Kingsnakes and Milksnakes
by Robert Applegate
This is the unedited version of an article that appeared in Reptiles USA 2003 edition volume 8
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Among the eight species of kingsnakes there are many beautiful colors and patterns. Some are solid color, some have spots, some have bands or rings around the body, and some have stripes from head to tail. Many are the coral snake mimics with bright red, yellow (or white) and black bands or rings (often collectively referred to as tri-colors). In captivity, through selection for certain patterns/traits, etc there are many more attractive variations (including albinos) that either don't exist, or are extremely rare in the wild. This great variety of colors and beauty makes the kingsnake as a group, very popular as captives.

So which kingsnake/milksnake should you choose for a pet? There are many things to consider. All kingsnakes can be cared for in captivity relatively easy. So how to choose? To me, attractiveness would be a consideration. If you look at a large number of different species and subspecies of kingsnakes,and one particular snake stands out and you think or exclaim "This is the one I want!" that would be my choice. It is a personal thing, there is no "better" or worse color or pattern on a snake. Many are attracted to the bright red, yellow, and black bands of the "tri-colors", while others might prefer the shiny solid black of a Mexican black kingsnake or the black milksnake.

Some of the kingsnakes are rare, or poorly represented in captivity for a variety of reasons. While adults do fine in captivity, many breeders will not keep and produce species/subspecies that hatch out so small it is difficult to find appropriate sized food items for them. Others might be legally protected in their range, or look too similar to others of the same species. There are approximately 25 subspecies of the milksnake (triangulum) and many of these would be very difficult for a non-herpetologist/scientist to tell apart. There are even disagreements between the scientists as what makes a valid subspecies. So if a breeder/herpetoculturist (reptile rancher!) has two or three similar subspecies well established in his or her collection, it is not likely he or she would go to much trouble, or even want to, to add a rare subspecies that might be difficult to acquire, to their collection of breeders, that couldn't be readily differentiated from some already possessed and offered for sale.

Size certainly is a consideration. Most kingsnakes can be housed in a typical 15-20 gallon aquarium with no problem for life. But some of the larger kingsnakes reach six feet in length and would need larger accommodations as adults. A general rule for size of cage needed for kingsnakes is if the snake crawls around the perimeter (outside) of the cage and covers less than 2/3 the perimeter, the cage is large enough. Be sure to figure on adult size, however, or you will have to buy several cages as the snake grows. Your local reptile store can guide you on adult sizes of the snakes they offer. Some kingsnakes are adult at 18" and may seem too delicate if you are going to handle them often. Most adult kingsnakes are 2.5 to 3.5 feet in length, a very good "handling size".

The price is certainly a consideration. You will not get a better pet just because you paid more money. The price of a snake is determined by the usual supply and demand philosophy of business. If the demand is high and the supply low, the price goes up, etc... Inexpensive snakes can be "cheap" because they are not popular, or because they do so well in captivity that they are commonly reproduced in captivity. Be sure you investigate before you buy, you don't want an inexpensive snake that does not do well in captivity. With kingsnakes they are all reasonably popular, so price is determined by supply. Some of the previously rare forms sold for over $2500 when first "discovered" but have done so well in captivity they are now commonly offered for a much more reasonable price.

Some of the kingsnakes are secretive and are often hidden from sight. If you want to see your snake proudly displayed in its new tank in the living room, a snake that continually hides under the substrate or cage furnishings may not be the best choice. Of course you could reduce the amount of subsirate and have few cage furnishings to expose your snake, but some individuals of the shy burrowing kingsnakes may not do well if not allowed to hide. With regular gentle handling kingsnakes will usually get "used to you" and accept regular visits with the new owner. However, at first you have to assume the snake looks at you as a giant predator about to eat it, and may resort to any of several defenses, including holding its ground and striking at you. Some bluff with this strike, others will actually bite if given the chance. They may defecate on you or exude a foul smelling fluid from their scent glands, or they may hold perfectly still, then make a sudden dash for freedom. All snakes can do these defensive actions to some degree, but fortunately kingsnakes usually (there are always exceptions) calm down and accept their captors as non predators and soon give up trying to discourage their owners from handling them. There is an old trick the Cobra handlers used when they had a particularly stubborn snake. They would take a recently worn item of clothing (such as a shirt) and place it in the cage with the nervous snake. Soon the snake would be hiding under the shirt, etc, and would accept the odor of the shirt wearer as security. Then the snake would not react to the handler defensively (a good thing when handling a deadly cobra!), but would hood at the approach of a stranger, which is what they wanted for their "show". The sex of your selection for a pet does not seem to matter. Both sexes accept captivity about the same, and both sexes grow to similar size as adults. There is no obvious sexual dimorphism in kingsnakes (externally the colors are the same, you can't tell male from female by the colors as you can in some birds).

