California Kingsnakes are a common pet snake. They’re just as popular for their temperament as for the huge number of morphs available. But, like all snakes, you have to know how to take care of a California Kingsnake properly.
They’re docile and unlikely to bite unless you corner them and make them feel threatened. They have a simple temperature and humidity requirements. They live on a basic diet of rodents
Scientific name: Lampropeltis getula californiae, the California Kingsnake doesn’t go by many names. They’re called California Kingsnakes because they’re endemic to the west coast state.
They’re called ‘kingsnakes’ because they’re the king of snakes. They’re known to eat other snakes, including rattlesnakes. Over thousands of years, California Kingsnakes have become partially immune to rattlesnake venom. You might also hear them called ‘Kingsnakes,’ or as ‘Cal kings.’
Where Do California Kingsnakes Live in the Wild?
According to Rosamond Gifford Zoo, the California Kingsnake habitat ranges from California all the way up the west coast. They live in Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, and even Mexico. You won’t see them further east than Arizona.
While they do like to live in more arid desert-type areas, you can find them in marshes, coastal areas, grasslands, and forests. This means that they’re easy to care for as a pet since they aren’t fussy when it comes to temperature and humidity.
Are California Kingsnakes Venomous?
California Kingsnakes aren’t poisonous, and they aren’t venomous either! If you didn’t know, poisonous refers to something that can kill you if you eat it.
Venomous refers to something that has venom and can kill you if it bites you. California Kingsnakes don’t use venom to kill their prey. Instead, they’re constrictors, which means that they squeeze their prey to death.
Here’s how it works. A Kingsnake will be out hunting, searching for prey. They’ll cruise around searching for prey, using their sense of smell to track it down.
When they find it, they’ll try and sneak up on it, and get as close as they can without the prey noticing them. Then they’ll strike, biting down and holding onto whatever they found.
As soon as they have a good hold of their prey, they’ll start to coil around it. Then they’ll squeeze hard enough to make their prey’s heart stop, which might only be a matter of seconds. They aren’t venomous because they don’t need to be.
Are California Kingsnakes Aggressive?
The California Kingsnake is not aggressive, so long as you treat them well and handle them correctly.
Snakes aren’t domesticated. They don’t understand the relationship between a human and their pets in the same way that other pets do. As such, they’ll never be affectionate or friendly.
Instead, you have to build your relationship with respect and understanding. Your snake has to understand that you aren’t a threat, and that’s all down to how you behave around them, and how you handle them.
But if you know what you’re doing, there’s no reason for your snake to bite you. If they do, it’ll be because either:
- You don’t know how to handle them properly
- They’re feeling unwell (snakes are more nippy/aggressive when they’re sick)
- They’ve outgrown their enclosure and are feeling stressed
- They’re just having a bad day!
So, if your pet is more aggressive than usual, try and be understanding and figure out what’s irritating them. It’s normally either a health problem or an issue with their enclosure.
Their enclosure could be too small, for example. Health issues can cause your snake pain, and just like we are when we’re feeling unwell, your snake can be short-tempered and irritable because they don’t feel so good. But aside from that, California Kingsnakes have a great temperament.
How Long Does a California Kingsnake Get?
They’re only about 10 inches long when they hatch, and they’ll only grow to about 3 to 3 ½ feet. They will only rarely exceed 4 feet in length. Females are longer than males. They’re quite lightweight snakes but may vary anywhere between 500g and 1500g/17oz and 50oz.
The length and size of your snake depend on how well fed they are for the first year/year and a half of their life. If you ‘power feed’ them, e.g., by feeding them twice as much as you normally would, they’ll get longer rather than fatter.
Once they reach a certain age, though, your snake stops growing at such a fast rate, and they’ll quickly put on weight if you feed them too much. So, in short, the answer depends on how much you feed them.
What’s the Average Lifespan of a California Kingsnake?
California Kingsnakes have a long lifespan. If you buy a hatchling, you can expect to take care of it for between ten and fifteen years.
But with optimal care—making sure they don’t get parasites and infections, feeding them the correct amount, not stressing them out, and keeping them safe—they can even reach twenty years.
California Kingsnake Morphs
Because they’re so docile and easy to care for, California Kingsnake breeders have created dozens of different morphs. If you didn’t know, morphs are different colors and patterns that breeders have created by breeding different snakes together.
But even California Kingsnakes caught in the wild are a variety of different colors and patterns. Kingsnakes from the desert, for example, are called ‘desert phase’ Kingsnakes.
