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How to Care for Your Kingsnake

How to Care for Your Kingsnake

 

Introduction

Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis sp.) are a group of small- to medium-sized, terrestrial snakes native to North America and some parts of northern South America. Kingsnakes are incredibly diverse (there are ~45 recognized subspecies!), and they have conquered a wide variety of habitats, from tropical and subtropical broadleaf forests to deserts and xeric shrublands. Although they are generally known as terrestrial, they are also skilled climbers and swimmers.

Kingsnakes are typically 3-5’ long, although it varies by subspecies. They generally have robust but slender bodies, with an oval-shaped head. Color and pattern is highly variable depending on subspecies. Some are striped, some are spotted, some colorful, and others are not!

Kingsnakes are among the most commonly-kept pet snakes in the US, due to their hardiness and manageable size. This also makes them a good option for first-time reptile keepers. With good care, they are capable of living 20 years or more.

Enclosure

How much space do kingsnakes need?

The minimum acceptable enclosure size for a pet kingsnake depends on how large its subspecies is capable of growing:

  • 3’ long or less — 36”L x 18”W x 18”H
  • 4-5’ long — 48”L x 24”W x 24”H

This is just the minimum, so using larger dimensions is beneficial and will happily be used!

If you aren’t sure what type of kingsnake you have, or how big it might grow, it’s a good idea to talk to the breeder and ask about the length of your snake’s parents.

Can kingsnakes be kept together?

Cohabitation (keeping multiple kingsnakes in one enclosure) is not recommended, as kingsnakes are not a social species, and keeping them together is likely to cause stress. Furthermore, considering that kingsnakes are known ophiophages (snake-eaters), cannibalism is a very real danger.

Can kingsnakes be kept in tubs?

You may have seen people on YouTube who keep dozens of snakes in plastic tubs on shelves. This may seem convenient, and even the pinnacle of keeping snakes as pets. After all, at first glance, the snakes seem happy and healthy enough. But the fact of the matter is that tubs do not have the features necessary to fulfill the minimum requirements for acceptable welfare, even for a fairly small kingsnake, as tubs are generally lacking in light, temperature gradient, ventilation, and climbing space.

According to the Federation of British Herpetologists: “Outside of these specific uses the FBH does not support the long-term use of rack systems for snakes where the physical movement of the animals is severely restricted.” Kingsnakes kept in tubs long-term are more likely to suffer from muscle weakness, obesity, and related health complaints.

Kingsnake quarantine procedure

Note that it’s best to quarantine your new pet first. Quarantine is the practice of keeping an animal isolated and under sterile conditions in order to reduce the potential spread of disease. 

Even if you don’t have other reptiles that could potentially get infected by anything the kingsnake might be carrying, maintaining quarantine conditions for the first 3-6 months will enable you to more easily monitor for concerning symptoms and more easily treat them as well. You can do this with the enclosure that you plan to keep the snake in long-term, or you can do this with a modified tub. As long as it is set up appropriately, a tub can make appropriate short-term quarantine housing.

Some rules for successful kingsnake quarantine:

  • Keep the snake in a separate room from other reptiles.
  • Do not use the same equipment for the new snake as for your other reptiles.
  • Fully disinfect the enclosure weekly.
  • Get the snake checked by an experienced reptile veterinarian and treated for parasites if needed.
  • Observe and/or test for symptoms of disease or illness.

A snake should be completely healthy before being transferred out of quarantine to its long-term setup.

Lighting

Do kingsnakes need UVB?

They can survive without it, but it’s still best practice to provide UVB lighting for optimal health and wellbeing. UVB gives kingsnakes all of the vitamin D that their bodies need, stimulates better appetite and activity, and generally allows them to be healthier than they would be without.

Kingsnakes do best with low-strength UVB as part of their enclosure. The best UVB bulbs for kingsnakes housed in a 48” x 24” x 24” enclosure are:

The UVB bulb should be housed in a reflective fixture and placed close to the heat lamp, about 9-11” above the basking area if over mesh, and 12-14” above the basking area if not. UVB is blocked by glass and plastic, so you can’t give your kingsnake UVB by placing its terrarium in front of an open window. Also make sure that the fixture your UVB bulb is in does not have a clear plastic bulb cover.

