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The Proper Care of Snakes

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[Unfortunately this is the only care sheet now. In the near future more care sheets will be added.]

Genus Lampropeltis (Kingsnakes and Milksnakes) Care

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One of the reasons that kingsnakes and milksnakes (they are under the same genus) are so popular is that they are easy to care for, and many people consider them very beautiful (many have bright or contrasting colors). Here I will explain how to care for kingsnakes and milksnakes.

Size and Lifespan

The size of kingsnakes and milksnakes varies widely, as their range is huge, and there are many different species and subspecies. At the small end are some subspecies of milksnake with some as little as 20 inches in length, and at the other end of the spectrum, some subspecies of Common Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) and some milksnakes (that is, Honduran Milksnake, Ecuadorian Milksnake) can reach a length of six feet or more. The record length for any species in the genus Lampropeltis is an Eastern Chain Kingsnake that was 82 inches long. Most species of Lampropeltis are between 30 and 42 inches long. In captivity, when kept well, they can live up to 10 or 15 years. The record is a Common Kingsnake that lived to 23 years of age!


Geographical Distribution

The genus Lampropeltis has a huge range; they range throughout the United States, although they don't usually live in the northern, colder, regions. They also extend all the way from Mexico to Ecuador in South America.


How and Where to Buy a Snake

You can get kingsnakes and milksnakes from pet stores, commercial breeders and dealers, and private breeders. I would not recommend getting your serpent from a pet store because it is usually much more expensive and sometimes they aren't knowledge-able and keep the snakes in bad conditions; however, I understand the convenience is hard to beat. You can get snakes from hobby breeders, too. They have very low prices compared to pet stores (a cornsnake for $15 instead of $40) and I haven't met a breeder who isn't enthusiastic about showing a beginner the ropes. The main problem is that it may be hard to find or contact one; a good way is to look in the classifieds or go to a herpetological association in your area. Or you can go to websites such as,  Herp Mall, or  Herp Index, which have listings of a lot of breeders and snake sellers. Finally, there are professional breeders such as The Snake Keeper in which you can choose your snake and have it shipped right to your area. You can find a lot more snake breeders in our Cool Links page. They also keep a good price but unless there is one in your area, you'll have to order-by-mail and that means paying extra for shipping and handling. If you are going to a hobby breeder or a pet store you should actually see the snake for sale and make sure that it's the one you want and is healthy.



Types of Cages

Kingsnakes and milksnakes need an enclosure that gives them shelter, security, and room to move around. There are several types of cages that can be used for them. I will explain some of the more common kinds: first, we have the aquarium; it can be used for kingsnakes and milksnakes provided that there is adequate ventilation. The next type is the plastic storage container; you can buy these at department stores or drugstores. Usually people with a lot of snakes use these ones since they take up little room and are inexpensive; you can find them depending on the size from $1 to $10. There are also enclosures that are made of plastic and plexi-glass which slides out and can be locked with pins. After you have got the enclosure for your snake, you need to make sure that the top is secure so your snake won't get out. There are several ways of acomplishing this: first, for most types of tanks, there is the separate screen top which locks on using clips or screws. The clips are usually secure enough, but the screws may not be sufficient to keep the top down. If you get a top with screws you may want to put some weights (books, bricks, etc.) to keep it down. Another type of screen is made specially to slide in through the side; this is usually very secure. If the lids are not secure, you will have to weigh it down or tape it secure or you can also use rubber bands.

Enclosure Size

Kingsnakes and milksnakes do not need very large cages as they are not as active as some other snakes (racers, garter snakes). You should get a cage at least 1/3 as long as the snake itself. If your snake is:

There are also plastic storage container sizes that are taller but those are unneccesary. Kingsnakes and milksnakes over 5 feet require at least 20 gallon "long" aquariums.


Numerous substrates (floor covering) can be used. The two most simple and economical are newspaper and paper towels. They are fairly absorbent, and they can be changed very easily, coupled with the fact that they cost next to nothing. However, they don't look very nice and they won't let your snake burrow. There are more naturalistic substrates such as bark chips, moss, and "cypress" mulch. They are absorbent and look nice but the problem with these is that they make ideal homes for mites, and make mites very hard to see, whereas with paper towels or newspaper they can be spotted easily. There are also fake substrates such as "astroturf", and various cage liners made for reptiles. Of all the substrates, I favor aspen mulch (also known as aspen bedding), as it is absorbent, easy to clean, and fairly parasite free. In the end, there is no perfect substrate, and any of these substrates is a good choice.


You will have to provide heating for kingsnakes or milksnake throughout most of the year, since the genus Lampropeltis needs a temperature of about 78-90° Farenheit to continue feeding and living normally. All snakes are ectothermic ("cold-blooded") so you will have to heat their enclosure to make sure they stay warm enough (giving them blankets or wool will not help). Incandescent and UV lights are not a good way to go since most kingsnakes and milksnakes are inactive when the lights are on. Heat rocks are also not very good because they usually have no temperature control and may get way too hot (I've seen up to 120° Farenheit!). Probably the best way to heat your serpent's enclosure is to use heat tape or heating pads. The ones specially designed for reptiles can be found in pet shops and general-use heat tape or heat pads may be found in your nearest (or farthest!) hardware or department store. The main thing is to make sure that the tape or pad doesn't burn or melt, and that their temperature doesn't go over 95 degrees.


