My obsession with keeping exotic pets began at a very young age. By the time I was twelve I had already kept a range of different tarantulas, stick insects and praying mantis. I’d also begun to branch out into reptiles, where I started by keeping green anoles.
However it wasn’t until the age of 16 that I landed my first few snakes. Alongside the handful of corn snakes I soon became the proud owner of a breeding pair of milk snakes; a species I later went on to breed myself.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, milk snakes hold a very special place in my heart. To my eyes they’re still one of the most beautiful snakes of all, and one that I still keep to this day.
With their colorful, contrasting rings of red, white and black and their smooth appearance milk snakes really are something special. Fortunately, with a little information they’re also quite easy-going and forgiving pet snakes. If you’re considering buying a milk snake read on to discover how to care for these stunning reptiles…
Milk snakes are a surprisingly diverse group. While most of the pet trade focuses on either the Sinaloan or Pueblan Milk Snakes, there are currently over 20 different varieties recognized.
Interestingly, the Milk Snake is generally categorized as a single species (Lampropeltis triangulum) with the different varieties being classed as sub-species.
However not all authorities, agree, however, and believe that many of the varieties deserve to be classified as unique species in their own right. Their taxonomy may well change in the coming years, therefore, as experts disagree over how best to classify them.
Milk snakes are a New World species, occurring across a wide range. They are to be found as far north as southern Canada, throughout the United States and down into much of Central America.
In the wild milk snakes may frequent a wide range of habitats, though are most commonly found in more arid areas.
From rocky mountainsides to prairies and even woodlands these are snakes that are well-adapted to drier conditions and highly adaptable in their lifestyle. This adaptability helps to make them ideal pets as they will tolerate a wide range of different conditions with ease.
It is interesting to note that their presence in cattle-farmers fields led to their common name, whereby a myth arose that they must be drinking the milk of these animals they were so commonly found in close proximity.
Milk Snake Caging
Like all snakes, milk snakes are born escape artists. When I bought my first milk snakes they seemed to forever be getting out, though were always soon found relaxing on the windowsill above the radiator.
I soon learned from personal experience that it is critical to ensure that these slim and agile snakes are kept in escape-proof containers. You’ll be astonished by just how small a gap they can get through or how well they can climb (my original problem was a loose lid, which they could nudge just enough to slip through the gap).
Milk snakes tend to be quite modestly-sized snakes in captivity, generally quite a bit smaller than corn snakes (though exceptions do of course exist). Despite their smaller size, milk snakes should not be kept in overly-small cages as they can be surprisingly active when going about their nocturnal activities.
I recommend a cage that offers at least one square foot of space for every foot of snake length. This means that a four foot milk snake will require a cage no less than 4 feet long by a foot wide at the bare minimum, though larger is of course better.
Milk snakes can be surprisingly adept climbers in comparison to many other commonly-kept snakes, so a vivarium which provides a degree of height can also be beneficial. Personally I sometimes include carefully-fixed pieces of wood to provider some vertical interest in their cages, and will quite often see them climbing.
While there are a range of different vivariums available for snakes, my own personal preference in the case of milk snakes is a wooden vivarium. As milk snakes tend to be kept on a dry substrate there is little worry of the wood warping or rotting, as can happen in a humid set-up.
The solid sides of the vivarium help to provide privacy, making your snake feel more confident in their surroundings. As the same time the wood construction can be ideal for keeping in heat. Even a standard heat pad placed inside the viv can keep it warm and toasty on a cold winter’s day.
Lastly you have the benefit of the sliding doors at the front, which provide excellent visibility for keeping an eye on your snake and watching their activities. The fact that these slide open can be helpful for tank maintenance, as you don’t need to open the entire cage to change the water or spot-clean the substrate. For a species of snake that can be surprisingly fast when it wants to be, this minimizes the chances of them slipping past you when the cage is open.
Siting the snake vivarium is as important as its construction. As milk snakes tend to be most active after dark, especially at dawn and dusk (a lifestyle known as “crepuscular”) they generally appreciate a darker cage than diurnal species.
Additionally, it is important to appreciate that snake cages can rapidly overheat if they are in direct sunlight – especially during summer months. Lastly, take into consideration any chills or drafts that may be about. Placing a milk snake vivarium next to an external door, for example, will rapidly chill it when you open the door in winter.
All of these elements should be considered when deciding where to place your milk snake tank. Ideally this will be away from direct sunlight, radiators and windows, all of which can affect the internal temperature. Also, try to avoid “noisy” areas of the house such as children’s bedrooms or close to your TV set. A quiet room tends to be kindest for your pet.
Heating Milk Snakes
Milk snakes are cold blooded creatures and so will require artificial heating in all but the very hottest months of the year. In comparison to my ball pythons I have found that their preferred temperature tends to be quite a bit lower; typically a hotspot of 25’C tends to work well with milk snakes.
This is most easily provided with a heat mat. If you use a wooden vivarium then this should be placed inside the tank, at one end. If you have opted to use a plastic or glass tank then this can be placed underneath.
It is important when purchasing a heat mat that it should be of the correct size. Ideally the heater should cover no more than a third to a half of the overall floor area. This means that one end of the cage will be kept noticeably warmer than the other end. In this way you create a “thermal gradient”, allowing your snake to choose the temperature that suits them best.
The option to choose their location can also be useful for modifying the environmental conditions in the cage. For example if your snake seems to spend most of its life curled up in the hot area then you can surmise that the cage may not be warm enough. Here a second heat mat, attached to the back of the cage, can be used to increase the temperature further in colder weather.