Lights should be on for 12 hours/day.

How to measure UVB for a kingsnake

UVB strength is measured by UV Index, or UVI. This is most accurately done with a device called a Solarmeter 6.5. When you hold the Solarmeter vertically on the basking area at the height of the snake’s back, the device should read between 2.0-3.0.

Factors such as the density of the mesh over your enclosure and the exact fixture you’re using can affect exactly what basking distance is needed to achieve the right UVI.

Heating

What basking temperatures do kingsnakes need?

Like other reptiles, kingsnakes are ectotherms, which means that they need a temperature gradient in their enclosure to help them regulate their metabolism and stay healthy.

Kingsnakes should have a basking surface temperature between 90-95°F. On the other side of the enclosure, the temperature should be between 75-80°F. Surface temperatures can be measured with an infrared thermometer, but air temperatures should be measured with a digital probe thermometer.

Provide heat for your kingsnake by imitating the sun with two halogen heat lamps placed close together one side of the enclosure, positioned over a sturdy basking branch or warm hide. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective.

If the heat lamp is not enough to get the warm hide to an appropriate temperature, use a heat mat connected to a thermostat to control the warm hide temperature.

Heat lamps vs heat mats

Heat mats have been historically the most popular method of providing warmth to snakes, and they can work as a primary heat source in undersized enclosures. However, the fact of the matter is that they often fail to warm the air in appropriately large and well-ventilated enclosures, increasing the risk of the snake getting burned by excessively prolonged basking. Heat lamps are far more effective at both warming the surfaces beneath them and increasing the air temperature of the enclosure.

This is particularly important to consider with day-active snakes, which are known to bask openly in patches of sunlight. This effect can’t be re-created with a heat mat, but it can be done with a heat lamp.

Other lighting needs for kingsnakes

As a species known to be active during the day, kingsnakes are stimulated by and benefit from bright light in their environment. Heat and UVB lamps are not enough to simulate the brightness of sunlight. In addition to your heat and UVB lamps, it’s best to install a ~6500K LED or T5 HO grow lamp long enough to illuminate most of the enclosure. 

Humidity

What humidity levels do kingsnakes need?

Kingsnakes need an average humidity of 40-60%, as measured by a digital probe hygrometer placed in the middle of the enclosure. There should also be a humid hide for your snake, lined with moistened sphagnum moss. Always having a humid retreat is essential.

Misting your snake’s enclosure with a sprayer first thing in the morning and again at night will help create the right humidity levels. If you need more, moisten the substrate by mixing water into it as needed.

How to make a humid hide

Keeping a humid retreat available for your snake available at all times is important to keeping them well-hydrated. The humid hide in your enclosure will function as a burrow or hollow log would in the wild, offering a cozy, secure spot for your snake to hang out while minimizing the risk of dehydration. It is especially essential for a snake preparing to shed its skin.

Use an enclosed, easily washable container for your humid hide. There are many attractive pre-made options for humid hides, such as the Exo Terra Snake Cave and the Zilla Rock Lair. For a DIY humid hide, try an upside-down plastic storage container with a hole cut out for an entrance. 

This should be lined either with a dampened paper towel or sphagnum moss to create humid conditions inside the hide. Paper towel should be replaced every 1-3 days, and sphagnum moss needs to be changed out every 2-4 weeks.

Substrate

What substrate is good for kingsnakes?

Kingsnakes require a thick layer of moisture-retentive substrate to cushion their bodies and help maintain healthy humidity levels. As an added perk, it also tends to make the enclosure more attractive.

Ideally, this substrate should resemble what kingsnakes naturally live on in the wild: soil. It should have small particles and hold moisture well. We recommend the following substrates for kingsnakes:

Layering clean, chemical-free leaf litter on top of the substrate can also help with humidity.

Substrate should be at least 4” deep and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.

