These days there are masses of different species of snake currently available in the pet trade. This raises an interesting problem: what are really the best small pet snakes which are suitable for beginners and require minimal space in captivity?
As it turns out, while some snake species are difficult to look after thanks to their natural habits, eventual size or level of aggression, there are a surprisingly large number of snakes which are perfectly suited to the beginner.
If you’re considering investing in your very first pet snake and are looking for the best options then read on for my personal “hot list”.
Corn Snakes (Pantherophis guttatus)
Corn snakes are some of the most popular small pet snakes, and for good reason.
Sometimes known as the “red rat snake”, corn snakes typically make very docile and forgiving pets. As a result they are one of the easiest – and hence best – pet snakes to keep for a beginner.
As this species has been “the” snake that most owners start with so long, they have been bred in captivity for decades.
This has two benefits for the keeper. Firstly, baby corn snakes are for sale in most good reptile shops on a regular basis. Not only are baby corn snakes unbelievably cute but they’re also typically much cheaper than buying a larger snake.
Just as importantly, buying a hatchling allows you to get your snake used to handling early on, and so to be certain that it remains tame and docile throughout its adult life.
The second benefit of so many corn snakes being bred each year is that there are now dozens of different colors (known in the trade as “morphs”) available.
While I have to admit I’m a bit boring and still have a preference for the typical “wild type” of corn snake, it’s entirely possible these days to purchase corn snakes that are an almost limitless combination of reds, oranges, pinks, whites, blacks and brown.
Here are some of the more popular corn snake morphs which may appeal to the first-time keeper:
Amelanistic Corn Snake
Sometimes known as the “amel corn snake” this color form lacks the black pigmentation seen in “wild type” snakes. As a result this variety really shows off the reds and oranges, though the eyes too generally match these colors.
Anerythristic Corn Snake
Sometimes known as an “anery corn snake” this color form generally lacks the reds and oranges seen in wild corn snakes.
This gives it deep gray or black saddles on a pale gray or white background.
While this sounds rather boring in appearance, the result is a truly stunning snake which can be exquisitely patterned.
Snow Corn Snake
Besides the wild type, I must admit that the snow corn is my favorite color form. Bred by crossing both an amel and an anery corn together, the resultant is a pale white/pink snake with subtle pink saddles. These really are stunning snakes and totally unlike the common type.
Butter Corn Snake
The butter corn is another stunning variety. The best way to describe the butter corn snake would be looking at a wild type snake through a yellow camera filter. All the markings remain, but rather than a base color of reds and oranges this variety is primarily deep yellow in color – hence the “butter” name.
More information on the various corn snake morphs available can be found at the following excellent websites:
Common Corn Snake Questions
Are corn snakes poisonous?
Corn snakes are constrictors, meaning that they kill their prey by restricting the breathing. Unlike many other species of snake they do not possess venom and so are unable to cause harm to you if handled.
Are corn snakes constrictors?
Yes. Corn snakes feed primarily on rodents in the wild (hence their alternative name of “red rat snake”) and kill them by coiling around the rodent tightly, thus suffocating it before consumption.
Why are corn snakes called corn snakes?
A number of theories exist as to why corn snakes are so-called. Possibly the most likely is that in the past these snakes were most commonly encountered around farmer’s fields, where they would hunt the small rodents found living among the corn.
An alternative suggestion comes from the yellow/orange coloration of these snakes which in some specimens is the color of corn.
Are corn snakes harmless?
Unless you’re a small rodent then corn snakes are generally harmless. They possess no venom, and instead constrict their prey before eating it. Corn snakes are generally quite docile. A wild corn snake would rather slither away to safety than stand its ground, while pet corn snakes can generally be handled with ease.
I’ve got to be honest with you; ball pythons are one of my all-time favorite snakes, and one that I still maintain to this day.
There are a number of reasons why I think this is one of the best pet snakes.
When new acquaintances of mine hear that I keep pythons in my bedroom they often imagine one of the larger pythons – perhaps a burmese or reticulated python that they’ve seen in the zoo.
