

They range in the wild through many states in the Southeastern United States and can be found in a wide variety of habitats.

Also known as red rat snakes, corn snakes are a good choice for beginners for a number of reasons, including size.

Many people don't consider the ramifications of the potential size of their purchase and regret it later on.

Some python species readily available in pet stores are only one to two feet in length at the time of purchase, but will be close to 20 feet long within a few years. Large snakes eat rabbits or chickens instead of mice, require large enclosures and can be unsafe around other pets and small children.

That's not the case with corn snakes. Corns start out at about 12 inches as hatchlings and typically grow to lengths of only three to five feet.

Since corn snakes attain such modest lengths, they can be housed rather affordably. A 10-gallon aquarium is suitable for hatchlings and a 20-gallon aquarium is adequate for adults. Since corn snakes are accomplished climbers and escape artists, any enclosure should have a secure top.

Substrate for the enclosure can be basic or fancy. Newspaper is cheap and the most simple to clean and replace. Wood chips and shavings also are suitable. Aspen and cypress are preferred. Cedar should never be used because it contains natural oils that can be harmful to reptiles.

Corn snakes should be given places to hide and feel secure. Hide boxes can be purchased or made. Branches can be added to give the snakes something natural to climb on and to help them slough skin at times of shedding. Wood collected naturally should be soaked in a diluted chlorine solution, allowed to dry thoroughly, then soaked again in water and dried again. This will ensure no harmful bugs or bacteria are transmitted to the snake.

Like all reptiles, corn snakes are poikilothermic, which means they are cold-blooded. They rely on external forces for their body heat.

Corn snakes prefer temperatures in the range of 75 to 85 degrees, but can tolerate slight deviations on occasion. This is another advantage to the beginner since some reptiles have narrow temperature requirements for which any deviation would mean illness or death to the animal.

Snakes typically hide, so a heat pad under the tank is better than a heat lamp over it. "Hot rocks" also can be used, but these devices have been known to severely burn reptiles. If using a hot rock, it may be necessary to put a sock or some other material over it to absorb some heat.

Heating devices should be on one side of the tank. This allows for a temperature gradient so the reptile can heat and cool itself as needed.

In Alaska, temperature can be a reptile hobbyist's greatest concern. A power outage can mean death quickly for a snake. Back-up generators should be considered to prevent such a tragedy.

Corn snakes are constrictors. They need to eat small mammals for the bulk of their diet. Mice are the most readily available and can be purchased alive or frozen. Hatchling chicks can be offered on occasion.

Corn snakes typically eat about every 7 to 10 days, but this can vary. The amount of food offered at each feeding can alter the feeding frequency. The environmental temperatures also affect digestion and metabolism.

The rule of thumb is if the snake is very active, it is often hungry and in search of food. If the snake does not eat within the first few minutes to hours, it probably is not hungry.

Live rodents should never remain with snakes for extended periods or be left unattended with snakes. They have been known to cause injury and even death to snakes that were not hungry.

Fresh and clean water should be available at all times for drinking and soaking. Corn snakes often soak prior to or during a period of shedding.

Corn snakes are relatively docile animals that can learn to tolerate handling. Hand-ling, however, should be kept to a minimum, and snakes should never be handled after feeding. This can cause regurgitation or illness.

Overall, corn snakes are a suitable first reptile for beginners looking to gain confidence, knowledge and experience with these intriguing animals.

Joseph Robertia, is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Pet-related questions and story ideas can be e-mailed to his attention at

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