Grass snakes (Natrix natrix) are commonly found across Europe and Asia, but they can thrive in captivity in America. But that doesn’t mean that grass snakes make good pets for beginners as they’re more difficult to handle than other types of pet snakes.
Grass snakes require a 40-gallon tank with average temperatures and high humidity. They don’t handle easily, frequently musk, and can play dead. They eat amphibians in the wild, but can live on a rodent diet.
Grass snakes have strict requirements. We’ll then look at how to take care of grass snakes as pets, everything from their enclosure type/size to their daily food requirements.
Do Grass Snakes Make Good Pets?
Grass snakes are a common snake found across Europe and in much of Asia. There are many subspecies found across their range, which vary in color, pattern, and size.
With such an extensive range, the grass snake’s habitat varies too. However, they prefer living close to fresh water, and they are strong swimmers. This is reflected in their diet, which is mostly amphibians in the wild.
Grass snakes aren’t commonly kept as pets in the USA. They’re more widely kept across Europe and Asia than they are in the United States. But that doesn’t mean they’re never found.
Grass Snake Alternative Names
The scientific name of the grass snake is Natrix natrix, but they have several other common names too. This can be confusing if you’re not clear on which snake you’re talking about.
These snakes are also known as ringed snakes and water snakes. Their pattern gives them the first name, and their habitat the second name.
Also, other snakes are called ‘grass snakes’ sometimes. The rough green snake is also called the grass snake in the U.S., because it is primarily found in grassy habitats. For information on this snake, check out our rough green snake pet care guide instead.
What Do Grass Snakes Look Like?
Grass snakes are a dark green or brown color all over. Their characteristic pattern includes a yellow collar around the neck and behind the head. This collar sometimes doesn’t quite meet in the middle behind their head.
The rest of their pattern varies. They tend to have dark markings along their back and sides, or along their sides. These markings may be close together or far apart. It’s impossible to generalize as there are so many different grass snake subspecies.
In colder regions especially, their color may be grey or black. This reflects their different environment.
How Long Do Grass Snakes Live?
Grass snakes, like other snake species, live longer in captivity than they do in the wild. That’s a combination of several factors including:
- Improved health from a regular diet and medical care
- Fewer parasites found in food, or gained through contact with other snakes.
- A lack of predators. Here some info on how snakes protect themselves from predators.
- Improved quality of life and lack of stress
In the wild, they may live up to 15 years old. A good way of guessing how old a snake is, is through the scars they have. An older snake will have lots of scars from fights with predators and other snakes. But it’s impossible to tell the exact age unless you track them as part of a wildlife program.
According to HAGR, grass snakes can reach 20 years old. Anecdotal reports suggest they may reach 25. This is something that you may not appreciate if you’ve ever owned a snake before.
How Big Do Grass Snakes Get?
Grass snakes are a long and slender snake species. Their bodies can get deceptively long, but they remain light.
In terms of how long they get, grass snakes can reach between three and five feet. This is a normal length for a pet snake. Males are shorter than females, as is often the case with snake species. The male’s tail is longer.
However, their weight doesn’t match their length. Grass snakes only tip the scales at around 250g. This is much lighter than other pet snakes of a similar length. This makes them easier to handle. Again, females are heavier than males.
Are Grass Snakes Protected?
Grass snakes are protected in many of the areas that they live in the wild. They don’t live in the U.S., so U.S. laws don’t apply.
In the U.K. (where there is a large population), they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This Act means that they cannot be traded without a license, but can be captured and kept.
You can usually keep one as a pet in the U.S. with no issues. However, many states have made it illegal to import and keep non-native snakes, either venomous or non-venomous.
What Do Grass Snakes Eat?
Grass snakes usually eat amphibians, particularly the common frog and common toad. They have also been observed eating ants, larvae, and earthworms.
They prefer living near fresh water, which makes finding prey like this easy. This is a more varied diet than many other snake species, which only eat rodents.
Are Grass Snakes Constrictors?
Constrictors are snakes that wrap around their prey to kill it. They will bite the prey. Then they will wrap their body around it. Most people think that this kills by choking, but it doesn’t. The snake wraps so tightly that the prey experiences cardiac arrest.
Grass snakes aren’t constrictors. Instead, they eat their prey live. They bite onto it and swallow it without killing it beforehand. Most snake species avoid doing this as the prey can cause them damage. Grass snakes don’t seem to care.
Are Grass Snakes Dangerous?
Fundamental to whether grass snakes make good pets is if they’re dangerous or not. All the common pet snakes are non-venomous, and most species are small.
The short answer is that grass snakes aren’t dangerous. They don’t use venom, they don’t have long fangs, and they won’t constrict you. They’re far too small to regard you as potential prey.
If you socialize them, they won’t view you as a threat either.
Do Grass Snakes Have Teeth?
Almost every snake species has teeth. The only exception is egg-eating snakes, but grass snakes aren’t an egg-eating species. They need teeth to hunt for their prey.
