Gopher snakes (Pituophis catenifer) can be very good pets for beginners. They’re constrictor snakes, so they don’t have venom glands. They’re not very aggressive and will only bite humans as a last resort. When cared for well in captivity, they can live for an average of 30 years.
Gopher snake hatchlings are about 1 foot in length, but will grow to an average of 4-5 feet as adults. However, some sub-species can reach 6-7 feet. They all have thick-set bodies, weighing an average of 2-4 pounds. Their size can make handling awkward at first, but they’re tolerant of humans. Gopher snakes are relatively easy to care for and have relaxed, docile temperaments.
From the gopher snakes’ feeding habits to their behavioral tendencies, we’ll take a detailed look at everything you need to know as a novice owner. This includes the initial price of a gopher snake, in addition to the ongoing costs of care. You’ll also learn about gopher snake health problems so that you can prolong the longevity and quality of life of your pet snake.
Pet Gopher Snake Care Guide
Gopher snakes are a subspecies of the Pituophis genus (Pituophis spp), which means that they’re a member of the Colubrid family. This is the same family as other placid snakes, such as the ever-popular corn snake.
Gopher snakes are among the most common snakes in America, but you should avoid capturing a wild snake and keeping it as a pet.
Wild-caught gopher snakes often have temperament problems, parasites, and health problems. Only buy a captive-bred snake from a trusted dealer.
Are Gopher Snakes Good as Pets?
Gopher snakes are gentle and docile, provided that you treat them well. Learn what makes them feel threatened and avoid this behavior. Given time, your snake will realize that you mean it no harm and become less defensive.
Gopher snakes can grow large, especially when they’re power fed. If you’re new to snakes, then you may initially struggle to handle a 6 to 7-foot snake with a large, powerful body. However, you’ll find out how with experience.
Visit a pet shop and ask to handle one of their larger snakes to see if you feel comfortable. If not, you’ll be better off with a male hognose snake, which won’t grow to much longer than two feet.
Gopher Snake Subspecies
There are 9 recognized subspecies of gopher snake. However, there are just 4 subspecies that are kept as pets in America. Each sub-species will have a slightly different temperament and grow to a different length and weight.
1) The Sonoran Gopher Snake
The Sonoran gopher snake lives in the Sonoran Desert. It covers large parts of north-western Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California.
According to the National Park Service, the gopher snake is the longest snake that can be found in the Grand Canyon. The average size is just under 7 feet in length.
While Sonoran gopher snakes are among the biggest of their species, size directly correlates with how well they’re fed. Frequent feedings will result in increased growth.
2) The Pacific Gopher Snake
The Pacific gopher snake is a yellow-brown color in order to fit in with its surroundings. It’s also spotted to provide camouflage in its natural habitat.
This snake calls the whole west coast home, so it’s commonly found in California. You can also find them in Mexico, British Columbia, and Alberta.
The Pacific gopher snake averages 4-5 feet, but can grow to as long as 7 feet.
3) The Bull Snake
Bull snakes are commonly found throughout America, southern Canada, and central and northern Mexico.
Their color and pattern, as well as the texture and keel of their scales, makes them look like the western diamondback rattlesnake. They also share the same geographic range, so they’re often mistaken for rattlers.
It doesn’t help that bull snakes, like all gopher snakes and colubrids generally, mimic a rattlesnake in that they rattle their tails. If you don’t recognize the look and sound of rattlers, it’s an easy mistake to make.
Bull snakes don’t have venom glands as they are constrictor snakes. However, they’re notoriously defensive and are more bad-tempered than most other members of the colubrid family.
4) The Great Basin Gopher Snake
The Great Basin gopher snake is found all across the Great Basin, and the West generally. They prefer hot and dry climates.
Although they live in the ground, often in the burrows of gophers, they’re accomplished climbers. Make sure that you have plenty of things for a gopher snake to climb in its enclosure, as well as places to burrow.
They are a light brown color with dark, square patches along their backs. They vary in size from just 3 feet to as long as 7.5 feet.
What Do Gopher Snakes Eat?
