Rat snakes are one of the easiest snakes to care for as pets. They have docile temperaments, and typically don’t grow longer than 5 feet. They are great eaters, and don’t require extreme humidity or temperatures.
Choose a plastic or glass enclosure around the same length as your snake. Include at least one hide, a water bowl, and some substrate (e.g. aspen). Use a heat lamp and thermostat to keep the vivarium between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Feed your rat snake on frozen-thawed mice or rats that are as wide as the broadest part of your snake’s body.
Our complete rat snake care guide is applicable to most North American rat snakes in the genus Pantherophis. The most popular species include corn snakes, Texas rat snakes, gray rat snakes, and black rat snakes.
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Do Rat Snakes Make Good Pets?
Rat snakes are non-venomous constrictor snakes that belong to the Colubridae family. They are so named because their natural diet consists primarily of rodents.
There are hundreds of different species that can be referred to as “rat snakes”. Our guide focuses on rat snakes in the genus Pantherophis, native to the United States. These rat snakes make excellent pets, and are ideal for beginner snake owners.
Rat snakes naturally thrive in a temperate environment, and don’t require extreme temperatures or humidity. A water dish and a heat lamp is all you’ll need to keep atmospheric conditions perfect for your rat snake.
Because they hunt rodents in the wild, captive rat snakes happily feed on frozen-thawed mice and rats. They’re great eaters, and aren’t prone to hunger strikes (unlike ball pythons).
The main attribute responsible for rat snakes’ popularity is their temperament. They’re confident around humans, and tolerate handling well. Rat snakes rarely bite, and because they’re non-venomous, the occasional nip doesn’t pose any danger.
Younger rat snakes can be shy, and will sometimes shake their tails in self-defense. But with time and regular handling, they become used to people.
Prices for pet rat snakes typically start at around $50. Expect to pay more if you’re looking for a designer morph, or a rarer species.
How Big Do Rat Snakes Get?
Rat snakes are medium-sized, slim-bodied snakes. Every species is different, but most rat snakes reach 4 to 5.5 feet in length as adults. Some larger species can reach 6 feet or more. But even at their full size, rat snakes rarely reach more than 900g in weight.
Typically, male rat snakes grow slightly bigger than females. This is likely because male rat snakes engage in combat during the mating season. According to Animal Behaviour, larger males are more likely to win the right to mate.
Like most snakes, rat snakes continue growing throughout their lives. You’ll regularly need to upgrade your rat snake’s enclosure, hide and water dish as your snake grows.
The typical lifespan of a captive rat snake is between 10 and 20 years. Be certain that you can handle such a long-term commitment before purchasing your new snake.
What Are the Different Types of Rat Snakes?
The term “rat snake” can be used to describe hundreds of different species across the globe. Rodents are the preferred food of most snakes, so it’s not surprising that so many have earned this nickname.
The rat snakes most commonly kept as pets in the U.S. belong to the genus Pantherophis. This genus contains 10 species and dozens of subspecies, including rat snakes and fox snakes. Here are the most popular pet rat snakes.
|Common Name||Scientific Name||Description|
|Corn snake (red rat snake)||Pantherophis guttatus||Orange with red saddle-shaped blotches outlined in black|
|Gray rat snake||Pantherophis spiloides||Gray with dark gray saddle-shaped blotches|
|Baird’s rat snake||Pantherophis bairdi||Yellow-orange with dark brown vertical stripes|
|Emory rat snake||Pantherophis emoryi||Light gray or tan with brown saddle-shaped blotches outlined in black|
|Black rat snake||Pantherophis obsoletus||Solid black snake with cream underbelly|
|Texas rat snake||P. o. lindheimeri||Yellow to tan with brown or olive green blotches|
|Everglades rat snake||P. o. rossalleni||Bright orange with faint brown vertical stripes|
|Yellow rat snake||P. o. quadrivittata||Yellow with brown vertical stripes|
Many of the most popular rat snake species are also available in variants known as morphs. These are snakes that differ in color or pattern, thanks to genetic mutations.