They are a black (or dark brown) and white, with horizontal bands running along their back. ‘Coastal phase’ Kingsnakes are, as the name suggests, from coastal regions. These snakes are a variable yellow-brown color, sometimes with typical horizontal bands, or sometimes two-tone instead. Selectively bred morphs include:
|Kingsnake Morph||Description of Colors and Patterns|
|Albino:||These are a pink and creamy white color with typical bands.|
|Banana:||These are a yellow color with limited bands.|
|High White:||These are almost entirely paper-white. They have darker skin which can show through their scales, though.|
|Twin Dotted:||These have pairs of dots where their bands would usually be.|
|Twin Striped:||These have stripes running from top to tail along the top of their body (dorsal stripes). You can also find reverse stripes Kingsnakes, which are the same, but with one stripe instead of two.|
|Reverse Dotted:||These have big dots running along their backs.|
These are just a few morphs. There are dozens more. You can also find morphs bred with other morphs, so, for example, you could have an albino twin striped Kingsnake.
This snake would have the same coloration as an albino, but the pattern of a twin striped snake. Regarding cost, the more interesting or rare the morph, the more you have to pay.
California Kingsnake Care Guide
Let’s take a look at their requirements in captivity—they’re fairly forgiving snakes. This means that they’re easy to take care of.
Below, the first section is a brief overview of everything you need for your California Kingsnake’s enclosure. After, we go into a little more depth, explaining what everything is for and what different kinds of each thing you can get.
California Kingsnake Basic Setup
For your snake, you’ll need:
- An enclosure
- A heat lamp or heat mat
- A spray bottle
- A water bowl
- A thermometer and hygrometer (or a combination, two-in-one)
- A substrate, like gravel or aspen
- Disinfectant, to clean the enclosure
- ‘Furniture’ or something they can climb
- Handling tongs (optional)
- A background (optional)
- Plants, either real or fake (optional)
As you can imagine, the cost of all of this equipment adds up. How much does a California Kingsnake cost? The snake itself costs around $100 for a normal morph, and with the equipment on top, you might expect to pay $300 to $350 total.
California Kingsnake Enclosure Types
There are many different kinds of enclosure that you can choose from. They vary in price, ease of use (i.e., maintaining temperature and humidity), security and appearance.
Security and ease of use should always be the key determinants of which tank you buy. If the price is such a major concern that you can’t buy an adequate enclosure, then save up until you can. Let’s take a look at the different kinds you can choose from:
- Glass vivariums. These are big, glass tanks that are quite like fish tanks. They’re the best looking of all the enclosures you can buy, and you can see in from all angles. But they can be difficult to heat right.
- Plastic enclosures. These range from ‘really useful boxes’ which are small enclosures for hatchlings, to the most basic storage bins you can buy from department stores. Plastic enclosures are cheap, and hold on to moisture and heat quite well. If you buy one that’s designed for reptiles/snakes, then it may have heating and light functionality already built in.
- Racks. These are tall stacks of enclosures that breeders use to house all of their snakes comfortably. As a beginner, you won’t need a rack. If you are an expert or a breeder, then racks are a cheap and effective way to house many snakes at once.
- DIY enclosures. We wouldn’t recommend a DIY enclosure for a novice. But it is possible to build your own enclosures using wood. This cuts down on the price of your setup, but obviously, the quality is variable.
You should pick an enclosure to suit your snake, and whatever their needs are. Say, for example, that you live somewhere quite dry and you have your air conditioning on during the day.
You should pick an enclosure that holds on to moisture/humidity quite well. Glass would be a good choice, because it holds onto moisture but not heat (at least, not as well).
California Kingsnake Tank Size
California kingsnake cage size is important. If it’s too small, your snake will be stressed out. If it’s too large, they’ll feel nervous because of all the open space.
Your best bet is to start with a small plastic enclosure for a hatchling. It doesn’t need to be that exciting a setup, because you’ll be transferring them to a bigger vivarium when they grow to their full size in a year and a half or so.
A 30-gallon tank would be a little too small for a fully-grown California Kingsnake, so pick a 40-gallon tank and use the extra space inside to create a cool environment for them.
California Kingsnake Cage Temperature
California Kingsnake temperature requirements are easy to understand. In the wild, they primarily live in warm areas. This is reflected in the temperature that you should keep their enclosure. However, to properly care for your snake you can’t just keep their entire vivarium at the same ambient temperature.
Snakes require a cooler zone and a warmer zone. This reflects their behavior in the wild, where they’ll seek out warmer areas known as basking zones. This is an area that gets a lot of sun, where something like a large flat rock stores heat and releases it gradually.
