Whether looking after baby garter snakes by intention or otherwise, you need to know how to proceed. This flighty genus of snake (Thamnophis) requires special care and attention. Raising garter snakes can be extremely rewarding, as long as you know what you are doing.
Prepare a 5-gallon tank for your baby garter snakes. Feed the snakes separately, ideally encouraging a diet of mice. Get these nervous snakes used to handling without musking and biting. Watch out for health concerns, such as trouble shedding or skin blisters.
Garter snakes prefer to live in pairs or groups. You will need to be mindful of sexing your groupings, though. If you have housed a male and female garter snake together, premature breeding will occur.
How To Care for Baby Garter Snakes
The female garter snake will give birth to live young. The average number of babies is between 15 and 20. That’s a lot of small snakes, so be prepared.
1/ Tank Requirements
Unlike most breeds of snake, garter snakes actively prefer to live in groups. This reduces stress, especially for those born in captivity. Babies can thrive alone, but they’re happiest among others of their own species.
A tank for baby garter snakes should measure 5 gallons. This will provide enough space for all the snakes. If you only have 1 baby snake, you can halve this size. As the snakes grow older, you will need to upsize.
Provide multiple hiding places for the snakes. This will keep them feel comfortable. At least one of these hiding places should be moist to aid with shedding. The rest of the enclosure should be relatively dry.
Provide at least 1 bowl of water, which must be refreshed daily. This is not just for drinking. The snakes will also bathe in this water to prevent drying out, promote shedding and remove snake mites.
One end of the enclosure should contain a basking lamp. This should reach temperatures of around 86 degrees Fahrenheit. The rest of the enclosure should be cooler. An ambient temperature of around 72 degrees Fahrenheit suits garter snakes well. This is known as the temperature gradient.
Add climbing branches and decorations if you wish. The snakes are likely to be indifferent, though. Garter snakes are not natural climbers. They prefer to burrow, which should be reflected in your choice of substrate.
Two inches of aspen bark is typically ideal. This will need to spot-cleaned daily as snakes eliminate in their substrate. If your snakes are eating worms, their feces will be watery and foul-smelling. A full change of bedding will be required about once a week.
As garter snakes are social, they are unlikely to display cannibalistic behaviors. The exception to this is during feeding time. Never feed garter snakes together. Instead, you should always use separate containers.
2/ Food And Diet
A wild garter snake will hunt frogs and toads for food. Baby garter snakes will start eating tadpoles before graduating to full-grown amphibians.
Pet stores rarely stock frogs as a food source. Instead, feed your baby garter snakes earthworms, slugs, or mice. It will be a while before the snakes are big enough to eat a mouse whole, though. Perhaps start with worms and move on to mice as your snakes grow in size and stature.
Feed your snakes one at a time in a separate location. Don’t just offer 3 worms for 3 snakes and walk away. Brasher, more confident snakes will outmuscle weaker, more bashful counterparts. Some snakes will become overweight and others will go hungry.
Baby garter snakes should be fed little and often. Divide food portions up, offering a small meal every other day. You can tell if your snakes are sated by their shape. A baby snake should have a slight bulge in its stomach.
Earthworms and Slugs
Earthworms are a popular food choice for baby garter snakes. It’s best to get worms from a pet store or dealer. Worms found in a garden may host parasites or toxins. In addition, red wriggler worms are toxic to snakes.
The best worms for baby garter snakes are nightcrawlers. Check fishing bait stores for these worms. They are large and muscular, though. Too big for some baby garter snakes. Chop these worms into quarters.
While most garter snakes will eat worms, they are not filling or nutritious. Worms do not offer much calcium either, so you may wish to offer a supplement. Be warned, worms also lead to watery, smelly feces.
Slugs are more nutritionally balanced, but harder to find. As with worms, don’t simply catch slugs from the yard. They may have eaten toxic slug repellent. Order these from a reputable dealer.
A captive snake will gain full nutrition from mice. The challenge arises in convincing the snake to eat frozen-thawed rodents.
Obviously, the rodent should be thawed first. A live mouse will be more appealing as garter snakes like their prey to move. However, a live mouse will fight a snake, which could result in injury or worse.