Rat Snake Morphs
Wild rat snakes naturally display different colors (phases) depending on their region. For example, Everglades, Texas, yellow, and black rat snakes are all color variations of Pantherophis obsoletus. Gray rat snakes come in a phase known as ‘white oak’ (white with light grey blotches).
Morphs are selectively bred for in captivity. Breeders choose snakes displaying certain characteristics and breed them to create different colors and patterns. Most of these would occur rarely in the wild, if at all.
Because they’ve been bred in captivity for decades, corn snakes have the widest variety of morphs. Some of the most popular corn snake morphs include:
- Anerythristic: gray with dark grey markings
- Albino: whitish yellow with orange and red markings
- Snow: pinkish white with pure white markings
- Caramel: pale yellow with golden markings
- Lavender: grey with a purplish hue
- Blood Red: red with maroon markings that fade with age
- Palmetto: white with grey and orange speckling
Other rat snake species have morphs, too, but they’re harder to find. Morphs are often more expensive than ‘normal’ (wild-type) rat snakes; they can cost hundreds of dollars.
How to Set Up a Rat Snake Enclosure
Before you bring your new rat snake home, you’ll have to set up its vivarium (enclosure). Snake vivariums are typically made out of glass or plastic, but wooden vivariums with glass panels are also popular.
Your rat snake’s vivarium will need a source of heat, a water dish, one or two hides, and some substrate. Ideally, you should also include some form of enrichment, such as climbing branches.
Rat snakes have specific requirements in terms of space, temperature, humidity and cleanliness. Housing a rat snake in inadequate conditions can cause stress and health problems.
Choosing a Rat Snake Vivarium
When it comes to rat snake housing, you can choose a glass, plastic or wooden enclosure. Each material has its own benefits and drawbacks.
- Glass tanks are attractive, and perfect if you want your snake to be on display. But they are heavy and expensive, and aren’t great at containing heat or humidity.
- Plastic tubs are lightweight, cheap, and easy to clean. They’re perfect for managing heat and humidity, as you can drill ventilation holes in the sides. However, they aren’t pretty, so not ideal for displaying your snake.
- Wooden vivariums are stylish, and contain heat and humidity well. Unfortunately, they are difficult to clean, and can have issues with rot and mold.
Whichever enclosure you choose, it should be secure, with a locking lid. Rat snakes are great at climbing, and can squeeze through tiny gaps.
Your rat snake’s enclosure should be roughly the same length as its body, and tall enough to incorporate climbing enrichment. But if the vivarium is too large, your snake will feel stressed.
We’d recommend starting with a plastic tub. Replace the tub periodically with a larger one as your rat snake grows. If you like, upgrade to a glass vivarium when your snake reaches adulthood.
Temperature and Lighting
Your rat snake’s vivarium will need a source of heat. There are three main options:
- Heat lamp. This sits above the enclosure and gives off heat and light.
- Ceramic heat emitter. This is a bulb that emits heat, but not light.
- Heat mat. This is placed underneath the tank and provides belly heat.
Because wild rat snakes like to bask in the sun, we recommend using a heat lamp or ceramic heat emitter. This will best replicate the snake’s natural habitat.
Place the heat lamp at one end of the enclosure. This will create a temperature gradient, allowing your snake to better regulate its body heat.
The warm end should be 85 degrees Fahrenheit, while the cool end should be around 75. Use a thermostat to regulate the temperature.
Rat snakes don’t require full-spectrum UVA/UVB lighting to survive. However, their enclosures should be bright during the day and dark at night.
Placing your rat snake’s enclosure in a sunny room should provide enough light. If you do choose to include a light source in the vivarium, switch it off at night. Otherwise, your snake could become stressed.
Ideal Humidity for Rat Snakes
Because rat snakes are native to the U.S., they prefer moderate humidity. They don’t require the kind of tropical environment that other snakes demand.
Placing a water dish inside the vivarium should provide sufficient moisture. Some of the water will evaporate, keeping the air perfectly humid.
Use a hygrometer to monitor the humidity inside your rat snake’s vivarium. It should be between 40-50%, which is similar to the moisture in the average home.
To increase humidity, use a larger water dish, or place it at the warm end. To reduce humidity, increase the enclosure’s ventilation or use a smaller water dish.
During shed, rat snakes benefit from a little extra humidity (60-70%). You can achieve this by adding a humidity box, full of damp sphagnum moss.
Best Rat Snake Substrate
Substrate (bedding) is for lining the bottom of your rat snake’s vivarium. This will help the snake move around its enclosure, and soak up any waste and spilled water.
The substrate for a rat snake should be absorbent, non-toxic, and allow for burrowing. The best substrates for rat snakes are:
- Aspen shavings. Aspen is non-toxic, widely available and affordable. It’s moderately absorbent and good for snakes with low humidity needs. However, it can be dusty.
- Hemp bedding. Hemp bedding is attractive, eco-friendly, dust-free, and highly absorbent. The only downside is that it can be expensive and hard to find.
- Cypress mulch. This is absorbent and great for creating naturalistic looking vivariums. However, it will raise the enclosure’s humidity, so incorporate plenty of ventilation.
- Reptile soil such as Zoo Med Reptisoil. This closely mimics a rat snake’s natural habitat and is perfect for burrowing. Unfortunately, soil is quite messy and tends to get everywhere.
Flat substrates such as newspaper and reptile carpet will suffice if necessary. But as rat snakes like to dig, they aren’t ideal.
Avoid sand, as this can cause impaction if swallowed. Aromatic woods such as pine and cedar can cause respiratory issues, so steer clear of these, too.
Once you’ve set up your rat snake’s vivarium with substrate and heating, you can add in the accessories. Your rat snake will need:
- One or two hides. Snake hides are like caves, with a small entrance to get in and out. The hides should be just big enough for your rat snake to curl up inside. If it’s too big, it won’t feel secure.
- A water dish, big enough for your snake to bathe in. This should be washed out daily and topped up with clean water.
- Something rough, such as a rock. Rat snakes like to nudge against a rough surface to help them shed their skin.
- Some enrichment. Rat snakes love to climb, so branches and climbing vines are ideal.
The vivarium shouldn’t have much empty space, as snakes like to feel secure and hidden from predators. Large open spaces can cause stress. According to General and Comparative Endocrinology, stressed snakes are more likely to display aggressive behavior.
If there’s lots of space left after adding your accessories, fill it up with more enrichment. Hollow logs, ledges, rocks, pieces of wood and artificial plants are all perfect.
How to Clean a Rat Snake Tank
It’s crucial to keep your rat snake’s enclosure clean and hygienic. Snakes defecate and urinate regularly, and this can lead to bacterial growth if not promptly dealt with.
Every day, spot-clean of your rat snake’s vivarium. Remove any waste, shed skin, and any wet or soiled substrate. Check underneath your snake’s hide and accessories as well.
Remove the water bowl and clean it with soapy water or diluted vinegar. Rinse it thoroughly and refill it with fresh water before putting it back in the enclosure. Water bowls can harbor harmful microorganisms, so they must be washed daily.
At least once a month, your rat snake’s vivarium will need a full clean. Place your snake into a separate enclosure while you do this. Discard all substrate, and remove and clean all the cage accessories.
Wash out the inside of the vivarium with a food-safe disinfectant, and dry it thoroughly. You can then add fresh substrate along with the cleaned vivarium accessories.
Ideally, wear gloves when handling your snake, and touching anything inside its vivarium. Wash your hands thoroughly before and after. Rat snakes carry salmonella bacteria on their skin, which can cause illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists several case reports of people who have contracted salmonella from their snakes.
What Do Rat Snakes Eat?
As you may have gathered from their name, rat snakes are voracious rodent-eaters. In the wild, their diet would consist primarily of mice, rats, voles, and chipmunks.
In the absence of rodents, rat snakes may also eat other small animals such as lizards, frogs, and birds. According to Ecological Applications, black rat snakes frequently raid songbird nests.
