Care of the Gray-banded
Kingsnake in Captivity

Written by Gerold & Cindy Merker

Baby gray-banded kingsnakes can be kept in opaque shoe boxes housed in a heated rack. When the snakes reach approximately 2 ounces, a larger cage should be used. Several choices for this include: glass aquaria, sweater boxes, and some of the other speciality cages designed specifically for snakes (e.g., Herpatat® modular cages). Once snakes reach approximately 6 ounces, large sweater boxes in a shelving unit provides adequate space. Larger specimens (over eight ounces) can be kept in display cages. These cages have a large display area with access to a subterranean area via a PVC lined hole. All cages have several hiding areas and fresh water at all times. Any cage which provides a secluded region should prove satisfactory for successfully keeping gray-banded kingsnakes.

There are many alternatives to use for cage substrates. Newspaper and indoor/outdoor carpeting are easy to change, but are not aesthetically pleasing. Sand is used by many breeders because of its natural appearance; however, for many cage systems, it has several inherent problems. Sand does not absorb water from feces and spilled water as well as other substrates, and it is extremely heavy. If a shelf system screwed into the wall is used, the weight of the sand may cause the underside of plastic sweater boxes, weakened by heat tape, to collapse or cause shelves to bend or to be pulled off the walls. Corn cob is lighter than sand and is visually pleasing; however, if it becomes wet, the corn cob rots right in the cage, producing an unhealthy cage situation. The product used in many large scale collections is wood (mainly pine) shavings. They are inexpensive, light, absorbent, and do not readily rot when wet. Lately, we have utilized both Care Fresh® and Lizard Litter® in our larger cages due to their superior absorbency and benign nature. Both products are fairly "dust less" which reduces respiratory stress some of our snakes have experienced in the past.

What temperatures should the gray-banded
kingsnake be maintained at?

One of the most important considerations in cage design is creating a thermal gradient in the cage so that the snake has a range of temperatures from which to choose. This easiest way to accomplish this is by placing a heat tape in a routed groove under one side of the cage. To ensure that the heat tape maintains a constant temperature, a good pulse-proportional thermostat, such as those designed by Helix Magnetics® or Micro-climate®, is a vital necessity. These thermostats maintain a constant temperature (+/- 1 °F), thus preventing the cage bottoms from becoming overly warm. Our temperature regimen ranges from 65 °F at the cool end to 88 °F at the warm end of the cage. These temperatures are maintained during spring, summer, and fall. An important aspect to the successful propagation and general health of the gray-banded kingsnake is a cooling period for at least two months . This is accomplished by turning off the heat tapes during winter and allowing the cages to cool to 12 °C(55 °F). Prior to this cooling, the snakes should be maintained at active temperatures without food for 14 days in order to clear their guts.Failure to do this sets up an extremely hazardous situation, since cool temperatures prohibit digestion. Undigested food can rot in the snake's gastrointestinal tract, eventually causing the animal's demise. Our cooling period lasts from mid-November after the last feeding on November1st until February 14th, approximately 90 days. The snakes are cooled in their individual cages to which clean cage substrate has been added.During brumation the snakes are checked weekly, provided with fresh water,and weighed. Routinely, gray-banded kingsnakes lose less than 1% of their body mass during brumation. The cool-down can help tremendously with their feeding response the following spring. Reluctant feeders often come out of brumation with a fierce feeding response. Successful breeding is another important reason for brumating gray-banded kingsnakes.

What are some strategies to get the gray-banded
kingsnake to feed under captive conditions?

Feeding adult gray-banded kingsnakes is usually easily accomplished. Most captive-bred animals will readily accept domestic mice. The occasional wild-caught snake may refuse to eat domestic mice, but usually they will accept a lizard. This can cause problems, especially if the feeder lizard is parasitized. Before we offer a lizard to a reluctant feeder we try a lizard-scented pink or fuzzy mouse. To put the lizard scent on the mouse easily we place a washed pink mouse in with several lizards in a small plastic container. Then we place the lizard-scented mouse in with the snake. Another interesting strategy is to offer the gray-banded kingsnake a previously frozen/thawed pink mouse. For some unknown reason this food item has been accepted readily by several of our reluctant feeders. Once they are feeding consistently, each of our adult stock receives two small mice weekly, an adequate amount that does notencourage obesity.

What are some strategies to get the gray-banded
kingsnake to breed in captivity?

