How to Set Up a Milksnake Enclosure
Are you getting a pet milksnake? Milksnakes can make great pets. However, 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 Milksnake” 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 milksnake 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
Milksnakes are highly variable in length. Some don’t get longer than 3’, while others can grow up to 6’ long. The key is to choose an enclosure that is appropriate to the subspecies of milksnake that you have. If you’re not sure what type of milksnake you have or how long it will grow, a 48”L x 24”W x 24”H enclosure generally makes a solid bet.
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 milksnake, 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)
- Heat mat
- On/off thermostat
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.
It’s also best practice to provide a warm hide for milksnakes. This can be as easy as placing a hide box or cave directly under the heat lamps. However, if the heat lamps don’t get the hide to 80-85°F, then you will need a heat mat roughly the same size as the hide under the substrate and an on/off thermostat to keep it at the right temperature. The thermostat probe should be placed inside the warm hide for accuracy.
Products we recommend:
- Fluker's Mini Sun Dome Lamp, 5.5"
- Zoo Med Repti Tuff Splashproof Halogen Lamp, 50w
- Arcadia T5 HO Forest 6% UVB bulb, 22”
- Arcadia ProT5 Lamp Fixture, 24”
- Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Bar, 34”
- Zoo Med ReptiTherm Under Tank Heater (U.T.H.)
- Exo Terra Thermostat, 100w
Step 3: Quarantine Period
Your milksnake 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
- sphagnum moss
- caves/hideouts (x2)
- large water dish
- pressure sprayer
- artificial foliage
- climbing branch
- digital thermometer/hygrometer device (x2)
Make sure the climbing branch can’t bring the milksnake too close to 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:
- Minimum distance over mesh — 9-11”
- Maximum UVI — 2.0-3.0
The climbing branch will be your milksnake’s primary basking surface, so place one digital thermometer/hygrometer so the probe is on the branch, under the heat lamps. Zip ties can be useful for securing the probe in place. Put the other on the cool side of the enclosure. Temperatures should be as follows:
- Basking temperature — 85-90°F
- Warm hide temperature — 80-85°F
- General air temperature — 70-80°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.
This minimalistic setup may need help staying at the right humidity:
- Average humidity: 40-60%
- Cool hide humidity: 60-90%
Use a pressure sprayer to wet down the enclosure as needed, and place a thin layer of moistened sphagnum moss inside the cool hide.
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:
- Blue shop towels
- Galapagos Blond Sphagnum Moss, 150 in³
- Exo Terra Reptile Cave
- Exo Terra Mister
- Zoo Med Repti Rock Corner Bowl, Large
- Exo Terra Ficus Silk Plant, Large
- Galapagos Walking Wood Grapevine Branch Brown 19 In - 24 in
- Zoo Med Digital Combo Thermometer Humidity Gauge
Step 4: Add Substrate
Once your milksnake 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 substrate is going to be a naturalistic substrate that resembles forest soil. It’s best to have 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. It’s a good idea to layer about 1” of leaf litter on top for burrowing.
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.
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Step 5: Add Décor
After you’ve laid down your substrate, replace the hides, climbing branch, 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 milksnake’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 milksnakes prefer to have plenty of things in their enclosure to explore and hide behind.
Magnetic ledges offer great lookout points for milksnakes to survey their surroundings, and encourage climbing. Hammocks also offer a similar function.
Wood makes a great material for your milksnake 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.
Plants are a great way to make a milksnake enclosure more attractive, whether real or fake, and perform the very important role of providing visual obstruction. Live plants help with maintaining your humidity levels, but artificial plants are much more resistant to being trampled.
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 tropical plants tolerant of low light conditions, sturdy enough to withstand occasional trampling, and moderate to high amounts of water. They should also be nontoxic if accidentally ingested. Some suitable options include:
- Wandering Jew
For more safe plant ideas, visit The Tortoise Table.
Even after you’ve set up your milksnake 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 milksnake husbandry better.