Raising baby snakes is one of the best things about breeding them. It’s so much fun to watch them grow. Garter snakes are especially small when they’re young, but that’s not their only unique feature.
You have to know exactly what to feed them, how often, and what portion sizes to use. And the most important thing is to learn how to help baby garter snakes when sick.
1) How to House Baby Garter Snakes
One of the main ways that garter snakes are different to other species is that they live communally. Again, 99% of snake species prefer to live alone. In the wild, they’ll avoid other snakes of the same species, only coming together to mate. But in the wild, garter snakes congregate together. The most dramatic example is during hibernation, when thousands upon thousands of snakes can all share the same hibernacula (hibernating place).
In captivity, it’s perfectly safe to house a number of baby garter snakes together. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that they appear less stressed when housed communally.
That’s why we suggest the following setup for housing baby garter snakes:
- Use a five-gallon tank. This usually is too big for a baby snake, but garters are different. Make sure that that tank has plenty of ground cover and at least two hides. By ground cover, we mean leafy branches, either real or fake. The bigger the hide, the more likely they are to feel vulnerable, but with lots of hiding places, they’ll be fine.
- Have more than one moist hide, and preferably include a water bowl (which should be changed daily). Because they’re so small, baby garter snakes can dry out very quickly, which can kill them. By providing a small water bowl and moist hides, you allow them to monitor their moisture levels. Make sure that they can get in and out of the water bowl unassisted before leaving them alone with it, so they don’t drown.
- Use a heat mat to regulate the temperature inside their enclosure. Garter snakes a hot basking area, set at 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This is necessary so that they can digest. The ambient temperature throughout the rest of their enclosure should be between 75 and 85 degrees, at the higher end during the day, and at the lower end during the night. Humidity should be between 40 and 60%.
- Their enclosure will need a substrate. Since garter snakes like to burrow, you should use a substrate like aspen bark. Two inches of substrate is enough. Spot clean the substrate every day to remove poo or any damp patches, and completely change the aspen once a month.
- When you change the substrate, give the entire enclosure a proper clean using an antibacterial solution. This will help prevent conditions like scale rot.
Aside from that, baby garter snakes are easy to care for. You should bathe them by placing them in a small tub of water, especially before they shed. This will be once every four or five weeks.
2) Baby Garter Snake Diet
According to a paper in the Journal of Herpetology, wild garter snakes are well-known for having a very wide diet. They will eat almost anything they can find and overpower, including:
- Leeches, slugs, and snails
- Small lizards
- Small fish (minnows)
- Small rodents, especially young ones
- Frogs and toads
In the wild, most adult garter snakes would prefer to eat frogs and toads. The source above states that 85% of the diet of garter snakes they studied was made up of wood frogs and boreal chorus frogs. They would only eat rodents as a relatively small part of their diet (5%). However, it’s difficult to source captive-bred frogs and toads.
The problem here is that if you feed them wild-caught food, there’s a high chance that their meal could actually contain parasites, which of course would be bad for their health. The same applies to fish and small lizards. That’s one of the reasons why it’s best to stick to rodents. The fact that they have such a varied diet means that they’re usually fairly easy to coax onto a rodent diet. However, there are many options available to you if they don’t take well to one.
What do Garter Snakes Eat?
You should start by trying to get them onto a frozen and thawed rodent diet. This is ideal because a) rodents offer snakes a complete nutritional profile, and b) bulk bags of rodents are easy to source and last a long time in the freezer. As such, they’re the basis of most snake species’ diet in captivity.
However, if your garter snake doesn’t want to start on a rodent diet, that’s fine. Many baby snakes don’t. Some baby snakes are so adamant that they don’t recognize what you offer them as food, that they’ll starve before they eat it. But if your baby garter snake doesn’t want frozen and thawed rodent, try them on pieces of fish fillet, or cut up earthworms.
Neither of these should form the basis of their diet on an ongoing basis. Worms especially don’t have much nutritional value, so they should be regarded as a snack rather than the main part of their diet. If your baby garter snake doesn’t want to eat their rodent, and will only ever touch worm or fish, then try rubbing the rodent with a piece of fish or worm to transfer the smell. This might convince them to eat it.
Alternatively, you could try feeding your garter snake minnows. These are the kind of tiny fish that they would happily eat in the wild. They’re generally a better choice than fish fillet because you can guarantee they haven’t been processed or changed in any way. You can feed them to your snake either live or dead. If you do feed them live, there’s no chance that the prey could harm them like can happen if you feed them a live rodent.
What to Feed Baby Garter Snakes
If it’s time for your baby garter snake to start eating, start them off right by attempting to get them on a rodent diet. To do this, you’ll need to buy a bulk bag of frozen and thawed rodents.
These come in several sizes, including:
- Pinkies, which are between .5 and 1 inch long. They weigh between 1.5 and 3 grams.
