Garter snakes (Thamnophis ssp.) have introduced countless people to reptiles, both in the wild and as pets. North America boasts over 30 species of garter snakes, many common across their range and some endangered. Several are available regularly in the pet trade. The relatively easy care and small size of garter snakes and ribbon snakes makes them a suitable introduction to the world of reptiles. While they are often thought of as specimens suitable for the novice, their varied patterns and sometimes striking colors have captivated many hobbyists.
North & Central America
Garter snakes can be found from southern Canada to Central America, but the United States is home to the greatest diversity. They are often found near bodies of water in wooded areas, meadows, and other thick cover but these snakes are just as easily discovered in fields, suburban gardens, and even city parks. Most average around 24 inches in length, although Eastern Garter Snakes and Giant Garter Snakes can occasionally top 4 feet.
The natural diet of most species consists of earthworms, salamanders, frogs, tadpoles, fishes, and slugs. Several are immune to the toxins of newts and toads. Larger garter snakes may take small rodents on occasion, while smaller species may consume insects and spiders.
Juveniles and wild-caught individuals may bite and release musk when handled, but most will eventually calm down with gentle handling.
Wild garter snakes hibernate in the northern part of their range but remain active year-round in the south. While this may occur even in captivity, most people choose to maintain their snakes at a constant temperature year round unless they are being cycled for breeding. Captives sometimes refuse food during the cooler months, even if their tank is kept warm. They have fairly high metabolisms for snakes, and when hungry will actively search for food.
Setting up the Terrarium
Garter snakes are well-suited to naturalistic terrariums stocked with live plants and other terrarium decorations. Many common houseplants can be used, including ferns and Pothos. These snakes can also be kept in pairs, provided they are similar in size and feeding is observed by the keeper.
Juveniles can be raised in 5-10 gallon aquariums or plastic cages with small heat pads, and the average adult will do fine in a 20 gallon tank. Pairs do best in 20-30 gallon aquariums, but larger tanks allow for more impressive displays. A screen top should be secured by screen clips.
Driftwood and rock ledges can be added as basking sites, and a hiding area should always be provided.
A mix of sphagnum moss and coconut fiber works well in planted terrariums as long as it is not allowed to become damp. Paper towel and newspaper work well in simplified setups or quarantine tanks. Bark, cypress mulch, and aspen shavings can also be used.
Lighting, Heat, and Humidity
Full spectrum lighting should be used to provide a photoperiod of 12-14 hours daylight. This can even be achieved with certain daylight heat lamps. At night the snake should have relative darkness, although red or black night bulbs can be used for supplemental heat or nocturnal viewing.
Most garter snakes can be kept within a temperature range of 72-85°F, with a drop to 68-70°F at night. An heat bulb should be used to create a basking spot closer to 90°F at one end of the tank. It is important to establish a thermal gradient so that the snake can regulate its body temperature. If supplemental heat is used at night, in can be in the form of under tank heat pads, red or black night bulbs, or ceramic heat emitters.
Despite the fact that they are often found in damp habitats, garter snakes are susceptible to bacterial infections when kept on wet substrates. They must have access to dry areas and a warm basking site in addition to a relatively large water source.
In the wild, garter snakes are opportunistic feeders, taking a variety of prey. Feeder fish and earthworms can make up the bulk of the diet, but other food items such as rodents or invertebrates can be offered occasionally. Garter snakes have a faster metabolism than many other snakes; juveniles may be fed every 3-4 days, while adults should be fed every 4-6 days.
When you feed your snake, it is important to consider the size of the food. Feed items smaller rather than too large, a large food item can cause difficulty in swallowing. Some snakes will regurgitate after eating a large food item due to difficulty in digestion.
If you offer your Garter or Ribbon snake live fish, it is recommended that you use a separate water dish. Fish placed in your snakes normal water dish, will die if not eaten within a few hours.
Daily care and maintenance
Snakes should be checked daily for signs of disease such as blisters, mites, or unusual behavior. Fresh water should be given at this time and any waste removed from the enclosure.
Salmonella bacteria, commonly present in reptile and amphibian digestive tracts, can cause severe illnesses in people. Handling an animal will not cause an infection, as the bacteria must be ingested. Salmonella infections are easy to avoid via the use of proper hygiene. Wash your hands with warm, soapy water before and after handling any animal. Please speak with your family doctor or veterinarian for more tips on preventing Salmonella, or please read our care guide Cleaning and Disinfecting Recommendations for additional instructions.
When it comes to your new pet, knowledge is the best way to choose an appropriate addition to your family. Learn as much as you can about your new friend before you bring him home to ensure your pet enjoys a long, healthy life.
If you have any questions or concerns, please contact our reptile room at 717-299-5691 ext. 1240 or firstname.lastname@example.org.