Since snakes are cold-blooded, they’ll seek out these areas. In deserts, they get more than enough warmth, so will find abandoned rodent burrows to hide in and cool down. It’s vital that one half of the enclosure is a normal temperature, while the other half is a warmer basking zone. To be exact:
- The daytime ambient temperature in your snake’s enclosure should be 75-80 degrees.
- In the basking area of the vivarium, let the temperature hit 85-88 degrees. These are pretty normal temperatures for a snake, and can easily be achieved using basic kit.
- Let the night time temperature drop, but not by too much, staying between 72 and 75 degrees.
To properly take care of your California Kingsnake, use something to heat their enclosure. You can choose between heat mats, heat lamps, heat tape, and wires.
Heat lamps are the easiest to use and the least likely to injure your snake. You should also keep at least two thermometers in their enclosure, one to measure the ambient air temperature, and the other to measure the warmth in their basking zone.
California Kingsnake Humidity Requirements
California Kingsnakes can live in a variety of environments. As such, California Kingsnake water requirements are fairly basic. You can ‘get away’ with being a bit less strict when it comes to humidity.
Kingsnakes can enjoy between 30% and 60% humidity, depending on whether they’re native to the desert or coastal, forest regions. Use higher humidity if the snake is better suited to forests, and lower humidity for snakes from desert areas.
You can maintain humidity at levels like these using a spray bottle, a water bowl and a hygrometer (which measures the humidity levels). Things to bear in mind include:
- Spraying once or twice a day is normally sufficient, but it depends on how well their enclosure holds on to moisture. Keep an eye on the moisture levels and spray more/less accordingly.
- It might also be particularly humid or dry in your home, so bear in mind that our guidelines on how often to spray might not apply to you.
- All you need to keep the humidity at the right level is a spray bottle and a water bowl. But if you’d like something a little more technical, you can buy an automatic humidity system. These monitor the humidity level and automatically mist the enclosure when it drops.
Your snake will also need a moist hide. This is like a regular hide but filled with damp sphagnum moss or paper towels. Your snake will hide in here just before the time they need to shed.
This will help them loosen and shed their skin. You can use your normal hide, line it with something damp and you’re good to go.
California Kingsnake Substrate
So, as you know, California Kingsnakes like to burrow. This doesn’t mean that you have fewer choices when it comes to the substrate, because you can pick whatever you want, but they’ll be happiest with a substrate that they can burrow in. You could choose from:
- Orchid bark, coconut husk or ReptiBark, which are like a wood chip. These are good for burrowing, look nice and are reasonably cheap. A good basic option.
- Aspen shavings, which are tree shavings. These are perfect for burrowing snakes because the burrow holds its shape. However, do be aware that they hold on to moisture better than other substrates.
- Gravel, which is as basic as it gets. Gravel doesn’t hold onto moisture very well but is very cheap. It’s also reusable forever, so long as you clean it regularly.
- Don’t use sand. Not only is it impossible to clean, but it’s possible for it to get stuck under your snake’s scales, or for them to swallow it.
- Newspaper or paper towels don’t allow your snake to burrow but are easier to clean.
Get a substrate that your Kingsnake can burrow in. If you don’t, it won’t kill them, but they’ll be much happier and will be able to better manage their temperature and their stress.
What do California Kingsnakes Eat?
In the wild, California Kingsnakes have a varied diet. According to a paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology, Kingsnakes are famous for eating other snakes.
And not just that—they’re capable of eating other snakes that are bigger, and more powerful constrictors than they are. They’re an unexplained exception to the rule that predators are bigger than prey.
But they don’t eat other snakes exclusively. They’re opportunistic feeders, which means that they eat whatever they can get their jaws around.
Common food items for wild California Kingsnakes include rodents, reptiles, birds (and their eggs) and amphibians. The fact that they have such a varied diet in the wild means that they’re very easy to take care of in captivity.
By far the easiest way to feed a California Kingsnake in captivity is with rodents. Rodents are easy to source, not only cheap but in bulk. You can find them online or from a pet store, whichever you prefer. You should feed your pet a prey item that’s commensurate to their size.
A good rule of thumb is that the maximum size of a prey item is one and a half times the size of your snake’s head. If we tried to eat a melon bigger than our head, we couldn’t, but snakes can.
Here’s a rough guide to how much and how often you should feed them.
- Feed your Kingsnake every seven to ten days.
- Feed them two small adult mice, or four hoppers, each feeding time.
- If the food leaves a lump in their body that’s slightly bigger than the rest of your snake’s middle, you’re feeding them the right amount.
