Water snakes aren’t commonly kept as pets. This isn’t because they’re overly aggressive or venomous, but because the species is not as popular with breeders. There are many kinds of water snakes, and the majority of the Natricinae family are well-suited as domestic pets. The problem is that they’re rarely actively bred in captivity or stocked by pet stores.
Water snakes make good pets, even for novice owners. Proper handling and socialization will tame most breeds, which is really important, as wild specimens are far more likely to bite defensively out of instinct. Piscivorous diets and the limited information about their care needs can make keeping a water snake more difficult.
Water snakes eat fish and amphibians. Depending on your location, feeder fish can be easy to source regularly. Amphibians are not readily available as feeder animals, no matter where you live. Some water snakes will accept frozen-thawed rodents if you show patience.
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What Are Water Snakes?
You may assume any snake that hunts in the water is a water snake. There are other species of snakes outside of this family that live and hunt in the water, including false water cobras and water garter snakes.
The majority of water snakes belong to the Natricinae family. Water snakes hunt by using their sense of smell to detect the mucus-membrane of fish, frogs, toads, newts, and salamanders.
Water snakes will either ambush prey or actively hunt for it. Some will also corral fish into shallow water, making it easier to get a meal.
Are Water Snakes Friendly?
Most water snakes have mild temperaments, and become more docile over time once they realize that you aren’t a threat. However, this does depend on how the snake is socialized, and if it was captive-bred or wild-caught.
Water snakes are not widely bred. So, some specimens for sale may be wild-caught. They will not be accustomed to either people or regular handling. None-the-less, the majority of water snakes do tame relatively well.
Some snakes may never adapt to domestic life, which leads to stress, appetite loss, and a lesser quality of life for the animal. In the wild, water snakes are known for hissing, bluff striking, and biting people when cornered or picked up.
Most water snakes will accept handling. If they are properly socialized, handled correctly, and well-fed, this species is known for being placid. Of course, a snake held throughout its life will be more comfortable around humans than one fresh from the great outdoors.
Can You Keep Water Snakes As Pets?
Water snakes tame rather easily. Relatively docile temperaments seem to apply to all water snake breeds.
Because there are many small kinds fo water snake available, they can be ideal pets for families with children that enjoy regular handling.
Compared to other common breeds, water snakes are not as readily available at pet stores. There are no morphs, asides from those naturally found in the wild (also called wild-type morphs).
This does make buying a water snake more difficult, especially if you’re seeking a captive-bred specimen. This is recommended, as wild-caught snakes are more volatile due to a lack of socialization. Unless you have experience in taming snakes, you’re more likely to get bitten.
Are Water Snakes Easy To Feed?
Fish serve as the majority of a water snake’s diet. Depending on where you live, getting regular access to feeder fish can be difficult. However, you can always set up a breeding tank.
Amphibians are the second most important part of their diet. This feeder animal can be difficult to source from pet stores.
Some snakes can be trained to eat frozen-thawed rodents as well. However, this won’t come naturally to them. You may need to teach the snake how to accept this food slowly, over many days or weeks.
Do Water Snakes Smell Bad?
Not only does a fish-based diet result in smelly feces, but these feces are very watery. Water snake enclosures will need to be maintained frequently. Water dishes should be changed daily.
Water snakes also have a habit of musking when startled, which is extra smelly when produced by piscivorous snakes.
What Small Water Snakes Make Good Pets?
Smaller snakes are attractive as pets because they’re easier to handle and look after. A number of water snake species rarely grow larger than 3 feet in size. The selection below will not need overly-large enclosures:
Aquatic Garter Snakes
Common garter snakes are not true water snakes, even though they are very good swimmers. Rather, common garter snakes are a very close relative of the Nerodia genus (which is of the Natricinae family). A specific species of garter snake, the aquatic garter snake falls more in this class.
Aquatic garter snakes will escape to the water if threatened, and hunt fish and amphibians. They will also actively hunt underwater.
Wild aquatic garter snakes are found in Oregon and California. All species of garter snake make great pets, including the aquatic variant. Garter snakes reach a relatively small adult size and are active during the day. They can cohabitate with other garter snakes of the same sub-species – but this does require a larger enclosure.