Gopher snakes can be fed small rodents. Unsurprisingly, they also eat gophers, which is where they got their name. That’s their diet in the wild.
You can start by feeding gopher snakes pinkies and larger rodents as they grow. Pinkies are tiny mice that were killed before they grew hair. These can be frozen and thawed. They’re about an inch in length.
As your snake grows, you can feed it larger mice including fuzzies (one and a half inches long), hoppers (two inches long), and adults (about three inches long.)
You should feed your hatchling snake once every 2-3 days. Offer it food, and if it doesn’t take it, try it again later or the next day.
Don’t feed a gopher snake anything wider than one and a half times the width of its head because snakes swallow their food whole.
Gopher snakes can also eat eggs whole. Quails’ eggs are just the right size. In the wild, they eat the eggs of birds and lizards.
Do Gopher Snakes Bite?
Gopher snakes can bite. When they’re small, a gopher snake’s bite won’t hurt. It’s similar to getting a sharp nip from a cat. If it draws any blood, just clean up the wound and apply an antibacterial agent.
The bigger the gopher snake grows, the more its bite will hurt, as you would expect. All sub-species will produce a loud hissing sound when they’re unsettled, so heed their warning and avoid getting bitten.
If a bull snake lowers and flattens its head, and stares straight at you, that means that it’s preparing to strike. It may also start rattling its tail like a rattlesnake, as we’ve discussed. Just back your hand away steadily.
Are Gopher Snakes Venomous?
Gopher snakes are constrictors and lack venom glands, so they don’t envenomate their prey or do you any serious harm.
According to the BBC, constrictors stop their prey’s blood flow, which can entirely shut off the supply of oxygen throughout its body. This can kill a small rodent in seconds.
Gopher snakes aren’t fast movers due to their size, so they can’t chase after their prey. They move slowly and carefully in search of food sources.
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 their preferred food.
They don’t hunt using their sight, but instead use their sense of smell, which can detect the unique scents and chemicals that their prey gives off.
Gopher Snake Price and Ongoing Care Cost Summary
Rare gopher snake morphs cost more than common gopher snakes. A basic morph will cost between $75 and $100. Whereas, an albino Sonoran gopher snake might cost upwards of $150. However, that’s just for the snake.
You also have to consider the cost of the starter kit for snakes that you’ll need to buy. This includes the following:
- The vivarium
- Everything in its tank, e.g. water bowl, hide, etc
- Heat mat
- Snake hook
- Pet insurance premiums
Because you can buy each of these things separately, the price can vary depending on the quality that you’re after.
The cost will be around $400. However, you also have to factor in ongoing costs such as the following:
- Snake care guidebooks, e.g. breeding
- Heating and lighting
- A substrate to line the tank
- Glass cleaner and disinfectant
- Emergency funds needed for vet fees, or to cover the insurance excess
You should have a rainy-day fund that’s there just in case your snake gets sick or requires a new vivarium or new equipment.
There are 3 options available for housing a gopher snake:
|Enclosure Type||Description and Features|
|Wooden:||Wood is an excellent insulator. These enclosures are ideal for maintaining a steady temperature.|
|Plastic:||These are also good at regulating temperature. They don’t look as good and aren’t quite as good an insulator as wood, but are a more affordable option.|
|Glass:||These are the most expensive enclosures and look the best, but glass releases too much heat.|
We recommend a wooden enclosure for your gopher snake. The enclosure needs to be secure. These snakes love to explore and could easily escape.
A hatchling will fit in a 5-gallon tank, but will grow quickly. Hatchlings are about 12 inches long. Once it’s an adult, you will need a 30-gallon tank.
Substrate and Bedding
Gopher snakes are natural burrowers, so this should be reflected in the choice of bedding.
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.
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
Don’t use sand as a substrate because it holds onto liquid and waste. It can get caught between scales, which may cause infection in some cases.
Temperature and Humidity Range
Gopher snakes like temperatures between 75 and 85-degrees Fahrenheit. 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, but this is the temperature at which they’re most comfortable.
