Gopher snakes are a common species of snake that are often kept as pets. They’re typically docile, and they can grow quite large and impressive. There aren’t that many color morphs available.
We’ll look at everything you need to know about gopher snakes, from their favorite foods to how docile or aggressive they are as pets. Gopher snake prices start at about $75. Of course, you also need to consider all of the other day-to-day costs (enclosure, heat lamp, hides, electricity, etc.)
- 1 Pet Gopher Snake Care Guide
- 2 Gopher Snake Subspecies
- 3 Are Gopher Snakes Good As Pets?
- 4 What Kind of Gopher Snake Enclosure Do I Need?
- 5 What Do Gopher Snakes Eat?
- 6 Common Gopher Snake Health Problems
Pet Gopher Snake Care Guide
Gopher snakes are one of the most common kinds that are kept as pets. They’re one of the subspecies of the Pituophis genus (Pituophis spp), which means that they’re in the Colubrid family.
That’s the same family as corn snakes, which is another favorite type of pet snake. Because they’re related to corn snakes, the two species are quite similar. However, they require different care.
Their natural habitat ranges from coast to coast, and from Baja California to southern Canada. As such, they’re one of the first snakes that people encounter. This initial contact can be scary, since they can grow to be large, but they’re a nonvenomous and docile species.
Gopher Snake Subspecies
There are several different kinds of gopher snake you can choose from. In total, there are six recognized subspecies of gopher snake. However, there are four that are commonly kept as pets.
1) The Sonoran Gopher Snake
As the name suggests, it is from the Sonoran Desert. If you didn’t know, the Sonoran Desert covers large parts of north-western Mexico, Arizona, and California. It’s the hottest desert in Mexico. You can also find the Sonoran gopher snake in parts of Texas, so it prefers hot and dry climates.
Sonoran gopher snakes are some of the biggest out there, maxing out at up to seven and a half feet in length. Bear in mind that their size is directly related to how well fed and cared for they are, so the more often you feed yours, the larger it will grow.
2) The Pacific Gopher Snake
These are the other breeds’ smaller cousins, commonly reaching a maximum of five feet.
The Pacific gopher snake calls the whole west coast home and is a yellow-brown color to fit in with its surroundings. It’s spotted, too, for camouflage in its natural habitat.
Pacific gopher snakes make excellent long-term pets because they’ve been known to live to up to 30 years old when kept in captivity.
3) The Bull Snake
The bull snake looks a lot like a rattlesnake, which leads to them getting ‘dealt with’ in much the same way that rattlesnakes do. Their color and pattern, as well as the texture and keel of their scales, makes them look a little like the western diamondback rattler. They also share the same geographic range, more or less, so they’re often mistaken for their venomous cousins.
It doesn’t help that bull snakes, like all gopher snakes and colubrids generally, mimic a rattlesnake in that they rattle their tails. As such, if you don’t recognize the look and sound of rattlesnakes, it’s an easy mistake to make.
Bull snakes aren’t venomous, they’re constrictors, but they are notoriously defensive and are more bad-tempered than most other members of the same family. They are not the best starter pet.
4) The Great Basin Gopher Snake
The Great Basin gopher snake is found all across the Great Basin, and the west generally.
They’re excellent swimmers, which sets them apart from their cousins in the Sonoran Desert, who much prefer dry and dusty dunes. They prefer woodlands and grasslands, which gives them a broad range and makes them easier to care for.
Are Gopher Snakes Good As Pets?
Gopher snakes are gentle and docile so long as you treat them well. This makes them an excellent starter pet, especially for children who might not be used to pets yet.
They’re forgiving, but like all snakes, you have to know what makes them feel threatened and what makes them feel comfortable.
You also have to consider that gopher snakes can become very large if they’re fed and housed correctly. If you’re new to snakes, this might be difficult for you to grasp, but a seven-foot-long snake is hefty and can be frightening if you’re not used to them.
If you can, head to a reptile shop and ask if you can handle some of their biggest snakes to see if you’re comfortable doing so. If you’re not, you’d be better off with a hognose snake, which won’t grow longer than two feet (if you buy a male).
What Are the Different Gopher Snake Morphs?
Aside from the four subspecies, you can also have different morphs of each.
A morph is a unique snake that looks different from a typical example of the species. A snake with a different pattern or coloration than usual, for example, is a morph. A snake with two heads is a morph too, although you won’t see that very often.
