The Basics



Scientific Name: (Pantherophis guttatus guttatus). Previously (Elaphe guttata guttata)

Origin: North America

Lifestyle: Terrestrial, Crepuscular

Habitat: Semi-arid scrubland

Temperature: 25-30ºC (77-86ºF)

Relative Humidity: 30-70% (Upper range of humidity useful when shedding)

UV-B Light Required?: Not determined: Currently UV-B lighting is not used for this species

Lifespan: 16-21 years

Age of Maturity: 2 years

Adult Size: 4-6 feet

Diet: Rodent Prey (Carnivore)

Venomous?: No (Constrictor)

Conservation Status: Least Concern



Introduction



Corn snakes are one of the most popular species of snake in the pet trade, not only for their impressive range of attractive colours and patterns, but also for their docile nature and reluctance to bite. They are generally a tame and hardy species and reach a moderate adult size of 4-6 feet making them ideal for beginners in the hobby. Although corn snakes are relatively easy to keep, problems in their care can still arise. It’s important to understand why things go wrong, how to respond to problems, and what can be done to prevent problems from happening in the first place.


Name Origin

The name ‘Corn Snake’ is thought to derive from the early settlers who stored harvested ears of corn in corn cribs. Rats and mice came to the corn crib to feed on the corn, and corn snakes came to feed on the rodents. Their undersides also resemble corn with alternating coloured kernels. Corn snakes are sometimes called ‘Red Rat Snakes’ because of the Amelanistic corn snakes red to orange colouring.

Corn Snakes belong to the Colubrid family. Their scientific name was previously Elaphe guttata guttata but after phylogenetic studies carried out in 2002 revealed a closer lineage to the tribe Lampropeltini than to the old world rat snakes, they were reclassified under Pantherophis guttatus along with several other related species.


Natural History

These snakes are native to the United States and can be found predominantly across the Southern most region of the country including Alabama, Arkansas, West Central/Southeast Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Southern Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Eastern Utah, Virginia. They are commonly found in deciduous forests, pine barrens, rocky hillsides and farm areas. Corn snakes are most active at night or in the hours of dawn and dusk (crepuscular), and while they are primarily ground-dwellers, some will climb trees on occasion. They usually live 6-8 years in the wild, but in captivity they can live an average of 16-21 years.

Hatchlings range in size from 9-14 inches and in the wild will feed predominantly on small lizards and frogs, while their adult counterparts feed on larger prey including small rodents and birds, killing their prey by constriction. In captivity, hatchlings can easily be started on pinkie mice (1-2 day old), quickly moving up the prey size to fuzzies, and small mice. Both hatchlings and adults can (and ideally should) be fed pre-killed rodents rather than live. Mice can be purchased frozen and stored in the freezer until feeding day.



Choosing a Snake



Key Considerations:

- Does not have any injuries or deformities
- Must be a good weight
- Exhibits natural and alert behaviours
- No sign of parasitic infestations
- Is not overly stressed
- Ideally purchased from a reputable breeder or rescue shelter


When selecting a corn snake you will want to be sure you are selecting a healthy animal. You will want an animal of good weight, no cuts or abrasions to the skin, alert with tongue flicking and no signs of mite or tick infestation, the vent should also be clean.

It is often recommended to purchase your corn snake from a breeder rather than a pet shop for various reasons. Some of these reasons include access to accurate information regarding the history of the snake and peace of mind that the animal has been reared by a competent keeper. Information regarding the animals’ genetics, feedings, sheds, temperament, and any other information that the breeder may have can be provided, a pet store may not note such information with so many animals to care for. Purchasing from a pet/reptile store may be cheaper, but the animals are generally rarely handled and may not have been provide with optimal conditions for health and growth.


Settling In

It is good practice to leave your snake a minimum of around 24-48 hours before handling them during the settling in period. Moving into a completely unfamiliar environment can be quite stressful for the snake and it may strike out and bite in warning if disturbed. Small hatchling snakes are particularly affected by a move as they are very shy and easily stressed at that young age. Young snakes are also particularly prone to feeding issues and may refuse to eat during this time as they may be too overwhelmed and stressed by the move. Refusal to eat for 2-3 weeks is common during this period. If the snake appears settled after several days, some gentle handling is acceptable, but it is best to keep this to a minimum until the animal has fully settled. The settling in period can last up to two or three weeks depending on the individual snake (some are less shy and more adventurous than others). During this time, the snake should only be disturbed to change its water or for its enclosure to be cleaned out. Handling sessions should be started with brief periods of handling so not to over-stress the snake. Handling time can gradually be increased over time as the reptile-keeper bond is better established.

