Captive Care of Kingsnakes and
Milksnakes by Petra Spiess
Kingsnakes and milksnakes are members of one of the most popular snake genera in
herpetoculture, Lampropeltis. The genus Lampropeltis is endemic to North
and South America, with many members present in the continental United States. The most
popular kingsnakes in the reptile keeping hobby include the California kingsnake (Lampropeltis
getula califoniae), and grey-banded kingsnake (Lampropeltis alterna), among
others. The most popular milksnakes include the pueblan (L. t. campbelli), the
sinaloan (L. t. sinaloae), and the honduran (L. t. hondurensis). Members
of this genus are rightfully popular with reptile keepers, they are hardy, easy to breed,
and come in a dazzling array of beautiful color and pattern morphs. This care sheet is
intended to cover the basic care of both kingsnakes and milksnakes for beginning reptile
enthusiasts. We also highly encourage new hobbyists to purchase captive care books to help
them keep and breed this genus successfully.
Kingsnakes and milksnakes come in a variety of sizes, so a cage can be chosen
according to the adult size of the snake, although smaller cages can obviously be used
when the animal is growing, in fact, smaller cages for young snakes can be better in some
instances because it is easier for the snake to find the food. All baby kingsnakes and
milksnakes can be housed in an enclosure the size of a standard ten gallon aquarium, or
even the size of a five gallon aquarium, depending on how often one wishes to purchase a
larger enclosure as the animal grows. Most adult kingsnakes can be housed in a standard
twenty-gallon long or thirty-gallon breeder aquarium. The idea is to have an enclosure
large enough to provide a thermal gradient. Many hobbyist and professional breeders do not
utilize glass aquariums because of their bulk and weight. If you are planning on owning
more than ten or so snakes, it may be advisable to purchase a rack system or stackable
reptile enclosures. A rack system looks similar to a chest of drawers, there are several
rows of cages, one on top of the other, all encased in one larger cabinet-like piece. In
each row there are either one, or several (depending on the size of the individual cages)
plastic cages. These cages pull out from the cabinet like a drawer does from a chest. Many
rack systems are "lidless"; they are built so that the cages slide back in flush
with the bottom of the next row, which acts like a lid. Running along the back of the rack
system is a line of heat tape which heats one end of the enclosure, providing a thermal
gradient. Heat tape must be controlled by a thermostat in order to provide the ideal
"hot spot" temperature and to avoid a fire hazard. Rack systems allow
herpetoculturists to keep snakes more efficiently and to provide the correct thermal
gradient. Other options for reptile housing include manufactured cages, there are many
companies specializing in custom reptile enclosures, if you are interested in these, ask
us for a reference.
There are a variety of different choices to use for covering the bottom of the
enclosure. Cedar and pine shavings (as used with small mammals) should be avoided as the
aromatic oils from these products irritate the respiratory system of snakes and they tend
to get little pieces of the stuff stuck in their mouths when they eat. Sterilized reptile
bark is one choice, it is attractive and easy to clean, just lift out the poop when
needed, and replace all the substrate once a month Aspen bedding can also be used, it has
the benefits of bark and allows snakes to burrow, creating their own hiding spots. Less
aesthetic but certainly functional choices include paper towels, newspaper, Astroturf, and
It is important to provide snakes with hiding areas so that they feel secure in their
captive environment. Hiding areas can be made out of old margarine tubs turned upside down
with a hole cut in the side, cardboard shoeboxes, or my personal favorite, terracotta
plant saucers with access holes knocked in the side (these come in many different sizes,
are cheap, and easy to find at any greenhouse or home supply store). Many reptile product
retailers also carry plastic premade hiding spots, which may be a little more expensive,
but are durable and easy to clean. Several hiding spots, at least two, one on the warm
side and one on the cool side, should be included in any snake enclosure.
The most important factor for keeping kingsnakes and milksnakes (all reptiles actually)
is providing the correct environmental conditions. Caring for reptiles is very different
than caring for other pets because reptiles are what are called ectothermic. Ectothermic,
which is sometimes called "cold-blooded", means that reptiles do not maintain a
stable body temperature by creating heat from their metabolism. Reptiles rely on a
behavioral mechanism called thermoregulation to regulate their body temperature. What this
means is that when a reptile is too hot, it moves into the shade or down into its den to
cool down, and when it needs to heat up (to digest food for example) it basks in the sun
or moves into a warmer area. This is important for reptile keepers to understand because
in captivity, we determine what temperatures a reptile has access to. Reptile keepers must
provide a thermal gradient for their animals so that they may heat up or cool down, as
they would do in the wild.
There are many different ways to provide a themal gradient, but all require that you
purchase a good digital thermometer to make sure you are providing the correct temperature
range. Almost all kingsnakes and milksnakes do well with a maintenance temperature
gradient of 84-88 degrees F on the warm end and 70-75 degrees at the cool end. At night,
the temperature can safely drop to 65 degrees F as long as the snake can warm up during
the day. If you are using an aquarium to house your snake, one good choice is to purchase
an undertank heater. Undertank heaters are made out of flexible plastic and work a lot
like a regular heating pad. One side of the heater is adhesive and this side attached to
the bottom of the outside of the aquarium. It is important to place the heater on one end
of the cage, so that the other end remains cooler. Undertank heaters work well because
they can be left on a night without disturbing the animal. The other choice is a heat
bulb. The heat bulb must be located on one end of the enclosure and most not be accessible
to the snake (to prevent burns). One method that works well is to have a screen top with a
clamp light sitting on top of one end of the cage. The wattage of the bulb necessary to
provide the correct temperature will vary with the ambient temperature, so it is best to
test the heat light by leaving it on for a few hours and monitoring the temperature
closely. If the heat area provided is too hot, the snake will still use it because it must
warm up to digest its food properly, but it can be seriously injured by thermal
burns in the process, which brings me to the subject of heat rocks.
