Pet Snakes in the UK – World Snake Day 2023
14 July 2023
Exotic pets, otherwise known as non-traditional companion animals (NTCAs) are becoming increasingly common in the UK, with snakes being no exception. Research commissioned by UK Pet Food in 2023 found that around 1.4% of UK homes had a pet snake, approximately 700,000 animals. However, in the current cost of living crisis, animal charities such as the RSPCA and the SPCA have seen an increase in snakes being relinquished to their care. It is vital that pet owners understand the care and welfare needs of our ophidian friends and the commitment they are making to their welfare and wellbeing. For veterinary professionals, providing the right advice to potential and current snake owners can be the difference between animals whose welfare is compromised, and those who’s welfare is thriving.
Remember to ‘SLITHER’
Even before the ongoing care of snakes (such as handling, nutrition and health care), getting the correct set-up of a snake’s home is crucial. Making sure that everything is in place to mimic their habitat as close as is possible in captivity can increase the chances of having a pet whose wellbeing is enriched from the get-go. A useful acronym for pet owners to remember when setting up their snake’s vivarium is ‘SLITHER’, which stands for:
- Ideal group size
- Routine checks
Size: As a rule of thumb, the diagonal of the enclosure should, as a minimum, be approximate to the length of the snake. There should be enough space for the snake to display normal behaviour, move around freely and the enclosure should be sturdy and escape-proof. The vivarium will need to have a greater height if the snake is an arboreal species to allow them to climb branches.
Location: Owners should make sure that the vivarium is in a safe location, away from access to children and other pets, and owners with young children should consider a vivarium lock. Make sure the vivarium is somewhere that will interfere with the temperature gradient inside, such as against a radiator. The vivarium should be in a location that is accessed every day, for routine checks.
Ideal group size: Potential owners should research the species they intend to keep and whether they are happy to be housed with other snakes. A few species are gregarious, such as garter snakes, whilst many, such as corn snakes and boas, should live on their own. Housing snakes with correct housemates (or most often, none) will help reduce unnecessary stress. In the species that can live with others, any new animals should be quarantined first before being introduced.
Temperature: Most tropical snakes have a preferred optimal temperature zone of 27°C to 30°C, temperate snakes of 22°C to 28°C. The high end of these ranges needs to be provided by a heat source, such as an incandescent light or heat pad. The heat source should be placed and one end of the vivarium, to allow for a gradient throughout, where the snake can move to cooler spots, too.
Humidity: Again, owners should research into the snake species they intent to keep to make sure they are providing the correct humidity levels. Species that are found in dry deserts, such as sand boas, require a low humidity, whereas species from wetter climates, such as rainbow boas, will require more moisture. This higher humidity can be provided by a shallow bowl with damp sphagnum or peat moss. Semi-aquatic species such as garter snakes should be kept on damp moss.
Environment: Careful attention should be paid to the contents of the enclosure, in order to best mimic the snake species’ natural habitat. The substrate should be appropriate for the species (many species can be kept on reptile bark, but burrowing species will need several inches of fine-grain sand, and species from humid climates will need moss). All snakes should be provided with a hide box, which provides security and reduces stress levels. Arboreal snakes should have access to plenty of climbing fixtures, arranges horizontally at various levels. There should also be abrasive surfaces for snakes to rub against in order to help them shed their skin. All snakes should also be provided with a shallow water bowl, as most species (except arboreal species) like to immerse themselves in water.
Routine checks: Owners should make sure they are checking their pet’s housing daily. This ensures that the health and behaviour of the snake is checked frequently, as well as faeces or skin removed from substrate or water, the temperature and humidity checked, as well as the security of the vivarium. Checking snakes after feeding is important to ensure that nothing has been regurgitated.
Ongoing care of pet snakes
So, the housing is set up and your pet snake is happily settled into their new enclosure. Remembering ‘SLITHER’ and setting up the correct environment is a great way to embark on the ownership of a healthy, happy reptile. But what of their ongoing care needs? Veterinary professionals should advise clients on the important areas of nutrition, handling and health care.
Nutrition: Snakes eat a wide variety of prey, including mammals, birds, reptiles, eggs, fish and insects. However, most captive snakes are fed thawed rodents (mice or rats) or chicks. Clients should be aware that it is prohibited in the UK to feed live vertebrate prey. The food should be the appropriate size to avoid regurgitation. The frequency of feeding will depend on the snake’s size, age and activity level. Smaller or younger snakes will typically eat twice a week, whereas larger, more mature snakes will eat once a week, or every other week. Generally, a snake’s response to the food that’s offered will indicate how hungry they are. Offering food in the morning will allow the snake to digest it during the warmth of the day. Snakes will often be less inclined to eat when they are getting ready to shed their skin. Owner should avoid handling snakes for a few days after feeding, to avoid discomfort. Researching the food requirements of the particular snake species is important.
Handling: Owning a snake means that you are going to have to handle them occasionally – this may be to move them from the vivarium when cleaning, to help them shed if they require it, or to take them to the vet. The more a snake is handled, correctly and respectfully, the less stress will be caused at times when handling is essential. Grasping a snake gently but firmly mid-body, lifting them slightly, and then support as much of their body as possible is a good way to handle a snake. Snakes should not be over handled and should not be kept away from a source of heat for long periods. If transporting a snake, make sure they have a heat mat or wrapped hot-water bottle. Larger snakes should be handled when there is more than one person present. Great care needs to be taken when allowing children to handle snakes, of the appropriate size, for short periods. Always gauge the temperament and behaviour of your snake before handling them; if they are showing frightened or aggressive behaviours, such as shying away or rearing, it is best to handle them another time.
Health care: Snake owners should be aware of common signs of poor health to look out for, so that veterinary advice can be sought if symptoms become present. Checking for ectoparasites (especially in places such as the face, eyelids, cloaca and underside, is important. Any sudden changes in behaviour, such as lethargy or refusing to eat, are also points at which to speak to a vet. If your snake seems to be losing condition – such as muscle tone or strength in their body – this can be an indication of underlying disease. It is also a good idea to talk to your vet if your snake consistently has difficulty shedding their skin. Seeking veterinary advice, especially from exotic pet specialists, can be essential to ensure that any behavioural or physical changes in snakes are discussed and checked to animal welfare from being compromised. Keeping a diary of feeding, shedding and any introduction of new animals may be useful information that can be used when talking to your vet.
Whether you are looking to own your first snake, a current owner, or a veterinary professional, it is vital to research the biology, behaviour and care needs of the species in question. For professionals, the BSAVA have the Manual of Exotic Pets and Manual of Reptiles, which provides detailed guidance on snake anatomy, physiology, care and clinical practice. Through open communication between professionals and reptile owners, we can make sure that the many thousand of snakes kept as pets in the UK can live healthy, enriched lives.