They imagine I have a vivarium the size of a small apartment and risk life and limb every time I open it. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Firstly, ball pythons typically only reach around 5 feet in length. As a result they’re a surprisingly small pet snake. Perhaps just as interestingly they’re also typically quite stocky and sturdy-looking snakes.
This can make them far more eye-catching as a pet. Additionally, they tend to move rather more slowly than corn snakes, making them perfect for handling.
Then of course there are all the different color morphs available. Just as with corn snakes, this means there are colors suitable for almost every taste, from the original “wild type” through to all manner of reds, whites, yellows and browns.
Here are some of the more popular color morphs:
Albino Ball Python
As with other species, the albino ball python lacks the dark pigmentation, which therefore removes the blacks and browns from the body. What you’re left with is a red-eyed snake with yellow/orange saddles on a pale cream background.
Piebald Ball Python
The piebald ball python is a fascinating snake, with variable patches of white and colored sections. Each of these piebalds is different, making each one unique.
For loads of information on ball python morphs take a look at:
Truth be told, while I think the ball python is one of the best small pet snakes it is not without it’s weaknesses. Possibly the biggest of these is that ball pythons can be fussy feeders. Many go off food for long periods of time – especially the males.
While this can cause anguish for new snake owners, when their pet refuses to eat for weeks or even months at a time, this is entirely natural. So long as your snake is not losing condition visibly it should be nothing to worry about.
It’s just a quirk of keeping ball pythons and one that you’ll need to get used to if you’re not going to tear your hair out looking after these fantastic snakes.
Common Ball Python Questions
How big does a ball python get?
Ball pythons are surprisingly small snakes by python scales. On average ball pythons will reach roughly 4-5 feet in overall length, with the adult females often being larger than the males. Note that this is a stocky snake, so even at these modest sizes they can look very impressive indeed.
How long do ball pythons live?
Ball pythons are known to be very long lived snakes. Estimates suggest that 40 years or more is not unrealistic for a captive ball python. This means you should think carefully before buying one as it’ll outlive a cat or dog many times over so really represents a long-term commitment.
What do ball pythons eat?
Like all snakes, ball pythons are carnivores. This means that they need to eat meat, as opposed to plant matter. In captivity most ball pythons feed on rodents. Adult ball pythons will normally eat large weaner (sub-adult) rats, while smaller specimens eat correspondingly smaller rats or mice.
Unfortunately, keepers have found that some ball pythons learn to prefer mice over rats, which can make feeding the adult snakes rather expensive. It’s much cheaper (and easier) to feed one rat than multiple mice. For this reason it can be wise to introduce your snake to the taste of rats early on.
Hognoses really are small pet snakes, growing to only around 3 feet in length (males can be even smaller than females). As a result they’re one of the best pet snakes for those individuals with limited space available for vivariums. The hognose is so-called because it has a unique up-turned snout, resembling a pig’s snout.
Now, truth be told, hognoses are far less common than either ball pythons or corn snakes, so if you opt for one of these little beauties you may have to do a little more hunting around for a specimen, but it can be well worth the effort.
Easily handleable, sturdy and easy to care for, and small in dimensions, the hognose makes an unusual but easily cared-for pet snake.
As the hognose snake is less common than many of the other suggestions here they have not undergone quite the same level of breeding. This can not only mean slightly higher prices, but also a much smaller range of color morphs.
For a full list of the options available take a look at:
King snakes represent a large group of snakes, with huge amounts of diversity within that group. Small pet snake examples include the beautiful chocolate-and-cream Californian kingsnake and the stunningly-spotted Florida King Snake (the first species of snake I ever personally bred).
Many such snakes reach very modest proportions indeed, with my Florida kings growing to only around 3-4 feet long in total. This makes them considerably smaller than either ball pythons or most corn snakes.
Other less regularly-seen king snake species include the black king snake and the beautiful mountain king.
