General Care of
Bullsnakes, Louisiana Pine Snakes, and
Eastern Pine Snakes
Text by KJ Lodrigue, Jr.
5.25-7 feet (Larger animals are out there, but are MUCH rarer
than it seems. Most "7-footers" that people talk about
are actually 6' long animals that can be STRETCHED to 6.5 or
6.75', but are easily mistaken as appearing bigger than they
Average weight: 4-8 pounds
Average lifespan: 10-15 years (but 25+ year old animals are recorded)
Many people believe that reptiles can't outgrow their cages---this isn't true!!! A snake cage should be of adequate size, easy to clean, well ventilated, and absolutely escape-proof (if such a thing exists!). Glass aquariums with secure tops will work fine. It is suggested that an aquarium with a snug-fitting top that doesn't require weighting be used - Make sure there is no gap big enough for the snake to squeeze out of and that the top is secure enough to prevent these extremely strong snakes from pushing the top off to freedom. Examples on non-aquarium tanks include, but are not limited to, the following:
plastic sweater, shoe, and storage boxes with numerous ventilation holes or a cut-out screened section. Make sure that the top is secure---rubber bands, tape, large paper clips, or screws and nuts work well. We've maintained and bred all of our Pituophis in plastic boxes such as these (from Wal-Mart) for years.
Purchased cages such as
Neodesha, Vision Cages, or CagesByDesign
It is said that the minimum sized cage for a snake up to 6 feet in length should be ½ square foot of floor space per foot of snake. These snakes explore, but they aren't regular climbers, so a tall enclosure isn't necessary. Juveniles can be kept in a 3-5 gallon shoe box (or a similarly sized cage) for a few months. Yearlings can be maintained in a 9.4 gallon sweater box-sized enclosure. Adults will need a cage that is at least 4' long by 18" wide. Slightly larger cages (such as 4' by 2' by 18" tall) are valuable, but not necessary for any but the largest specimens.
Some type of hiding spot should be placed in the cage; it is necessary for keeping these snakes healthy and happy. They can range from plastic cups cut in half and empty cereal boxes to ceramic structures such as fake logs. Hiding spots should vary according to the size of the snake. If it seems too large, wadded up newspaper can be stuffed into the container to take up some space. Remember to have a hiding spot on the warm and cool end of the enclosure to allow the snake to properly thermoregulate while remaining hidden. Snakes are known to occasionally prefer hiding than to control their body temperature correctly. In essence, this can slowly kill the snakes due to the lack of alternative hide spots. Snug fitting hide boxes seem to be used more frequently that ones too large for the snake.
These snakes don't practice ophidiophagy (snake eating) commonly, but there are some notable exceptions. Therefore, they can be housed together, but extreme caution should be used. If you house them together, do so with only equivalently sized animals and always feed them separately (We NEVER house snakes together.) Be careful with males -- they have been known to fight during the breeding season. Also, watch closely if you house them together for signs of stress or other problems. Many snake owners do keep their Pituophis together, but problems may occur at any time regardless of previous behaviors. Housing any and all species of snake separately is highly recommended as a general rule!
It is important to keep the cage clean. Uncleaned cages can lead to numerous health problems, including "Dirty Cage Syndrome." Additionally, it is very important that the cage floor is kept dry. Damp substrate can easily lead to "scale rot." Ideally, the cage should be cleaned with reptile cleaning products or a mild detergent once a week. Bleach and other various household cleansers shouldn't be used regularly because they can be carcinogenic and/or toxic. If these products are used, allow the cages to air dry with plenty of ventilation for a sufficient amount of time. Never use products such as Lysol or Febreeze.
Some type of floor covering makes cleaning easier and less hasslesome. Below is a list of the common substrates with a few of their pros and cons:
Newspaper- (black and white only - color print can be dangerous) PROS: cheap, easy to change; CONS: not aesthetically pleasing, feces build up under the paper, must be changed often, liquid part of the defecation can be troublesome.
