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Various Rat Snakes


Elaphe ssp.



General Information


The rat snake is commonly kept snake due to its size, temperment and care requirements. These snakes derive their common name based upon their wild diet of rodents, particularly rats. These snakes come in a variety of colors and patterns from all over the world. They can be bred easily and are available as captive born babies from numerous breeders. Because of this there is little to no reason to seek out a wild caught animal which could create a natural imbalance in the area from which they are taken. Some of the varieties available are the Everglades ratsnakes, fox snakes, Texas ratsnakes, black ratsnakes, trans-Pecos ratsnakes just to name a few.

Size and Life span

Rat snakes begin their lives relatively small at roughly 6 to 8 inches long. They can grow to reach smaller adult size within 2 years and eventually can reach as much as 5 or 6 feet long. Some species, such as the black rat snake have been reported at 8 feet in length. However, most rat snakes stay a pleasant 3 to 5 feet long at maturity. Rat snakes have been known to live up to 15 years in captivity. Breeding females may actually have a shorter life expectancy but it is not certain yet just how this affects them.

Requirements


Because of the wide range of habitats in which rat snakes are found, temperature ranges should approximate their natural environment. It is a good estimate that they will do well at average room temperature in most homes or approximately 75 degrees F.

Caging can be done in many different ways ranging from plastic shoeboxes to escape-proof aquariums to custom cages. The part about it being escape-proof can not be stressed enough. Snakes are curious creatures that will try to find an escape route eventually. The last thing you want to be doing is searching for a snake in a house where they can literally hide anywhere and possibly even get outside.

The size should be appropriate for the individual snake being kept. 15 to 20 gallon aquariums are appropriate in size for an adult corn snake housed alone. Many breeders recommend that while rat snakes are not frequent eaters of their own kind, it has happened on rare occasion so they should not be kept together in order to avoid any chance of this tragedy. A hide box of some kind is a favorite resting location for rat snakes and should be kept in the cage at all times. This will help to keep the snake less stressed.

One of the most common questions is "What should I use on the bottom of the cage?" First, let us state the WRONG things to use, namely Cedar and sand. We recommend using paper towels, butcher paper, astroturf or even potting soil. Remember that you will be cleaning this regularly to remove waste and eliminate odor, so sometimes simpler is better. You can make the enclosure as decorative or simple as you want.

Feeding

In captivity, rat snakes should only be fed captive born/raised rodents. While they eat a variety of rodents, birds and lizards in the wild, using these to feed your captive born snake can cause parasites, which can endanger your snakes health and life. Most newly hatched rat snakes feed readily on newborn, or pinky, mice. There are some species which are difficult to get feeding on rodents because their natural instincts are to hunt small lizards until they are large enough hunt a wider variety of foods. Adults can be fed adult mice to small rats. We have even used newborn rabbits to feed ours at times and they take these readily. While many baby rat snakes will only accept live food for the first meal or two, it is advised that pre-killed or thawed food items be offered. This serves 2 purposed; first to keep your movements from being associated with food and second, to eliminate the risk of your snake being bitten by a live rodent and becoming ill or even killed.
Feed your snake food items that are no more than twice as big around as your snake. While they can actually take slightly larger, it is not recommended in captivity and should never be needed as appropriately sized food can be obtained at most any pet store or ordered online from a number of suppliers. Your snake may refuse an occasional meal, often when it canít see prior to shedding. Donít force the issue, but rather remove the food item and try again in a few days.
Baby, or neonate, rat snakes can be fed as often as every 5 days. By the time they are 2 or 3 years old, it is recommended that you feed no more than once a week with smaller items or every 10 to 14 days with larger items. Captive snakes have a tendency to become obese due to lack of exercise and this can actually shorten the lifespan of your snake. There are a few exceptions to this feeding rule and they usually come from naturally colder climates such as the fox snakes and Russian rat snakes. These colder climate rat snakes will feed heavily for about 1/2 of the year and fast during their natural winter periods.

Breeding


Itís because most rat snakes are so commonly and easily bred that they are one of the most common snakes in captivity today. They can reach sexual maturity in a quick time but it is recommended that they not be bred until they are at least 2 years of age. A winter cooling, or brumation, period is normally used which requires lowering the temperatures of the enclosure to approximately the mid-50 degree range for 8 to 12 weeks. Slowly bring the temperature back to their normal range and begin feeding them to establish good body weight and health. After 2 or 3 feedings and usually a shed by the female, place her into the maleís enclosure. (Some breeders suggest placing the females shed skin in with the male to see if he becomes excited which is an indicator that he is ready to breed.) Copulation can happen quickly or may take up to 3 days (if nothing has happened in this time, separate them and try again in a week.) Once the breeding is complete, separate them and wait for the eggs, which should be laid approximately 45 days later (again, species such as the Russian rat snake will lay eggs in a faster time frame and eggs will hatch quicker due to time spans available in the wild.) The female will so through a pre-lay shed with eggs being dropped in a nesting box or other egg-laying medium 7 to 14 days later, normally 10 days.

The eggs can be incubated in most any sealed container provided that fresh air is allowed in regularly and frequently (3-5 days.) The most commonly used incubation medium is vermiculite that has been moistened so that if you squeeze it tightly between your fingers a drop of water is produced. At an incubation temp of 80 to 84 degrees, the eggs will hatch in approximately 50 to 60 days. After hatching, the babies will feed off of the egg nutrients in their stomach and shed once before they are ready for their first meal.

Mutations

There is little need for mutations in most common rat snakes because so many different varieties are available to choose from. One example of a mutation, or morph, is the white-sided black rat snake which is popular in the pet trade. Another is the leucistic texas rat snake. It is best to search through available animals from a variety of breeders to determine exactly what morphs are available on a yearly basis if something besides the normal color patter(s) is desired.

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