Do bear in mind, though, that this is only a rough guide. If you notice that your snake is underweight or overweight, adjust their diet accordingly. If they aren’t eating enough, your pet will also display questing behavior a few days before their typical feeding date. This is where they start searching for food as they would in the wild, and are more active than usual.
The question remains, what to feed a baby California Kingsnake? Well, first, don’t feed them before their first shed. Their first shed usually takes place about a week to ten days after they hatch.
Once they shed, you can feed them straight away. As a hatchling, they won’t become overweight if you overfeed them, they’ll get longer. Feed them two pinkies every five to seven days.
California Kingsnake Bathing
California Kingsnakes will naturally bathe in their water bowl whenever they feel the need. They can tell if they aren’t getting enough moisture, and they’ll rectify that by seeking out a water source.
You don’t need to monitor them while they bathe, so long as you know that they can get out of the water bowl on their own.
If your snake is having trouble shedding, or got dirty somehow and won’t bathe on their own, you can manually bathe them. This is where you take them out of the tank, put them in a large bowl (or the sink, or the bath) and fill it with water.
Always make sure that the water is deep enough for them to sit completely underneath, but shallow enough that they can very easily poke their head out from under the water level. Allow them to sit in the water for fifteen minutes.
They may go for minutes at a time underwater, but don’t worry. They can hold their breath for a while. Keep them supervised, but take the time to clean out their tank at the same time.
When they’re done, take them out and hold them in a soft and fluffy towel. Gently pat them dry. Make sure they’re completely dry before putting them back in their enclosure.
How to Handle a California Kingsnake
Kingsnakes are docile, but only if you handle and treat them correctly. Treat them badly, without respect, and they won’t want you to handle them again.
Before you handle a Kingsnake for the first time, get them used to you. Start by standing next to their enclosure, and moving your hand inside. Gauge how they react.
Do they seem threatened or curious? The more times you do this, the more curious and less afraid they’ll be of you. Kingsnakes aren’t typically nervous, but if yours is, then you can start handling them with a hook instead of your hands.
If your Kingsnake is comfortable being handled, hold then at 1/3 and 2/3rds of the way along their body. Don’t hold them by the neck or the tail, because the snake will feel restricted and unhappy.
Since Kingsnakes are natural constrictors, it’s perfectly normal for them to wrap loosely around your fingers or wrist. If they’re wrapping a little too tight for your comfort, unwrap them from the tail end first. Above all, stay cool, calm and collected. If you’re nervous, then your Kingsnake will be too. For the safety of you and your snake, avoid:
- Dangling and moving your fingers around in front of their face. They’ll think your fingers look like the food you feed them.
- Pulling hard or tugging at them, because they don’t understand why you’re doing so, and they’ll learn that you’re a threat to them.
- Panicking, no matter what. A Kingsnake can bite, but the bite won’t hurt too much. And if they constrict, you can easily remove them. By panicking, you make your Kingsnake nervous too.
- Handling before or after feeding. Before, they might be grumpy or think you’re food. After and you can interrupt their digestion.
- Handling during the blue phase or shedding. Snakes don’t like being handled before their shed because they can’t see very well.
- Cornering your snake. Snakes are particularly defensive when cornered or confined.
Aside from that, use common sense. Don’t throw your snake around, hit them or neglect them, and they’ll be comfortable around you.
California Kingsnake Temperament
If you move gently and smoothly, without moving too fast, your Kingsnake will enjoy being handled. They tend to calm down the more that they’re handled. Don’t be too intimidated if they rattle their tail or try to appear scary—their bark is worse than their bite!
If your Kingsnake feels threatened, there are three main ways they’ll show their displeasure:
- This is where the snake lashes out at you as if they’re going to bite you. Most of the time, it’ll be a feigned strike, where they don’t open their mouth and bump into you with their nose.
- This is where the snake releases a foul-smelling musk as a warning.
- Do kingsnakes rattle their tails? Some do, trying to mimic rattlesnakes.
If your snake is defensive when you go to handle them, once they’re out of their enclosure they’ll normally cheer up. Snakes can feel cornered when they’re in an enclosure.
But if you follow the handling guidelines above, your snake will be well-behaved. The trick is to handle them regularly—every day for fifteen minutes is fine—so that they get used to you. As long as the snake doesn’t show any signs of stress, you can handle them as often as you want.
Common California Kingsnake Health Problems
There are many common health problems that you should look out for in your California Kingsnake. They don’t have any particular weakness to any particular condition—these problems affect all snakes.