The snake may be fed its first meal after its first week, be sure to offer an appropriately sized meal. After eating the snake needs to be left for a minimum of around 48 hours to digest. Any handling too soon after eating can lead to regurgitation of the meal.



Husbandry



Housing



Key Considerations:

- Must be escape proof (snakes can get through unbelievably small gaps!)
- Must be of adequate size (ideally a minimum of 4 foot long for adult, or long enough for snake to stretch out)
- Must be furnished with necessary life support systems required by the species (heating, lighting, humidity
control, ventilation etc)
- Should be easy to clean and service
- Must be placed in a low traffic area of the house


There is a false belief held by some that reptiles will not grow any larger than its tank. Off course this is complete nonsense as the growth of a reptile depends on the level of nutrition it receives. All reptiles must be provided with optimal nutrition and an enclosure that will comfortably house the animal at full size. Enclosure size recommendations vary, but personally I would recommend a four-foot long vivarium to make a suitable enclosure for a fully-grown corn snake. The larger you can go with an enclosure the better, although unfortunately the enclosure size is often restricted to space available within the home. A minimum recommendation (stated in BSAVA Manual of Reptiles) is Longest side: 3/4 of the length of the snakes body; Shortest side: 1/3 of body length; Height: 1/2 body length. The rule of thumb is that the snake should ideally be able to stretch the length of the enclosure.

A hatchling corn can be provided with a smaller enclosure, largely to limit the possibility of escape as they can fit through smaller gaps, although it can be housed in a larger enclosure provided that there is plenty of hiding opportunities and cover (such as fake leaves) so the animal does not feel ‘on show’. Many care sheets will state that a large enclosure will be stressful for a small snake but what’s really stressful is limited opportunity to remove itself from view. A barren enclosure can leave the animal feeling vulnerable so it is recommended to provide plenty of hides and cover. The animal’s previous experience may also factor in. An animal kept in a small enclosure at a young age may have trouble adapting to a significantly larger enclosure, particularly if there is not enough hiding opportunities.

Starter kits are commonly sold at cheap prices and can be adequate for housing very young snakes temporarily, but be aware that some essential equipment is frequently missing from these kits, including a digital thermometer and thermostat, and that the snake may outgrow these small enclosures quickly.

A corn snakes enclosure must be suitable and secure. Corn snakes are excellent escape artists and a determined snake may take advantage of any small gap it finds. As long as the snake’s head fits into a gap, the rest of its body can be squeezed through also. Some snakes will constantly rub their nose against the enclosure door in an effort to find a way out and resultantly cause abrasive injuries to themselves. These injuries will require treating.

The enclosure needs to be placed in a low traffic area where people are unlikely to disturb the snake. Too much noise and commotion outside of the enclosure can place a lot of stress on the snake, especially a young or new snake. Stress can lead to all manner of problems including aggression, poor feeding and an impaired immune system.



Hides and Furnishings



Key Considerations:

- Furnishings must be appropriate, i.e. facilitates the animals natural behaviours (climbing, hiding, etc)
- Must have adequate number of hides (absolute minimum of two, more would be preferable)
- Hides must be of adequate size (snake able to touch the sides of the hide with its body)
- Hides positioned strategically (at least one on warm end and other on cool end of enclosure)
- Furnishings must not pose a danger (i.e. nothing the snake could be injured by)
- Anything sourced from outside must be disinfected first


The furnishings in the enclosure should provide a naturalistic and stimulating environment, facilitating natural behavioral repertoires and promote health. Fake vines, logs and branches can be provided to encourage climbing behaviour and promote exercise (although handling by the keeper will provide the majority of exercise the animal requires for health), rocks can be provided to aid in the shedding process and hides and fake leaves to provide cover and psychological security. Any furnishings acquired from outside will require sterilizing first before being introduced into the snakes enclosure.

Hides are essential to prevent stress. There are many things that can be used as a hide, from something as simple as a cardboard box or toilet roll holder, which can easily be replaced when soiled to a plant pot or coconut shell. Realistic looking caves and logs can also be purchased online. Hides need to provide security and are ideally just large enough for your Corn Snake to curl up in, i.e. the sides of the snakes body makes contact with the hide. If the hide is too small the snake may not be able to access it, too big and they may not feel secure. As the snake grows it will become necessary to upgrade its hides so the snake can comfortably hide away.

