Bullsnake Care Sheet

Make no mistake – bullsnakes are impressive reptiles.

Large in size, bulky, beautifully patterned and with a variety of strategies to ward off potential predators these snakes can put on a real show when they feel threatened.

Indeed, my first ever experience of this species was a large adult specimen, in a pet shop where I used to work as a teenager.

Whenever the cage had to be opened he would rapidly expel air from its lungs, giving a sound like an airbrake, and would rattle the end of his tail just like a rattlesnake. If ever was there a snake that scared me it was this beast!

bullsnake photo

Of course, this was just the view of an inexperienced teenage reptile keeper. As it turns out, not only did that aggressive specimen calm down nicely with regular attention, but that most bullsnakes can become incredibly calm and accepting of their keeper, and can be handled without incidence.

In short, if you’re looking for a snake that displays impressive proportions, coloration and behaviour then bullsnakes may be the perfect pet for you.

In this bullsnake care sheet we’ll discuss the latest knowledge on their captive care, allowing you to maintain your snake properly in captivity.

Natural Habitat

Bullsnakes have the Latin name of Pituophis catenifer sayi. They’re incredibly widely distributed across North America, being found found as far south as Mexico and as far north as Alberta.

This is a good thing; snakes that can thrive in a huge range of different habitats typically adapt well to captivity and are quite forgiving about captive conditions.

Closely related to gopher snakes and pine snakes, they may be encountered in almost any habitat, though their preference seems to be for dry, sandy prairies where they hunt for rodents to eat. This means that a dry captive habitat (with constant access to drinking water) can be a very effective strategy.

Enclosures & Vivariums

bullsnake photo

We’ve already seen that a dry desert/prairie habitat tends to work well for these snakes.

However there’s a second major consideration before choosing your vivarium.

The reality is that these can be big snakes in comparison to most North American snake species.

Hatchlings typically measure in at around 30cm long, and can double in size in their first year.

While some adults may top out at around four feet long (48 inches / 120 cm), a more typical adult length is some six to seven feet long (72 – 84 inches). Some specimens are even bigger. They’re also reasonably bulky snakes, with an impressively muscular body.

This therefore means that unlike tiny snakes like sand boas, which can be housed quite successfully in very modest enclosures, the bullsnake owner will need a big vivarium – at least for an adult snake.

It is generally recommended that snakes should be kept in an enclosure where the length added to the width is equivalent to the overall length of your snake. This means that a six foot long adult snake would need a cage roughly 4 feet x 2 feet (total = 6 feet) to be able to stretch out properly.

While, of course, hatchlings can be kept in much smaller quarters, accept that sooner or later you’re going to have to invest in a large cage for your pet. If such an expense would be painful for you then I’d suggest keeping a different snake species that achieves a far more modest adult size.

Some examples of effective cage options include:

Glass Terrariums

Glass terrariums are great-looking enclosures that offer a host of practical benefits. The front-opening doors make cleaning and feeding nice and easy, and these lock shut when not in use.

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If there is a downside to these glass terrariums it is that they only come in a limited range of sizes. A larger model can therefore make a stunning and practical home for hatchling bullsnakes, but larger specimens will eventually outgrow their quarters.

Plastic Shoe Boxes

These are certainly not the most attractive of vivariums, but they’re cheap, easy-to-clean and can be stacked on one another. All you need to so is source one of a suitable size, add some ventilation (I use an electric drill to add ventilation homes) and get going.

Note that ceramic heaters aren’t suitable for plastic enclosures like this as they can melt. For your own peace of mind try to source one where the lid “clips” onto the base. These locking handles will help to keep the container secure.

Aquariums With Mesh Lids

One of the most practical options, especially for larger specimens, is a glass fish tank. While they’re heavy, fish tanks are cheap to buy (or even make), come in a range of different sizes and are pretty easy to keep clean.

You’ll also want to invest in one of the specially made mesh lids available on the market. These not only prevent your pet from escaping, but can also make accessing the enclosure a little easier thanks to their hinged lids.

Wooden Snake Vivariums

I’m a big fan of wooden vivariums with sliding glass doors at the front. These can be bought in all manner of sizes and shapes, or can be easily and cheaply built at home.

