How To Care For Your Corn Snake

Corn snakes are one of the easiest breeds of snake to care for and they make excellent pets for first time snake owners. Corn snakes enjoy similar temperatures to our selves, they eat mainly rodents which can be purchased frozen, they are generally non aggressive and fairly docile, and most important of all, they are non venomous! Corn snakes might be easy to keep, but they still have needs, and things can still go very wrong, so I have created this care sheet to help newbie corn snake owners look after and enjoy their pet snake.

Anatomy of a Snake

The Anatomy
Of A Snake

The internal organs of a snake are protected by a rib cage, most of the organs are long & thin, and are staggered down the length of the body. The left lung has little or no use and is usually either very small, or completely missing, however, the right lung is very capable of meeting the snake's oxygen requirements, and can also act as a buoyancy aid in water.

Housing

Hatchling corn snakes are naturally agoraphobic, and therefore should ideally be housed in fairly small enclosures, vivariums with a floor area of between 1 & 1½ sq feet (900 ~ 1400 sq centimetres) are an ideal size. Much larger enclosures tend to make hatchling & very young corn snakes nervous and less willing to feed voluntarily. You should try to increase the size of the vivarium as the snake grows, an adult corn snake will usually grow to a length of approximately 5 feet (1.5M) but will continue to grow until they die, usually at a maximum length of 6 feet (1.8M). Vivariums measuring 4 ~ 6 feet in length are ideal for adult corn snakes as this gives them the space they need to stretch out.

Which ever type of enclosure you wish to house your corn snake in, it is vital that all of the internal surfaces are made from non-porous materials, such as melamine covered wood, glass or plastic, this should substantially reduce the growth of mould & other nasties, also, the enclosure will be much easier to clean. It is a good idea to house your adult snakes in vivariums with front facing sliding glass doors, corn snakes are not keen on anything coming at them from above and this type of vivarium eliminates this problem, also, they are easily stackable when keeping several snakes.

Heating

Snakes are cold-blooded reptiles and as such they can not create their own body heat, they therefore do not have the ability to control their own body temperature biologically. Snakes maintain their internal temperature by moving between warmer and cooler areas of their enclosure. A suitably sized heat mat (no larger than 33% of the vivarium floor area) should be used to gently warm one end of the vivarium, while the other end stays cooler and suitable for the water bowl, corn snakes can sometimes be found lying in or around their water bowl cooling off. Heat mats can be placed directly under plastic or glass tanks, but they must have at least a ¼ of an inch (6mm) of clearance to prevent them from overheating.

Wooden vivariums are made from thicker materials, so placing the heat mat underneath the floor of one will allow very little heat to reach the inside of the vivarium, therefore, heat mats need to be positioned inside of them, usually against one of the end walls, or laid flat in one corner. Placing the heat mat on the floor of the vivarium with a light covering of substrate is the preferred method of heating, but does have its drawbacks. The mat is highly likely to be fowled on at some point, making cleaning more difficult. The heat mat should be controlled by an electronic thermostat with its heat sensing probe positioned fairly close to the heat mat. Corn snakes enjoy temperatures in the range 70° ~ 88° F (21° ~ 31°C).

Lighting

Corn snakes do not need UV light or any other lighting, however, allowing natural light into your snakes enclosure will help them maintain their biological clock. If you do decide to use artificial lighting, whether for heat, light or simply to make the vivarium look more appealing, care should be taken to ensure that the enclosure does not get to warm, and that a fine wire cage is fitted around the bulb to prevent the possibility of a snake getting burnt on the hot bulb. It is also important to switch off any artificial lights at night and back on again in the morning, preferably to coincide with natural sunlight.

Substrate

Floor covering (bedding) can be as little as a few sheets of paper towel or newspaper, but for snake comfort as well as an appealing look, reptile substrates are usually used, these are made from various wood chippings and can be found at most good pet shops. Pine wood shavings (as used for hamster bedding and in rabbit hutches) should not be used as they can become acidic when wet which is hazardous to a snake. The floor of the vivarium should be covered with approximately ½ ~ 1 inch (12 ~ 25mm) of substrate, but only use a thin layer of substrate to cover the heated area of the vivarium floor.

