Snakes are cold-blooded, or ectothermic, animals. Because reptiles are unable to regulate their own body temperature, they need to draw heat from their living environment. So, a snake’s tank needs an external heat source, such as a heated pad, bulb, or rock. However, there are real safety concerns about the use of heat rocks in a snake’s enclosure.
A hot rock does provide a source of heat, allowing your snake to bask. However, heat rocks also concentrate all of this heat on one area of the body. A snake may lie on this rock for hours as the rest of its vivarium is much cooler. This leaves the snake at risk of burning its belly, as well as negatively affecting its delicate digestive process.
Fortunately, there are much safer, more consistent vivarium heating options available, which you can find out about in our guide to heating pads for snakes. This is the best way to heat a snake’s habitat. Here, we’ll look more closely at the suitability of heat rocks for pet snakes.
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What is the Purpose of a Heat Rock?
A heat rock is novelty decor for a snake’s vivarium. It seeks to replicate what a snake would find in its natural habitat. By sitting on the rock, it also provides a valuable source of warmth when the snake is feeling cold.
Most snakes have rocks in their habitats, so pet stores will sell heated rocks based on this decorative theme. They can be plugged into a power source, and will generate an intense source of heat for your pet snake.
Are Heat Rocks Safe for a Snake?
The intense warmth that comes from a heat rock focuses on one part of the snake’s body, namely its stomach. Heat rocks can get very hot indeed, and there’s no ‘buffer’ between the heat rock and the snake’s belly.
Unlike humans, a snake’s nervous system doesn’t detect pain quickly. So, the snake will continue to rest on the heat rock, even though its underside may be getting severely burnt or injured. It’s after the event that the snake will start to experience the discomfort that comes from these burns.
Inevitably, some products aren’t as well manufactured as others. Consequently, some heat rocks have ‘hot spots’ or will just malfunction. A hot spot is a small area of the rock that is significantly hotter.
If you insist on using a heat rock to keep your snake warm, a higher-end product is absolutely essential. You can now buy heat rocks that have built-in thermostats, and are less likely to be subject to temperature volatility. When the heat rock overheats, it ‘should’ automatically shut off.
However, temperature variations between models are considerable, and it’s likely that even the same products provide different levels of heating.
What’s the Best Way to Heat a Snake Tank?
Hot rocks were once very popular in the early days of pet snakes. As snakes have become more common as pets, safer methods of heating the snake’s habitat have been devised. Here are some of the alternative options:
Heat lamps provide a direct heat source from above your snake. Your snake will need different levels of light between night and day. You will need a bulb that adapts accordingly, or two bulbs that you can interchange.
Under Tank Heating
You could warm a vivarium from below. Under-tank heating will warm your snake’s belly, aiding its digestion.
Infrared Heat Bulbs or Panels
These provide heat according to the sun’s natural light cycle, but no light. They can be used all day and will not have to be switched off at night.
Just be warned that they can also get very hot. You will need to ensure that your snake cannot touch them directly.
This is a good solution for extensive habitats, or multiple vivariums placed side-by-side. It must be installed by an electrician as heat tape will keep rising in temperature if not managed correctly.
How Can I Tell if My Snake is Too Hot?
Snakes are unable to sweat or pant, so they struggle to cool off. If a snake starts to overheat, it could be fatal. Even if the snake does not die, it could suffer from neurological damage. There are many behaviors that your snake may exhibit if it is too hot. These are as follows:
- Slithering around the cage with its mouth open (gaping)
- Laying on its back and staring at the sky. This type of behavior is referred to as ‘stargazing’
- Hiding in the cool end of the enclosure or hiding box
- Clambering into its water bowl and staying there to cool off
- Erratic behavior and movement. This could involve your snake being clumsier than usual, or displaying uncharacteristic aggression
- Trying to eat its tail due to disorientation and a false sense of hunger
- Red marks and blisters on your snake’s belly due to burns
If you notice these behaviors in your snake, check the temperature in its vivarium. Your snake is likely experiencing stress and physical discomfort.
What Should I Do if My Snake Has Overheated?
If your snake is overheating, remove the heat rock immediately. Make sure that you handle your snake delicately as its underside is likely to be badly injured. Do the following:
- Call your vet. Get any burns treated by a veterinarian to prevent painful bacterial infections, such as scale rot, from developing
- While waiting for an appointment, allow your snake to submerge itself or swim in clean, cool (not cold) water
- Make sure that your snake’s enclosure is kept clean during recovery
Heat rocks are a good option for lizards, but not snakes. Your snake is highly likely to sustain burns. Common signs that a heat rock has burnt your snake include redness of the stomach and scales coming away. There are far more reliable ways to ensure that your pet snake stays warm.