An absolute minimum of two hides should be provided, although there is no real maximum to how many you should provide. There should be at least one hide on the ‘cool’ side of the enclosure (distanced away from the heat source) and one on the ‘warm side’ (usually positioned on-top of a heat mat). This placement allows the snake to regulate it’s body temperature while still remaining hidden and secure. Other hides may be positioned around the enclosure depending on space and even suspended in mid-air if you feel like using a little ingenuity. Snakes will climb up to a hide positioned above ground if you are able to install one. My young snakes will sleep on a hammock suspended above ground, for cover I’ve positioned some fake leaves over the hammock.

Corn Snakes are naturally inquisitive animals and like to explore new surroundings. Altering the layout of your enclosure every now and again can be enriching for the snake and encourages those natural, explorative behaviours.



Heating and Lighting



Key Considerations:

- Heat mat should be roughly 1/3 the length of the enclosure
- Heating devices positioned to one side of the enclosure only to establish a gradient
- Must be controlled by thermostat and monitored by digital thermometer
- Heating output may need adjusting according to season
- Both heat mat and lamp can be used (heat mat most popular method to warm enclosure)
- Heat lamps must have a guard positioned over them


Corn snakes, like all other reptiles, use their environment to thermo-regulate. In captivity, they maintain their internal temperature by moving between the warmer and cooler areas of their enclosure which must be provided for by the owner. An under-tank heater (UTH) should be positioned to one side of the enclosure so a warm to cool gradient can be established. This will allow the snake to warm or cool its self as needed. The gradient required for corn snakes is 25-30ºC (77-86ºF) (cool end to warm end respectively), with an optional basking spot of around 32ºC (90ºF). Temperatures can be allowed to fall to the lower range at night. The UTH will provide belly heat and should be approximately 1/3 the length of the enclosure and controlled via thermostat and monitored using a digital thermometer with its heat sensing probe positioned fairly close to the heat mat. An infrared thermometer laser can also be useful for quick checks of various points in the enclosure to assess the temperature gradient, and decide if adjustments are required. Ideally you'll want to conduct these checks every 2 weeks.

It is important to control the temperature output of the heat-mat to prevent it from getting hot enough to cause damage to the reptile. Heat-mats can easily reach intolerable temperatures, especially if overburdened with substrate. Snakes will not react to a burn until significant damage has already been inflicted so it is important to prevent damage from occurring in the first place by using the necessary equipment to control the heating device. The temperature set with the thermostat may also need altering depending on the season, as the enclosure will become warmer during the summer and cooler during winter. Heat-mats can be placed on the outside of glass and plastic enclosures but on the inside of wooden vivarium’s as wood is a poor conductor of heat. Heat-mats are usually positioned 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 at risk of being fowled on by the snake, potentially making cleaning more difficult.

Heat lamps may also be used for corns (but are not essential), particularly as snakes do and will engage in basking behaviour. Unlike UTH’s, heat lamps will also warm the ambient air temperature, this is particularly useful if the ambient temperature in the room is too cold. These lights will simulate the sun by providing heat form overhead and simulating daylight. Lamps should be switched off during the night, preferably to coincide with natural sunlight, so a day/night light cycle can be established. If a lamp is placed inside the enclosure it must have a guard positioned over it to prevent the snake from coming into contact with the hot bulb. Snakes have been known to wrap around a hot bulb and suffer burns. A dimming thermostat can be used to control the heat bulb or a pulse thermostat with a ceramic bulb. A pulse thermostat should not be used for non-ceramic heating lights as this thermostat will likely blow the bulbs.

UV-B lighting is not considered necessary for this species as it is currently thought that the vitamin D3 assimilted from the liver of their prey is enough to meet requirements. However, a study by Acierno, MJ et al does demonstrate that plasma concentration of 25(OH)D3 increased in snakes that were exposed to supplemental lighting, demonstrating that corn snakes do make use of available UV-B radiation for vitamin D3 synthesis. More studies will be required to determine exact husbandry requirements.

The snakes’ water bowl should be positioned on the cool side of the enclosure to reduce the risk of bacterial growth within its water supply. Snakes may also cool themselves in the water bowl, making routine changing of the water and cleaning of the water bowl more important.