A baby garter snake will be too small to eat a full mouse, even a pinky. You’ll need to cut the mouse up before feeding. One full mouse, whether fed whole in or in pieces, will sustain a young garter snake for a week.
Feeding mice is not for everybody. Some people choose garter snakes as pets as they do not need to eat mice. If they will not accept worms, attempt feeding mice. If the snake remains fussy, try wiggling it about to simulate signs of life in the prey. That usually gets baby snakes eating rodents.
3/ Snake Handling
Garter snakes, especially those born in captivity, tend to be docile. This means that these snakes will tolerate handling well. If you condition them as babies, garter snakes can even learn to enjoy handling.
You should get your baby snakes used to being handled. This isn’t just for fun. You will need to handle your snakes on occasion. The snakes will need to be moved when their enclosure needs to be cleaned. Baby garter snakes must also be separated at feeding time.
Baby garter snakes are nervous and flighty. When you first start handling, the snake is likely to resist. Garter snakes aren’t constrictors, so they will not wrap around your hands or body. Instead, the snake may thrash around and try to escape.
Be mindful of this as your snake could fall and hurt itself. Move your hands and avoid allowing it to slip through your fingers. Understand the signs of a frightened garter snake, such as musking and biting.
Most baby garter snakes will accept handling once they learn to trust you. Some will remain skittish, though. If this is the case, do not force the snake into handling. A nervous snake should only be picked up when necessary.
Garter snakes musk more than any other breed. This is a form of self-defense. Garter snakes are small, nonvenomous and have tiny teeth. This makes them easy pickings for predators in the wild.
If you are handling a baby garter snake against its will, it will musk. This involves releasing a foul smell from a vent in the snake’s tail. The snake may release feces at the same time.
Garter snake musk is unpleasant, but it is not harmful. The snake is frightened. Put it down and re-attempt handling training at a later date.
As explained by The Journal of Herpetology, female garter snakes have stronger-smelling musk than males. However, the musk produced by a female garter snake is not toxic.
Biting is usually the last resort for a frightened garter snake. If you have been bitten, ensure the snake is not simply hungry and confused.
If the snake will not relinquish its jaws, gently push the head forward. You are trying to remove the snake’s teeth from your hand, which point backward. Too much force could cause the teeth to break.
A bite from a garter snake is unlikely to cause problems. Most of the time, it will not break the skin. Just be aware that their saliva can provoke an allergic reaction, but this is very uncommon.
4/ Health And Wellness
Clean their enclosure regularly to avoid the risk of bacteria. A single snake will need its enclosure cleaned once a week.
Obviously, if you have multiple baby garter snakes in a tank, it will get messy faster. More snakes equal more feces.
Aside from basic cleaning, keep an eye on these three common health concerns with baby garter snakes.
A baby garter snake will shed its skin for the first time around 10 days after birth. A snake ready to shed will not eat, temporarily lose its sight, and hide more frequently. The snake may also be moodier and bite.
Provide some rough material on the ground of your snake’s enclosure. As the garter snake slithers over these, it will pull off its old skin. If this does not help, the humidity in the enclosure is too low.
Provide a damp washcloth in a shedding box. A snake will curl up on this and soften the skin. A separate humidifier may also be necessary.
Internal parasites can kill garter snakes. Often, these are caused by diet. Wild garter snakes carry a range of parasites that are passed on by their prey. This is why you should not feed your baby snakes anything you find in your yard. Always get food from a reputable supplier.
Be vigilant about looking out for intestinal worms. Pinworms, tapeworms, and roundworms can set up camp in a snake’s lungs. Unfortunately, these parasites rarely show symptoms. Look out for small lumps on the surface of the snake’s scales while handling. Listen to the breathing of the snake and check for signs of popping. If so, there’s likely a lung issue.
These symptoms suggest the presence of intestinal worms. Anti-worming medication should be your first step. Consider making anti-worming meds part of your snake’s regular routine as a precaution. In addition to feeding the right food, consider freezing it for 30 days then thawing. This will kill any potential parasites.