You might be imagining big, long fangs. But most species don’t have fangs anywhere near this long. It’s only dangerous venomous species that have fangs like these.
A grass snake’s teeth are different. They have two rows of teeth, one on the top and one on the bottom. Each of these rows is split in two so that their jaws can expand outwards to eat large prey.
Their teeth are curved inwards. This means that when they catch prey in their mouth, they can’t escape easily. When you look at a picture of a grass snake, you won’t even see their fangs. That’s because they’re short and hidden by the snake’s gums.
Are Grass Snakes Poisonous?
Grass snakes aren’t venomous or poisonous. Venomous snakes have venom glands, which are at the back of the snake’s head. These are connected to their fangs through ducts. The snake squeezes their venom gland to shoot venom through their fangs, into the bite wound.
Grass snakes don’t have hollow fangs that could do this. They also don’t have venom glands to produce venom.
That being said, that doesn’t mean that their bite is harmless. It will still hurt. Also, snakes’ mouths are full of bacteria. A bite from one can still get infected, even if the snake isn’t venomous.
Can Grass Snakes Hurt Dogs?
Grass snakes spend time in the grass near fresh water. This means hikers or people with dogs commonly encounter them. The dog may inadvertently stumble over the snake, startling it.
When startled, the snake may defend itself by biting. Because dogs explore new areas with their noses close to the ground, they may be bitten in the face. Grass snakes may harm dogs, as the dog may be bitten somewhere sensitive. If they are bitten in the eye, they could go blind.
Worse yet, if not treated correctly, the bite will become infected. The area around the dog’s eyes or nose could swell up dangerously. In the worst case scenario, without antibiotics, the infection could then cause sepsis and death.
If a snake bites your dog, whether it’s a grass snake or not, have them seen by a vet.
Even if disturbed, though, the snake is unlikely to attack. It is far more likely to slither away as fast as it can. Failing that it will musk or play dead. All of the above also applies to the question can grass snakes bite cats?
Can Grass Snakes Kill You?
Grass snakes cannot kill you. Their bite isn’t venomous, so they can’t kill you that way. And they aren’t constrictors, either, so they can’t hurt or kill you that way.
The only way that they could cause you damage is through their bite. If you don’t treat the bite, it could become infected. However, you would have to let it fester for a long time before it became a severe medical issue.
They also don’t view you as something they could kill. You’re far too big to be a prey item. You’re also far too big and threatening to be something they could harm. That’s why they will try to escape rather than fight you.
Even if they do fight you, they won’t fight you thinking that they can kill you. They’ll fight you to try and scare you off.
Can You Handle Grass Snakes?
Grass snakes aren’t as friendly as other pet snake species. While they are unlikely to bite or hurt you, handling them isn’t always a fun experience.
To handle a grass snake, you have to let them wrap around your hand. If you don’t support them either this way or another way, they will feel unsafe. This will stress them out. Letting them wrap around your hand will likely result in them musking.
In all other ways, you should follow basic snake handling guidelines. These guidelines include:
- Not allowing children or pets to handle the snake.
- Not allowing any adult without any experience of snakes to handle the snake.
- Holding the snake confidently, but not gripping them too hard.
- Passing the snake from hand to hand as it moves around, so that you don’t drop it.
- Not letting go of the snake in an area that it could easily get away and hide (e.g. outside)
You would also benefit from purchasing several items of equipment. These help you handle the snake safely, and with a minimum of discomfort to your pet. The most crucial are snake hooks and tongs.
These allow you to grab or hook the snake to move them around. They’re especially useful for lifting the snake out of their enclosure. You would also benefit from owning a snake bag, which can be used for travel.
Everything else to do with snake handling is common sense. Don’t threaten the snake, don’t purposefully make the snake defensive, and don’t handle them for too long.
Can Grass Snakes Bite?
Grass snakes frequently need to bite in the wild. It’s the only way that they can subdue their prey, as they don’t use venom or constriction.
However, they don’t frequently bite in self-defense. Instead, they will try to escape. If they can’t escape, they have three self-defense mechanisms that still don’t involve attacking:
- ‘False strike,’ which is where they appear to bite but only bump into you with their nose (this is less dangerous for the snake)
- Releasing a foul-smelling musk from their anal gland
- Playing dead and waiting until the predator/attacker goes away (death feigning)
Your grass snake will try one of these methods before it resorts to biting you during handling. According to Europe PMC, this is especially the case if the snake is too slow to escape.
If your grass snake does bite, treat the bite correctly. Wash the bite with water, and apply an antibacterial cream or salve. Cover with a dressing. Monitor the bite by checking it each night and reapplying the salve.
In the case of a minor infection, the area will become red and swollen. If this occurs, contact a medical professional to have the bite dressed properly.
What to Feed a Captive Grass Snake
This is one of the reasons why grass snakes aren’t frequently kept as pets. They don’t feed easily. Some people report that they refuse to feed on frozen and defrosted food. This would make them awkward for a novice to keep.