Aquatic garter snakes require a water dish large enough to submerge in. They will gain enrichment if you occasionally put live feeder fish in this dish. Their diet will need to largely consist of frozen-thawed mice.
Salt Marsh Water Snakes
Salt marsh water snakes are on the smaller side in the water snake family. They reach 1-2 feet in length as adults. Wild-type colorations range from tans to oranges to vivid reds, with or without banding. As a non-venomous snake, tamed down ones are quite safe once accustomed to being handled. Even more aggressive individuals don’t bite as much as larger water snakes.
Salt marsh water snakes are not widely bred in captivity, so many of them are wild-caught and should be quarantined and checked over by a snake-savvy vet. This is necessary for adopting any snake that isn’t captive-bred.
The diet of this snake is what makes it a slightly more difficult snake to own, purely from an accessibility standpoint. Salt marsh snakes cannot be fed frozen-thawed mice or rats. A snake’s diet consists of shrimp, crayfish, and fish. There are no substitutions.
Domestic snakes should be fed whole fish. Ideally, this will be minnows and shiners, with goldfish offered sparingly. There are vital minerals and nutrients in the bones, skin, and organs of the fish. Fish fillets should also be given infrequently. This snake has a voracious appetite and an eager feeding response, and feeding tongs are recommended for offering meals.
Salt marsh water snakes are also quite messy. They require large water baths that allow for full submergence.
Concho Water Snakes
The Journal of Herpetology describes Concho water snakes as being completely piscivorous (they eat only fish). Native to Texas, this snake lives in rivers and hits a maximum size of 3 feet. Appearance-wise, Concho water snakes have brown bodies with darker brown bands.
The wild population of this snake was recently under threat due to habitat loss and the construction of large dams. A snake’s diet consists of minnows, shad, catfish, and other types of fish. Its predators and prey are found in the Colorado and Concho river systems.
Given its recent status as a threatened species, the Concho water snake may not be allowed as a pet in your state. Every state has its own laws about reptile ownership, and further laws about owning certain species. The conservation status of an animal may impact this.
We recommend contacting your local herpetology society or Parks and Wildlife Department about owning Concho water snakes.
What Large Water Snakes Make Good Pets?
Larger snakes can bring their own beautiful aesthetic and personalities to the table. However, big water snakes will eat more and require more upkeep. Likewise, you’ll find these big predators are more difficult to tame, as they have more aggressive or clever hunting tactics.
Green Water Snakes
The American Microscopical Society describes green water snakes as large, heavy-bodied colubrids. In spite of being non-venomous, green water snakes bite freely in self-defense. Green water snakes will also musk a foul-smelling liquid when frightened.
They can be in shades of brown, olive, or dark green. The belly scales are lighter in color and have yellow, half-moon-shaped markings. These snakes are often mistaken for the cottonmouth and killed. It is a similar story for many water snakes with overlapping habitats to the cottonmouth.
Wild green water snakes are difficult for an experienced owner to tame down, and no breeders seem to be breeding them domestically.
Diamondback Water Snakes
The diamondback water snake has no relationship to the deadly diamondback rattlesnake. It is, however, another snake commonly mistaken for a cottonmouth and killed out of fear.
Diamondback water snakes are classed as semi-aquatic. Unlike other water snakes, diamondbacks don’t hunt underwater. They suspend themselves over water on a branch or rock. They will then dip their heads under the surface and wait for prey to approach.
Diamondback water snakes will slip into the water and flee if startled. When cornered, one will flatten its body to appear bigger, and may resort to biting if handled roughly. This bite isn’t venomous, but it can be painful. Tamed specimens can still be bite-happy, but regular handling sessions will calm most down.
This water snake species is large, with a bit of an attitude. We would not recommend this for a first-time snake owner.
Northern Water Snakes
Northern water snakes are one of the most common species in the U.S., and can be found across the northeastern states. As one of the largest water snakes, females easily reach 5 feet in length. As noted in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, males of the species are far smaller.
Although non-venomous, this snake does have anti-coagulant saliva. Bites are rarely worth worrying over, although they should always be disinfected. This breed has a feeding response attuned to smell over movement. The odds of a miss-strike during feeding time are low.