- Fuzzies, which are between 1 and 1.5 inches long. They weigh between 3 and 7 grams.
- Hoppers, which are between 1.5 and 2 inches long. They weigh between 7 and 13 grams.
- Weanlings, which are between 2 and 2.5 inches long. They weigh between 13 and 18 grams.
- Adult mice, which are anywhere between 2 and 3.75 inches long. They weigh between 18 and 45 grams (or more).
You can also buy rats, which are bigger still. But if you need to feed a baby garter snake, the only size which matters are pinkies. Baby snakes typically eat the smallest size food, and since garter snakes are particularly small, they have to start with the smallest pinkies you can buy.
As a note, don’t be worried if pinkies seem too big for a baby garter snake. They can eat prey that’s bigger than their heads. If they have trouble swallowing their food, cut it up before you give it to them next time. There’s nothing wrong with that.
How Often to Feed a Baby Garter Snake
The frequency with which a garter snake eats depends on the exact nature of their diet. As a rule, though, young snakes should eat smaller portions, but more frequently, while adults should eat larger portions less frequently. In terms of portion size, their meal should leave a small lump in their middle after they’ve eaten it.
If a baby garter snake is still on a diet of earthworms, you should feed them every other day. This is much more frequently than you would usually feed a baby snake. That’s because earthworms don’t contain many calories or essential nutrients.
If your baby garter snake had to start on a fish fillet diet, they have to eat a little more frequently than if they ate rodents.
What to Do If a Baby Garter Snake Won’t Eat
If your baby garter snake refuses to eat, there are many tricks you can use to convince them to do so. Apart from one, none of them are even stressful for the snake.
- You can try rubbing some of their favorite snack food on their rodent food. That means rubbing earthworms or fish fillets, for example, onto a rodent so that the smell is transferred, so that they recognize it as food. After a couple of times, they’ll recognize the rodent as food all on its own.
- If that doesn’t work, you could try braining the pinkie. This is where you expose a tiny piece of brain matter from the rodent’s head, which the snake can then smell. While it does get frozen with the rest of the rodent, the fact that it remains inside the head means that it smells ‘fresher’ and more like food to the snake. You can use a needle or a knife to poke a little out.
- Next, try irritating the snake enough that they strike out at the food, which they will then eat because of their natural feeding reflex. Take the prey and gently nudge it against the side of the snake’s mouth, repeatedly, until they bite. Even though baby garter snakes can’t hurt you, you should still use tongs to hold the prey, so that your fingers don’t smell like their food. Otherwise, they might get confused.
- If they refuse to eat, you could try assisted feeding. This is, essentially, force-feeding. What you do is hold the snake by the back of their head, just at the juncture between their head and their neck. Then, push the food at their mouth until it opens slightly. As their mouth opens wider, keep pushing the prey inside, being careful to avoid damaging their teeth. You have to be particularly gentle when you do this, because baby garter snakes are so small that you could easily hurt them unintentionally.
Even though garter snakes have a varied diet, babies can still be fussy and refuse to eat. As such, it’s important that you get used to using at least one of these methods.
3) What to Do If a Baby Garter Snake is Sick
There are many signs that indicate your garter snake may be sick. If you notice any of the following, then it’s likely that they aren’t well.
- If your snake is breathing through their mouth rather than their nose, this indicates that their airways are blocked. This is a sign of a respiratory infection. Other signs include drooling, wheezing and sneezing.
- If your snake has a very pink belly, and their skin/scales there have become mushy, your snake has scale rot. This is an infection that can spread to their bloodstream and cause sepsis, a fatal condition.
- If your snake’s poo has parasites in it, this is a sign of worms. Garter snakes can also be affected by ticks, which hide underneath their scales, but are visible to the naked eye nonetheless. They can also catch mites, which are smaller still, and crawl along the snake’s back.
- Garter snakes can become overweight or underweight. To assess your snake’s weight, imagine their cross-section. A healthy cross-section looks like an arch, flat on the bottom, and rounded on the top. An overweight snake is completely round. An underweight snake’s sides cave in, so that they look like a triangle, with an arch running along their back.
If you do notice one or more of these signs, talk to a vet and try to figure out what the problem might be. Different issues have different solutions, but the first thing you should do any time that you suspect your snake is sick is to review their care guidelines. Problems like respiratory infections are usually brought on by a problem in their environment, e.g., that it’s too warm, too cold, too humid or too dry. So, review their living conditions and what can be done to improve them.
If the problem is serious, take your snake to a vet that’s used to reptiles and snakes. They will be able to identify what’s wrong with your snake and help you take steps to correct it. Scale rot, for example, requires antibiotics and it’s important that you get them from your vet. That’s because vets use different antibiotics for different kinds of bacteria, because some are more effective than others.