Aspen- PROS: can scoop out feces so changing frequency is reduced, aesthetically pleasing, appears and seems natural; CONS: snakes may remain burrowed under it and hidden much of the time.
Wood shavings- (usually pine) PROS: natural-looking, absorbent and rot-resistant; CONS: can be toxic (NEVER use cedar), large shavings are difficult to work with.
Corncob- (1/8 inch is best but ¼ inch will suffice) PROS: feces "clump" for easy removal, aesthetically pleasing; CONS: may remain moist and become a home for mildew and bacteria, frequently leads to impaction of the intestines - avoid ingestion by the snake!
Bark- PROS: aesthetically pleasing, fairly absorbent; CONS: can't "scoop" out feces, may cause abrasions on the snake, may be a carrier for mites, may remain damp.
Sand/Gravel/Peat- PROS: mimics the natural habitat; CONS: becomes extremely heavy when wet, retains moisture leading to ventral skin infections, may lead to impaction.
We find the best substrates to be newspaper and shredded aspen. Except for newspaper, never feed snakes directly on the substrate. Move them to a sterile cage or place the food item on a piece of cardboard in the cage. Accidental ingestion of the substrate can lead to blockages of the intestinal tract. Remember the tank should remain clean, so pick a substrate you find aesthetically pleasing yet can keep clean in your daily and/or weekly schedule.
We have started using newspaper AND pine shavings for housing out larger pits. We put a thin layer of newspaper down and cover it with 1-1.5 inches of southern yellow pine shavings. This allows for the convenience of wood shavings (absorbent, reduced smell from defecation, proper exercise for the snake while burrowing, aesthetically more pleasing, easier to keep from getting too damp, etc.) without losing the conveniences of newspaper (just "roll it up" for cage cleaning). Normally, all we have to do to clean the cages is to scoop out the soiled corner and add more pine (if necessary); to clean the entire cage, we just roll up the newspaper (pine shavings and all) and discard the entire bundle. We use hide boxes that are suitable for feeding time. Because of this, we offer them food inside of their hide box where accidental ingestion of the wood chips is almost not possible. I do strongly recommend the use of aspen over pine shavings for numerous reasons, but we are unable to use it here due to allergies. (That just proves how weird we really are because aspen is highly hypoallergenic - go figure!)
Snakes that are held at their optimum temperature for weeks are known to suffer from heat stress, and males can exhibit increased sperm inviability. It is best to keep the ambient air temperature approximately 75-85 F with a drop of 5-15 F at night. A hot spot should always be available. HOT ROCKS SHOULD NEVER BE USED!!! This is because the temperature of commercial hot rocks varies, and some localized points may reach an excess of 115 F; ventral burns are highly possible. A standard human-style heating pad (Wal-Mart again) set on low to medium (approximately 90-93 F or slightly lower) placed under 1/3 to ½ of the snakes' cage and left on continuously often makes a perfect warm spot. Lighting can be used, but these snakes rarely bask. This means that special lights (such as UV lamps) are not required. Light bulbs should be located where the snake can't physically reach them. If the temperature drops too low, the snake's eating desire may be reduced or stopped altogether, illness can occur more readily, and death is possible from improper digestion. A sudden drop in temperature may result in regurgitation.
A good rule of thumb is to feed a snake a prey item no wider than the widest part of the snake's body; this is in reference to the girth diameter. Increase the prey size as your snake grows. It is MUCH better of your snake to eat 2 small prey items at a time instead of one LARGE prey item. It is also good to remember that 1 mouse per week is better than 2 mice (or 1 Jumbo mouse) twice a month. Feeding too much at once or too large of a food item may lead to regurgitation. As your snake increases in size, it should be switched to rats instead of mice. An adult snake in this group should be fed at least 1 small adult rat ever 5-7. A juvenile should be fed 1-2 correctly sized prey item every 5-7 days. Snakes should be firm bodied without an exposed spine. If your snake is too skinny, increase feeding. It is safer, cheaper, healthier, and more convenient to feed your snakes thawed food items; therefore, if your snake will eat them, it is best to feed your snake frozen foods. Vitamins, if they are used, should be used lightly no more than once every 3-4 feedings to prevent hypervitaminosis. Too high a concentration of vitamins can lead to soft tissue mineralization in snakes. Obviously, this isn't a good thing. If you are feeding your snakes healthy, well-fed mice (which is the only type you really should use), vitamins are not necessary.
