How to Set Up a Gopher Snake/Bullsnake Enclosure
Are you getting a pet gopher snake or bullsnake? As exotic animals, it’s important that they have an enclosure built to more or less replicate the conditions of their natural habitat. Otherwise, they can’t survive.
If you haven’t read our article “How to Care for Your Gopher Snake” yet, start there. Once you’ve read that and have a basic understanding of what your new pet needs from its environment, you’re ready to start setting up your gopher snake enclosure.
Always set up a reptile enclosure well before you actually have the animal! This gives you more time to save up for the supplies you need, which in turn benefits your pet because you’re less likely to take shortcuts that may decrease its quality of care.
Step 1: Pick the Right Enclosure
Gopher snakes are capable of growing up to 7’ long, depending on subspecies, but most should be able to at least start out in a 48”L x 24”W x 24”H enclosure makes a good starting point. This may end up being appropriate for your snake to live in long-term, or you may need to upgrade to something larger after a few years of growth.
The enclosure can be made of wood, PVC, or plastic, but it should be front-opening, and there should be adequate ventilation, whether in the form of side vents or a mesh top. One benefit of using an enclosure with a mesh top is that it makes it easier to install heat and UVB lamps, while also protecting your snake from coming into direct contact and potentially burning itself.
If the enclosure doesn’t have opaque sides, you will need to cover them with some kind of opaque material to help your pet feel more secure in its environment. This can be as simple as construction paper or picture backdrop, or as elaborate as a 3D background.
Products we recommend:
Step 2: Set Up Lighting and Heating
For a gopher snake, you will need the following equipment to meet your pet’s light and heat needs:
- Heat lamps (at least 2)
- UVB lamp (roughly half the length of the enclosure)
- 6500K lamp (most of the length of the enclosure)
The two heat lamps should be placed directly next to each other on the far right or left of the enclosure. The UVB lamp should be placed on the same end, very close to the heat lamps so the beams of light overlap. Then, place the 6500K on the same side, but because it’s longer than the other lamps, it will extend further along the length of the enclosure. All lamps should be arranged on the enclosure’s mesh top.
Products we recommend:
- Fluker's Mini Sun Dome Lamp, 5.5"
- Zoo Med Repti Tuff Splashproof Halogen Lamp, 50w
- Arcadia T5 HO Forest 12% UVB bulb, 22”
- Arcadia ProT5 Lamp Fixture, 24”
- Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Bar, 34”
Step 3: Quarantine Period
Your gopher snake will need to be quarantined for 3-6 months to make sure that it’s healthy. This involves testing for parasites, administering medication as necessary, and generally monitoring the animal for concerning symptoms. It’s best to maintain fairly minimalistic conditions during this stage for easy cleaning, as having a fully set-up, naturalistic enclosure can make quarantine more of a hassle than it needs to be.
All you need equipment-wise for a quarantine setup is:
- blue shop towels
- basking platform
- caves/hideouts (x2)
- large water dish
- climbing branch
- digital thermometer/hygrometer device (x2)
A large piece of flagstone held up on wood block “stilts” is a good way to make your own basking platform. It’s important to place the basking platform at the right distance below the UVB lamp, as UVB levels get stronger closer to the bulb. It’s ideal to buy or borrow a Solarmeter 6.5 if you can to double-check your basking distance and the UVI that your snake is being exposed to. However, generally speaking, if you’re measuring from your snake’s back to the top of the enclosure:
- Minimum distance over mesh — 15-17”
- Maximum UVI — 2.0-3.0
To make sure your temperature gradient is appropriate, place one digital thermometer/hygrometer so the probe is on the basking platform, under the heat lamps. Put the other on the cool side of the enclosure. Temperatures should be as follows:
- Basking temperature — 85°F
- General air temperature — 70-75°F
If your basking temperature is too high, now is a good time to either reduce the wattage of your heat bulbs or dial down the output with a lamp dimmer. If you need higher basking temperatures, you will need more powerful heat bulbs.
Make sure to also provide a humid hide. The easiest way to do this is by lightly moistening a paper towel and placing it under the cool hide. Replace as needed.
You will also need a good disinfectant to maintain sterile conditions during quarantine. This can be as simple as a bleach solution (¾ cup bleach per gallon of water) or veterinary-grade disinfectants like F10SC and Clean Break.
Products we recommend:
- Paper towels
- Exo Terra Reptile Cave
- Zoo Med Repti Rock Corner Bowl, Large
- Zoo Med Digital Combo Thermometer Humidity Gauge
Step 4: Add Substrate
Once your gopher snake has passed quarantine, you can finish setting up its enclosure. While the first phase of setup was strictly practical, now you can get more creative in designing something that will not only be more functional for the snake to use, but also more attractive to look at. This starts with substrate.
Your best option for gopher snake substrate is going to be a fine-particle naturalistic substrate such as sand or a 60/40 sand/soil mix. You will need at least 2” of substrate, so for a 48”x24”x24” enclosure, count on at least 40 quarts or 1.4 cubic feet of substrate.
For an enclosure with different dimensions, you can calculate the amount of substrate you’ll need by multiplying the length x width to get the number of cubic inches of substrate it will take for 1” deep of substrate. Then multiply that number by the desired depth of substrate, then convert the resulting number to quarts or cubic feet, depending on the metric you need.
Step 5: Add Décor
After you’ve laid down your substrate, replace the hides and water dish. Everything else is going to go around these staple items. This is the time to get creative! Try to more or less replicate the layout of a gopher snake’s natural habitat as you arrange the décor. You can find habitat pictures on sites like iNaturalist and Flickr.
Make sure to keep your water bowl accessible and easy to remove, but leave only a moderate amount of open space, as gopher snakes should have plenty of things in their enclosure to explore and hide in/around.
Well-secured stacks of flat stones make for very functional gopher snake décor. Use cement or silicone to glue them together so they don’t collapse and accidentally crush or injure your pet!
Magnetic ledges offer great lookout points for gopher snakes to survey their surroundings, and encourage climbing. Hammocks can also offer a similar function.
Wood makes a great material for your gopher snake to climb on or hide under, encouraging muscle tone or helping reinforce their sense of security. Mopani wood, cork bark, grape vine, and manzanita wood all work. Whichever you choose, make sure the branches are large enough to support your snake’s size and weight.
To avoid exposing your snake to potentially harmful levels of UVB, branches and ledges should not be installed directly under the UVB lamp.
Plants are a great way to make a gopher snake enclosure more attractive, whether real or fake, and perform the very important role of providing visual obstruction. Note that artificial plants are much more durable than live plants.
Live plants should be kept in pots to help keep the water close to the roots, unless the enclosure is bioactive (which this article is not covering). Use sturdy plants tolerant of moderate light conditions and infrequent watering. They should also be nontoxic if accidentally ingested. Some suitable options include:
- Carex grass
- Elephant bush
- Festuca grass
- Hens and chicks (Echeveria)
- Ice Plant
- Jade plant (Crassula ovata)
- Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia danicolor) (spineless)
For more safe plant ideas, visit The Tortoise Table.
Even after you’ve set up your gopher snake enclosure, don’t be afraid to continue to adjust the layout! Occasionally changing object placement or adding new things can stimulate your pet to explore, and it’s always a good idea to adjust your pet’s enclosure as you continue to learn and understand gopher snake husbandry better.
"Pituophis catenifer sayii (Bullsnake)" by Andrew Hoffman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0