There are over 30 different species of garter snake known to scientists, and many of these have a number of subspecies. As a result, garter snakes represent a pretty diverse group of animals.
Each species, of course, is slightly different which can make providing a definitive answer as to how big garter snakes get isn’t easy.
Broadly speaking garter snakes are quite small, reaching up to a meter or so in length, though generally quite a bit smaller.
Females grow larger than males in most cases, getting both longer and bulkier.
Large female garter snakes can reach 30 – 36 inches (76 – 91 cm) in overall length, while adult males tend to be rather smaller at around 16 – 24 inches (40 – 61 cm).
As you might expect from such modestly-sized snakes, hatchling garter snakes can be absolutely tiny, with some measuring just 6 – 8 inches (15 – 20 cm.) in length.
How to Keep Garter Snakes as Pets
Garter snakes have long made popular pets, and their modest adult size is likely an important reason for this.
Unlike many other popular pet snakes they don’t require a huge cage and are reasonably easy to care for.
As a result, they’re also a good option for anyone who fancies trying their hand at reptile keeping yet is on a tight budget.
Best Garter Snake Cages
As a rule of thumb, one of the most important factors in caring for any exotic pet is choosing and setting up the right cage.
Once you’ve got the conditions right then many reptiles – including garter snakes – will thrive for many years into the future.
The size of your garter snake vivarium will of course depend on the size of the snake you’re putting in it.
Hatchling garter snakes should be fine in a much smaller container than an adult.
When it comes to snakes, try to choose a cage whereby the length added to the depth is equal to or larger than the length of your snake.
As a simple example, a cage that is 2 feet long and 1 foot deep would be suitable for a snake of up to 3 feet long (2+1).
Of course, the more space you can provide the better, so long as there are places for your garter snake to hide away and feel safe.
Most experienced keepers recommend a 30 – 50 gallon enclosure for a single adult snake as a good starting point. Being active reptiles they appreciate any additional space you can offer.
Here are some of the better options for housing your garter snake…
Exo Terra Terrariums
I’m a huge fan of Exo Terras.
They look great and they’re really practical.
The mesh lid ensures decent ventilation, while the front-opening doors make feeding and maintenance easy.
The doors also lock shut, which helps to prevent any accidental escape of your snake.
As garter snakes are diurnal (active during the day) Exo Terras are particularly tempting because you can add a lighting hood to the top (sold separately) to provide artificial lighting. It’ll not only encourage more natural behaviour but also makes your garter snake cage look amazing!”
Like anything, though, Exo Terras have their downsides. Firstly, they’re not the cheapest cages on the market. Secondly, they only come in a limited number of sizes, and the bigger ones can require some effort to source.
Finally, while I love the practicality of the front-opening doors, there is always a risk that an active garter snake could whizz past you as you open it. This is why some garter snake keepers prefer a top-opening cage.
Plastic enclosures are cheap and cheerful. They’re not as heavy and strong as a glass cage, but as the garter snake is very light there will be no problem housing your snake in one.
On the negative side, plastic enclosures don’t look as nice as glass and it isn’t as easy to see into them and watch your snake. It could be a good choice for a juvenile garter snake before moving on to a glass enclosure.
Glass Fish Tanks
Glass aquariums definitely look smart and are easy to find in almost any pet store. They’re also accessed from the top, which can be handy for preventing escape.
On the flipside, however, you’ll need to be careful to secure the top somehow – a standard aquarium hood as used for fish simply won’t cut it.
Remember that garter snakes are natural escape artists. This, combined with how slim-bodied they are, means that they can squeeze through even the tiniest of gaps.
The safest solution to this is to buy a screen lid for your fish tank, taking care to select the right size for your tank.
Far more common in Europe than the States, wooden vivariums can be built from scratch or purchased in some more specialist outlets.
They’re generally quite reasonably priced and sturdy, though fitting any electricals (heaters, lights etc.) can require some basic DIY skills.
The reason I like wooden vivariums is that they retain heat well, keeping my electricity bill down in the winter months while my exotics benefit from a toasty environment.
Garter snakes may thrive in damp areas where they hunt for amphibians and invertebrates but their cage should be kept on the drier end to prevent health problems.
Many substrates are suitable, though the best of them should permit some natural burrowing.
Possible options for most garter snakes include aspen shavings, alfalfa meal or even orchid bark. Of course, as with other reptiles, some keepers swear by newspaper, though of course while it is cheap it really doesn’t encourage natural behaviour.
Try to be generous with the depth of substrate; a few inches for an adult specimen is ideal so they can completely conceal themselves if they so choose.
It is recommended to avoid cedar or pine shavings as they contain phenols which can be toxic to reptiles.
Garter snakes don’t like to feel “exposed” and naturally retreat to somewhere safe and private if they feel in danger. It’s important to provide this same “security blanket” in captivity.
We do this by providing one or (ideally) more hides.
Thanks to their small stature there are all sorts of objects that can work well.
Cork bark is a favourite for a more naturalistic look – try to find some hollow cork bark tubes and position them for privacy. Many reptile stores sell resin hides too, which may suit the look you’re aiming for.
At the lower end of the budget even something basic like a cereal box can work well, though will need replacing regularly when it gets messy.
While a suitable depth of substrate and a hide or two are the most important elements in your garter snake cage, once these basics are in you may choose to supplement the cage with all manner of decor items.
Aim to try and make your garter snake’s vivarium as stimulating as possible. Perhaps consider adding some dry leaves, or some silk plants for additional cover.
One thing that isn’t optional, however, is a good-sized water bowl. This should be heavy enough to avoid being tipped over, and I like a nice ceramic bowl.
There is a good chance your garter snake may try bathing in this water, so try to find a bowl big enough for your snake to fit inside.
Be sure to change the water regularly (I suggest daily) to keep it fresh.
Temperature & Heating
Like many reptiles, garter snakes require a warm environment if they are to thrive.
There are two keys to success.
Firstly, ensure your garter snake cage is kept within a narrow range of suitable temperatures. Secondly, provide a “heat gradient” where one end of the cage is warmer than the other. In this way your garter snake can “bask” at the hot end, as they would in direct sunlight, while still being able to escape this heat when they’ve had enough.
The basking spot for garter snakes should be kept at around 85’ F (29 ‘C) and the cool area around 75 ‘F (24 ‘C).
There are a number of ways to achieve this goal, depending on the cage you’ve chosen and how warm your home is.
Probably the easiest option is to use a heat pad.
Don’t place it under the cage, where the warmth may struggle to permeate through the substrate.
Instead tape it to the outside end of the cage. Leave the other end unheated. The only caveat here is that if you’ve chosen a wooden vivarium you’ll likely need to place the heater inside the cage for it to be effective.
For colder homes/environments or where ventilation is higher, you may need to invest in a more powerful heater such as a ceramic bulb. These can get a lot warmer, but must be used carefully if you’re to avoid the risk of burns for you or your snake. Be sure to use a suitable bulb guard, and don’t try using a ceramic if you’ve opted for a plastic cage.
In either case, install a thermometer to monitor temperatures in the cage, and be sure to purchase a suitable thermostat to prevent overheating.
Feeding Garter Snakes
Once upon a time garter snake owners used to feed their snake on small fish. While fish can still be used (with some specialist knowledge) there are also other food items that are just as suitable, and far more practical.
As carnivores, garter snakes will naturally eat a wide range of living organisms in nature, including frogs and toads. Fortunately, in captivity most specimens will accept rodents of a suitable size.
Rodents can be purchased frozen, defrosted at home and then fed to your snake. Aim for a prey item no larger than the fattest part of your garter snake.
Garter snakes may also eat some fish and earthworms.
Be careful, if you choose to feed fish, as some species include an enzyme that destroys thiamine (vitamin B1). This can be fatal in large enough doses. This is why most garter snake owners choose to feed primarily rodents, which fish only used as an occasional treat, or to “scent” rodents for more fussy garters.
400;”>Feed young snakes a couple of times a week and adult garter snakes every 7 – 10 days. You can either put the food in a bowl or give it to them using tongs. Remember to keep your fingers away when it is eating as it may take a crafty nip.
Handling Garter Snakes
On the whole garter snakes are quite calm and so can be held safely. This assumes, of course, that you’ve taken the time to slowly familiarise your snake with being held.
Note that garter snakes are very active, and unlike calmer snakes like ball pythons or rainbow boas, they can easily spook.
In these cases they can flail around wildly, requiring some skill to restrain. For this reason, while most garter snakes can be handled by experienced adults, they might not be so suitable for smaller children.
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