You may have noticed that we have not recommended fish as snake food. Some pet stores will suggest fish as nourishment for your baby snakes. This is especially likely before they are ready for mice.
It’s true that baby garter snakes enjoy fish. This is a risky meal, though. In addition to the presence of parasites discussed above, fish can cause thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency. Not even freezing fish in advance will resolve this issue.
Thiamine deficiency leads to a lack of control for the snake, including convulsions. If you spot these behaviors, get some thiamine into a garter snake. Consider feeding it some liver.
In the aftermath, stop feeding fish to the snake at once. If the baby garter snake is now too big for earthworms, switch to mice.
Mites are tiny so, unless you are actively looking, they may go unnoticed. This irritation is usually the first warning of a mite infestation.
Left untreated, mites can kill a snake. They gather around areas where the scales are thinner, constantly feeding on the snake. Eventually, the snake will lose a lot of blood and become too weak to carry on.
You could try drowning the mites, but this isn’t easy. If a snake is submerged in shallow water, this will reduce the number of mites temporarily.
If one baby garter snake has mites, the whole litter is at risk. All must be attended to. Treatment for a mite infestation is as follows:
- Fill a tub of water treated with an antiseptic. Betadine is snake-safe.
- Encourage each snake to submerge in the water
- Pat the snakes down with an antiseptic washcloth. Pay particular attention to the eyes without getting any medication in the eyes.
- Dry the snakes off
- Place the snakes in another tank with plain, clean paper as a substrate.
- Thoroughly clean the primary enclosure. Remove all substrate and disinfect all surfaces.
- Bake any wooden decorations and boil any rocks. This will kill mites that have fled to these furnishings.
- Leave to dry in the sun, ideally for at least 24 hours.
- Replenish the enclosure, return the snakes, and monitor them carefully for at least 6 weeks.
Better yet, though, is prevention. Clean your snake enclosure regularly and do not mingle your snakes. Wild reptiles – and food sources – or show snakes at expos could be carrying mites. Protect your snakes by keeping them isolated.
Garter snakes are not aquatic. They need to live in dry conditions. If a garter snake rests on a wet surface, it will develop blisters on its skin. Ensure the snake’s habitat is dry, aside from a small water bowl for bathing.
This is a delicate balancing act with baby garter snakes. It is possible for a young garter snake to dry out, which is why a shedding box is so useful.
Refusal to Eat Food
Some baby garter snakes are fussy eaters. If this occurs during the winter, the snake may be choosing to brumate.
If the snake is graduating from worms to pinkies, rub a worm on the mouse. The scent will attract the snake, and it will accept the mouse as food.
If this does not work, take a needle and expose some of the brain of the mouse. This will smell fresh in comparison. Not all garter snakes like frozen-thawed food. This is not nice work, but it may work.
If not, encourage the snake to play with its food. Nudge the mouse against the snake’s mouth with tongs. This will lead to a biting reflex as all snakes prefer to consume live prey. This will likely lead to eating.
Brumation is the reptile equivalent of hibernation. A snake cannot digest food in cold temperatures. They manage to survive this as their metabolism has slowed down so much.
Some babies will willingly decide to brumate. They will stop eating, choosing to sleep and hide. Never force an unwilling snake to eat in the cold. The food will start to decay before it is digested, which can be lethal.
If a snake refuses to eat, put it into brumation. You may find that some baby garter snakes choose brumation and others do not. In this case, move the snakes that wish to brumate into smaller accommodation.
Before beginning brumation, allow the snake to bathe in lukewarm water. This will encourage defection, flushing any remaining food from the digestive tract.
For a snake to brumate, it needs colder temperatures. Not too cold – anything below 40 degrees Fahrenheit will be fatal. Aim for a temperature between 50-60 degrees. A basement, shed or attic is safer, assuming there are no draughts.
Check the ambient temperature, ensuring it is not too warm. If the temperature is too hot the snake’s metabolism will remain active. Without food, this is harmful. The snake will lose more weight than is safe.
If you are comfortable raising baby garter snakes, follow these steps. Once the garter snakes reach 2 years of age, they will be sexually mature. Refer to our complete guide to caring for garter snakes as pets for more info.