Milk snakes are one of the most popular snakes to keep as pets for beginners. But with so many types, it’s hard to know which subspecies is best. The color, size, and temperament of milk snakes can vary considerably, so it’s well worth performing some research before making your selection.
There are 25 different types of milk snake in the wild. Of the 25 that are available, just 14 can be bought from breeders and kept as pets. One popular subspecies is the Honduran milk snake.
Although often mistaken for coral snakes, the milk snake is a non-venomous and docile species. But there are subspecies that will thrash, musk, and bite if handled incorrectly. Specific types of milk snake are good for beginners, and others are more suited to experienced snake handlers.
How to Identify a Milk Snake
Milk snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum) are a popular type of Kingsnake. They can be identified by the following characteristics:
- Strong-Bodied – They are a constrictor species, so their bodies are strong. Some types are strong and slender (i.e., Nelson milk snake) whereas others are strong and heavy-bodied (I.e., Black milk snake).
- Tri-Colored Bands – Most milk snakes have tri-colored bands (red, black and white/yellow) running width-ways around their backs. The exact pattern, color, and width of the bands vary.
- Non-Venomous and Safe to Handle – All milk snakes can be handled, but some are a lot more nervous than others. Nervous snakes may bite or musk when handled by a novice. Calmer subspecies, such as the Honduran milk snake, are good for new owners.
- Small-Medium Sized – Milk snakes range between 20 and 60 inches.
- Smooth and Shiny Scales – Their smooth and shiny scales help them to look healthy and vibrant as they move through your hands.
What are the Different Kinds of Milk Snakes?
Milk snakes have one of the largest ranges of any snake species. They are found in Southeastern Canada, most of the US, Ecuador, Northern Venezuela, and Northern South America.
Different types of milk snakes have different levels of care because they’ll be accustomed to different habitats, temperatures, and diets. In total, there are 25 subspecies of milk snake, though only 14 are currently kept as pets. Let’s explore these subspecies in a bit more detail.
1) Eastern Milk Snake (L. t. triangulum)
Eastern milk snakes are popular with beginners because they can adapt quickly to being handled. Also, they’re suitable for a small household because they rarely grow longer than 30 inches.
Most milk snakes – including the Eastern variety – prefer a temperature gradient of 70 °F (21 °C) at the cooler side of their vivarium and 82 °F (28 °C) at the warmer side. This is cooler than many other snakes would require so it’s easy to see why milk snakes are considered low-maintenance.
Most Eastern milk snakes are red or russet in color and have the characteristic white and black bands on their bodies. Although Eastern milk snakes are attractive, their markings are not as bold or brightly-colored as some other milk snakes’.
2) Pueblan Milk Snake (L. t. campbelli)
Besides the Honduran milk snake, Pueblans are probably one of the most common milk snakes to keep as pets. Breeders often mix Pueblans with other subspecies to create interesting color variations.
A standard Pueblan milk snake looks similar to an Eastern milk snake, though they tend to have much wider white bands across their backs. This subspecies is suitable for anyone looking for a small snake because they rarely grow beyond 32 inches.
Although Pueblans are a popular pet, some beginner snake handlers might think twice about keeping this species as their very first snake. Pueblans can be very nervous and flighty and may bite or musk a new owner.
When handled calmly, Pueblans can adapt to a new owner within a matter of weeks. However, some beginners might prefer a Honduran milk snake or Black milk snake because there’s not really an “adjustment period” with these calmer varieties.
3) Honduran Milk Snake (L. t. hondurensis)
If you’re looking for a calm and adaptable milk snake, you should consider the Honduran variety. However, it’s important to note that this subspecies can grow quite a lot larger than some other types of milk snake. The average Honduran milk is about 48 inches by the time it’s fully grown.
4) Conant’s Milk Snake (L. t. conanti)
This is a rare subspecies that can be very difficult to source. Conant’s milk snakes have a higher price tag than many other milk snakes due to their rarity.
These snakes are usually very dark red in color, and their stripes tend to be quite patchy or mottled. At an average length of 46 inches, Conant’s milk snakes are medium-sized and fairly heavy-bodied.
5) Black Milk Snake (L. t. gaigae)
Black milks are probably the most docile of all milk snakes; they rarely musk and seem to enjoy being handled. They are excellent feeders, too, so you won’t need to spend time worrying about their wellbeing.