Why is this the case? It’s because snakes don’t naturally eat dead prey. They eat live prey, or prey they have killed for themselves seconds before. The smell, taste, texture, and temperature of frozen and thawed prey are different, and they don’t recognize it as food.
In truth, this is because pet grass snakes are usually caught from the wild. Any snake that is used to the wild will struggle to adjust to captivity. This is true of all species, not just grass snakes.
The younger the snake is when you catch it, the less of an issue this will be. And if you buy a captive-bred grass snake, this won’t be an issue at all.
What to Feed a Grass Snake in Captivity
If you feed them rodents from the time they’re a juvenile, your grass snake will be fine. Frozen and thawed rodents can be bought either online or from most pet stores.
It would be unwise to feed your grass snakes amphibians, even if that’s what they eat in the wild. Here’s why:
- Amphibians are wild-caught rather than captive bred. This means they can have parasites.
- Amphibians are difficult to find frozen, rather than live.
- Amphibians cost a lot more than rodents when compared by weight.
The kind of rodent you feed the snake depends on the snake’s age. Juvenile snakes should eat ‘pinkies.’ These are tiny baby mice that haven’t developed hair yet, with bright pink skin.
As the snake grows older, it can eat larger ‘prey.’ Fuzzies are the next step up. They are slightly larger and heavier than pinkies. They get their name from their small amount of fuzzy fur.
When the snake is an adult, it can eat adult mice. These might seem too big, but the snake can unhinge its jaw to eat prey larger than its head. This is a trait shared with most other snake species.
How Often Should You Feed a Grass Snake?
Juveniles should be fed roughly every three or four days. If they appear hungry long before their next feed, you may not be giving them enough. If that’s the case, increase their portion sizes.
Adults feed less frequently than juveniles. This is the case with all pet snake species. Adults may prefer feeding once every seven days to fourteen days (depending on portion size).
Keep an eye on whether the snake is hungry before their next feed. Also, check consistently whether the snake is underweight or overweight. Overweight snakes are rounded, while underweight snakes have a visible spine and a triangular cross-section.
If the snake doesn’t start feeding at all, start them on fish. Juvenile grass snakes will react especially to small, live fish left in front of them. This can be their stepping stone onto a variety of food. Be sure to offer a variety of species, as feeding them solely one species may lead to thiamine deficiency.
Grass Snake Enclosure Requirements
Every captive snake has to be kept in an enclosure. This enclosure can be made of wood, plastic, or glass. Plastic is ideal as it’s the easiest to clean, and it holds onto moisture and humidity well.
The size of the enclosure is vital. It has to be big enough for the snake to comfortably sit, or move around. But it also can’t be so big that the snake feels vulnerable and exposed. For a four or five-foot grass snake, a 36”-18”-12” enclosure would be suitable. This is roughly a 40-gallon tank.
Snakes are reptiles, which means they’re cold-blooded. They can’t regulate their temperature. You need to help them. This applies to all snake species, grass snakes included.
A tank should have one end warmer than the other. The warm end is called a basking spot. It’s where the snake will go if it wants to get warmer. They can move to the cooler spot if they want to get cooler.
The basking spot should reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit. They don’t come from warm parts of the world, so this temperature should be sufficient. The cooler end of the enclosure should range between 72 and 75 degrees.
These temperatures can be achieved in many ways. The most common is to use a heat mat. Heat mats sit underneath the tank. You can set them so that they only heat the cage to a specific temperature.
You could also use a heat bulb or regular light bulb. These provide warmth from above, like the sun. The temperature is more difficult to monitor with these than it is with a heat mat.
Grass snakes live near fresh water, so humidity is vital. Their humidity should be between 50% and 70%. This is higher than many other species, as they live near water.
The primary way that you should provide humidity to your grass snake is through a water bowl. They should have one anyway, as they like being in the water. Provide one that they can submerge themselves in entirely, but get out of easily. This helps them when they need to shed.
Over a day, the bowl will give off moisture through evaporation. This should help keep humidity levels up. Monitor humidity levels using a tool called a hygrometer. If they go below what they ought to be, give the enclosure a quick spray with a misting bottle.
Change the water every day. This will prevent bacterial build-up.
Bedding and Substrate
Grass snakes have particular substrate requirements. The substrate is a material that you use to line the enclosure. Most people would likely use newspaper, but this isn’t always suitable.
Grass snakes need a substrate that works well in high-humidity settings. The best kinds are orchid bark, coconut husk beddings, and cypress mulch. Each of these substrates releases humidity steadily.
Using a regular substrate like aspen shavings or paper towels wouldn’t be a good idea. That’s because they would quickly get wet, and you would have to change them often. If you allowed the snake to sit in the wet substrate, it would develop scale rot.
These requirements aren’t much different from those of many common pet snakes. But their difficulty with handling still means they aren’t a good beginner snake.