Here are some of the different morphs of gopher snake you can find:
|Morph Type||Snake Colors and Patterns|
|Ghost Gopher Snakes||These are a light grey and black morph with regular pattern and scales. They look like a photo that’s filtered to look black and white, with all of the color taken out of it. They’re just as attractive as a normal Sonoran gopher snake, too.|
|Albino Gopher Snakes||These are a common morph, regardless of the species. Gopher snakes are no different. There are two main kinds of albino, though. There are pure white albinos and sunglow albinos. Pure white albinos are pure white (obviously), whereas the sunglow morph is more light brown or orange. Both kinds have red eyes. Pure white might also be called blizzard sonorans.|
|Hypomelanistic Gopher Snakes||Hypomelanistic means that a snake loses most of their black pigmentation, but not quite all of it. This morph is a little bit like a sunglow Sonoran, but with a bit of black pigmentation to their scales. It’s a nice-looking, interesting mix that you could look for if you want a pet that’s a little more unique.|
These morphs typically cost a little more than your average gopher snake. Whereas a snake that’s identical to one from the wild might set you back $75, an albino Sonoran (for example) might cost double that. They require the same food, care, and shelter as any other snake, though.
Gopher Snake Shedding
Gopher snakes, like any other snake, shed occasionally. You can tell before they start, because their scales will turn duller, and their eyes will turn blue. This is known as the blue phase. During this time, your snake will be grumpier than usual, so handling isn’t recommended.
After three or four days, your snake’s scales will return to their usual color, and their eyes will stop being so cloudy. People often incorrectly assume that their snake has already shed, but they haven’t. They’re just preparing. After another few days, your snake will begin their shed. Ideally, their skin will come off in one go.
If your gopher snake has trouble shedding, you’ll notice that their skin comes off in patches. This means that they’re a little too dry. Because gopher snakes don’t like their environment to be too humid—somewhere between 30 and 50%—don’t increase the overall humidity in their tank.
Instead, provide them with a moist hide. You can make your own with an upturned plant pot or plastic container. Fill it with damp sphagnum moss or newspaper. Your snake will head inside before they need to shed because they naturally know that it helps.
How to Tell the Gender of a Gopher Snake
Male vs. female gopher snakes. What’s the difference? Not much, as it turns out
Like many other species of snake, male and female gopher snakes are the same size. They look the same from the outside, concerning pattern and color, shape, length, width, you name it.
The only differences are on the inside. Females are built to produce eggs, and males are built to deliver the sperm to fertilize them. Here’s some information on the reproduction process of snakes. So, if they look so similar on the outside, how can you tell which snake is which?
The first way is through popping. It’s a funny name, but it’s also the most effective way to tell the gender of your snake. It’s a technique where you gently pop a male snake’s hemipenes from their cloaca. If you didn’t know, their hemipenes (and yes, there are two) are like the snake’s penis. If it has then, it’s male.
The second way you can tell is by probing. A vet or herpetologist can insert a long, thin rod into a snake’s cloaca. Based on how far down it can go, they can tell whether the snake is male or female. If it hardly goes in at all, the snake is female.
How Much Do Gopher Snakes Cost?
A basic morph of the gopher snake will cost between $75 and $100. However, that’s just for the snake itself. You also have to consider the cost of the basic starter kit for snakes that you’ll have to buy.
This includes the following:
- The vivarium (their enclosure)
- Everything that goes in their tank, e.g., environment, water bowl, and a hide
- Heating for their tank
- A hook, if you’re not yet comfortable handling a gopher snake
- A substrate to line their tank
- Other essential things like glass cleaner and disinfectant to maintain their tank
Because you can buy each of these things separately, the price can vary depending on the quality that you’re after. Overall, the cost will be around $400.
However, you also have to factor in ongoing costs such as the following:
- The cost of food for your snake
- Snake care guidebooks, e.g., for breeding
- Insurance for your snake, especially if they’re high value
- The ongoing energy use of heating and lighting
- Any emergency funds that you might need to cover the insurance excess
Just like owning any pet, you should have a rainy day fund that’s there just in case your snake gets sick or requires a new vivarium/some new equipment.
If you’re not prepared to cover the costs of purchasing a snake and any equipment, plus have enough left over in case of emergency, you might want to consider a less expensive pet.
What Kind of Gopher Snake Enclosure Do I Need?