So what about substrate and furnishings for "our" new snake cage? Is there one that is far superior to the others? Not really! You will want to avoid any chemically treated substances (such as most cat liters), and any wood products with natural oils that could be offensive (such as cedar and redwood chips). If you have a large snake you will want to avoid very fine materials (fine sand, sawdust, etc.) that might work its way up under the large stomach scales (scutes) used for locomotion and irritate the skin. For most of my sub-adult snakes I use kiln dried, reduced dust, pine shavings. The snakes can burrow and hide beneath it, and the security seems to promote the first feeding response a little sooner in recent hatched than if I keep them on paper flooring. However, once established and feeding regularly, they can be kept on paper if that is the owners preference. Once the snake out grows the smaller "raising containers" I move them to the larger breeding cages where my substrate is #16 silica sand or calci-sand of approximately the same size grain. Before using either, or during my periodic sanitizing of the cages and furnishings, I sift the sand substrate then thoroughly rinse the sand until the rinse water looks clean. This removes most dust and contaminants. Then I soak the sand for 24 hours in a strong bleach solution and again rinse until the water looks clean. Then I sun dry the sand and put it in the cages. With some of my larger kingsnakes I use/have used various pine and aspen products with no problems. Many will tell you sand or wood chips can be swallowed during feeding and cause internal problems. I have raised thousands of snakes, and to my knowledge, have never had a problem resulting from swallowing of substrate (the 200 pound python that swallowed its blanket with a rabbit doesn't count!), but it has happened to others. If this possibility concerns you, it is very easy to get an appropriate sized "feeding container" such as a plastic ice cream container with lid. Cut a hole in the lid, place the food item inside, and the snake will crawl inside and consume the meal on a nice clean substrate without the possibility of it ingesting any harmful substrate from the cage.

Cage furnishings can be as simple as nothing, or elaborate as you would care to make it. You can use rocks, driftwood, shells, or even potted plants. If using potted plants, be sure the watering of same doesn't cause the interior of the cage to become too moist. Remember, if you have hollow logs or tree branches filling the cage it may be difficult to extract your snake when you want to handle it. Whatever furnishings you use, if they are heavy, they need to be directly touching the floor of the cage, and not set on top of a depth of substrate. Kingsnakes are escape artists and will be burrowing and pushing, testing every spot in the cage for an escape route. There have been fatalities when a snake excavated the substrate out from under a heavy cage furnishing, and had it come down on the snake and kill it. Be safe! I have often heard it said snakes should always have a clean water supply. Not necessarily a bad idea, but lets be realistic. Many snakes live in very dry areas where a drink of water is a seldom present luxury. On the other hand, even in the desert, a snake can go down a burrow under some vegetation and have a higher moisture content in the air than we want in our cages. Snakes do not need water every day, but as long as the evaporation doesn't get the inside of your cage too moist, it is ok to have the water always available. You will want a water bowl large enough that you can add water to a level that when the snake crawls inside to soak, it will not over flow the water from the bowl into your substrate. If you live in areas of high humidity or the cage gets wet, either clean it out, or remove the water bowl for a few days to let it dry out. If, in most areas, kingsnakes are given water once a week they do fine, but if you choose not to have it present at all times, be sure they drink when offered. All snakes, including our kingsnakes, are "cold blooded" and rely on external sources of heat to get their body temperatures to the desired levels. These levels vary at times, so what I have found to be a very good way to accomplish what they want is to use sub floor heat on one end of the cage. A good reptile shop will have several heating devices available for various sized cages. I like to see one end of the cage be 85-90F with the cooler end about a 75 ambient temperature. Having the heat "sub floor" allows the snake to sit on the heat source, as they would on warm ground,rocks, etc... in the wild. Watch your snake, if it is always on the cool end, reduce the hot end temperature. If your snake freely moves back and forth, it is telling you you have done well. Avoid "hot rocks", many have hot spots and the snake can't warm up evenly. If I could not manage the preferred temperature variances, I would set the overall cage temperatures to 82-85 degreesF. It is difficult to go into exact details about temperature and humidity controls. Someone living in a dry desert environment will face a different set of challenges balancing things than someone living in a humid swamp environment. Again I would suggest you discuss these issues with your local reptile supply store personnel. Fortunately kingsnakes live in almost all environments and can adapt well to a variety of external conditions. If you are going to use "hiding places" put one on each end of the cage. A snake may want to be out of sight and warm, especially after feeding, but if the only "hide" is at the cool end it may select cooler than needed for proper digestion over warm and exposed.