We do not use nor recommend heat rocks for any reptile at all. The reason why is that
heat rocks provide a small, localized heat source which is fully accessible to the
reptile. Heat rocks often have "hot spots" and can overheat quickly, possibly
causing severe thermal burns. If a reptile is housed in an enclosure that is cold
everywhere except a tiny little heat rock, it will spend most of its time curled
around, and in direct contact with, this unstable heat source, even to the point of
causing severe injury to itself. Our advice is to find other, safer, heating alternatives.
Another aspect of providing the correct environmental conditions is humidity. Most
kingsnakes and milksnakes do well with the relative humidity ranging from 40-60%. Relative
humidity becomes and important issue before a snake is about to shed. Snakes shed at
variable intervals, with more sheds as a snake is growing. When a snake is close to
shedding its skin, its eyes will become milky and its scales will become duller. Then this
will clear up and a few days after that, the snake will shed. When you notice your snake
beginning to shed, the humidity must be increased to aid in this processes. Most
incomplete sheds are caused by low humidity. One way to raise the humidity is to mist the
cage lightly for a few days until the snake sheds. Also, a humidity box can be put in, and
left in the enclosure for the snake to use whenever it needs to. Humidity boxes can be
easily and cheaply constructed out of plastic Rubbermaid containers large enough to house
a loosely coiled snake. An access hole must be cut in the side, but otherwise the box
should remain closed. A layer of moist moss such as sphagnum or peat should be put inside
the humidity box and kept moist at all times. Moist paper towels work as well and are
easier to replace but tend to try out more quickly. With baby snakes, a deli cup can be
used to make a humidity box.
All snakes are carnivores; they eat only other animals. Baby king and milksnakes do
best on a diet of pinky mice, generally one or two pinky mice once a week. As the snake
grows, so should its prey. A general rule of thumb is to feed a snake a food item that is
as large, or slightly larger, than the diameter of the snake at its widest point
(excluding the head). King and milksnakes, specifically the California kingsnake, will
often eat other snakes of the same size if given the opportunity, so it is best to house
each snake individually to avoid this problem. In fact, rattlesnakes make up a significant
part of the diet of wild California kingsnakes! When purchasing a new snake, it is very
important to purchase only baby snakes that have eaten unaltered domestic pinky mice at
least once but preferably more. Reputable breeders do not sell baby snakes that have not
eaten (unless they tell you so) and will often provide you with a record of the baby
snakes feedings (at herp shows this is often written on the bottom of the for sale
container). This is especially important with the "problem feeding" species such
as the grey-banded kingsnake, whose babies are notoriously difficult to get feeding on
pinky mice. Make sure you check this before you buy!!
In our opinion, it is best to feed freshly killed or frozen prey that has been thawed.
The reason for this recommendation is that dead mice dont bite! If a live mouse is
left in a cage with a snake that is not hungry, it can cause significant harm to the snake
by chewing on it. If you must feed live, make sure to watch and make sure the snake eats,
dont drop the prey in and leave. Most pet stores carry feeder mice, but if you have
more than a few snakes, it is much more economical to either raise your own rodents or buy
them mail order. There are many people who raise feeder rodents and advertise in the
classifieds section of the major reptile trade magazines.
Occasionally, a snake may refuse to feed. Food refusal is caused by a number of things
such as incorrect environmental conditions, a shed phase, pregnancy, or illness. If you
snake refuses food for more than four weeks, has the correct environmental conditions
(including hiding spots), is not shedding and has never been with a member of the opposite
sex, it should be checked for illness. Some snakes will refuse food in the wintertime,
even if provided with the correct environmental conditions and if they are not sick,
shedding, or gravid. These snakes are acting upon their instinct to hibernate and should
be allowed to do so. Most Lampropeltis hibernate for some time during the cool
season. To hibernate your kingsnake or milksnake, make sure it has no food for two weeks
but still has access to a warm spot so that it can remove all material from its digestive
tract. After this time, the temperature should be lowered gradually to between 60-65
degrees. The snake should not be fed during this time, but fresh drinking water should be
provided. Leave the snake in these conditions, checking on it frequently for signs of
illness, for 4-6 weeks. After this time, slowly warm the animal back up to its maintenance
temperature and offer food. Hibernation is often helpful if one wishes to breed their
Regurgitation is a common problem with captive king and milksnakes. Regurgitation can
be caused by handling a snake soon after it has eaten (dont), too cool temperatures,
illness, or feeding a prey item that is too large. If your snake barfs more than twice,
and has the correct environmental conditions and has been fed appropriately sized food,
take it to a herp vet.
Reptile and amphibian expos, symposiums, zoo and museum exhibitions and other educational events are great
places to ask questions, get answers and network with other herp keepers.
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