There are three options available for housing a gopher snake. Each has its advantages, and the one you pick depends on what you think is most important.
You can choose between these three types of gopher snake enclosures:
|Enclosure Type||Description and Features|
|Wooden snake enclosures:||This has wooden walls and a glass front so that you can see inside. These enclosures are great for maintaining a steady temperature and look good too.|
|Plastic snake enclosures:||These are also good at regulating temperature, but don’t look as good. They’re cheap, though. They’re easy to source at reptile shops and big stores.|
|Glass snake enclosures:||These are the most expensive, but probably look the best. Glass isn’t great at transferring heat, at least not compared to plastic. But, if you want your setup to look amazing, glass is a perfect choice.|
Aside from the material you use, there are a few things you have to know about gopher snake enclosures that will make your life a lot easier in the long run. First, they have to be secure. Gopher snakes love to explore, but what they know as exploring, you know as escaping. Whatever enclosure you buy, make sure they can’t easily get out of it.
Also, since gopher snakes grow so large, you have to pick a big starter tank. A hatchling will fit in a 5-gallon tank, but they’ll quickly grow. Hatchlings are already about 12 inches long right off the bat.
By the time they’re adult size, you should be looking at a 30-gallon tank at the least. As a rule of thumb, it takes three years for a gopher snake to get to three feet minimum. Bear that in mind when you pick a particular size of the enclosure.
Gopher Snakes’ Substrate
In your gopher snake enclosure, you can use whatever substrate you like. Your snake will be happy whatever you put in there. However, gopher snakes are natural burrowers.
According to journal Copeia, in the wild, they live in underground dens or burrows and spend about 90% of their life down there. This behavior keeps them warm and protects them from predators throughout the winter, while they spend more time sunning themselves in the summer.
Gopher snake will be happiest if you use a substrate that they can easily burrow into. A loose, particulate substrate would be a good choice rather than paper, for example.
You could choose from the following options:
- A relatively thick layer of orchid bark or chippings
- Aspen bedding, made from shredded wood with any dust removed
- Newspaper shredded in a shredder
Each of these substrates is easy enough to clean, newspaper especially. Even though it makes sense since they like to burrow, don’t use sand as a gopher snake substrate. Sand holds on to liquid and waste products and can get caught between scales, which may cause infection in some cases.
Gopher Snake Temperature Range
The upper ranges are best during the day, but the temperature can fall to the lower ranges during the night. Gopher snakes can survive more extensive temperature ranges—they are wild animals, after all—but this is the temperature at which they’re most comfortable.
Snakes are cold-blooded, and gopher snakes are no exception. As such, you have to make sure that your snake’s enclosure is at the right temperature. However, snakes like to be able to regulate their temperature, which means that you have to build that functionality into their vivarium.
You can do so by having one section warm, and one section cool. This is easily achieved using a heating pad. Place the heating pad under the tank, or inside the tank underneath the substrate.
The warmer (basking) side is for when the snake wants to digest their food because higher temperatures help your gopher snake to break down food more effectively.
What Do Gopher Snakes Eat?
Gopher snakes, like most other household snakes, eat small rodents. Unsurprisingly, they eat gophers, which is where they got their name. That’s their diet in the wild, and it’s the diet you should aspire to give them as a pet too—although it’s easier to feed them mice.
- You can start by feeding them pinkies and slightly larger rodents as they grow. Pinkies are tiny mice that were killed before they began to grow hair. These can be frozen and thawed if that’s more convenient. They’re quite small, typically about an inch in length. As your snake grows, you can feed them larger mice including fuzzies (one and a half inches long), hoppers (two inches long) and adults at about three inches long.
- You should feed your hatchling snake once every two or three days. It’s easy to tell if your snake is hungry. Offer them food, and if they don’t take it, try them again tomorrow. Just don’t try and force them to eat if they don’t want to, because not only will it not work, but it may make your snake grow to dislike you.
- As your snake grows, you should feed them larger portions, fewer times per week. Like we said above, you can feed them fuzzies and eventually hoppers once they get big enough. Feed your snake once, perhaps twice a week once they reach adult size. Again, offer your snake food and see if they accept it. If they do, feed them, but if they don’t, try them again another time.
Don’t feed your snake anything wider than one and a half times the width of their head. Gopher snakes can also eat eggs, and they eat them whole. Quails’ eggs are just the right size for them and make a wonderful treat. In the wild, they eat birds’ eggs as well as the eggs of other lizards.