For a variety of reasons it is thought to be best to buy captive produced animals. There is the "ethical" argument that we should not take animals from the wild and deplete natural resources. When you consider snakes are not top predators, and many are killed on our roads, by house cats, all sorts of natural predators, and worst of all, habitat destruction by man, that argument has a lot of holes. All captive snake populations originated from wild stock, and it is a good idea to have a mechanism in place to get new blood lines into our captive populations. Of course we don't want to see entire wild populations wiped out to supply the pet trade, but in most cases a "sustainable harvest" from the wild is acceptable. And being able to see wildlife in its natural environment is the real meaning of enjoying nature. But having said all that, many snakes from the wild will not easily acclimate to captivity, may be carrying parasites, may be old, etc. If you buy captive produced from a reputable source, your snake will be parasite free, acclimated to captivity, and feeding well on some readily available food item. Most importantly you can get all the information you need about your purchase, how to care for it, what it has been eating, etc., from your supplier. You are much more likely to have a "happy experience" with a captive produced snake.

So now you have combed the shops and private breeders in your area and looked at hundreds of pictures on the internet and have made a selection/purchase. What now? Prior to taking delivery you have purchased or constructed a proper cage and have the heat installed and tested to be sure it meets requirements. Many breeders and retail shops keep records on their animals. Ask for them. You will want to see what your snake has been eating, how often, its age and any other details that might be recorded. If the shop or breeder doesn't have records, the snake could still be a perfectly good animal, but it should raise an eyebrow to the possibility that your selection isn't doing that well! How can one remember what one animal out of 50 is doing without records? Ask to see it feed. If it eats in front of you, it probably is OK, records or no records. When you take delivery of your snake you should realize the snake is now "dumped" into completely unfamiliar surroundings. It recognizes nothing from its prior "home range". One snake per cage, until your snake "settles" in. If you are going to get more than one snake, even after acclimation time, it is not a good idea to mix species, or even subspecies. Babies should be kept separate from all others until they approach maturity. It is almost like baby snakes are stupid and "taste the world" until they grow some and settle into their feeding habits. I have had "accidents" where babies of non cannibalistic snakes have eaten each other, for no apparent reason. Put your new snake in its cage and let it "settle in" for 4 days to a week. Avoid the temptation to handle it. After this time period get a small sized food item and place it in the cage or feeding container and leave it alone. Many snakes feed better at night, you might have to leave it with food overnight. Hopefully, your snake will feed. If it doesn't you might want to see if it is getting ready to shed. Often a snake will not eat close to a shed. The just eaten meal should have left a very small lump visible externally in your snake. Don't handle the snake until this lump digests down to where you no longer see it. In the wild, when a snake eats a large meal, it is very slow and vulnerable to its predators. One of the first things it will do if attacked is to regurgitate the meal so it can again be quick and escape. Unfortunately they carry this response into captivity, so you don't want to upset a snake with a lump! As time goes on and you both become more familiar with each other, you will be able to handle your snake gently, even after a meal.

Most kingsnakes captive produced will be eating mice. A baby kingsnake should eat baby (pinky) mice. As the snake grows, gradually increase the size of the mouse meal so you always see that visible lump in the snake. Most kingsnakes will eat well thawed frozen mice, which makes your purchasing food items a little easier and cleaner. Remember if you store extra mice in the family freezer, other family members or guests may not appreciate finding dead mice next to the frozen burgers! Some snakes will insist on living prey. Baby mice are defenseless and can't hurt your snake, but once a mouse or rat reaches the size where it can bite and hurt you, there is a risk it could bite and hurt or kill your snake. When a rodent reaches this size, it is a good idea to "stun" it before putting it in with the snake. This way the rodent is still warm and quivering, so the snake will be attracted to the movement, but can't hurt the snake. We feed hundreds of snakes a week so we use a quick method to stun I call the "deceleration method" I throw them at the floor and the sudden stop kills them (please, no tree hugger calls! Man sells poisons that cause rodents to bleed to death internally, or get stuck in sticky stuff and starve to death over several days. Mine die as they strike the floor, so go call someone else!). If a bit squeamish you can put them (it) in a paper bag and hit the bag on a hard flat surface. We feed adults once a week, and babies we want to grow fast, twice a week, just enough for that lump to show. Usually we get a baby snake to adult size in 2-3 years. Some of our kingsnakes have lived and bred over 20 years, but the average is 10-15 years. Snakes, as with humans, utilize food at different levels of efficiency. If your snake is growing proportional, feed it all you want, but avoid obesity. If the scales are always stretched as where that feeding lump it, slow down on the feeding rate. Some kingsnakes will require lizards to start them feeding. If you buy captive hatched, established on pinkies, you will not need to know the "tricks" to switch them to mice. It can be a lengthy procedure, or even impossible to get some snakes to switch from lizards to mice, and if you feed lizards there is a good chance you will also introduce parasites. Buy captive hatched mouse eaters!