How to clean a kingsnake enclosure

When you replace your snake’s substrate, this is a good opportunity to completely clean out the entire enclosure:

  1. Remove the snake from its enclosure and place inside a temporary, escape-proof holding container. This container should offer a hide, small water bowl, and a thin layer of old substrate from the enclosure for the snake’s comfort.
  2. Remove all substrate and décor.
  3. Vacuum and wipe down the enclosure to remove leftover particles.
  4. Apply a reptile-safe disinfectant to the floor and walls of the enclosure and let sit for the disinfectant’s recommended contact time.
  5. Meanwhile, soak branches, rocks, hides, and other décor in a disinfectant rated for porous materials for the recommended contact time.
  6. If required, rinse the enclosure and the accessories with clean water to remove disinfectant residue. Allow everything to dry.
  7. Pour new substrate into the enclosure. Mix in water until uniformly moistened but not wet.
  8. Arrange décor. If your pet is easily stressed by change, put everything back where it was before.
  9. Reintroduce your snake to the clean setup.

F10SC, CleanBreak, and bleach solution (1:10 dilution) can be used for disinfecting porous materials. The same can be used for nonporous materials, although the concentration of bleach solution should be changed to 1:50.

Can kingsnakes have a bioactive setup?

Yes! 

Bioactive setups can work great with kingsnakes because it can make it easier to maintain appropriate humidity levels, eliminates the need for routine total cleanouts, tends to have a fresh, earthy smell; and is generally very attractive to look at.

On the other hand, bioactive setups can be inconvenient because the vivarium needs at least one month to get established before adding the snake, and CUC critters may occasionally escape the enclosure. Setting up a bioactive enclosure is also usually more expensive than other options, and it’s best practice to partially replace the substrate on a regular basis to help reduce pathogen concentration and keep the soil healthy.

To create a bioactive setup for your kingsnake, you will need all of the usual supplies mentioned in this article, as well as:

  • bioactive-ready temperate substrate mix
  • clean leaf litter and sphagnum moss
  • sturdy live temperate plants that can withstand snake traffic
  • 6500K LED or fluorescent grow lamp, spanning most of the enclosure’s length
  • temperate-tropical CUC (Clean Up Crew) organisms to maintain the soil

If it’s your first time setting up a bioactive vivarium, it’s best to use a commercial bioactive substrate mix, such as Bio Dude or Josh’s Frogs, rather than mixing your own, as this reduces your likelihood of error. Appropriate CUC for a kingsnake vivarium include dwarf white isopods, powder orange/blue isopods, springtails, and superworms.

Décor

What décor can you use in a kingsnake terrarium?

It’s terribly boring for a snake to be stuck in an enclosure with nothing in it except substrate, hides, and a water bowl. It doesn’t matter how big the enclosure is if you don’t put things in it for your pet to use and interact with.

Aside from hiding places, you will also need at least a couple of sturdy branches for your kingsnake to climb on, as well as some live or artificial foliage to provide cover. Additional options include:

What live plants can be used with kingsnakes?

Although kingsnakes are fairly slender, they can still be hard on the live plants in their enclosure. It’s important to choose plants that are large and sturdy enough to withstand occasional trampling and climbing. Here are a few options that work well in a moderately humid, moderately-lit environment:

  • Dracaena 
  • Ficus
  • Peperomia
  • Philodendron
  • Pothos
  • Schefflera
  • Spider plant

Note that larger plants are usually sturdier, which is one argument for using as tall of an enclosure as you can provide.

Are kingsnakes good climbers?

Kingsnakes are excellent climbers! They routinely climb in the wild, and although they are primarily seen on the ground, they can also be found off the ground. The only reason why a pet kingsnake might seem bad at climbing is because it hasn’t had enough opportunity to practice. If you start your snake with plenty of varied climbing opportunities from a young age, it will learn to climb quite skillfully!

If you have an older snake that doesn’t have a lot of experience with climbing, start with low, wide climbing objects that will help increase your pet’s muscle tone while decreasing the risk of falls.

Food

What do kingsnakes eat?

Like other snakes, kingsnakes are carnivores, which means that they need to eat whole animal prey in order to get the nutrition that they need. Here is a basic feeding schedule based on snake age:

  • Hatchlings should be fed once every 5-7 days.
  • Juveniles should be fed once every 7-10 days.
  • Adults should be fed once every 10-14 days.