All snakes need light. It is the natural way to tell between day and night. Most snakes, however, do not need ultraviolet light. The best way to light your kingsnake or milksnake is to give them sunlight through a window (not direct sunlight, though), but you can provide a light for the snake if the room has no windows.

Cage Furniture

Cage furniture such as rocks, logs, and branches make a nice but unneccesary addition to a kingsnake's and milksnake's cage. Water bowls, however, are essential and every snake's cage should have one. For kingsnakes and milksnakes there are two size choices: the small water bowl with enough water to drink, but not big enough for the snake to curl up in, or the big water bowl with plenty of room. If you don't get a large bowl, you can substitute immersing your snake in water by lightly misting it when it is "blue" (before shedding the skin goes dull and the eyes appear bluish). Hideboxes are also essential for your kingsnake or milksnakes well-being; it doesn't have to be fancy as long as the snake can fit inside comfortably and feel secure. Hideboxes with darker colors may do much better than light colors because it lets less light in. There are also naturalistic hideboxes made out of cork bark or rocks which look very nice, and are available at petstores, reptile shows and through mail-order in your favorite (or not) reptile magazine. You can also go the frugal way and cut a hole in a cardboard box or plant pot.



One of the nice things about kingsnakes and milksnakes is that they are generally tame and docile. However, kingsnakes and milksnakes that are wild-caught or are newly hatched may be nervous and aggressive. They can be easily tamed with frequent, but gentle, handling. Take the kingsnake or milksnake out of the cage gently and slowly; if it defecates on you, it is out of fear, so don't take the snake back to its cage right away: Let it calm down, then put it back. If it bites you, you should remove it right away, and put it back in its cage. Kingsnake bites aren't very bad; all you need to do is wash your hands with soap and forget it. Some species or subspecies are noted for being difficult to handle; the speckled kingsnake is a perfect example as wild-caught speckled kings are often aggressive when encountered and even after a while in captivity. However, wild-caught speckled kingsnakes, as with all other snakes, can be tamed with frequent handling. Most species can be held often, but some of the more nervous subspecies or individuals should not be handled as often.



What to Feed Your Kingsnake or Milksnake

Most kingsnakes and milksnakes are fairly easy to feed as they are voracious and will readily eat rodents. Rodents like hamsters and gerbils are more expensive and have a more powerful bite, probably powerful enough to kill your snake. Lizards should only be fed for hatchlings that refuse to take rodents. Birds may be taken but it is more expensive, and sometimes the younger snakes get intestinal impactions. The reason not to feed kingsnakes other snakes is rather obvious: it is really expensive and you're losing a good pet! The main food they should be fed is mice and rats (make sure they are the right size, though).

The Appropiate Size for your Kingsnake or Milksnake's Food.

Kingsnakes and milksnakes can be fed mice and rats up to one-and-a-half times as wide as its own body. Hatchlings should be fed "pinkie mice". Runts may have to be fed mouse tails, pinkie legs or small lizards. The size of the food item will go up as your kingsnake or milksnake grows up: first, "pinkie" mice, then "fuzzie" mice or "pinkie" rats, and so on. Most species of kingsnakes and milksnakes are not big enough to eat small rats, but the bigger subspecies of milksnakes and Common Kingsnake are.

How Often and How Much to Feed Your Kingsnake or Milksnake

Individuals younger than one year should be fed every three to five days and adults should be fed every six to eight days. During pre-shedding time, snakes do not need to eat so don't offer them food. If the mouse or rat is properly sized then you will need about one to three mice or rats per feeding, depending how much your snake needs. Individuals vary when it comes to food. Some are in good shape at about one food item per feeding, whereas others are fine at three per sitting.

Feeding problems

Occasionally kingsnakes and milksnakes will have feeding problems and you will have to see what caused them. Sometimes it is just one of those times where your snake doesn't want to eat for no reason. But usually it is because it is sick, or there is something wrong about the enclosure. If you are keeping it with another snake (kingsnakes and milksnakes shouldn't be housed together), then separate the snake from its cagemate(s). If the temperature is too low or too high, then there is your problem right there. Snakes need the right temperature to be able to digest and thermoregulate. The cage may be too wet or too dry. If the snake is "blue" (pre-shedding) wait until your kingsnake or milksnake has shed, then offer food. Your kingsnake/milksnake may be gravid (pregnant) or in breeding mode. If after one month your kingsnake or milksnake hasn't eaten you should take it to a vet and have it examined. If it is after two months and not ill you should consider force feeding it. If you are interested in techniques for making your snake feed, you should look at another care sheet because this is beyond our scope.


Diseases and Disorders

Special attention to housing, temperature, and care procedures can help your snake be healthy and minimize stress, and any new animals should be quarantined for at least a month (kept away from the other animals and with the minimum of housing supplies). You can find a comprehensive list of websites that have all you need to know about snake diseases and disorders in our Cool Links Page. the following are some of the more common problems: