what temperature is too cold for snakes?
Snake Health

What Happens When a Snake Gets Too Cold?

Your pet snake has strict temperature requirements. They need a basking spot and a cool spot, as well as a specific humidity level. Snakes in the wild experience cold temperatures in the winter.

What happens when a snake gets too cold? Because they’re cold-blooded, snakes rapidly lose body heat. To avoid that, snakes attempt to find a hiding place or a basking spot to avoid the lowest temperatures. If they can’t find somewhere to warm up, or at least stop getting colder, they’ll die.

Some snakes are better equipped to deal with the cold than others. A green tree python, for example, is comfortable in the heat and humidity of the jungle. They’ll die quickly in cool temperatures. But prairie rattlesnakes can deal with cold, since they can live as far north as Canada.

What Temperature is Too Cold for Snakes?

The temperature that is too cold for a snake depends on the species. Snakes are one of the biggest families of large and complex animals in the world, and they’re spread across the globe.

You can find them as far north as Canada (southern Canada, at least) and as far south as Argentina, South Africa, and Australia. There’s almost no part of the world that hasn’t been colonized by snakes.

This means that snakes can survive at a variety of temperatures. A green tree python lives in hot and humid rainforests, for example. The Northern Pacific rattlesnake’s range stretches from Baja California to Washington state and southern Canada.

To help you understand the differences between common snake species, here’s a table with information on the temperature preferences of each species of snake.

Species  Basking Spot Temperature  Ambient Temperature
Corn Snake:  85 degrees 75 degrees
Ball Python:  90 degrees 80 degrees
Boa Constrictor:  90 degrees 75 degrees
Hognose Snake:  88 degrees 78 degrees
California Kingsnake: 85 degrees 75 degrees
Rosy Boa: 85 degrees 75 degrees
Gopher Snake: 85 degrees 75 degrees

The temperature varies based on species and their ideal habitat. The most important thing, though, is that the snake has a warm-enough basking spot. It helps them regulate their temperature by moving around their enclosure.

How Cold Can a Snake Get Before It Dies?

The exact temperature at which snakes can survive varies by species. A species that are used to the heat and humidity of the jungle will die quickly in a New York state winter. Snakes will die as the temperature approaches freezing.

Even if the snake is used to cold temperatures, they can still become ill and die in the cold. That’s because snakes can’t eat and digest during the winter.

When it gets too cold, the food in their stomach won’t break down. It will rot before they can digest it, and they’ll have to vomit it back up.

Think of what happens to food at different temperatures. If your meal is left out at room temperature, it’ll quickly spoil and start to smell bad.

That’s because of the activity of bacteria, breaking down the food. If you put your meal in the fridge, it won’t spoil anywhere near as fast. It’s too cold for the bacteria to break it down, or even for the bacteria to be active, so they won’t breed or ‘eat’ your food.

When food is warm, it breaks down more quickly, which is why a snake’s guts (and our guts) have to be warm to digest.

Can Snakes Survive in Snow?

No, snakes can’t survive in the snow. When it snows—or even before that, when it’s frosty outside—snakes have to seek shelter.

Snakes that live in the north, like the Northern Pacific rattlesnake, go through a process called brumation during the winter. This is a period of low activity similar to hibernation.

To avoid the snow, any snake that far north will find somewhere to hide. This is called their hibernaculum. According to BioOne, their hibernaculum will be a gap in some rocks or an old mammal den, underground, where they can get away from the snow. Because it’s isolated, it won’t be as cold, and the snake will be able to survive.

The only exception is if the hibernaculum is above the frost line. The frost line is a term that applies to colder environments. It’s a point in the ground at which the soil above it freezes, while the soil below it stays unfrozen. If the snake’s hibernaculum is above the frost line, i.e., within soil or rock that freezes, the snake won’t survive the winter.

Can Snakes Survive in Cold Water?

Snakes are fine being in cold water for a little while, provided that they have a way of warming up afterward. Picture a snake in the wild.

Before their shed, they may have to soak their skin a little if they aren’t getting enough humidity. They would sit in a small, cool puddle for a little while to loosen their skin.

If they had to sit in cold water for a very long time, then they would die. But the snake can tell if they’re getting too cold, and will head somewhere warmer like a hot rock.

If they can’t get away from the puddles—like if they’re in a damp substrate that’s rarely changed—then that has its separate consequences. The snake will die of scale rot and sepsis before they die of being too cold.

how cold can a snake get before it dies

Then some snakes spend a lot of time in the water, like water snakes and cottonmouths. These snakes are expert swimmers. When they aren’t swimming, they’ll sit on a branch above the water and preferably in the sun. They need to warm themselves up, just like other snakes do.

Some snakes (pelagic sea snakes) even spend their whole lives in the water, at sea. However, these snakes don’t live around Long Island in the cold waters of the Atlantic.

They live in the Pacific, around Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines, and the ocean around the hundreds of Pacific islands. Here, the water is warm enough for them to live comfortably. But if they head somewhere that’s cooler, they would die in cold water too.

What Happens When a Snake Gets Too Cold?

Cold-blooded and warm-blooded animals respond differently to cold environments. A warm-blooded animal, like a person, will experience certain physiological reactions the purposes of which are to keep us warmer for longer.

The body will squeeze and shut any capillaries close to the skin, so that the blood stays in the center of the body. This minimizes heat loss, keeping warmth in the torso, warming our vital organs.

Snakes are cold-blooded. Their body doesn’t generate its own heat, so their blood can’t keep them warm. As such, when they get too cold, they have to find an external heat source.

The snake will begin to search for somewhere warmer. This could be a hide (hibernaculum), where they can get out of the rain, snow or wind.

Failing that, they will search for a warm spot. A shaft of sunlight would be perfect, especially a shaft of sunlight that falls on a rock. Rocks hold onto heat if they’re placed on the sun, and belly heat is perfect for a snake. That’s why heat mats are so popular for snake enclosures.

Do Snakes Get Hypothermia?

Hypothermia isn’t a communicable disease, like the flu or a respiratory infection. ‘Snake hypothermia’ refers to the body temperature is too low.

It’s brought on by a creature’s environment being too cold for it. When a person dies of hypothermia, it’s because they’ve been out in the cold for too long and their body temperature became too low to sustain them.

It’s made worse by the weather, since rain cools you down and makes your clothes damp and cold too. If they’re caught out, snakes can most definitely become hypothermic too.

If the snake can’t find anywhere to hide, or can’t find a basking spot, they don’t have any options left. Since they can’t generate their own heat, they’ll have to find somewhere as secluded as possible and see if they can survive until the next day, when they’ll try and find somewhere warm to sit.

Do Cold Temperatures Make Snakes Sick?

Cold temperatures can exacerbate health conditions in snakes. They can make it more likely that your snake will experience scale rot or a respiratory infection, for example.

That’s because they weaken your snake’s immune system. However, these conditions are caused by bacteria, not directly by the cold itself. This applies both to pet snakes and snakes in the wild.

In the worst case, your snake can develop cold shock syndrome. At this point, their behavior becomes erratic. They may move violently, twisting and turning on their back.

At What Temperature do Snakes Become Inactive?

Snakes that brumate do so at about 60 degrees. Owners and breeders suggest a temperature of 55 degrees for brumating corn snakes.

However, this temperature is completely unsuitable for other snakes. Because of their geographic range in West Africa, ball pythons don’t brumate.

Moreover, they require higher temperatures as a matter of course. As such, to lower a ball python’s ambient temperature to 55 degrees would kill them.

Besides that, snakes will naturally become inactive during the winter even if you don’t manually alter the temperature. In addition to the cool air, they gauge the time of year from the amount of sunlight they get, too. So seeing that it’s darker than usual could trigger inactivity too.

Can Snakes Eat During Winter?

Snakes find it hard to break down food without a heat source. That’s not a problem for humans, because we can keep our guts warm: we’re warm-blooded, after all. A snake doesn’t have that luxury.

That’s why snakes don’t eat during the winter. You may have noticed before that your snake goes off their food when it gets cold outside. It’s not just captive snakes that do so, because snakes in the wild do it too.

When the days start getting shorter, and the sun lower in the sky, they have no way of warming up their belly enough to break down food. So, another thing that happens to snakes when it’s cold is that they go hungry.

snake hypothermia

However, this doesn’t have as negative an effect on the snake as you might imagine. Snakes go out of their way to eat more food than usual in the lead-up to winter, so that they have plenty of fat and energy reserves to draw on.

Over the winter, they’ll use these reserves before feeding again in the spring. Something else that helps is the fact that they’re cold blooded.

Their bodies don’t use any energy to stay warm. That’s why snakes go a week between meals as it is. So don’t worry if your snake stops eating for winter.

Can Snakes Get Hypothermia in Their Enclosure?

If you don’t heat your snake’s enclosure properly, they can get hypothermia indoors.

On the flip side, it’s also possible for your snake to overheat. An inexperienced owner might provide an enclosure for their snake that’s one high temperature throughout. This high temperature might be perfect for their basking spot, but if they can’t cool down, it will do them more harm than good.

The speed with which your snake will become hypothermic depends on how low the temperature is. If it’s just a fraction below what it should be, it won’t cause them much of a problem at first. But over time, they’ll likely develop health issues like respiratory infections.

If the temperature is far below their usual range, your snake can quickly succumb to hypothermia. For example, if they’re left in freezing temperatures with nowhere to warm up, they could die overnight. This could happen if your power goes out.

Signs of Hypothermia in Snakes

The main sign of hypothermia in snakes is lethargy. Lethargy is low activity, so where a snake might have previously wanted to move around their enclosure, they’ll start to move around less and less.

This trait is common in reptiles as a response to cold. Because they’re lethargic, they’ll stop eating and drinking, which itself can lead to other symptoms:

  • A dehydrated snake won’t be able to shed properly. Their skin will come off in chunks rather than in one go.
  • A hungry snake will get thinner and thinner as their fat stores are used up. Their ribs and spine will show through their skin.

But other than this, it’s difficult to tell if a snake is too cold. The best way is to research what temperature they need in their enclosure, and then measure the temperature there to see if it’s cooler than it should be.

What to Do If Your Snake Gets Hypothermia

The first thing you should do if you suspect your snake is hypothermic is to check the temperature of their enclosure. If you were right, adjust it accordingly.

Don’t immediately introduce them to a very warm enclosure if they’ve been freezing cold, though. Warm them up gradually instead to reduce the chance of shock.

You can also manually help your snake warm up. This may be necessary if you think they’ve been hypothermic for a long time. To do so, you can bath them or mist them with warm water.

If you want to bath them, don’t give them a hot bath, because that will overheat them. Instead, warm the water to the temperature their basking spot should be. That might feel lukewarm to the touch, but that’s as warm as it needs to be.

Leave the snake in there for as long as they want. Fifteen minutes is enough. Only bathe them in a bowl that’s small enough for them to get out of on their own. Don’t leave them unattended.

How to Keep Your Pet Snake Warm

There are multiple ways to heat a pet snake’s enclosure. Most people use heat mats, which plug into mains electricity and generate constant heat at a certain temperature.

The heat mat will sit underneath the snake’s basking spot, the part of their enclosure that’s warmer than the rest. When the snake needs to warm up, for example after a bath, they’ll head to their basking spot to heat themselves.

Other owners and breeders use heat lamps. These are like light bulbs, but which give off most of their energy as heat rather than light. Regular light bulbs already give off plenty of heat, but ceramic reptile heat lamp bulbs give off even more. While a heat mat replicates a rock that’s been sitting in the sun, a heat lamp is almost like the sun itself.

Your final option is to use heat tape. Heat tape is like a heat mat, in that it sits underneath your snake’s enclosure. However, it’s not just one mat. It’s a long, flexible plastic-textured sheet that can wind its way snake-like around several enclosures at once.

You use it to keep multiple enclosures in a stack all warm at once. If you have just one snake, you won’t need heat tape, but it’s best if you’re a breeder or have a large collection.