If your snake continually refuses to eat, it may have a kind of anorexia, which is common in Colubrid snakes.
Will Gopher Snakes Bite?
Gopher snakes can bite, just like any other snake.
When they’re small, a gopher snakebite won’t hurt. It’s a little similar to getting a nip from a cat. At worst, it might be like a pinprick that draws a little blood. However, the bigger they grow, the more severe their bite will be.
If you don’t like the idea of being bitten by your gopher snake, then it’s vital to follow some basic handling guidelines. Handling a gopher snake, or any snake isn’t something you should do without thinking. You have to know how.
Follow these guidelines:
- Be calm and confident in your handling. That means don’t hesitate when you’re going to pick them up. It also means don’t rush at them, because it’ll make them nervous.
- Recognize the signs that show they’re uncomfortable. If you notice your snake shying away, that means that they’re unsure of you. Let them sniff your hand and flick their tongue at you so that they can ‘see’ it’s you.
- All subspecies of gopher snake produce a loud hissing sound when they’re unsettled by something. Not only that, but they can inflate their body to make themselves look more prominent.
- If your snake starts to coil up, that means they’re thinking about striking you. If they lower and flatten their head and stare straight at you, that means that they’re about to strike you right now. They’ll also start rattling their tail. If you notice either of these behaviors, you should back your hand away steadily.
Is the Gopher Snake Venomous?
Unlike a whip snake, for example, gopher snakes aren’t fast. They can’t chase after prey. They move slowly and carefully in search of food.
When a gopher snake gets hungry, its instinct is to search for small rodents like gophers. To find them, they’ll poke their heads into burrows, cracks, and crevices in search of food.
They don’t hunt using their sight, but their sense of smell, which can detect the unique scents and chemicals that their prey gives off.
According to scientific studies, constrictors don’t kill by breaking their prey’s bones and crushing them. And they don’t kill using suffocation, either—many snakes don’t have that long to wait.
A group of researchers writing in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that constrictors shut off their prey’s blood flow, which can entirely shut off the supply of oxygen throughout their prey’s body. This can kill a small rodent in seconds.
How Big Do Gopher Snakes Grow?
If you didn’t know, that’s large for a hatchling snake (at least one that you keep as a pet). If they were to stay at about that size, they’d be manageable, but they grow. And they grow quickly.
As a rule of thumb, the more you feed your snake, the quicker and longer they’ll grow. Now, this might sound exciting, but you have to make sure you’re prepared for your snake to get to that size.
- Is their enclosure big enough?
- Will you be able to buy them enough food?
- Are you comfortable handling or playing with a 7-foot-long gopher snake?
If not, then a smaller snake like a corn snake might be your best option. Fortunately for you, corn snakes are lots of fun too and are a little easier to take care of on a day-to-day basis.
If you learn to spot these signs, your snake will never bite you. You should also feed your snake with tweezers or tongs, to begin with, so that you don’t handle prey.
By handling prey, you can confuse a snake, as they will smell the smell of food on your hands. Because they can’t see so well, they might bite you by accident.
Common Gopher Snake Health Problems
The following sections address each health problem in turn, and what you can do about them, starting with one of the most common.
Gopher Snake Anorexia
A problem with gopher snakes, and Colubrids generally, is that they can develop anorexia (a refusal to eat). This has its basis in the gopher snake’s wild behavior. During the fall and winter, gopher snakes will stop eating, and won’t start up again until spring. Winter is naturally a time of lower activity in snakes and many animals. In cool enough conditions, snakes will brumate (hibernate.)
This can, at first, be quite concerning to a new pet snake owner. However, it’s quite normal. Keep an eye on your snake’s condition. Do they appear healthy, with shiny scales? Do they have a dent or depression running their body, instead of appearing plump or fleshed out? There is a big difference between your snake taking a winter break, and between an emaciated gopher snake.
If it is taking a break for the winter, they will start eating again in spring. However, there are multiple causes of anorexia. Make sure you aren’t neglecting your snake by keeping them in too-cool temperatures year-round. If the temperature range falls below 75 at night and 85 in the day, they may be in a permanent winter—never wanting to eat. Correct this and see if they get hungry again.
