How to Care for Your Milksnake
Milksnakes (Lampropeltis sp.) are a group of small- to medium-sized, terrestrial snakes widespread throughout North America, Central America, and South America as far south as Ecuador. Milksnakes have conquered a wide variety of habitats, from arid habitats to grassland to tropical forest.
Milksnakes can be as small as just 14” or as large as 72”, although most are in the range of 3.5’ long or less. Appearance varies by species/subspecies, but milksnakes typically have some kind of banded pattern in a combination of red/orange + black + yellow/cream. Exceptions include the black milksnake and morphs.
Milksnakes 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.
Milksnakes’ care requirements are generally fairly similar from species to species, however there are essential differences that should be noted. This care sheet should be used only as a general guide, and we strongly recommend doing research on your specific species/subspecies of milksnake for best results.
Milksnakes are very common wild animals in the US, but if you are considering a pet milksnake, please consider adopting one from a rescue or your local classifieds. Never capture wild milksnakes to keep!
How much space do milksnakes need?
The minimum acceptable enclosure size for a pet milksnake depends on how large its species/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
- 5-6’ long — 72”L x 36”W x 24”H
This is just the minimum, so using larger dimensions is beneficial and will happily be used!
Cohabitation (keeping multiple milksnakes in one enclosure) is not recommended, as milksnakes are not a social species, and keeping them together is likely to cause stress. Furthermore, considering that milksnakes are known ophiophages (snake-eaters), cannibalism is a very real danger.
Do milksnakes need UVB?
They can survive without it, but it’s still best practice to provide UVB lighting for optimal health and wellbeing. UVB gives milksnakes 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.
Milksnakes do best with low-strength UVB as part of their enclosure. The best UVB bulbs for milksnakes are:
- Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 5.0
- Arcadia Forest 6%
The UVB bulb should be housed in a reflective fixture by Arcadia or Vivarium Electronics 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 snake 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.
What basking temperatures do milksnakes need?
Like other reptiles, milksnakes are ectotherms, which means that they need a temperature gradient in their enclosure to help them regulate their metabolism and stay healthy.
Milksnakes should have a basking surface temperature between 85-90°F. On the other side of the enclosure, the temperature should be between 70-80°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 milksnake 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.
What humidity levels do milksnakes need?
Milksnakes 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 or substrate. 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. (Note, certain substrates, like aspen, are not compatible with water and mold easily.)
What substrate is good for milksnakes?
Milksnakes require a thick layer of moisture-retentive substrate to cushion their bodies, offer a burrowing medium, 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 milksnakes naturally live on in the wild: soil. It should have small particles and hold moisture well. We recommend the following substrates for milksnakes:
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.
What decor can you use in a milksnake 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 milksnake to climb on, as well as some live or artificial foliage to provide cover. Additional options include:
What do milksnakes eat?
Like other snakes, milksnakes 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:
- Juveniles should be fed once every 5-7 days.
- Adults should be fed once every 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 milksnake’s diet.
Milksnakes 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.
Your milksnake 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.
Do milksnakes like to be handled?
Few reptiles actually “like” to be held, but milksnakes generally tolerate handling well. Note, however, that they can be particularly squirmy as juveniles, and are prone to musking when they feel threatened. Be gentle, and pick up the snake from below rather than from above. Support as much of its body as possible, let it slither around, and NEVER pick up a snake by its tail!
*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 this species.