As a snake grows it will periodically shed (slough) its skin. The snake should shed the skin all in one piece. If it starts the shed process and the skin tears, you might have to help it complete its task. This is critical with baby snakes! If a major portion of the old skin is allowed to dry on the snake, it will die. When a snake is preparing to shed its eyes become opaque (cloudy, gray looking) and you can not see the pupil. This is caused by a fluid secretion lifting and separating the outer layer of skin from the middle layer. When this has been completed (usually a few days at normal warm temperatures) the skin will clear up and you might wonder what happened to the skin. Within a few days after clearing up, the snake will rub on the interior of the cage and loosen the skin on both the upper and lower jaw. Then it will continue to push until the skin rolls back over the body and turns inside out as the snake crawls out of it. Finally the tail will pull loose, leaving the tail of the shed skin pointing in the direction the snake went. You will want to examine the skin to make sure it is complete, especially that the clear covers over the eyes came off with the skin. If they did not, seek experienced personnel to help you remove them. If your snake doesn't complete the shed, or you think you missed the shed and the snake looks dry and wrinkled you should get a ventilated water proof container, fill to half the thickness of the snakes body,and put the snake inside, put the lid on, and put it in a warm cage for 24 hours. Often the snake will shed itself with this help, or the skin will be softened enough where you can easily remove it. Remember snakes in the wild can go down a moist burrow during this time to help with shedding, but if we keep our cages that moist all the time they will get skin diseases. Shedding is a function of growth and most snakes will not need your assistance. Fast growing baby snakes may shed monthly, but will slow down to 3-4 times a year as adults. Shed time is a good time to examine the shed skin for external parasites. Your captive produced snake should be parasite free, but mites are like fleas on a snake, and can be seen as black or dark sand grain sized spots around the eye caps. If watched closely, these spots will walk away. In some areas wild snakes have mites and once in a while these mites can find their way in from the outside and feed on your snake. In the wild they don't cause too much of a problem because when the snake sheds it leaves most of the mites behind with the shed skin, but in a cage they just climb back on and can easily over populate and become a health problem for your snake. If you see any, seek experienced help, they can be controlled.

If you decide to keep a colony of adult kingsnakes in one cage, only have one male in each group or they can combat and either injure each other, or the loser will be intimidated and will not eat and will do poorly. Kingsnakes are famous for being cannibals, but I keep groups of four to six together year round and have had only one problem in 30 years. One of my female California banded kingsnakes insisted she would eat this certain male if caged together. She would mix well with any other male or female, and he with any other females. I was never able to explain this, but it reaffirms the old adage, "There are always exceptions to the rules".

The common or banded kingsnakes (getula) are the ones most likely to eat other snakes, but all kingsnakes are capable of it. It is very important to isolate each kingsnake for feeding, then wait a while before putting it back in the group. If a hungry kingsnake smells food and something moves, or they both go after the same food item, that is where your accidents happen.

Many kingsnakes will feed year round, but many are from areas where the winter season is cold. Often a juvenile snake will feed the first entire year, but will go "off food" when the second winter approaches. It seems like a biological clock is inside the snakes head as a young adult, and it says "In the wild it is too cold to eat, that is natural, so I won't". The winter cooling period seems to be necessary in captivity to get many of the kingsnakes to reproduce. Breeding is beyond the scope of this article, but with kingsnakes it is relatively simple and can be rewarding. Again seek an experienced source if you want to pursue breeding. If all else seems normal and your snake(s) become reluctant feeders, or refuse altogether at the approach of winter, let them digest any recent meal for two weeks, then shut off the heat and let temperatures drop to the mid 50's until Spring when you can heat them back up and resume feeding. If they are in good condition they will "winter over" or brumate with no problem. Check on them every two weeks or so, make sure they have water, etc. Everything will be in "slow motion" at this time. They will move slow, and the shed process can take over a month.

I really like to push the idea of keeping records on your snakes. you only have a few, and you don't have any problems, it can seem like a waste of time. But go to a reptile show someday (Dates and locations can be found in reptiles magazines or the internet) and look at a table with 100 baby snakes on it. Do you think that person can remember who the parents were or what and when it last ate, on each snake? If for some reason you need the services of a reptile veterinarian for your snake, the dates of last meals, sheds, and weight loss or gains can be important in helping to solve the problem. You may see behavior or feeding patterns. For the most part, if you meet the basic husbandry needs of your kingsnake, it will be a trouble free enjoyable pet. Do enjoy your "connection with nature".

References:

Applegate, Robert "The General Care and maintenance of Milksnakes"
WWW.applegatereptiles.com
Advanced Vivarium series, 1992
Gotch, A.F. "Reptiles - Their latin Names Explained" Blanford Press 1986
Markel, Ronald G "Kingsnakes and Milksnakes" TFH 1990