In spite of the large size of this snake, it’s one of the more commonly kept water snakes. Even wild-caught specimens will tame down, becoming quite docile and adapting to domestic life well. This snake will eat fish, live and dead, and can be tempted to eat rodents. Rodents should not be fed frequently, though, as this snake needs the nutrients found in fish.
As this snake grows, its scales will gradually become darker. Adults come in varying shades of brown, gray, and tan. Occasionally, wild morphs are found where the snake is almost entirely black.
Banded Water Snakes
The banded water snake is another commonly kept breed. Thick-bodied and rarely growing larger than 3 feet, this snake is stout. It boasts a temperament similar to most water snakes. It will be snappy if cornered, but will calm down with regular handling. Captive-bred snakes will take to handling better than wild-caught individuals.
Banded water snakes make good beginner pets. The species is non-venomous and will eat rodents. Fish should still be included in their diet. Releasing feeder fish in a shallow water dish is a great form of enrichment. It also allows you to see this snake’s hunting method.
A wild banded water snake will corral fish into shallow water. It will then swing its head from side to side until it brushes against a fish, which will trigger its feeding response
Banded water snakes are so named for the stark banding along their jaws. The dark banding pattern continues along the body of the snake. It changes in visibility depending on the individual’s coloration. A snake can be gray, brown, or olive-green.
As one of the more commonly kept water snakes, there is information available about their maintenance and care. Compared to other breeds, banded water snakes are also easier to find as captive-bred specimens.
Brown Water Snakes
Brown water snakes exhibit drastic sexual dimorphism, with males averaging 2.5 feet in size and females averaging 5 feet. Although not as stocky as some water snakes, brown water snakes are still fairly muscular. Large females are not a snake that young children should handle solo.
Brown water snakes come in varying shades of brown, with black blotches along the spine. This snake is found extensively throughout regions in Virginia, Florida, Georgia, and Carolina.
Brown water snakes spend a great deal of time climbing and basking in trees. An enclosure must cater to this desire, as well as the larger size of the females. Wild snakes will often sprawl over thicker branches that hang over the water, sometimes up to 20 feet in the air. When startled, the snakes will drop straight down into the water and flee.
False Water Cobras
The false water cobra is aptly named. An unhappy or threatened snake will flatten its neck and the sides of its body to make itself look bigger. A false water cobra will also whip its tail, much like iguanas will, if it’s unhappy.
False water cobras are not nearly as dangerous as true cobras. However, the species does have a mild venom, making this a breed for intermediate to experienced owners.
As a rear-fanged snake, bites can be problematic if it doesn’t want to let go. The species relies more on the physical damage of the bite.
False water cobras are native to South America. They require a humidity box and large water dish. It should also contain lots of enrichment, as these large, intelligent colubrids need stimulation. Enrichment can include allowing the snake to hunt live fish.
The diet of a wild false water cobra is opportunistic. Anything small enough to eat is fair game. So, you can bet that this snake won’t let the opportunity for a meal slide. Domestically, false water cobras can do quite well if handled correctly and socialized properly. Be sure to wear proper hand protection when placing fish in their tank.
False water cobras are large, easily hitting 8 feet as adults. They have distinctive black markings behind the eyes.
Hermann’s Water Snake
The Hermann’s water snake, or double-banded false water cobra, is a close relative of the false water cobra. Unlike false water cobras, a Hermann’s water snake will spend almost all of its life in water.
There have been attempts to keep this species domestically. The unique housing and dietary requirements of the species make it very challenging to keep. This is definitely a snake for experienced reptile keepers.
Red-Bellied Water Snakes
This medium-sized breed makes for beautiful water snakes. As one grows from neonate to adult, its scales will darken until the distinct banding of young snakes fades. Adults have dark brown or grey scales, with sunset colored belly scales.
Unlike most water snakes, this breed is rather terrestrial in nature. Found throughout the southeast of the U.S., they are commonly found quite a distance from water sources.
The difficulty with owning a red-bellied water snake is that it eats primarily amphibians. Wild snakes will devour fish if the opportunity arises, but fish isn’t a large component of this snake’s diet. This would make feeding red-bellied water snakes difficult at times, especially if it refuses to eat fish.
The water snakes explored are non-venomous and have mild temperaments once socialized. This makes them an interesting option. Nonetheless, water snakes are messy and require more enclosure maintenance than other species.