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Snakes - Owning

General Information

There are approximately 2,500 of different species of snakes. Several species of snakes are commonly kept as pets. These include king snakes, rat snakes, garter snakes, corn snakes, various pythons (particularly the lovely Royal Ball Python) and various boa constrictors (especially the common Boa constrictor). The needs of one particular species may differ from the needs of another, so be sure to discuss any particulars with a knowledgeable herpetologist (someone who studies reptiles and amphibians) and a veterinarian familiar with reptiles. The ball python will be used for this discussion, as it is one of the most common. Most of the information concerning the ball python is applicable to other terrestrial snake species.

Most snakes sold as pets are easy to handle and are usually non-aggressive. Although certain species of snakes that are kept by the serious reptile collector have a naturally aggressive nature, these species tend not to show up in the general pet trade.

Some snakes, especially the ball python, may not eat for weeks to months after the stress of going to a new home and new environment. This can be normal or can be a sign of a more serious problem that requires prompt veterinary attention.

"Some snakes, especially the ball python, may not eat for weeks to months after the stress of going to a new home and new environment."

Ideally, captive-bred animals should be purchased as pets. Wild caught snakes are less tolerant of stress, more likely to refuse to feed and often harbor higher numbers of internal and external parasites.

Male and female snakes look identical. Your veterinarian can carefully probe the cloacal area to determine the sex of your new pet.

Hatchling ball pythons are about a foot long and grow to about 3 feet by 3 years of age. At maturity (reached in 3-5 years), adults reach 5-6 feet in length. Depending upon their care, ball pythons can live 10-20 years.


How do snakes differ anatomically from other pets?

  • The snake's skin is covered in leathery scales. Contrary to popular misconception, the skin is smooth, oftenshiny and is dry to the touch. Snakes are NOT slimy. The temperature of the skin reflects the surroundingenvironmental temperature, and this cold temperature makes it feel wet.

  • Snakes have spectacles instead of eyelids and their eyes are open all the time.
  • Snakes shed their skin from time to time as they grow. In a healthy snake, in a healthy environment, the old skin usually comes off in one piece. If it does not, then seek the advice of your veterinarian.
  • Snakes, like all reptiles, are ectotherms (they are dependent on external or environmental sources of heat to maintain their own body heat)
  • Most snakes have only one functional, simple lung (usually the right lung; the other lung is reduced in size or completely absent); boas and pythons are the exception to this, with two lungs. Snakes do not have a diaphragm; they use the muscles of the ribs and body wall to pump air in and out of the lungs. The lung can occupy much of the snake's body between the heart and the hind end. The lung of most snakes is divided into 2 portions with the front 1/3 - 1/2 being a functional reptile lung and the remainder, being more of an air sac.
  • Snakes swallow their food whole. There are NO vegetarian snakes; all species are carnivores. The diet depends on the species. Some will specifically eat warm blooded prey (rodents, rabbits, birds), while others eat insects, frogs or amphibians, eggs, other reptiles, fish, earthworms, or slugs.

"There are NO vegetarian snakes; all species are carnivores."

  • Snakes have a cloaca, a common collection cavity for the urinary, digestive, and reproductive tracts. The cloaca voids to the outside through the vent found on the underside at the base of the tail. They defecate, urinate and reproduce through the cloaca. By inserting a special probe carefully in the cloacal area, a knowledgeable veterinarian can tell the sex of your snake.
  • Snakes have no limbs but many people feel the 2 spurs that are present, one on each side of the vent of boas and pythons represent vestigial limbs.
  • Snakes have numerous pairs of ribs running the length of their body.
  • Snakes have a three-chambered heart, whereas mammals and birds have four-chambered hearts.
  • Snakes have no diaphragm; this prevents efficient coughing and airway clearance and snakes with simple respiratory infections easily develop pneumonia because of this. Respiratory infections in reptiles are always more serious than similar infections in mammals.
  • Males have two reproductive organs called hemipenes, which are found just inside the vent.


snakes-owning-2How do I select a snake?

Most owners buy snakes locally from a pet store although mail ordering from reptile breeders is also common. If you buy a pet through the mail, be careful and make sure you know what you're getting! It is best to see the animal you are purchasing before the sale. Ask about a guarantee if the pet isn't what you want. Also ask about a health guarantee.

Young, captive-raised animals make the best pets. Older imported animals are harder to tame, may harbor more internal and external parasites and often suffer from the stress in captivity. Avoid sick-looking animals. Don't try to be a "Good Samaritan." Many sickly-looking snakes are in bad condition or terminally ill. Trying to nurse a sick snake back to health after purchasing it is challenging. For a snake that is already sick, just the stress of a new environment is often enough to kill it.

"While not a sign of illness and in fact suggests that the snake is healthy and growing well, shedding is very stressful to snakes and it would be best to purchase a snake that is not about to shed."

Start out right with a healthy pet. Avoid snakes that appear skinny or bony, have loose skin or sunken eyes, and appear inactive or lethargic. A healthy snake is usually bright, active, and alert. The eyes should be clear. Cloudy eyes may indicate that the snake is about to shed. While not a sign of illness and in fact suggests that the snake is healthy and growing well, shedding is very stressful to snakes and it would be best to purchase a snake that is not about to shed. Examine the snake around the eyes and under the scales for mites, which are tiny black dots that often move. Make sure no lumps or bumps are present and there are no sores or discolorations on the skin. Simply running your hands slowly down the snake's body will allow you to detect any swellings. The vent should be clean and free of wetness or stool stuck to it. If possible, GENTLY open the mouth. There should be a small amount of clear saliva present, and a pink tongue and oral cavity. Mucus that is cloudy or "cottage cheese" in appearance is a sign of mouth rot, as is redness, blood, bruising or pinpoint hemorrhages on the mucus membranes. Always inquire about the guarantee in case the snake is found to be unhealthy.


My snake looks healthy. Does he really need to see a veterinarian?snakes-owning-3

Within 48 hours of your purchase, your snake should be examined by a qualified reptile veterinarian. The visit includes determining the animal's weight, as well as checking for abnormalities such as lumps and bumps or signs of external parasites. The animal is examined for signs of dehydration and malnutrition. The oral cavity is examined for signs of infectious stomatitis (mouth rot). A fecal test is done to check for internal parasites. Many veterinarians consider all snakes (even those bred in captivity) to have intestinal parasites, and recommend routine antiparasitic treatment. No vaccines are required for snakes. Your doctor may recommend blood tests, cultures, or radiographs (X-rays) to check for other diseases

Like all pets, snakes should be examined at least annually, and a fecal examination, looking for parasites, should be part of every examination.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Rick Axelson, DVM

© Copyright 2009 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.