We recommend switching your snake to rats (over mice) as soon as possible. This is to avoid problems "down the road" where a 6' bull snake only wants adult mice to eat - and you need to feed him 5-10 per week! Frequently, we start our pines and bullsnakes off on pink rats as their first meals. Our holdbacks (ones that we keep for our own colony) frequently never see a mouse in their entire life: they start on rats from day one and never get a chance to become picky for mice instead of rats. Matter of fact, it is in our opinion best to start almost all bullsnakes and pinesnakes appropriately sized rats (and not offer them other prey items) from hatching time to adults. Hatchlings show very little reluctance to accept domestic mice and rats as their first meals. Any picky feeders usually accept Western or White-footed deer mice immediately.
Be forewarned that members of this
group frequently go off feed for 3-5 weeks for no real reason at
all. Just watch to make sure that they are otherwise healthy and
patiently wait it out. If anything else is amiss, a trip to the
vet may be in order.
These guys are reputed to be vacuum cleaners when it comes to feeding time. That is often true, BUT they should not be treated as such. Most should be feed no more than 2 small adult rats per week as adults. Females may require 3 small adults every 10 days or so when weight gain is required (prebrumation and post egg-laying AFTER she has been given time to recover). The healthiest animals and the best producers are NOT pushed so that they can be bred at 2 years of age. As with all Pits, these guys do best on a feeding regime that puts them as first time breeders in their THIRD year of life. In other words, DO NOT POWERFEED these guys!
We have switched to a growth regime that never includes 18-month old breeders and has MUCH smaller prey items than is the norm for the "get babies FAST and as CHEAP as possible" mindset of modern herpetoculture. Due to this change (or largest Pines and bulls only get very young adult rats or SMALLER instead of large, retired breeders like these snakes physically can eat), we have had MUCH fewer problems while maintaining these guys: feeding fasts have decreases, breeding has increase (fewer years off for resting), breeding success has increased, general production has increased, overall health seems much improved, survival and age of adults seems to be increasing, fewer problems with regurgitation and illness, etc. The benefits of slightly slower feeding regimes and smaller (more frequent) meals on these guys are incomparable and cannot be stressed enough!
I would like to put a word of caution about overfeeding. Snakes can and do become obese just like humans and many of the same problems occur. Obesity in snakes increases the rate of dystocia (egg-binding), shortens average life span, decreases average survival to breeding age, etc. Just because the snakes WILL eat something doesn't mean that they NEED to eat something or that it is in their best health-oriented interests to do so. The snakes should be well-rounded without a pin-head appearance. A thin "spine" should not be visible down the back, though.
Snakes shed from a couple of times per year to once a month. This depends on the feeding schedule, growth rate, age, and time of the year. A snake will get dull, and its eyes will cloud over. This stage is called being "blue" or "opaque." About 2 days after being blue, the snake will brighten up again. After the eyes clear, daily misting with pure water will aid the shedding process. 4-6 days after being in the blue, the snake will shed. Make sure that all of the skin has come off-especially over the eyes and the tip of the tail. Gently remove any left over skin. To aid this process, continuously wipe a wet towel over the troubled area. If the unshed area is large, you can give the snake a lukewarm bath in a small container. Use only about 1 inch of water. Beware because snakes have been known to drown, but this isn't common. The best method we have ever found to help with dysecdysis (shedding problems) is to place the snake in a wet pillowcase, tie it closed, and leave them for an hour or so. The moisture will help with shedding AND the friction of the bag often gets the skin completely off by the time you check on the snake. If it isn't off, you can normally remove what is left GENTLY by hand. These guys are prone to retaining tail tips and eye caps so check that area over carefully!
Snakes normally won't feed while they are blue or in the process of shedding, so don't waste your time trying. Snakes are relatively blind while blue, so be careful that they don't strike at you if they don't realize who you are.
Wild pine snakes and bullsnakes, when originally caught, usually wrap their bodies into an S-shape and strike at you. Normally, they hiss VERY loudly in hopes of scaring you - it normally works! They are well known for the rattling their tails when extremely aggravated. However, they quickly calm down and stop striking in captivity after a relatively short period of handling. The same may be true for captive bred hatchlings hatchlings. Pine snakes and bullsnakes may actually seem to enjoy being handled after they become used to it - your body is a warm jungle-gym. However, handling can easily become stressful to these guys. Many of the older adults captured in the wild will not show any of this aggressive behavior even in startled on the road at night or in the field during the day.
We have to put a disclaimer here that collection from the wild for many of these animals is extremely difficult or illegal. Make sure that you know the status of the laws in your area and are aware of how collecting could influence the wild populations of these guys. That said, we do encourage collection of these guys for increased genetics in the captive breeding populations when done responsibly.
Snakes shouldn't be handled when sick-they don't need the additional stress. After a meal, snakes shouldn't be handled for a while because they may become stressed. This could lead to regurgitation. Don't try to handle the snake while feeding or when it is blue because some seem to be temperamental at these times.
Captive bred specimens are generally healthy, but there are problems, and most should be handled by a veterinarian. Keep a watch out for listlessness, regurgitation, lack of defecation, change in feces appearance, and labored or open-mouthed breathing. Other signs of illness include failure to eat for several weeks, wrinkled or puckered skin, and stringy material or mucous from the nose or mouth. Keep a look out for external parasites: ticks and mites. Mites are most easily detected on your hands after handling the snake-don't worry; they can't hurt you, but they can kill the snake due to excessive blood loss. Mites can be treated with commercial products that are readily available at most pet stores. Careful bathing of the snake in water or carefully covering the snake with pure olive or mineral oil can be used to drown or smother the mites, but this doesn't kill the ones left in the cage. Ticks can be removed by gently pulling them out of the snake; try to remove the ticks' heads. Aqnother trick is to cover the tick with Vaseline until it withdraws its head to "breath."
Remember to keep accurate records at all times. This will aid in treating your snakes. They may also prove useful at a later date
Variations among group members:
The members of this group are very similar, but I would like to point out some brief facts about the individual species and/or subspecies out there:
1. Northern Pine: This is the longest of the Pine snake group. Animals of 7.5' are recorded, but girth is not as thick as in some of the other subspecies. Animals range in coloration to a brick red with black blotches through a yellowish background to a near perfect white animal with black blotches. Eggs are intermediate in size.
2. Southern Pine: This Pine snake is intermediate in size and girth, but is definitely the loudest hisser in captivity. Many individuals never seem to stop thrashing and hissing when held. This variety has MANY different color morphs.
3. Black Pine: These guys may be the shortest of the Pine snakes, but is definitely the thickest in diameter. They are the least likely to open-mouth strike you, but real bites are infrequent Almost all will calm down fast with proper handling. Coloration ranges from NEAR solid black (I have no concrete proof that JET BLACK adults exist) to black animals displaying brownish band or whitish verticle stripes on a black background. In general, these guys are darker the closer you get to the head. Many will keep a "white beard" at the throat.
4. Louisiana Pine: These guys are definitely the rarest of the group in captivity and in the wild. Pure animals are becoming harder and harder to find. Due to this, general characteristics describing this species is harder and harder to list. Pure specimens may be thicker that black pines AND longer than the average northern pine in captivity. Wild ones frequently are very picky feeders. Captive bred animals may only feed in secure areas and the rival the southern pines for hissing ability.
5. Bullsnakes: These guys are the most variable of all of the members in this group. Adults can range from 4' to 7+'. Feeding regime, cage sizes, etc. should vary accordingly. Excluding the northern pine, these are probably the most docile ones of the group. The number of currently available morphs rivals that of the southern pine.
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