Unfortunately, many snake keepers do not actually think about their snakes’ psychological issues. It is well known within the hobby that a vast number of snake species are fairly ‘lazy’ creatures, perhaps only venturing out of their hide for food, water, or a mate. This is a true statement for many species, and this habit will most certainly be the same in the wild as well as in captivity. However, in the wild the snake may spend hours or perhaps days hunting for food, may travel some distance to find water and may spend weeks courting females and perhaps fighting males in the process. This article describes the many ways possible to keep your pet snake healthy and active, ensuring little chance of obesity or behavioural problems caused by boredom or inactivity.
The first and foremost point is to ensure that the basics are in place. That is; an adequate sized vivarium, appropriate temperature levels allowing for thermoregulation, adequate humidity levels if necessary, enough food and water and a hiding place where the snake may retreat to. Once these are all in place, it is possible to expand on each area, making life more interesting for your snake and therefore a more pleasurable viewing experience for yourself.
Many experts in the reptile industry will no doubt spend a considerable amount of time explaining to beginners and interested people that snakes do not actually need much space. It is widely accepted that snakes will live happily in a terrarium smaller than its own length, and I do not disagree completely with this statement. In fact, many individual snakes will suffer dramatic consequences when placed into a terrarium too large. They often become so stressed they will not feed, become very timid, rarely venture out of a hide, become overly aggressive and will not control their body temperature adequately leading to further problems. It is important when changing terrarium size for your snake that you are comfortable with your snakes feeding habits, and that it is comfortable with you as the handler. If it is, I urge everyone to expand the size of terrarium offered to their snake. The larger the vivarium, the more hiding areas and décor there should be. This will allow more interest and the opportunity for more exercise. If however, your snake does not take well to the move and refuses food, do not move the snake back into its original enclosure straight away. Instead, try for 2-4 weeks to let your snake settle in, ensuring the heat levels are appropriate and that there are enough hiding areas. I suggest for the initial move that the décor and hide areas from the old terrarium are moved into the larger one. This will make your snake feel more comfortable and speed up the transitional period.
The terrarium furnishings will play a very important role in enriching your snakes’ life. You could try offering various substrate depths, types and levels. For instance, you could build the substrate up to 20cm deep at one end of the enclosure, perhaps held up by some natural cork bark or rock, and then have a lower layer of 3cm deep towards the other end. Offering more than one substrate within the terrarium will allow the snake to move around on different textured surfaces. Perhaps for a rainforest species; bark chips could be mixed with soil and dried leaves. Fake plants are perfect for snake enclosures; they can be washed easily and do not get squashed if a heavy snake decides to sit on it. These plants can hang from the ceiling or back wall, drape and wrap around sticks perched across the terrarium, or could simply be placed in bundles on the ground to mimic small bushes. Having a number of basking sites within the terrarium are particularly important for diurnal species. These should be open areas underneath a heat source, preferably more than one area and could be directed on a flat stone, a hanging branch or even on top of a hiding area. It is important that any heavy items of décor placed into the vivarium are fixed securely. However, allowing slight movement in lighter objects such as small branches and plants is only natural and will certainly stimulate the snakes’ natural responses.
It is important to realise not only what temperatures your snake should be exposed to, but also in what manner they are offered. In the wild, heat is gained by use of the sun, but this is not to say that a snake must have a basking area with heat or light from above. You should first find out where your snake comes from and the daily habits which it would naturally go through.
Nearly all diurnal snakes will bask in the sun; it is therefore only natural to offer a spot bulb type of heat. This will mimic the sun and should allow the snake to bask directly underneath the area which the bulb is pointing. The sun also moves throughout the day, meaning that many a time, the snake will also have to move. Often, diurnal species do not bask during the middle of the day; instead they will bask in the early morning and late afternoon. By placing 2 spot bulbs in different areas of the terrarium wired into a timer, you can mimic the effect of the sun and give the snake the chance to search out a new, better basking site. If you have a large budget and terrarium to play with, you can offer further basking sites for different times of the day. You could even set up the lamps with timers on dimming thermostats so that the temperature output could lessen or greaten depending on the time of day.
Many nocturnal or rainforest dwelling species will not bask in the sun, but should be exposed to a higher day time temperature. Although it is recommended that you offer varying temperatures, there should be an overall air temperature. This can be achieved by using a power plate. A power plate is a 75Watt heater that is attached to the ceiling of your terrarium and provides a wider range of heat from above, making it more efficient at raising the actual air temperature than other heaters. Lighting should still be offered for these species, although in the form of a fluorescent tube. At night, a red bulb or moon bulb could be used for background heat and to allow better viewing of the snake.