Substrate



There are various different substrates available, including beach chippings, sani-chips, bark, aspen, reptile carpeting and astroturf. There are pro’s and con’s to all substrates, below is a quick comparison:

Astroturf/ carpeting/ paper towel/ newspaper

Pro’s

- Easy to remove and replace
- Very little risk of introducing parasites or disease
- Good substrates for quarantining
- No risk of impaction
- Relatively cheap

Con’s

- Not very aesthetically pleasing
- Does not facilitate natural burrowing behaviours
- Cannot be spot cleaned - requires replacing once soiled

Reusable substrates such as carpeting or astroturf must be left to dry thoroughly after washing before being used again. Two pieces on hand can be rotated between cleans.

Wood-based Substrates

Pro’s

- Can be easy to spot clean – full clean not required every time the animal defecates
- Aesthetically pleasing
- Facilitates natural burrowing behaviours

Con’s

- Bark can introduce parasites
- Risk of impaction if fed inside enclosure
- Can alter humidity of enclosure

Aspen is typically the favoured bedding as it is hygienic, easy to spot clean, can be bought in bulk, does not risk introducing parasites like bark and very easy for the snake to burrow in. Approximately ½ ~ 1 inch of bedding will facilitate the snakes burrowing behaviour nicely, with only a thin layer of substrate covering the heating device to prevent the mat from becoming too warm. Any damp and soiled material must be removed to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungus. The snake should ideally be fed separate from its enclosure to prevent the accidental ingestion of substrate.

Bark, as already mentioned, has been known to harbor insects and parasites, so is a potential health risk to the snake. Bark may also grow mold when wet and due to its dark colour, can be tricky to spot clean.

Sand should be avoided for corn snakes as this substrate can get in between the scales or into the vent and cause irritation. If ingested, sand may also cause impaction, posing a serious health risk to the snake. Pine wood shavings are another one to avoid as they can become acidic when wet which is hazardous to a snake.



Cleaning



Snake enclosures require routine spot-cleans to remove waste as soon as possible. A scoop or paper towel can be used to remove the waste matter, along with a portion of the surrounding substrate. Any furnishings dirtied must be cleaned also before additional substrate is laid down. A full clean and disinfect can be carried out every few weeks to a month to prevent the growth of any mold or bacteria. During the full clean-out all the furnishings and hides must be disinfected too, along with the enclosure itself. Reptile friendly disinfectants are available, including F10 disinfectant. Alternatively, warm water and soap can be used but would not be as an effective cleaner against bacteria and other germs as dedicated disinfectants. Make sure that everything is dry before being replaced inside the enclosure again to prevent bacteria or mould growth.



Feeding



Corn snakes are carnivores and live on a diet of rodent prey. Corn snakes in captivity should be fed pre-killed or frozen/thawed (f/t) mice, not live. There are several good reasons for this, the most obvious being ethics. It is not ethical to place the prey animal under such stressful circumstances when it can be avoided. Like-wise, it is not ethical to introduce a potential danger to your snake when such circumstance can be avoided. If the snake refuses to eat, the mouse may very well inflict harm upon the snake. There are several documented cases of rodent prey causing fatal, or otherwise serious injuries to pet snakes. A second reason for feeding f/t is to limit the possible introduction of diseases carried by the rodent. The freezing process will eliminate dangerous pathogens which may be harboured by the prey animal. A third good reason for f/t is that it’s simply cheaper. You can buy in bulk and freeze them, then simply thaw them out when required. Live feeding should be restricted as a last resort to snakes with serious feeding issues, and the feeding of live mice should be supervised closely by an experienced individual.

There are several methods of warming a frozen mouse before feeding, such as leaving the mouse to naturally thaw in room temperature, left to soak in warm water, placed in a plastic freezer bag and left in warm water, or warmed up by a heat pad or hair dryer. The mouse should NOT be warmed with boiling water or thawed by the microwave. Both these methods can cause the mouse to ‘explode’ (stomach inflates too quickly and breaks open) and can cook the mouse. Before feeding it to the snake you will want to check first that the mouse has thoroughly thawed throughout. I personally manually feel the chest and stomach area for cold spots to ensure it has properly defrosted.

As a rule of thumb, rodent prey should be no wider than 1½ times the largest girth point of the snake, although to limit the risk of regurgitation 1¼ the girth of the snake is advised so not to push the animals’ limits. Adult snakes can be fed every 7-14 days and should not be handled for approximately 48 hours after eating. Hatchlings will need to be given 1 pinkie (furless baby mouse) every 3-5 days for the first 8-12 weeks, followed by 2 pinkies or 1 fuzzie every 4-7 days. One guideline suggests to increase the food along in ‘threes’. Once the baby corn begins searching for more food after one pinkie, it can be offered 2 the following feed, then 3, then onto fuzzies as it grows and continues to search after it’s meal. A full snake will usually go back to the warm area of its enclosure to digest its meal, although some snakes have eyes bigger than their stomachs so common sense should also be used when feeding snakes. Feeding too much can cause the snake to regurgitate its meal or gain too much weight and suffer health issues. Occasionally the snake may refuse its second meal, this is normal behaviour and is not generally a cause for concern.

