Kingsnakes, Eater of the damned?
Kingsnakes make great first pets, brightly colorful, easy to handle, and of course they’re fun to watch. While there are several good care sheets out there (Reptiles Magazine California Kingsnake Care ), (The King Snake.co.uk) , here are a few tips to helping you and your pet have a long wonderful time together.
Kingsnakes are found all over the United States (this graph per Herpedia regarding the Common Kingsnakeshows the conservation status of the common kingsnake). They stay relatively small, averaging 3-5 feet, and come in so many patterns and colors, they are truly unique! Kingsnakes are diurnal, which means active during the day. So as you go about your work around the house, they are wandering around their cage.
A typical Kingsnake, can be maintained in a twenty gallon enclosure. I usually recommend for a female, the cage be a little bigger, what you would like is that two sides of the cage to be as long as your snake. So a five foot female, can easily be kept in a thirty to forty gallon tank. They will use the space provided, and the more space, the more exercise they will get, the healthier they will be.
Substrate is relatively easy, I recommend using cypress mulch. There are many substrates that can work just fine, aspen, pine, shredded newspaper, organic topsoil, etc. Here is why I use cypress if I can get it.
Cypress holds humidity really well, it doesn’t have the dust that pine does, it doesn’t mold like aspen, so it helps with shedding. The next best thing is organic topsoil, there will be no pesticides or chemicals in the soil. For all my substrate, I fill a gallon freezer bag with substrate, and place it in the freezer for 24-48 hours, this should kill off all the “bugs” that might be residing in the substrate.
One big issue I have seen is overheating. Kingsnakes like it 75-85, but being a native species, a little colder, or a little hotter, does no harm. Most of us keep our houses, well within the tolerances of Kingsnakes (66-70 in the winter, 78-82 summer), so for most Kingsnake owners, it is better to have no external heat sources. During the winter, after feeding, I turn on a 40 watt ceramic heater, above their basking area, for a couple of hours a day. Just to aid in digestion, if I use any lights other than that, it is to provide a day/night cycle, so I use a compact fluorescent UVB bulb, it provides the light, but no real heat.
I would not like you to come home and find your baby kingsnake dead in the cage. This can happen from overheating them, (you buy what the pet store tells you is needed), an undertank heater, a heat bulb from the top, and while the little temperature strip on the side of the cage reads 85 degrees, where the poor snake was hanging out can be over 100 degrees! The water in the shallow dish will soon be evaporated, and the poor snake can die.
Feeding is either the most fun part, or the worse part of owning a pet snake. Most snakes however, will readily adapt to eating pre-killed food. A baby kingsnake, may take a while though to get to convert, but a newborn pinkie mouse cannot hurt your snake, so until they grow up a little, it is not a reason to worry.
The biggest concern while feeding, is making sure you don’t leave your prey items unsupervised, a live mouse will chew on everything to see if it’s edible and your snake is edible to a mouse. If your snake doesn’t eat it right away, you could come back to a snake suffering from bite makes all down its spine. Read more about Feeding Live here State of Prey
One option that makes kingsnakes so attractive is all the color morphs (color patterns), they can exhibit. There are hundreds of varieties of either color, or pattern that make these small snakes, such a neat first pet. They can be banded, striped, speckled, black, white, and red coloration and almost every variation of these you can think of.
Biting the Hand the that Feeds
One big issue with kingsnakes can be biting. In the wild, kingsnakes hunt by sight and smell, there are some that can be quite nippy, thinking your finger is a nice rat pup. I use only unscented soaps, never hand sanitizer, for some reason the smell of Purell hand sanitizer seems to draw a strike. I talk to the workers at some of the major chain pet stores about this all the time. (PetSmart for example, has sanitizer by the cages, and company policy is to use before and after handling the reptiles) and they always ask me why the snakes bite them and not me.
Another issue to be careful with is housing them singly. In the wild, kingsnake’s prey on an assortment of animals, rats, mice, snakes, lizards, frogs, birds, just about anything, even rattlesnakes! In the wild, they are immune to the venom of the snakes in their area, but that doesn’t mean they like to get stabbed by 2 fangs, so they have a fairly fast strike. And if you have 2 kingsnakes housed together, you could easily come home from work and only have 1 in the cage. (Here is a link to Youtube video of a King snake hunting & Eating a rattlesnake, via Discovery Channel
One of the kingsnakes methods of deterrent is to “musk”, which is basically empty their lower intestines on you. This smells terrible, and is very hard to wash off. This is harmless to you, and if you have a baby, or especially a wild caught specimen, this is something you have to just deal with till they get used to being handled. Some settle down quickly, some you might have to deal with this their whole lives.
Overall, Kingsnakes can make great pets, especially with captive bred/captive born animals. In this day and age, there is no real reason to go out and bring one home from the wild, “Catch (a pic) & Release” is the way to go with all our native animals!