Nocturnal, terrestrial species that do not live in a rainforest environment will often obtain their heat from the ground surface, usually on flat rocks which have been exposed to the sun during the day and allowed to heat up. This heat is retained for some hours throughout the evening. Hot rocks are available to mimic this behaviour, although it is only suggested that you use these for a few hours at the appropriate time; generally as lights go out until 4 hours later.
Water is generally offered in a small water dish which doesn’t even allow the snake to fully submerse itself. Although this is preferable for many desert dwelling species, other species will regularly travel to streams, ponds or puddles to drink, bathe and swim. Offering water in a larger dish, away from the heat source will stimulate the snake to bathe and swim more often, allowing for more exercise. Be sure to watch for faeces in the water, as many snakes will commonly excrete during bathing. Allowing water movement through a pump, air bubbles or even a small waterfall will also stimulate the snake to bathe and drink regularly. For rainforest dwelling species, particularly arboreal species, a drip system and / or misting system will simulate rainfall in the wild. This may be very important for some species that will predominantly drink from water droplets that gather on leaves or branches.
One major part to all snakes’ lives is feeding. In the wild, snakes will have to hunt for a wide variety of live prey. Some snakes may ambush their prey; others will use sight and chase their prey, while others will use scent. In captivity, feeding live prey is frowned upon unless in extreme circumstances where the snake simply refuses all other feeding methods. Feeding live prey to captive snakes would of course stimulate their natural feeding behaviour; however it can be dangerous and is almost certainly not necessary. It is possible though, to recreate some of the snakes’ natural feeding responses and make it exercise for food.
Unfortunately, a large percentage of reptile hobbyists are not educated enough to realise the importance of reptile stimulation through feeding. Snakes get most of their exercise through hunting and breeding, so if your snake is not used for breeding and is fed by virtually placing a dead rodent into its mouth, it will hardly get much exercise. This has caused a large number of reptiles in captivity to become overweight and obese, usually with the owners unaware. There are a number of methods you can use to both stimulate the natural senses of hunting and to also force the snake to move around the enclosure in order to feed.
If your terrarium has plenty of décor and hide areas, try hiding the food underneath foliage or in hiding areas. By rubbing the food along different surfaces of the terrarium it is possible to create a scent trail. Try and make this trail as elaborate as possible, this will no doubt confuse the snake but will inevitably make it move more and get more exercise. You can also try hanging the food from the roof of the terrarium. It is not wise to tie the food with string or other non-digestible material; however, a mouse tail for instance could be trapped in the lid of the terrarium or some kind of clip. With the force of the snake tugging at the food, it should break free. This will make it a little harder for the snake to strike, as the food will sway around as it attempts to bite it. If your snake has a routine feeding regime, for instance every Monday evening, there is every chance it will begin to associate this time with food. This has been commonly recorded in large pythons and is a very dangerous situation to arise. Not only is it un-natural, but can result in the snake striking at anything that enters the enclosure at this particular time, even your hand. Many keepers will see this as aggression, but may simply be a triggered feeding response. It is more natural to feed your snake at random intervals and at different times during the day or night (depending on whether your snake is diurnal or nocturnal). Try to keep regular watch of your snake, if it is being lazy and is simply hides all day long, don’t feed it. Wait until the snake starts to venture out and search for food without any food actually being there, this will encourage the snake to search for food more often if you only feed while the snake is roaming around. Tease feeding is an excellent method to re-create a wild animal’s movements. With a pair of long forceps you can grip the food item and move it around, simulating the movements of the animal in the wild. If the snake shows interest, move it further away and around the enclosure, enticing the snake to chase and hunt the food. Once the snake strikes; shake the food quite violently to simulate a struggle situation. At this point, the snake should coil around the food and exert a great deal of energy in asphyxiating the prey. This method is the closest you can come to seeing the snakes’ natural feeding methods and can be quite exciting to watch.
Handling your snake on a regular basis is a similar situation to taking your dog for a walk. It is a way of taking the snake out of its usual environment to provide exercise and an array of unusual smells. Many wild caught snakes, or snakes not used to being handled should have limitations on the amount of time spent handling. The last thing you want to do is stress the snake by over-handling. Captive bred individuals that are regularly handled will however enjoy human interaction and the chance to move around different surfaces. On a warm day, take your snake outside in the garden and let it roam around on the grass. Be very careful not to take your eyes off the snake though, the last thing you want is for it to quickly burrow into the ground or worse still, grabbed by a passing predatory bird. Being able to handle your snake will not only allow exercise and scent stimulation, it will also allow for easier maintenance and veterinary care if needed.
It has hardly been recognised that snakes require mental stimulation to stay fit and healthy in captivity. This article, together with your own ideas should prevent your snake from becoming obese and from having any behavioural problems.
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