Alternatively if you snake spends the majority of his or her time right down the cold end of the cage then it may be that the cage overall is too warm. Try moving the cage off the heater a little to see if this improves matters.
A healthy, happy and suitably warm snake will still hide away during most of the day, but will be active and inquisitive in the evening, coming out to explore and hunt for food.
Experts recommend that a thermostat should always be used with heat mats, in order to eliminate the chances of overheating. These can be particularly effective as the seasons change. As spring moves into summer, a thermostat is your insurance if the weather suddenly gets hotter one day while you’re out of the house.
In this instance the thermostat will turn off the heater to maintain a suitable temperature, only turning it back on again when the room temperature drops again.
A digital thermometer can also be a handy (and cheap) addition to your milk snake cage. With such a device you can quickly and easily monitor the temperature of your snakes cage without needing to disturb him or her to try while trying to “feel” whether the heating is working effectively.
Water & Humidity
While milk snakes may largely come from drier environments, it is critical that they should have a bowl of fresh water available at all times. I have found that from time-to-time my milk snakes like to bathe in their water, so I recommend providing a bowl that is large enough for your snake to fully immerse itself. Additionally, don’t fill water bowls to the very top or your snake could make quite a mess if it decides to go for a swim!
Generally speaking milk snakes aren’t fussy when it comes to humidity. A normal household humidity level should serve them fine, though a few keepers recommend giving your snake a very occasional spray with tepid water to mimic a light rain shower.
Once you’ve selected your milk snake cage and heater, you’ll want to invest in a few other pieces of hardware to keep your snake healthy.
Firstly, you’ll want to consider substrate options.
Here there are a wide range of possible options, including corn cob granules, beech chippings and aspen, each of which can make a suitable substrate for your pet.
Personally, my preference is for beech chippings or aspen, with a layer several centimetres thick on the bottom of the cage.
As discussed previously, milk snakes can be surprisingly adept climbers, so if you have space in your snake tank it can often be fun to put some climbing apparatus in there to provide additional interest. Drift wood, as sold for aquariums, can be used if firmly fixed in place to avoid it moving.
Lastly milk snakes tend to be much shier and more secretive than many other snake species. As a result you’ll want to ensure that your pet has a suitable hide in which they can feel secure.
Feeding Milk Snakes
Milk snakes are avid feeders and I have never had any major problems with encouraging them to feed. Studies suggest that in the wild milk snakes tend to be quite “generalist” feeders, and may eat anything they can fit in their mouths. For youngsters this can include invertebrates, while adults may on occasion take baby birds or lizards.
An interesting study carried out by scientists involved inspecting the stomachs of wild milk snakes, with some surprising findings. Not only have milk snakes been shown to feed on the chicks of ground-nesting birds, but the study also found one specimen in Central American that had consumed the eggs of an iguana.
However other studies have suggested that their most common food stuff in the wild for adults are five-lined skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus).
In captivity the most common source of food is dead mice (most milk snakes won’t get large enough to take rats).
Rodents can be bought frozen from most reptile stores. When feeding day comes around you can simply place a rodent into a plastic bag and suspend it in hot water. This will not only thaw out the item quickly, but the warmth of the rodent itself can serve as an attractant for your snake.
If you are prone to feeding room-temperature mice, but find that you snake is being fussy, try warming them up in warm water before feeding. This increases the scent they give off and can make them rather more appealing for milk snakes.
As a rough guide try to feed a food item which roughly matches the widest part of your snakes body. This means that hatchling milk snakes will readily accept pinkies and fluffs, with the size of the prey items increasing as the snake grows.
Adult milk snakes will happily take jumbo mice, with the largest specimens sometimes accepting smaller rats.
I have found milk snakes to have healthy appetites, so tend to feed youngsters two or three times a week, with adults eating slightly less frequently. Under such conditions they will grow rapidly, only going off food for short periods of time immediately before or after a moult.
Try to avoid handling your snake for a 24 hour period after feeding. Some owners have found that the stress of handling can on occasion encourage milk snakes to regurgitate their last meal. This is neither pleasant for owner or snake.
Handling Milk Snakes
Milk snakes can be wonderful snakes for those that want a pet they can handle. I have found them to be some of the most docile snakes, and despite 20 years of keeping them I have yet to be bitten by a single specimen. This is in contrast to other typically docile snakes – where both corn snakes and ball pythons have taken the odd pop at me over the years!
That said, milk snakes can be surprisingly quick, and also rather skittish. A startled milk snake can make quite a getaway when you open the tank, so take the time to get to know your snake. The last thing you want to do is open the vivarium only for them to dash out of the corner and make a break for freedom.
Once in the hand, milk snakes will normally remain calm, and prove to be highly inquisitive, exploring the world around them. Note, however, that even a tame snake may be easily startled and suddenly try to bolt to safety. It is key, therefore, when handling milk snakes to remain slow, calm and deliberate at all times. They may not be the ideal snake for children, therefore, who may accidentally spook these sensitive snakes.
It is worth noting that a scientific study in Japan found Salmonella in the stomach of a captive milk snake. While the sample size was tiny, it is wise to carefully wash your hands after holding your snake to avoid the risk of any cross-contamination.
Do you have any other questions not answered here? Please feel free to leave your queries on the comments section below where I will try to answer them as quickly as possible….