Housing and Maintenance
Cages can be as elaborate and decorative, or as simple as you want to make them. Obviously a cage suitable for a baby milk snake will be different than that required by a pair of adult breeder milk snakes. What should be considered the basic herpetocultural requirements for any size milk snake?
1) An escape proof enclosure designed for keeping snakes.
2) Adequate ventilation.
3) A shelter.
4) A range of temperatures (establishing temperature gradients) within the enclosure which allows for voluntary thermoregulation.
5) Water (except temporarily when treating a medical problem).
6) Food at regular intervals to allow for growth and a healthy maintenance of weight.
SELECTING AN ENCLOSURE
There are many commercially produced reptile cages suitable for your milk snake(s). They include customized all-glass aquaria with sliding screen tops that lock, glass and wood enclosures with front or top openings, and all fiberglass cages with overlapping sliding glass front openings that lock, to describe a few. With top-opening cages you will usually be better able to control and contain a quick-moving milk snake, but front-opening cages are acceptable. They should be well ventilated. Avoid cages with fine screen sides or low screen openings. The snake may rub its nose raw by sliding and pushing its snout against the screen. Be sure the cage is secure and "escape-proof" as milk snakes will test every possible opening. Check your pet and reptile shops for the latest selection in caging or consult with the supplier of your snake and build your own.
Size of enclosure: Avoid extreme sizes. If an enclosure is too large, a snake can become "lost in it" making it generally difficult to monitor its overall health and behaviors. A snake in an enclosure that is too large and poorly designed may also stay at one end, hidden, and not venture forth to seek out food items. On the other hand, too small an enclosure will result in a snake that will be cramped, lying in its own feces, and unable to utilize heat gradients. A small cage will also "foul" faster and be more difficult to keep clean and properly ventilated. The proper cage is one where if the snake were to crawl around the perimeter, it would cover approximately half the perimeter measurement, with a reasonable width to length ratio (no long skinny cages!) A good general rule is a width approximately one third of the length of the snake. Although milk snakes will occasionally climb, tall cages are not essential for their maintenance. A standard 5 gallon vivarium will not be large enough for maintaining a hatchling snake up to a year. A standard 20 gallon high or 15 gallon low vivarium (12" wide x 24" long) will be a suitable minimum size for all but the largest subspecies of adult milk snakes. Large subspecies such as Honduran milk snakes will require commercial enclosures at least 30 inches long.
Temperature: As a rule, snakes will fare better when they are provided with a choice of temperature gradients. Snakes will thermoregulate by selecting desired temperature gradients. Having temperature gradients with 75ºF at one end of the enclosure and 88ºF at the other is ideal. In enclosures where temperature gradients have been established, the behaviors of snakes will often yield clues to their preferred temperature ranges or to flaws in the established gradients. If they are always at the cool end, then it is possible that the warm end may be too hot. If they are always on the heated end, then there probably isn't enough heat being provided.
There are many commercial bottom or subcage heating tapes, pads, strips, and devices currently available in the general pet trade that will provide the desired temperatures. Most can be controlled with a rheostat (light dimmer) so you can lower the surface temperature if necessary. Avoid the "hot brick" that plops in the cage. The temperature is too localized and the surface temperature on many exceeds what is recommended and can burn your snake. At the time of writing, there are hot rock heaters with thermostatic controls which may be more suitable for keeping milk snakes. Use a thermometer to assess the surface temperature of these hot rocks.
Lights are not generally recommended as a heat source because milk snakes are not usually a basking species. Factors including choice of incandescent bulb, placement of the light, and vivarium design will play a key role in determining the effectiveness of using lights as a source of radiant heat. As a general rule, sub-floor heat is preferable so the snakes can lay over it and warm themselves. When your "heater device" is installed, check floor temperatures frequently and adjust until it has stabilized where you want it. If you must settle for a constant overall cage temperature, 80ºF-86ºF is recommended. If possible, check with your reptile dealer for the "latest and best" in cage heating devices. This is an area of critical importance in assuring the welfare of your snake and warrants special attention.
Lighting: No additional light is needed if the cage is in a room with windows and indirect natural light. CAUTION: Do not put your cage in or near a window where the sun will shine directly on it. The interior cage temperature can rapidly rise to fatal levels, even with a ventilated top. For display purposes, there is no harm in enhancing the snakes' colors or the appeal of the vivarium design by using full spectrum bulbs such as Vita-Lite®. Remember however, that lights do produce varying amounts of heat, so be certain your light application doesn't upset your temperature balance. Note: Milk snakes should be provided with a period of darkness. This will be difficult if you decide to use lights as the primary heat source.
Substrate: Milk snakes like to burrow. You should provide a layer of sand, small smooth gravel, wood chips, pine shavings, or aspen bedding (not cedar or other "oily" woods) as a ground medium or substrate for the bottom of your enclosure. Some milk snakes (scarlet kingsnakes and others) do better when their cage is half full of dry sphagnum moss. They will hide in and burrow through the moss. When a cup containing baby mice (pinkies) is placed on the surface of the moss, the snakes emerge (often at night) and eat the pinkies. Sometimes this is the only way to get these snakes to readily accept pinkies as food. CAUTION: Some milk snakes have developed a sticky, blister-type premature shed skin problem when kept in damp moss.
Shelters: Milk snakes like to hide and fare better when provided with a secure place where they can be out of sight. Actually, two shelters per cage is recommended, one at the warm end and one at the cool end. Then the snake can be at its temperature of choice and not compromise its desire to be hidden. For example, a snake digesting a meal may prefer to be warm and hidden. If the only shelter was at the cool end of the cage, the snake may choose to hide and could develop digestion problems associated with cool temperatures.
There are many attractive, natural-looking, and easy to clean shelters available from your pet store. You can also use something as simple as a cereal box or small plastic container with a hole cut into it. The diameter of the entrance should be a bit larger than the diameter of the largest snake. Snakes like to squeeze into tight places. Don't use an excessively large shelter. One that is "snug" with an apparent inside volume 1-1/2 - 2 times the apparent volume of the snake is great. If there is more than one snake inside the cage, use a shelter that will be large enough for both of them to fit inside, plus one more. Be sure a well-fed snake can comfortably coil inside.
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