King Snake Care

Lampropeltis spp.

Lampropeltis triangulum syspila

Californian King Snake, image by maxnathans

King snakes (Lampropeltis spp.) are a group of relatively small colubrids which are commonly kept as pets due to their size, docility and ease of care. Typically quite vibrantly coloured, there about 25-40 species and sub species of king snake, depending upon who you ask. King snakes, which as mentioned belong to the Lampropeltis genus suffer from classification problems, the genus frequently see’s movements and shuffling of species and subspecies. This taxonomic reclassification is an ongoing process, and different sources often disagree, granting full species status to a group of these snakes that another source considers to be a subspecies.

The name Lampropeltis means “shiny shield” and is derived from the greek λαμπρος, "shine" and πελτα, "small shield", the name refers to the shiny appearance of their dorsal scales.

In the wild king snakes regularly feed upon other snakes (a process known as ophiophagy) and are  known for their remarkable trait whereby they are immune to the venom of, and therefore able to consume venomous snakes such as rattlesnakes and other venomous species found in their locality. It should be said that king snakes aren’t thought to contain a “catch all” venom immunity, they appear to display highly localized immunities to species only found in the same area as themselves. Upon finding a snake (or other food item should as lizards, birds, rodents and even eggs) the prey is subdued by constriction and asphyxiation; a method typical of the colubrids.

Due to the nature of the Lampropeltis genus, a species specific king snake care sheet is difficult. Therefore this should be treated as something as an overview or detailed introduction to the care of king snakes. Once you have decided that a king is for you, then you should research the individual species you intend to keep, looking at its locality and where it is generally found in the wild as this will provide great insight as to the appropriate captive care. For instance, learning that the species you are interested in is found in scrubland would suggest it should be kept a little dryer than a species which is more commonly found in woodlands.

The first snake I ever cared for (I looked after it for a friend) was a californian king snake, so this group of snakes holds a special place in my heart (I however don’t think I held a particularly special place in the said snakes heart, it regularly taking the opportunity to musk/defecate on me as a defence measure), and are perhaps in part to blame for what became of me!

 

King snake housing

King snakes are very easy to care for and can be housed much in the way that milk snakes or corn snakes can be. As with many snakes they can be a little agoraphobic and as such do well in what many would intuitively consider to be a vivarium which is too small. Hatchlings can be kept in small Tupperware containers which measure approximately 12x8x8in for the first few months of their lives. King snakes grow rapidly and as such they will soon need to be upgraded to something which is 18x12x12in or thereabouts. Adults do well in enclosures which are 24x12x12in – 30x12x12in (or equivalent) depending upon the size of the individual snake, obviously larger snakes require larger enclosures.

In terms of enclosure type for your king snake you have a number of options. As previously mentioned Tupperware containers are great for juveniles and they come in a number of sizes so there is no reason you can’t use Tupperware containers throughout the snakes life, simply upgrading their size as the snake grows. Such housing methods are popular with breeders as they are great for saving space and allow you to keep a lot of snakes in a small area. Another option is a converted glass aquarium (read: glass aquarium with a converted lid...), however I don’t recommend these because as was previously mentioned king snakes tend to be rather agoraphobic and an all glass tank can leave them exposed. My personal preference for adults and larger juveniles is wooden vivariums. These are purpose built for reptiles so naturally cater for them much better. Their wooden structure, with only a glass front, provides your king snake with a more boxed in feel which will result in a happier snake. They also have the advantage of being front opening, when you come to pick up your king snake you should always try to approach it from the side where it can see you (more on that in the handling section of the care sheet); wooden vivariums allow you to do this.

Decor wise, there are 4 main components which we will discuss: substrate, hides, water bowls and climbs.

Substrate is one of those hotly contested topics in the hobby and there are a number of choices for your king snake. Those looking for a simple, more sterile and easy to clean set up will want to favour newspaper, tissue paper or kitchen lino cut to size (the latter is my favourite due to the fact you can simply wipe it clean). Such options are simple, sterile and come with no risk of impaction; they are also rather ugly unfortunately. Those looking for a slightly more natural appearance have a few options, including bark chips, coconut fibre and aspen shavings. Cedar and pine products should be avoided as the chemicals which give them their odour have been shown to be harmful to snakes. I have a preference for the aspen shaving as whilst it isn’t quite as attractive/natural looking as its counterparts it holds its structure quite well if you provide a layer which is an inch or two thick your king snake can burrow through the substrate and it will hold its shape. It also has a rather pleasant smell to it. If you use any of the more natural looking substrates you should either feed outside of the vivarium, or place a piece of slate or something similar ie a small, flat surface which allows you to feed without the foodstuff and snake coming in to contact with the particulate substrate and risking ingestion which can cause impaction in some cases.

Hides are quite a simple affair. In short you need to provide at least two hides; one in the warm end and one in the cool end (more on warm and cool ends in the heating section coming up). The hide should be of a size where the snake can easily access it but be small enough so it can feel ‘snug’ and secure – as previously mentioned these snakes can be a little agoraphobic and benefit from a snug hide. There are loads of options for hides, from up turned plant pots, empty margarine tubs, shoe boxes/coloured Tupperware containers with a hole cut in, to more natural solutions like cork bark hides, coconut husks and some of the many commercial reptile hides available. You can also get creative with fake plants and rocks to make some interesting hides and retreats for your king snake. When using anything heavy like rocks make sure they are secure so they can’t fall and crush your king snake.