Note that unlike corn snakes and ball pythons, many king snakes aren’t naturally docile. If you purchase a snake that hasn’t been handled regularly these snakes can prove to be rather skittish, and may even defecate on you in order to encourage you to put them down.
In other words, when selecting a king snake it’s critical that you actually get the specimen out and get to know its unique personality. It’s also important that these snakes are handled on a regular basis in order to keep them comfortable with the process.
Milk snakes represent one of the best small pet snakes in my opinion. After over a decade of looking after milk snakes I still feel that they’re one of the single most attractive groups of snakes available, with their incredible red, white and black rings.
Very few other species of snake even get close to the overall appearance and contrast of colors you will find in these snakes.
They’re also sturdy feeders who rarely stop eating (unless a moult is coming) so can grow quite quickly. This is nothing to worry about, however, as many milk snake species rarely reach 4 feet or so in overall length. This makes them easy to accommodate in the home.
I have also found that milk snakes are incredibly unlikely to bite. Even after all these years I have yet to have a specimen go for me, which is quite some achievement. Indeed, in terms of their personalities, milk snakes seem far more likely to try and make a break for freedom than they are to turn around and bite.
That said, you should be aware that milk snakes can be pretty quick when they want to be. Whereas one can typically open up a ball python cage and simply scoop the little snake out without any fuss, when you open your milk snake tank you’ll need to be on full alert.
Gently remove the hide and then gently but swiftly get hold of your snake. Remember: the chances of being bitten by a milk snake are close to zero, but if you take your eye off them they can be out of the cage in the blink of an eye.
For this reason, while they are stunning and small pet snakes, they may not be the best solution for children or beginners. Instead, a more “plodding” snake like a ball python or corn snake might be more easily cared for and handled.
Note that due to their small size and speed, milk snakes can be true escape artists. When I got my first ever pair, back in my late teens, I was forever getting home to find the cage empty and the snakes relaxing by the radiator in my room.
In other words, if you’re going to keep milk snakes, be certain to invest in a good quality vivarium without any nasty gaps or holes through which these natural escape artists could make a break for freedom!
Got questions? Please use the comments section below and I’ll try to respond ASAP to any questions you may have…
Photo c/o Carlitos Pereira, highlander411, forestwildlife, mariposavet, robertnelson & golgarth
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8 thoughts on “The 5 Best Small Pet Snakes (for Beginners)”
Thank you so much for your amazing website/information. We have decided to get my almost 11 year old son a snake for his birthday which he is thrilled about. He really wants a corn snake but I am not so sure bc of the size that they can grow to. How large of a cage do we need to have for these type of snakes? The hognose snake is very appealing to me since it will not grow quite as large.
We will read your info together.
Both corn snakes and hognose snakes are great species to start with. Despite what you may think, corn snakes are still a very manageable size as adults.
Hi again Richard,
Also we are planning to leave town for a month as I take my kids on a road trip. When we leave we may only have had the snake for a month. Is it possible to leave a young snake for that long or do we need to hold off on getting it?
Hi Mary – I would strongly dissuade you from leaving a snake for a month. For one thing the water will need to be changed regularly. Additionally, for a small snake going for a month without food is a long time. I would suggest holding off until you get back.
I would leave out the bit about the spider ball python morph. The spider gene is linked to severe neurological deficits, causing the snake to suffer for human aesthetic pleasure, which isn’t fair. Beginners shouldn’t be breeding snakes anyway
Hi Emma – You make a good point. I’ve removed the section you recommended, as I do agree with you 100%.
My fiancé is thinking about getting a snake but I have an adult pet rabbit so I’m nervous about getting a snake that might attack him. Are there any snakes docile/small enough to not go after a cat-sized rabbit?
Hi Sara – Most of the more commonly kept pet snakes are far too small to try eating a rabbit. Corn snakes and garter snakes would be two such examples. That said, I’d always recommend keeping potential predators and prey apart at all times. Just because a snake is too small to eat a rabbit doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t bite if they feel threatened. Generally speaking if snake and rabbit are housed separately at all times I don’t think you’ll have too many issues with smaller snake species.