In captivity, rat snakes do best on a diet of mice and rats. Rodents provide all the nutrition your rat snake needs to thrive. Feeder mice and rats are available to buy from most pet stores, and dedicated online stores.
Although you can feed live, we recommend feeding frozen-thawed. This means purchasing pre-killed mice and rats, which arrive frozen and must be defrosted before feeding. Live mice and rats could harm your snake by biting it out of self-defense.
To determine the right size rodent for your rat snake, look at the broadest part of the snake’s body. Feed it a rodent that is the same width or slightly wider than your snake. After eating, there should be a slight but noticeable bulge in your snake’s stomach.
Baby rat snakes start out eating pinky (newborn) mice. As they grow, they can progress to larger mice, and eventually rats. Rats are more nutritionally dense, so move to rats as soon as your snake is large enough.
How to Feed a Rat Snake
Rat snakes are great eaters, and don’t need encouragement. They’re active hunters, so you’ll know when your snake is hungry. It will start roaming around its vivarium, on the lookout for prey. To feed your rat snake:
- Take an appropriately sized rodent out of the freezer. Allow it to defrost fully in a cup of warm water. This will take approximately 30 minutes, but longer if the rodent is large.
- Using a pair of tongs, pick up the rodent. Place it into your snake’s vivarium, in your snake’s line of sight. You may need to wiggle the rodent around with the tongs. Your snake will grab the rodent and constrict it before swallowing it whole.
- Leave your rat snake alone for at least 48 hours. Avoid handling or disturbing your rat snake while it digests. Otherwise, it may regurgitate its meal.
If you prefer, you can feed your rat snake in a separate enclosure, such as a plastic tub. Leave your snake alone for at least an hour before returning it to its vivarium.
Stick to a regular feeding schedule. The older your snake gets, the less often it will need to eat. For snakes that are less than 6 months old, offer a rodent every 5 days.
Decrease this to once every 7-10 days when your rat snake turns 6 months old. When your snake reaches adulthood (2 years old), one rodent every 10-14 days should be sufficient.
How Often Do Rat Snakes Shed?
Your rat snake will periodically shed its skin. Snake skin isn’t stretchy, so this needs to happen for your snake to grow. As long as there’s sufficient humidity, your rat snake will shed its skin easily on its own.
Juvenile rat snakes shed their skin once every few weeks. When their growth starts to slow down, they’ll shed less often. Adult rat snakes will only shed their skin a few times per year.
You’ll know when your rat snake is about to shed its skin, as its appearance will change. Its eyes will turn a milky blue color as fluid builds up under the old skin layer. This is called ‘blue phase’.
When you notice this, try to increase the humidity inside the vivarium to 60-70%. This will help your snake’s skin peel off without getting stuck.
Rat snakes can be more aggressive than usual during the blue phase. This is because they can’t see as well, so they’re a little jumpy. Avoid handling your snake until it’s finished shedding.
After your rat snake’s eyes clear up, it will shed its skin within the next few days. The shed should come off in one complete piece, including eye caps. If any old skin remains stuck to your snake, a bath in warm water can help loosen it.
Can Rat Snakes Live Together?
Rat snakes make ideal pets for beginners. If you enjoy caring for your new rat snake, you may consider getting another.
However, rat snakes differ from traditional pets in that they do not enjoy the company of their own kind. Most species of snakes, rat snakes included, are solitary creatures. In the wild, they live alone. The only times that wild rat snakes encounter one another are:
- Mating season. Males will fight for the right to breed with a female. After mating, they will separate again.
- Brumation (reptilian hibernation). Groups of rat snakes will cluster together to stay warm over winter. They’ll disperse in the spring.
If two pet rat snakes were forced to live together, this would cause them both immense stress. It may lead to fighting, or one snake eating the other.
You can own as many rat snakes as you’d like, as long as they live in separate vivariums. You should only introduce your rat snake to another if you intend to breed them. Even then, the snakes should be separated straight after mating.