In fact, Black milks are also one of the lowest-maintenance milks to care for because they require even lower ambient temperatures than most other milk snakes. Black milks prefer an ambient temperature of around 75 °F (24 °C). They only need a basking spot if the ambient temperature dips below 70 °F (21 °C).
Black milks are often born with distinctive markings, and these gradually darken as the snake gets older. It can be fascinating watching your snake grow into its skin. Black milks are the ideal pet for many people, but they won’t be suitable if you want a small snake. These snakes often grow to 60 inches and have relatively heavy bodies. At the very minimum, they’d need a 48” x 24” enclosure.
6) Central Plains Milk Snake (L. t. hondurensis)
Central plains milk snakes are better suited to experienced herpetoculturists. Although they are a small snake (around 24 inches), they have quite complex needs.
For example, they can be difficult feeders and may struggle to eat even the smallest pinky mice. Also, they often take a long time to settle down with a new owner and may strike/bite when handled.
7) Louisiana Milk Snake (L. t. amaura)
The Louisiana milk can be identified by its very wide red stripes. Like the Central Plains milk, it might refuse rodents because it will find it difficult to digest anything bigger than the smallest of pinky mice. As such, you might struggle to look after this snake if you’re a beginner.
8) Mexican Milk Snake (L. t. annulate)
The Mexican milk snake looks almost identical to the Louisiana variety, apart from the fact that it has a very black head. The adults are generally quite easy to care for, but juvenile Mexican milks can be quite flighty and might not feed as well as other species (such as the Black milk snake).
9) Nelson’s Milk Snake (L. t. nelson)
This breed is another very popular snake, particularly the albino morphs. Nelson’s milks are long (around 42 inches) with strong yet slender bodies. As such, they look impressive when they’re gliding through your hands.
It enjoys a fairly steady ambient temperature of 80 – 85°F, which is slightly more than some other subspecies. Nonetheless, this breed is easy to care for and will usually enjoy being handled.
10) Red Milk Snake (L. t. syspila)
Adult Red milk snakes average between 24 to 36 inches in length and are characterized by a diverse coloration of red or reddish-brown saddling with narrow bands of white/pale grey and cream/tan with a black border.
They do tend to thrash, bite, and/or musk, but they’ll often settle down quite quickly. One of the best things about this species is that they are great feeders. They’ll happily consume full mice from a young age, so you need not worry about them going hungry.
11) Stuart’s Milk Snake (L. t. stuarti)
This breed is rare but not impossible to source. These snakes average about 46 inches in length and are quite heavy-bodied. You can identify them by the wide red rings and relatively narrow white rings on their backs.
12) Sinaloan Milk Snake (L. t. sinaloae)
This is a popular subspecies of milk snake that is easy to source. Sinaloan milks are valued for their bright and beautiful markings. Some snakes in this subspecies have deep red bands on their bodies whereas others have lurid orange markings.
These snakes are on the larger side – at 48 inches – but they have slender bodies. They are also quick to adapt and rarely musk when being handled.
13) New Mexico Milk Snake (L. t. celaenops)
This is one of the smallest milk snakes you’ll come across. It’s rare for a New Mexico milk to grow larger than 24 inches. Although this is a reasonably low-maintenance snake, it is known to be very timid.
14) Pale Milk Snake (L. T multistriata)
The pale milk snake is similar in size to the New Mexico milk snake, though it is usually less timid and more able to thrive in captivity. Some people think the pale milk looks insipid whereas others appreciate its delicate appearance.
Which Milk Snake Is Best for a Pet?
Any of these milk snakes could make a great pet, as long as and you’re able to take care of their needs.
For example, if you know you can only handle a small snake, opt for a Pale or Eastern milk snake, and avoid large subspecies such as the Black milk snake.
Similarly, if you’re new to snake handling, avoid subspecies with complex feeding needs such as the Central Plains or Louisiana milk snake. Instead, opt for a docile subspecies such as the Black, Sinaloan, Nelson’s or Honduran milk snake.
Finally, if you want a stand-out snake that’s visually striking, avoid the Eastern milk and instead opt for a Nelson, Red, or Pueblan milk snake. You should avoid housing milk snakes together.
Remember, before purchasing any milk snake, establish what the subspecies is. Any good breeder/seller should be able to provide this information. The more information you can gather before purchasing, the better care you’ll be able to offer your new milk snake.