Gopher Snake Blister Disease
Snake blister disease, also known as vesicular dermatitis, is an infection underneath the snake’s scales. It’s caused by unsanitary cage conditions, especially those that are too damp or wet. Inadequate ventilation can exacerbate the problem. Your snake will initially develop lesions that then become infected, the result being septicemia, which can cause death.
If you notice blisters along your snake’s body, this is the first sign. You’ll see small bumps underneath their scales, not on top of their scales. The next stage, infection, is characterized by the bumps becoming bigger and your snake’s scales feeling tighter and swollen.
The first thing you should do is to check their environment. Is the substrate dirty and damp? Is the humidity too high in their enclosure? Both of these factors can cause blister disease, or make it much worse. Transfer your snake to another safe and clean enclosure so that you can clean their environment thoroughly. Stay on top of cleaning from then on.
To treat the existing condition, take your snake to a vet. They will provide antibiotics that should counter the infection.
Gopher Snake Parasites
Like all snakes, they can catch parasites. Parasites aren’t usually a serious problem but are an indication that your snake is in poor living conditions.
Snakes can have mites, tapeworms, flukes, roundworms, and ticks. They’re exceptionally common in the wild. One study in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases examined just five snakes and found three of them had parasites, and that one gopher snake had both mites and nematodes.
The main factor is coming into contact with other snakes. If you kept your snake isolated in a tank for their entire life, you might think that they’re entirely safe, but that’s not true. If you ever handled a different snake, and then handled your gopher snake later, you could easily pass on a parasite without your snake ever leaving their enclosure.
If you bought your snake from a reputable dealer, there shouldn’t be any problem with parasites (at least not to begin with). When you buy a snake, check their scales to make sure that they don’t have mites. You can identify them when they run along the snake’s scales, or when they hide underneath them. If mites are hiding underneath a scale, it will be raised slightly from the rest.
Let your snake bathe more often. This can kill mites.
Other Health Conditions
There are more health conditions. Here are the abridged descriptions for each:
- Mouth rot. This is like if you don’t brush your teeth, you get cavities and your gums start to bleed. It’s caused by stress. This is not to be confused with scale rot.
- Pneumonia and respiratory issues. This causes nasal discharge, but can also make it difficult for them to breathe. A dire condition, pneumonia has a high mortality rate.
- Regurgitation. This occurs when your snake can’t digest certain kinds of food, like hair or feathers. This isn’t something to worry about unless it happens every time they eat.
- Egg binding. This occurs when an egg is too big for a female snake to birth. The eggs get stuck and can cause an infection (sepsis) and death.
When Do Gopher Snakes Hibernate?
Like other animals, gopher snakes hibernate in winter. According to a document on British Columbian wildlife, male gopher snakes in Canada start to hibernate soon after breeding season in early September. Female snakes and hatchlings are typically active until mid-October.
When the fall and winter months come, gopher snakes will start spending more time in their hides. That’s at least partly because snakes can’t store fat as we mammals can. Mammals like us can afford to spend the winter being active because they have energy stored up in fat to make up for the shortfall in available prey. Snakes can’t, so they rest.
The dens they hibernate in are often communal, and they’ll happily share them with rattlesnakes and whip snakes. But by breeding season, they’ll try to fight the other snakes off).
These dens usually are underground, big piles of rocks or hollow tree stumps in the forests that gopher snakes frequently call home. They’re normally well placed near sunny spots so that the snakes can enjoy some warming sun when the opportunity arises.
But not all gopher snakes hibernate due to the temperature. The lower the temperature goes, the more likely it is that a snake will hibernate. In warmer climates, they might not hibernate at all.
That’s why in captivity, your snake might not hibernate at all. They will, though, start to move around a lot less in the winter months. There’s nothing wrong with your snake if they don’t hibernate.
How Long Do Gopher Snakes Live?
All snakes live longer in captivity than they do in the wild. Gopher snakes live longer than corn snakes in the wild, totaling an average of about twelve to fifteen years. As pets, though, gophers can live to over thirty years. The better care you take of your snake, the longer they’ll live.
There are three key ways to make sure your gopher snake lives as long as possible
- Provide them with a setup tailored to their needs, i.e., a vivarium that’s big enough for them, clean substrate, etc.
- Make sure that you feed them regularly.
- Always keep that rainy-day fund handy just in case something goes wrong.
And that’s all you need to know about gopher snakes. If you are prepared, then watching a tiny hatchling grow into a seven-foot snake is hugely interesting and rewarding.