Indeed, for larger snakes the flexibility to custom-design a wooden vivarium to your own specifications can be a lot of fun. Whether you build or buy one, be sure to add a cage lock to prevent the sliding glass doors from being pushed open.

Heating & Temperature

One of the keys to successfully keeping bull snakes is providing the correct temperature. 

In terms of temperatures, a basking spot or hotspot should be created at one end of the cage. A temperature range of around 80 – 85 degrees Fahrenheit (26 – 30 degrees C) tends to work well, though a few degrees lower won’t be the end of the world.

The other end of the enclosure should remain unheated. This therefore creates a temperature gradient, allowing your snake to bask in the hot area, then regulate its temperature by slithering away to the cooler end when it chooses.

There are a number of ways to achieve these temperatures:

Heat Pads

Variously known as heat pads, mats, cables or tapes, these are all very similar in design. Essentially electricity passes through a thin ceramic strip, heating it gently. These tend to be low-powered, which means they produce only a modest warmth. The upside is that they also use very little electricity.

If you’re planning to use a heat pad then consider carefully how you’ll install it. For example, placing a heat mat under a wooden vivarium will prevent the warmth from permeating; you’ll want to actually place the heater inside the vivarium.

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A similar problem can be thick layers of substrate, where once again the heat may not permeate properly. Assuming a thin layer of substrate, these can be placed under glass or plastic terrariums, but will need to be inside wooden cages.

Their low power output makes them perfect for people who either want to keep their electricity bill down, or who are using a plastic cage which might otherwise melt or buckle with more powerful heaters.

As a final note, don’t aim to purchase a heat mat that covers the entire floor of your bullsnake cage. Instead it should cover just ¼ to ⅓ of the cage floor, creating that all-important thermal gradient.

Ceramic Bulbs

Ceramic bulbs can be a fantastic source of heat for your bullsnake. These bulbs get a lot warmer than heat mats so can be a great way to provide a lovely basking spot for your snake.

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As they get hot, you’ll want to place a bulb guard over your ceramic heater to prevent your snake coming into contact with the bulb and getting burned.

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Buy a ceramic bulb with a reflector to “push” the heat down to the floor of the cage. These bulbs can require some effort to install in a wooden vivarium, and should never be used with plastic cages.

They can, however, be very quick and easy to install in a mesh-topped cage like an Exo Terra; the bulb reflector can simply be gently rested on the mesh top of the cage, with the heat travelling down to the basking spot on the floor of the cage.

Heat Lamps

Incandescent bulbs that produce both light and heat are preferred by some reptile keepers. Personally I’m not a huge fan, as they tend to have a short lifespan, and can explode if they come into contact with water (such as if your bullsnake splashes it’s water bowl). Just like with a ceramic heater, be sure to use a bulb guard to protect your snake.

Warning: When it comes to heating any reptile cage a good quality thermostat is essential. There are many different thermostats available, and it can be quite intimidating to choose the right one, as different thermostats are designed for different heaters. Read my guide on choosing the best thermostat for your reptile.

Lighting

No artificial lighting is necessary for bullsnakes, though some keepers opt to add some to make their enclosure more visually appealing. If you opt to go down this road then ensure that the light doesn’t result in overheating, and be sure toonly leave it on during daylight hours. This will then permit a natural day/night cycle, without which your snake could become stressed.

Related:  Kingsnake Care Sheet

Water & Humidity

Bullsnakes may favor a desert or prairie habitat in the wild, but they should always have access to fresh water. Unlike some other snakes like rainbow boas they seldom soak themselves in their bowl, and let’s also not forget that these are bulky, strong snakes.

For these reasons many snake keepers provide a small yet heavy water bowl that cannot be easily tipped over an active specimen. A stoneware cat bowl can work well in this regard. Check the water regularly and replenish to keep it fresh, with the entire bowl being regularly scrubbed and sterilized using a reptile-safe detergent.

Their wild habitat means that a low-humidity environment works well for this species.