In our collection animals begin feeding within two weeks after brumation. This is a crucial time period. It is vital that females are fed large amounts of food during the spring to insure that they have adequate energy stores for proper egg development. Within six weeks of the spring "emergence", most females are ready to breed. At this time it is important that healthy females be placed with males. Most breeders mention the importance of waiting until at least one post-emergence shed before placing the female with the male. Some breeders feel it is best to wait until the female has undergone two sheds before she is placed with the male. In our collection we have gone the entire gamut from no sheds to three sheds. If the female is cycling, successful copulation can and will occur regardless of the numbers of sheds she has had. However, if a female has undergone a shed recently, this can indicate that she is ovulating. Excitement on the part of the male once the female is placed in the cage will verify her ovulation. Copulation lasts from five to 20 minutes in our collection. Immediately we microscopically check a cloacal sample from the female for viable sperm. If no motile sperm is noted, the female is placed with another male. Sperm production is very sporadic, especially in the older snakes. Our oldest male (20+ years) produces viable sperm some years, but not in others. Furthermore, some males produce no sperm early in the breeding season but will produce viable sperm later during that same season. We will allow females to breed repeatedly to maximize the probability that fertile eggs will result. Some females only breed over a two week period; others have bred with a male over a span of four weeks. Egg production occurs within 70 days of the first breeding. Our females always undergo a pre-egg laying shed. Once this occurs, we place a moist sphagnum moss-filled plastic container with a hole twice the diameter of the female into the cage. Most females will use this container in which to lay their eggs, but it is a good idea to check them frequently to make sure that eggs are not laid elsewhere. Females oviposit within six to eleven days (usually eight days) following their pre-egg laying shed. We incubate the eggs in a 1:1 ratio vermiculite-water mixture (by weight) at a temperature of 82 °F. The eggs hatch within 55 to 70 days. This is the classic methodology for breeding gray-banded kingsnakes, but it has not been successful always in our collection.

We have experienced numerous problems when breeding gray-banded kingsnakes in captivity. These problems include: (1) failure of fertile eggs going full-term and hatching; (2) kinked babies emerging from eggs;and (3) failure of the neonates to absorb their yolk sacs during the hatching process. It should be noted that eggs obtained from wild-caught gravid female gray-banded kingsnakes rarely, if ever, have the heretofore mentioned difficulties. In preliminary findings, we have found the addition of a mineral/vitamin supplement (e.g., RepCal®) to greatly reduce these problems. Much more information needs to be collected in this area to ascertain which minerals and vitamins are needed for successful captive propagation of the gray-banded kingsnake.

What are some ways neonatal gray-banded kingsnakes
can be enticed to feed on pink mice?

To entice baby gray-banded kingsnakes to voluntarily feed on pink mice we have offered lizard-scented pink mice, pre-frozen then thawed pink mice, and split-brained pink mice. In general fewer than 10% of our hatchlings will accept an undoctored pink mouse as its initial meal. Another 10% or so will feed on lizard-scented pink mice. Most animals usually are offered a lizard as their first meal. After several lizard meals, many will feed on pink mice that are either frozen and thawed or are lizard-scented. By then winter is fairly close, and acquiring feeder lizards becomes more difficult. If the snake does not feed on a pink mouse, we usually force-feed the snake using a "pinkie press". This isdone several times to insure that the snake adds some body mass. If the snake still refuses to feed voluntarily on a pink mouse, it is kept warm for ten days and then is allowed to brumate for eight weeks. When the snake is warmed during the "spring", it often eats a pink mouse on its own.

What are some of the parasites and other medical problems
gray-banded kingsnakes have had in captivity?

Gray-banded kingsnakes can experience parasite/pathogen problems in captivity. Parasites include nematodes and protozoans. Nematodes can be treated treated with Panacur® (fenbendazole) and protozoans can be treated with Flagyl® (metronidazole). Please refer to Roger Klingenberg's book published by Advanced Vivarium Systems entitled Reptilian Parasites for more information on how to treat these parasites. The key to any sick snake's recovery is assuring that the animal is kept in a non-stressful situation. This means paying particular attention to caging and furniture, temperature regimens and food. Another problem in captivity is bacterial infection. Bacteria can cause problems in the snake's gastrointestinal tract, lungs, and other organ/organ systems. Bacteria are best controlled by checking the snake's enclosure, remedying a problem (if there is one), and providing the snake with antibiotics (under the careful eye of a qualified veterinarian). Mites can also cause problems for captive gray-banded kingsnakes. These arthropods can be controlled by using one of the products designed for parasite control and completely sterilizing the snake's cage, in addition to getting rid of the substrate. Egg retention(dystocia) is another frequently encountered problem. Female gray-banded kingsnakes experiencing dystocia will often lay part of her clutch, and then retain one to three eggs in her oviduct. If a snake is observed to retain her eggs beyond her due date, veterinarian assistance should be promptly obtained.

Gerold and Cindy Merker
30 Rancho del Sol
(916) 644-6253
Camino, CA 95667

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