Snakes need 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 warm and one cool section. The warmer (basking) side is for when the snake wants to digest its food. Higher temperatures help your snake to break down food more efficiently.
The optimal temperature can be achieved using a heating pad. Place the heating pad under the tank, or inside the tank under the substrate.
Gopher snakes don’t like their environment to be too humid, which can make shedding more difficult. Humidity between 40% and 60% humidity is recommended.
You can tell when a gopher snake is about to shed because its scales will turn duller, and its eyes will turn blue. During this time, your snake will be grumpy, so avoid any handling so that you don’t get bitten.
After 3-4 days, your snake’s scales will return to their usual color, and its eyes will stop being so cloudy. After another few days, your snake will begin its shed. Ideally, its skin will come off in one go.
If your gopher snake has trouble shedding, you’ll notice that its skin comes off in patches. The tail and eye caps are usually the areas that are worst affected. This means that its living environment was too dry.
Instead of more humidity, provide your snake 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.
When Do Gopher Snakes Hibernate?
Gopher snakes brumate in the winter. According to British Columbian Wildlife, male gopher snakes in Canada start to brumate soon after breeding season in early September. Female snakes and hatchlings are usually active until mid-October.
When the fall and winter months arrive, gopher snakes will spend longer in their hides. But not all snakes brumate due to the higher temperature. That’s why, in captivity, your snake might not brumate at all. They will definitely start to move around a lot less in the winter months.
Gopher Snake Health Problems
All snakes can develop health problems. So, learn about the common health issues that are most likely to make your gopher snake sick.
During the fall and winter, they will stop eating and won’t start again until the spring when it starts to get warmer. This is normal for gopher snakes.
- Does your snake look healthy with shiny scales?
- Does it have a dent or depression running along its body, instead of appearing plump or fleshed out?
There is a big difference between your snake not eating during the winter and being emaciated.
Make sure you aren’t keeping your snake in low temperatures all-year-round. If the temperature falls below 75 at night and 85 during the day, it may never want to eat.
Snake blister disease (vesicular dermatitis) is an infection underneath the snake’s scales. It’s caused by unsanitary cage conditions, especially when the substrate (bedding) is too damp or wet.
Your snake will initially develop lesions that then become infected, resulting in septicemia, which will likely cause death in snakes.
If your snake has blister disease, you’ll notice small bumps underneath their scales. Infection is characterized by the bumps becoming bigger, and your snake’s scales feeling tighter and swollen.
- Is the substrate dirty and damp due to urates?
- Is the humidity too high in their enclosure?
If so, transfer your snake to another enclosure so that you can clean. A vet will need to provide antibiotics to clear up the infection.
Snakes can get mites, tapeworms, flukes, roundworms, and ticks.
The Journal of Wildlife Diseases examined 5 snakes and found that 3 had parasites, and that 1 gopher snake had both mites and nematodes.
The main cause is snakes 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.
However, if you ever handled a different snake, and then handled your gopher snake later, you could easily pass on parasites without your snake ever leaving its enclosure.
Check its scales to make sure that it doesn’t have mites. If mites are hiding underneath a scale, it will be raised slightly from the rest.
Let your snake bathe more often in a bowl of water as this can kill mites. There are also mite sprays available for treating your snake, and for killing mites that are inside its enclosure.
Respiratory problems are caused by a bacterial infection. This makes it difficult for your snake to breathe, so you’ll notice that it’s trying to breathe through its mouth rather than its nose. It’ll be restless and unsettled.
Common symptoms include nasal discharge, loss of appetite, wheezing, and lethargy. If you can notice these symptoms or hear gurgling noises coming from your snake, your snake needs ‘systemic antibiotic therapy’ to eliminate the bacteria that are causing the respiratory tract infection.
Take time to learn about gopher snake pet care, invest in good-quality equipment, and buy your snake from a reputable dealer. Wild-caught snakes have far too many health and behavioral issues.
Make sure that you clean your snake’s enclosure regularly, and check your snake over for any signs of health problems. If you feel concerned or are unsure about an issue, always talk to a snake-savvy veterinarian.