Cleaning

Snake waste should be removed from the vivarium as soon as possible, along with a portion of surrounding substrate, baby wipes and paper towels are good for this job, the floor of the vivarium and any other obstacles (bowls, hideaways etc.) can then be wiped clean and some fresh substrate put down. The entire vivarium should be thoroughly cleaned at least once every few weeks, along with all of the vivarium furniture, this will prevent anything nasty, such as bacteria and or mould, from building up in hard to get at areas.

Hideaways

Corn snakes like to hide, I find my snakes enjoy hiding in terracotta or thick plastic pots with holes in the tops of them. These make a naturally comfortable hideaway as snakes often like to curl up, also pots are easy to remove and reveal the corn snake. It's a good idea to have two hideaways, one placed on the heat mat, but not directly, use some paper towel or a thin layer of substrate to separate the hide from the heat mat, and one at the cooler end of the vivarium. This gives the snake the ability to stay hidden even when they need to change their body temperature.

Hideaways can be anything from extremely cheap toilet or paper towel card tubes, to realistic looking caves, artificial logs also make good snake hideaways. Don't forget to increase the size of the snake's hides as the snake grows, and if like myself, you use pots with holes in the tops of them, upgrade to bigger pots, with bigger holes. Your snake must be able to comfortably fit through any hole to access their hide.

Water

Hatchlings and young corns should be given bottled water until they are at least 1 year old, as tap water often contains chemicals that might possibly build up in young snakes causing gastric problems which could lead to a premature death. The water bowl should be refilled daily, and thoroughly cleaned at least once per week, this will prevent a build up of bacterial organisms which can be harmful to both snake and keeper. The bowl should be placed at the cooler end of the vivarium away from the heat mat.

Corn snakes can sometimes be found lying in their water bowl, the main reason for this is to cool off, especially during the summer months. Other reasons for this behaviour may be that the snake is carrying eggs and is preparing for her prenatal shed, or because the snake has some ticks or mites that the snake is attempting to drown, or that the snake is having difficulty passing waste, if you have noticed the snake is late in passing their waste, you may be able to make the snake far more comfortable by giving them a warm bath.

This is best carried out by filling a plastic storage box with 2 ~ 3 inches (5 ~ 7½cm) of warm water, and slowly lowering the snake into the water tail first. The snake can then be left in the water until they pass waste, they should then be taken out of the water straight away and rinsed off with some damp but clean paper towel. If the snake is quite young, be sure to stay with them while they are in the water.

Handling

Corn snakes are generally known as one of the best snakes to have as a pet. They are a beautiful pleasant natured snake, easy to handle and very loveable, however, you must respect your snake and always handle with great care. Your snake may be very nervous and more likely to strike and possibly bite after being relocated, if this is the case, allow a few days for them to settle down before handling. Corn snakes are generally quite shy and will always be looking for somewhere to hide, so when handling them, don't be surprised if they disappear down your top or up our sleeve!

Try not to handle your snake prior to feeding, and for 24 ~ 48 hours after they have eaten, too much handling after a heavy feed can cause them to regurgitate. A snake with a belly-full of rodent should retire to a warm hideaway and be left to digest their meal. I highly recommend washing your hands before and after handling any reptile, this helps to safeguard both you and them!

Sanitising Gel

BE CAREFUL WHEN USING SANITISING GEL WHEN YOU FEED OR HANDLE YOUR REPTILE. Anti-bacterial sanitising gels have been around for a while now and they are very convenient for cleansing your hands after handling items which may contain bacteria, such as trolley handles and toilet door handles, etc. Unfortunately, reptiles also carry certain strains of bacteria, so using a sanitising gel after handling them is highly recommended, but if you use these gels before feeding or handling your snake, make sure you have rubbed the gel into your skin thoroughly so that your hands are dry.