Retained Shedding Issues
This is where your snake can’t quite get rid of all of their shed skin. It stays on top of their new skin in patches which they find difficult to get rid of. This is the result of not having enough moisture in their enclosure.
You can easily remedy this with more baths and more spraying. Pay special attention to their eyes and tail tips, as these are the two most common areas where sheds are retained. If they can’t shed the skin from their ‘eyelids’/eye covers, they can become blind.
It’s even worse if they can’t shed their tail tip. If they can’t, the shed skin gets so tight on their tail that it cuts off their circulation. In the worst-case scenario, this causes blood loss and necrosis. Necrosis is where the tissue dies, and this can cause death.
All snakes can be affected by parasites. These include snake mites, lizard mites, and ticks. The majority of wild-caught snakes have parasites like these, whereas captive-bred species can only catch them on contact (or from an enclosure that is already infested).
- You can identify ticks from raised scales. If your snake has raised scales, it’s because there are ticks underneath.
- You can see mites on your snake’s back. They’re tiny pinpoint sized dots, normally black, red or brown.
- Your snake may also have worms, although these are less common.
If your snake has an infestation, you’ll notice that they start to bathe more often than usual. This is because ticks and mites can’t hold their breath underwater for as long as your snake can.
This will help alleviate the problem, but not get rid of it completely. There are sprays that you can buy which kill ticks and mites, but bear in mind that mites and ticks lay their eggs around the snake’s enclosure, not on the snake. You, therefore, have to spray/clean both your snake and their vivarium to get rid of an infestation.
Try to figure out where the snake caught the infestation. There are many possible ways:
- Because they’re a wild-caught snake (wild-caught snakes are almost always infested)
- Through direct contact with another snake
- Through an enclosure that was infested by mites from a previous snake
- Through indirect contact, after you handled an infested snake and accidentally picked up one or two mites, and then didn’t wash your hands after handling
California Kingsnakes can also catch respiratory infections. Respiratory infections are where your snake has a cold, and it can be either more or less severe depending on many factors.
They may have a sniffle, in which case all you’ll notice is a runny nose. However, the infection can spread to their throat and lung/lungs, at which point they’ll have trouble breathing.
The following are symptoms of respiratory infections:
- A runny nose
- Breathing through the mouth rather than through the nose
- In the worst case, your snake may wheeze while they breathe
If your snake has a respiratory infection, it is most likely because of poor husbandry. In particular, keeping your California Kingsnake in conditions that are too cold or too damp will eventually cause a respiratory infection.
You could treat your snake with snake-friendly antibiotics, or by taking them to a vet. A vet can help you administer the antibiotics, and teach you how to do it without stressing out your snake.
Interesting California Kingsnake Facts
To round off our guide, we’ve found some interesting California Kingsnake facts. These are things that aren’t necessarily related to their care, so won’t fit in any of the other sections. But, since they’re so interesting, we thought we’d include them anyway!
They’ve Become an Invasive Species
California Kingsnakes are endemic to most of the west coast, bar Washington state. But apart from that, they’ve become an invasive species elsewhere in the world.
Gran Canaria is one of the Canary Islands, a set of Spanish islands off the coast of Morocco/Western Sahara. They’re at about the same latitude as California, which means that the islanders—and the millions of tourists that flock there—enjoy plenty of sun, all year round.
But it’s not just tourists that have found a home here. Presumably, a resident set free one or more Kingsnakes, and they’ve since taken the island by storm. This is the only other place on earth that you can find a California Kingsnake.
According to a piece in the LA Times, you can tell that they were previously captive snakes because there are albino and striped varieties among them.
So Shiny, They’re Called “Shiny!”
California Kingsnakes are, obviously, part of the kingsnake genus. The scientific name for the kingsnake genus is Lampropeltis, which comes from the Greek for ‘shiny shield.’
They got the name from the fact that their scales are particularly shiny, at least compared to other New World (North American) snakes.
They Use Dazzle Camouflage
Dazzle camouflage is different to your average camo. The point of regular camoflage—also known as disruptive camoflage—is to break up the outline of whatever you’re trying to hide. But dazzle camouflage is different. The point is to be big, bright and dazzling so that you’re easily seen.
But because of your bright and obvious pattern, it makes it more difficult for something to see how you’re moving. If you look at desert phase California Kingsnakes, in particular, you’ll see this in action. They’re an animal that lives in the desert, but they’re bright black and white.
It’s so that neither predators nor prey can easily see which direction the Kingsnake is moving in, whether it’s ‘running’ away or about to strike.
For more advice on how to care for Kingsnakes, take a look at some more of our guides. We have guides specifically on snake health issues and enclosure setups.