Once again water bowls are simple, there are plenty of commercial reptile water bowls available. Personally I like to use a heavy ceramic bowl so the snake can’t tip it over. Rodent food/water bowls work great for babies, and dog water bowls work for older individuals. The water bowl should be large enough for your king snake to take the occasional tip, and easy enough to access for them to easily enter and exit. Water should be changed daily.

The final piece of the puzzle, climbs, is somewhat optional. King snakes will have the odd climb and explore of the vivarium and benefit from having something to climb on (it can also help when they come to shed their skin, giving them something to rub up against). You can use bits of wood (once again there are plenty of pet shops that will sell you attractive pieces such as mopani and sandblasted wood). You can also collect your own wood. If you collect your own you should treat it by submerging it in boiling water several times to kill off any potential parasites. Alternatively you can gently bake it for an hour or so in a cool oven (you don’t want it to set on fire) which will have a similar affect. The addition of climbs and fake plants gives you the opportunity to get creative with your king snake vivarium, making it attractive to look at, and interesting for your snake to explore.

Baby King Snake

King Snake taking a bath and shedding its skin, image by born1945

 

King snake temperature and humidity

As mentioned in the introduction, you should look at the locality of the specific king snake you intend on buying and match the temperature and humidity of that area. As reptiles are cold blooded they rely upon external temperature to regulate their own body temperature. They move between warmer and cooler spots in order to maintain the correct temperature. As such you must provide a temperature gradient for your king snake, a warm end and a cool end. As a general rule they can be kept much like milk snakes, providing a warm end of 88-90f and a cool end of about 75f or room temperature, whichever is easier to achieve. If you live in a particularly warm area keep an eye on the cool end temperature during the warmer months and always ensure your snake can cool off if it needs to.

In terms of heating options, the most straightforward are heat mats, which should be placed under the vivarium covering no more than 40% of the floor space. Using heat mats in conjunction with a thermostat (all reptile heating equipment should be used in conjunction with a reptile thermostat; thermostats are as essential as the heating equipment!) allows you to easily create a warm spot and a cool spot, an ideal temperature gradient in the easiest way. The heat mat should be placed under the vivarium or under a false floor; the snake should not be able to come in direct contact with it.

Other heating options include ceramic bulbs, light bulbs and a few others. These should always be used in conjunction with a guard.

Humidity is dependent upon the locality of the snake, but aim for 40-60%, with a light misting every other week. When your snake is due to shed its skin (characterised by a dulling of the colouration and a milky appearance in the eyes) you should increase the humidity by misting twice weekly until the snake has shed its skin.

Feeding King snakes

Despite their varied wild diet of snakes, lizards, rodents birds and eggs, king snakes can and should be raised in captivity on a diet of defrosted rodents. They are bred in large numbers and are readily available, nutritionally complete and safe to feed. They are simply the best option.

You should feed your king snake food items which are no wider than 1.5x the width of the snake at its widest point; it should leave a slight lump for a day or two but nothing major. Hatchlings will take pinky mice straight away, and can gradually be moved up the scale of larger rodents progressing through fuzzies, hoppers, small mice, etc etc up until they are taking large or extra large mice. Particularly large king snakes might need to progress on to weaner rats in order to get a good meal.

Baby king snakes should be fed 2 pinky mice every 5-7 days; they will grow extremely fast when fed in this way and will soon progress on to fuzzy mice. Once they are feeding on small mice you should drop the feeding down to 1 food item every seven days, this feeding regiment can then pretty much be kept up throughout the king snakes life. Simply feed one appropriately sized food item every 7 days. Some owners, particularly of larger snakes which are taking extra large mice or weaner rats prefer to feed their snakes 1 item every 7-14 days. I tend to do this too, with the exception of when I am bringing adults up to breeding condition, whereby they will be fed weekly prior to brumation.

As a general rule I like to vary the feeding frequency to a degree in order to keep the snake on its toes so to speak. Snakes are surprisingly intelligent and soon learn when “feeding day” is and may become more agitated and expectant of food on that day, varying the feeding regiment will reduce this.

Handling King Snakes

King snakes are known to have a bit of a reputation for being a bit “nippy”, particularly as youngsters. They also have a particularly foul habit of defecating on you as a defence mechanism. This is particularly true of youngsters and individuals which aren’t handled regularly. With persistence and patience however they quickly tame down and become as tame and easy to handle as snakes like corns and royals (known for their laid back nature). When handling your snake it is important to support their body, and keep your movements slow and confident allowing your snake to simply explore your hands and feel comfortable.

When picking up a particularly nippy or defecation prone snake persistence and confidence is key. Most nippy snakes are simply what is known as “viv defensive” – this is a term used to describe a snake which can be a bit bitey when in its vivarium but as long as you quickly pick it up and remove it, the snake quickly calms down and becomes as tame as any other snake. Simply handle snakes like this a couple of times a week with confidence and in no time at all your snake will realise you do not represent a threat and take to handling well, losing this “viv defensiveness”.

Conclusion

King snakes make great snakes for beginners and the experienced alike, no snake collection should be without atleast the one! Keep similar to how you would a milk snake or corn snake, providing a warm spot of about 90f, a cool spot of about 75f, humidity of about 40-60% (locality dependant) and feed roughly once a week, increasing food size as the snake grows. King snakes can be a little defensive initially, having a habit of defecating on their loving owners hands, but confidence and persistence pay off and these snakes make very rewarding pets.

king snake

King snake by kafkan

 

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