Sanitising gel contains Alcohol and various chemicals which kill practically all bacteria, this is fine for our hands, but I do not know if they are completely safe for our reptiles, especially if too much has been applied to our hands immediately before feeding or handling them. I therefore advise caution when using these gels, especially the extra strong ones which smell like Vodka. It is better to play it safe, and use good old fashioned soap and water while tending your reptiles. Personally, I use anti-bacterial liquid soap and water to wash my hands until I have completely finished tending all of my snakes.

Feeding

Corn snakes will feed on rodents of a proportional size throughout their life. Baby corns will eat baby mice (pinkies), and adult corns will eat adult mice, small rats or chicks. Here are a few of my feeding tips.

  • Don't offer your snake live food as this is cruel and unnecessary and can also lead to your snake getting injured, unless you are trying to get a non feeding hatchling to eat a live pinkie.
  • Only feed your snake a rodent which is no wider than 1¼ times the widest part (girth) of your snake. Corn snakes can consume prey up to 1½ times their own girth, but your snake will be less likely to regurgitate if they are not pushed to their limits.
  • Always feed your snake on frozen food which has thoroughly thawed. Food can be thawed by leaving it to thaw out at room temperature, left to soak in warm water, or warmed up with a heat pad or hair dryer. NEVER use boiling water or a microwave oven to thaw frozen snake food.
  • Make sure the food you offer your snake is not still partially frozen, nor too hot, both can be harmful.
  • It is important to have a warm area in your snake's enclosure, as corn snakes need to be warm to be able to digest their meal properly, a cold snake might regurgitate their meal or have other digestion problems.
  • Remove your snake from their vivarium at feeding time, if your snake is always fed inside their vivarium, it could lead to them striking at the hand that feeds them! Also, pieces of substrate might stick to their food and be swallowed. It is a good idea to use tongs to feed your snake as this will keep your own scent off the snake's food.
  • Try not to handle your snake too much after a feed as this can also lead to them regurgitating their meal.
  • If your snake refuses their food, it could be either that they have begun their shedding cycle, or that they are too cold to eat, or that the food is not warm enough, if the latter, try heating the rodents head in warm water and tempt them again.
  • Corn snakes do not like large areas, especially when they are trying to eat. You might find that your snake eats more readily when they are left to eat in a small area, such as in their hideaway. It is a good idea to have a small feeding tub for baby corn snakes. The tub will be clean and free of any substrate and the smell of the food will be intensified in the enclosed space.
  • Baby corn snakes need to eat 1 pinkie every 3 ~ 5 days for the first 8 ~ 12 weeks, followed by 2 pinkies or 1 fluff/fuzzy every 4 ~ 7 days. Adult corn snakes will probably eat an adult sized meal every week, but to avoid your adult snake carrying extra fat, you need only feed them once every 7 ~ 14 days.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after handling rodents, this is not just for hygiene, warm hands smelling of rodent are an ideal candidate for a snake to strike at! It is also a good practice to wash your hands before, and after handling your snake, this will be beneficial to both snake and keeper.

Shedding (Ecdysis)

Snakes must periodically shed their outer layer of skin to leave a newer more flexible skin, thus allowing them to constantly grow. Corn snakes usually take 7 ~ 10 days from start to finish of their shedding cycle and during this time they are unlikely to eat and will sometimes be found soaking in their water bowl. The snake might also be quite restless & irritable, and they might even strike at you for no apparent reason.

When your snake is starting their shedding cycle, the first thing you will notice is that their usually glossy skin will loose its shine and begin to look dull, a couple of days later the snake's eyes will cloud over and appear to look a milky blue colour. After a few more days, the snake's eyes will once again look clear and the snake will be ready to shed their skin within the following few days. If the snake has not been soaking in water prior to this, then it is a good idea at this point to raise the humidity of the snake's enclosure by spraying the substrate with warm water, or by adding a bowl of damp moss to their enclosure, this will help the snake hydrate and make their shedding of skin a little easier.

A snake should shed their skin in one complete piece, but if the old skin is in pieces, allow the snake to bathe in lukewarm water for a while, this will help loosen up any pieces of old skin still attached to them. Try to ensure all old skin is removed after the snake has shed, failure to do this could result in bacteria growing under the layers of old skin. Once shedding has been completed, the snake is likely to be hungry and looking for their next meal.