Substrate

bullsnake photo

Once you’ve chosen a suitable enclosure you’ll next need a substrate to line the base of the cage. Fortunately this is one of the simpler aspects of bullsnake care; as they thrive in a reasonably dry environment there are all sorts of different substrates that can work well.

Some breeders like to use newspaper or paper towels, and replace this as necessary, though I personally worry that this prevents some natural behaviors.

My personal preference is for a deeper and more natural option; try to provide an inch or more of substrate so that your bullsnake can burrow around in it at will.

Some good options include aspen bedding, reptile-safe sand, corn cob granules or beech chippings.

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Be sure to spot clean this as necessary, removing any bits that either becomes damp from spilled water or messy due to faeces or feeding. In this way you can keep the cage clean and fresh-smelling at all times.

Hides

Studies in the wild suggest that while bullsnakes may range over a surprisingly large area, they generally are found within one meter of a suitable hide or refuge, suggesting that it is important for them to be able to hide away.

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This is hardly surprising when other field studies have suggested that mortality rates in the wild can be 40% or more on an annual basis, due at least in part to predation.

There are a range of hide options that I have discussed here.

Food & Feeding

The proper food and feeding regime should be considered essential to your bullsnake care routine. Fortunately, these snakes tend to have healthy appetites in captivity, making them easy to feed. 

As carnivores, they’d normally eat any animal they could get into their mouth. In captivity the easiest and most reliable prey prey items are suitably-sized rodents. Youngsters will take small mice while large adults may happily consume large weaner rats. 

Generally speaking a “suitably sized” rodent is one roughly equivalent in girth to the fattest part of your snake.

In terms of feeding times, hatchlings can be fed every 5-7 days, while an adult will remain in good condition being fed every 7-10 days.

Personally I dislike the idea of feeding live rodents in captivity. Asking your snake to kill a live animal is not only is this illegal in some countries but it risks making a mess of your cage and potential damage to your bullsnake.

Fortunately frozen rodents are easily and cheaply sourced. They can be defrosted as needed and given to your snake. Personally I like to place the rodent into a plastic bag and suspend it in warm water before feeding; this warming helps to bring out the scent and make the rodent feel like it has died recently.

I feed my snakes simply by laying the defrosted rodent into the cage and leaving them to do their thing; I don’t sit and watch as this seems to put some more nervous snakes off their food. 

As a final note, even docile snakes can sometimes mistake their keeper for food on feeding day. Be cautious when opening your snake cage with a rodent. If in doubt purchase some long forceps or feeding tongs to prevent you having to place your hands into the cage.

Promptly remove any uneaten food from the cage to prevent it rotting and creating unhygienic conditions. If necessary spot clean any substrate that has become messy after feeding to maintain a scrupulously clean vivarium for your snake.

Like other snakes, be aware that this species will go off their food for some weeks before shedding their skin. 

Temperament & Handling

As my early experience of bull snakes taught me, these can be quite intimidating snakes, especially if they’re unused to  handling. That said, much of the defensive huffing and tail shaking is more bluff than anything else and most specimens will calm down well with dedication.

These reptiles most certainly should be considered a species suitable for handling, but their large adult size and shows of aggression mean that this is a process most easily started when they are young.

Invest time into regular, short bouts of handling, remaining calm throughout. If your bullsnake huffs at you when you open the cage door then consider investing in a good quality snake hook to gently remove them from the cage. In most cases, once out of the cage they will calm down noticeably.

If your snake is unused to handling then I would suggest spending no more than 5-10 minutes with them initially, but doing so every day or two. Thereafter try to handle your snake routinely to keep them calm.

With a little effort on your part most bullsnakes can become a pleasure to handle.

Conclusion

The larger size of bull snakes can make them slightly more difficult to care for in captivity than their smaller cousins like corn snakes or ball pythons, but this effort is well worthwhile.

Impressive snakes that display fascinating behaviour, and can become very tame, bullsnakes can make fantastic captives. And now, with a number of breeders working hard to produce some amazing morphs, there’s more choice than ever before when it comes to colors and patterns.

What’s not to love?

Any questions or observations having read this care sheet? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below…

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Photos c/o Sauntering Photographer, ikewinski 2ndPeter

Richard Adams

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