Exotic Pets

By Chelle Cordero

April 24, 2014 5 min read

Movies, cliches and old biblical stories have given snakes a bad reputation. But the truth is that a few snakes actually make really good pets. Many people, even if they choose not to handle snakes, appreciate their beautiful patterns and enjoy watching their slithery movements. They also make great conversation starters.

First-time snake owners will do best with snakes that are hearty, a good handling size and length, easy to feed (the potential owner should be able to deal with the feeding), and have a good temperament. It's a wise idea to stay away from pit vipers, other poisonous snakes and large constrictors. These kinds of snakes should be left to professional snake handlers and herpetologists. Even if the snake will be your child's pet, be sure that you also can handle -- and supervise -- the care and maintenance of the snake if necessary. Owning a snake is a lot of responsibility and could have serious consequences if things go awry.

You will need an escape-proof tank, a 20- to 45-gallon glass aquarium; a decent substrate; paper towels; and commercially prepared shredded cypress, fir bark or AstroTurf. Avoid using wood shavings, as the snake could accidentally ingest them and experience respiratory distress. Provide a few large rocks and hiding places, such as half logs, which can be found at pet stores, or a small cardboard box with access holes. Keep the tank clean by discarding soiled toweling, cardboard and other substrate to reduce the chance of bacterial infections. Be prepared to provide a heat source if the room temperature falls beneath 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The tank needs to be large enough for a large bowl of water, which the snake may drink, bathe or defecate in. The water needs to be changed at least daily.

The most recommended snakes for first-time owners include corn snakes, king snakes, milk snakes and ball pythons. These snakes are known for their relatively low maintenance, easy disposition and uncomplicated feeding. Many snakes raised in captivity are raised on frozen prey. Some first-time snakes to avoid are large constricting snakes, venomous snakes and snakes with more-difficult care requirements like boa constrictors, Burmese pythons, tree boas, water snakes and green snakes. Reticulated pythons, anacondas and venomous snakes are not recommended as pets because they are potentially dangerous. For both identification purposes and health reasons, it is best to purchase your snake from a pet store and not from the wild.

Poor habitat cleanliness and unclean food can result in parasitic infestations, such as mites or worms. Buy feeding mice and rats from a reputable pet-supply source, and store them properly until feeding time. Feed your snake on a routine schedule, and do not overfeed. Be careful when feeding live prey: You don't want the snake to get hurt or go after your hand, thinking it's food.

Snakes shed routinely, anywhere from every month for a very young snake to just a few times a year for a full-grown one; the snake should shed its skin cleanly and with little, if any, assistance. Wash your hands both before and after handling the snake to reduce the risk of passing bacteria to it and to avoid the common risk of reptiles passing on salmonella to you and your family. Contact a reptile veterinarian or local herpetology society if your snake is not eating, losing weight, develops "spotting" (mites), doesn't complete shedding, or shows any signs of illness. Healthy snakes generally don't need periodic veterinary checkups, but it is a good idea to know beforehand where to go in case of an emergency.

Jenny, a snake owner from New Jersey, explains that the low maintenance and easy feeding timetable for her ball python suits her lifestyle and emergency-responder work schedule. Ball pythons can grow up to 5 feet. Like Jenny, people who work long hours several times a week can easily coordinate care and attention with snake ownership. Snakes with a gentle temperament are easy to entertain and interact with: Just let them sit on your shoulders while you watch TV or talk on the phone.

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