The snake should ideally be placed within a second enclosure or otherwise fed outside of its home to prevent the accidental ingestion of substrate. Some snakes will not eat while in view of people so may need to be left alone. The snake may also be fed by using forceps or tongs to pick up the rodent by the tail. The prey item can then be held in front of the snake for the snake to strike at it.

It is good practice to wash your hands before and after handling the snakes’ food and the snakes themselves. It is possible to transfer your scent to the prey item and transfer the scent of the prey onto your hands, this scent transfer creates the risk of the snake confusing your hand for food. Hand washing is also a good hygienic practice to prevent disease transfer from you to the snake or vice-versa.



Water



A bowl of fresh water must always be available at all times. If left too long the water can stagnate and encourage bacterial growth. Snakes also like to drink regularly, increasing the importance of providing fresh water routinely. Furthermore, the dish will need to be properly disinfected at least once a week. The water dish should be large enough to allow the snake to bathe inside it. A corn snake may bathe before a shed or on a warm day to try and cool down. Other reasons for bathing in the water bowl may be that the snake is carrying eggs and is preparing for her pre-natal shed, the snake is burdened with ticks or mites and is attempting to relieve skin irritation or is having difficultly passing waste. If the snake defecates in its water dish, the dish must be cleaned and disinfected immediately. It is good practice to provide hatchlings and young snakes bottled water, as tap water contains elements that may cause gastric issues with young animals. The water must be placed on the cool end of the enclosure away from the heat source.



Handling



Corn snakes are generally docile and easy to handle although previous handling experience of the snake, personality differences between individuals and how well the keeper-reptile bond has been developed can mean a difference in how well an individual snake will take to handling. The snake must always be handled with care, especially nervous individuals. Always support the body and allow the head to move where the snakes wants to go. If you want to change the direction the snake is going, gently guide it into a new direction. New snakes are more likely to bite, especially when they are not yet settled in their new home. Time should be given for the snake to settle in (a few weeks if required) before the snake can be comfortably handled regularly. Although easy to handle, corn snakes can be somewhat shy and may try and enter clothing to hide during a handling session. Handling should be avoided after the snake has eaten and hands should be washed before and after handling to safeguard both snake and keeper against disease transfer.



Shedding



As reptiles grow larger their old skin becomes tight and worn, necessitating the need to grow a new skin and discard the old, this process is also known as sloughing. Young snakes may shed every 4-6 weeks while much older snakes may go months without shedding as they do not go through growth spurts like hatchlings and juveniles do.

When a snake prepares to shed, physical changes become apparent. Approximately 7-10 days before the skin is shed the eyes turn a milky blue and the body colour dulls, developing a grey hue. A few days before the snake is due to shed the eyes will once again become clear. During the shedding process it is not uncommon for snakes to refuse to eat. The snake may also seem uncharacteristically restless and irritable. This is the period where the snakes eyesight is at its worse and may seem more nervous than usual. It is good practice to avoid handling when the snake is in shed for this reason.

Snakes may enter their water dish to soak before a shed so it is recommended to provide a water dish large enough for the snake to sit in. The snake may also be bathed in warmish water at this time to ensure an easy and successful shed, alternatively the enclosures humidity may be increased to around 70% or a humid hide introduced for the snake to use.

To remove the old skin the snake may rub itself up against a solid object such as a branch or rock. The skin will first peel off from the nose end and come off in one piece as the snake wiggles free. Usually snakes don’t need any help with shedding, so long as proper husbandry practices are followed. Shedding issues may be due to a lack in humidity, caused by using heat lamps or by the type of substrate used, or by the ambient humidity in the house. If the snake fails to fully shed, the old skin must be removed manually. Use a damp cotton bud to gently rub the remaining skin off. Retained shed may damage the underlying healthy skin by trapping and encouraging the growth of bacteria. If the eye caps do not shed you should not attempt to remove the cap as you could inadvertently cause damage, in this instance you should seek assistance from a vet. Once shedding is complete it is not unusual to find that the snake is very hungry.