Prey items should be around 10% of your snake’s weight and no more than 1.5x its width. Although live prey can be used, it’s safest and most humane to use frozen instead. Prey should be thawed in a plastic bag in warm water to approximately 100°F before offering with a pair of soft-tipped tweezers.

Remember, the key to great nutrition is variety! Aside from offering mice and rats, quail, chicks, quail eggs, green anoles, and small snakes can also be used to create nutritional variety in your kingsnake’s diet.

Where do you buy prey for snakes?

Most pet stores sell frozen mice and rats in various sizes for feeding to snakes. However, you can access a greater variety of feeders by buying from reputable prey breeders online. You may also be able to get higher-quality (healthier and more nutritious) prey from these breeders compared to what you would get from the pet store.

Do kingsnakes need dietary supplements?

Kingsnakes can survive without vitamin or mineral supplements, but occasionally using them can help prevent nutritional deficiencies and optimize your snake’s health. We recommend Repashy Calcium Plus LoD or Arcadia EarthPro RevitaliseD3.

How to provide drinking water for your kingsnake

Your kingsnake should have access to clean, fresh water at all times. Provide a water bowl large enough for the snake to soak its entire body if desired. Change the water daily and scrub the bowl with a reptile-safe disinfectant weekly, or whenever it becomes soiled.

Handling

Do kingsnakes like to be handled?

Few reptiles actually “like” to be held, but kingsnakes generally tolerate handling well. Be gentle, and pick up the snake from below rather than from above. Support as much of its body as possible, and NEVER pick up a snake by its tail!

How to tame your kingsnake

Taming your kingsnake means teaching it to trust and feel comfortable around you. This requires consistent positive interactions to build the trust relationship. While a negative experience or two won’t ruin your taming efforts, it can slow them down, so it’s best to be consistent. It’s best to encourage the snake to come out of the enclosure and climb onto you on its own, rather than forcibly grabbing it. Avoid removing it from its hiding places, as hides are supposed to be safe, private places.

Kingsnakes are known for being very enthusiastic about food, so you might be concerned about getting bitten. You can prevent accidental bites by training your snake to tell the difference between food time and handling time. An easy way to do this is by tapping on the front of the enclosure with your fingernails immediately before offering prey, but not when it’s handling time. If you’re still nervous about your pet confusing you for food, use a roll of paper towels to gently tap the snake on the head to distract it.

Target training and stationing training can help increase your snake’s confidence in its environment and trust in you. Snake trainer Lori Torrini’s YouTube channel is very helpful!

Enrichment ideas for kingsnakes

Enrichment is what good zoos use to keep their animals happy, active, and engaged. Some say that snakes are too stupid to benefit from enrichment, but this is false. Snakes, including kingsnakes, can absolutely benefit from enrichment when it is provided in snake-appropriate ways.

Here are some ideas for enrichment activities that your pet is likely to enjoy:

  • Rearrange the enclosure. If total overhauls are too stressful, move one thing every so often at your snake’s pace. For some individuals, that may be once a month, for others they might like once a week.
  • Puzzle feeders. This can be as simple as placing the snake’s prey in an open box or plastic cup.
  • Simulated nest raids. Instead of offering one prey item, place a cluster of much smaller prey (ex: young rodents, quail eggs, etc.) somewhere in the enclosure for the snake to find.
  • Supervised explore time outside of the enclosure. Make sure to keep them away from situations that you can’t get the snake out of.
  • “Box of things”. Introduce your snake to a box or bin full of different items of different sizes and textures.

Health

Signs you need to take your kingsnake to the vet

Veterinary care is an important part of having any pet, including snakes. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, make an appointment with an experienced reptile vet to get them checked out immediately.

  • Noisy breathing
  • Mucus discharge from the mouth/nose
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Large patches of missing scales
  • Discolored belly scales
  • Swelling or bumps anywhere on the body
  • Sudden, unusually aggressive behavior

Resources

This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please do further research with high-quality sources to obtain additional information on caring for your particular subspecies (type) of kingsnake. Here are a few recommendations:

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