Kenyan Sand Boas: Care, Habitat & Captive Husbandry

Sand boas have become incredibly popular pet snakes over the years, and it’s not difficult to see why.

They’re beautiful snakes to look at with all their yellow and brown coloration, and a number of color morphs are available now, really extending the possible range. They’re typically quite easy to care for in captivity and become tame-enough to handle.

However arguably most important of all is that these snakes are small. That means they require only modest cages, which are not only easier to fit into a small space in your home, but also cost far less than the average vivarium.

All told, Kenyan sand boas represent a fantastic pet snake, even for beginners.

If you’re considering purchasing your first specimen then read on for my detailed Kenyan sand boa care sheet…

Natural Habitat of Kenyan Sand Boas

Despite their common name, Kenyan sand boas aren’t only found in Kenya. Infact, they’re quite widely distributed across Eastern Africa, ranging through Egypt, Tanzania and, of course, Kenya.

All the same, they tend to favor a semi-arid habitat, where the earth is dry enough to burrow through.

As their common name suggests, sand boas – Latin name Gongylophis colubrinus – love to burrow through the earth. Indeed, take a look at a sand boa close up and you’ll see it has a number of fascinating adaptations for this lifestyle.

They have a short, squat, muscular body for pushing through the earth. They have thick necks which can make it challenging to tell the head end from the tail end sometimes. And lastly they have slightly flattened heads, with eyes higher up in their skull than most snakes, allowing them to more easily see upwards out of the earth.

In captivity these different lifestyle traits affect how they’re cared for. A small snake only requires a relatively small cage, but they also need lots of substrate to burrow in if they are to feel safe and secure. Let’s now look more closely at their captive husbandry requirements…

Sand Boa Cages & Vivariums

A “big” sand boa may, at best, reach around 2 – 2 1/2 feet (60-75cm) in length, though in reality the vast majority are quite a bit smaller.

At maturity, males are noticeably smaller, as they tend to grow to around one and a half feet (45cm).

This can make it super-simple to sex adult sand boas.

Just as importantly, it means that they don’t require the massive vivariums that a bullsnake or a rainbow boa may benefit from.

Most experts suggest that a single Kenyan sand boa can be safely housed in a 10 gallon cage, though personally I like to give a little more space if possible because these can be quite active snakes.

There are a number of reasonably-priced cages and vivariums which are suitable for sand boas. Some of the best options include:

Exo Terras

I use glass Exo Terra terrariums extensively for my exotic pet collection. They’re quite easily sourced from many pet shops or online from places like Amazon.

I like the front-opening doors which makes routine maintenance a cinch. They look great. They’re easy to heat with either a ceramic heater or a heat mat (covered later) and the mesh lid makes it easy to maintain the arid conditions favoured by sand boas and you can purchase a separate lighting hood if you opt to add artificial lighting to your sand boa cage. 

If there are two weaknesses for using Exo Terras for sand boas it is that they’re not the cheapest option on the market – important if you’re on a tight budget – and they limit the amount of substrate you can provide.

The glass “lip” beneath the front-opening doors is around 3” in height, so you won’t be able to offer any more substrate than that. If you want a deeper substrate then you may want to consider the alternative…

Glass Fish Tank With Suitable Lid

A glass aquarium (minus the water, obviously!) can make a fantastic home for your Kenyan sand boa. They’re cheaply and easily bought. You can provide a deep substrate to permit burrowing by even adult snakes.

There are really only two downsides. Firstly, you’ll need to be certain that your tank is escape-proof – that’s easy enough to accomplish with a special mesh lid.

These are available from Amazon and many other pet stores in a wide range of sizes. Be sure to purchase some clips if they don’t come included, so you can be certain to properly secure the lid to the top of the tank.

The second downside is that you’ll need to access the cage from the top. For some people that won’t be a problem; it’s more for people like me who maintain quite a large collection of exotics in shelving units.

All in all, however, these are a decent option and well worth considering.

Heating & Temperature

Coming from East Africa it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Kenyan sand boas appreciate a nice, warm environment. Indeed, the suggested temperature for sand boas is quite a bit higher than those recommended for many other common pet snakes.

Kenyan sand boas appreciate a hotspot of around 90 – 95’F (32 – 35’C). Note that this heat should be applied to just one area of the tank – the “basking area”. This should be positioned at one end of the tank.

The other end should be allowed to remain cooler – a temperature of around 80’F (25’C) works well. In this way your sand boa can move from warmer to cooler areas to naturally regulate their body temperature exactly as they would in the wild.

Providing such a warm environment needn’t be too difficult, thanks to the wide range of high quality heaters currently available on the market. Ignore heat mats; they just won’t provide the level of heat you need, unless it is just as a source of background warmth in particularly cold weather. Instead opt for a good quality ceramic bulb.

The bulb should be placed into a ceramic heat reflector/holder, and rested on top of the mesh lid of the vivarium. In this way your snake won’t be able to come into direct contact with it – which could risk serious burns – but the warmth will instead be projected down into one end of the tank.

Note that ceramic bulbs can get very hot and the last thing you’ll want to do is accidentally cook your snake. As a result you must be sure to also use a reliable thermostat. The thermostat you select should be carefully chosen to ensure that (a) it works with ceramic heating elements and (b) it is capable of controlling the power of bulb you’ve chosen.

Learn about choosing the right thermostat here or about how to choose and install a ceramic reptile heater here.

Lastly in this section I would caution you to purchase a digital thermometer so that you can monitor conditions in your snake cage. I have recently started to use an infrared thermometer “gun” which allows me to quickly spot-check both the hot and cool ends in a matter of seconds, and without upsetting my reptiles. 

Water & Humidity

Sand boas may come from semi-arid regions but they should still be provided with fresh water at all times. As these reptiles will spend much of their time burrowing try to choose a reasonably sturdy bowl which won’t be constantly flipped over.

I like to actually dig a hole in the substrate and place the water bowl into this to make it extra sturdy. Be sure to keep the water fresh by changing it regularly and don’t forget to scrub out the bowl on a regular basis.

There is no need to provide additional humidity for sand boas; they appreciate a reasonably dry environment. Indeed, if you do notice that the substrate is getting damp – such as from spilled water – you may want to consider changing it.

Best Substrate for Kenyan Sand Boas

Most reptile keepers would assume that sand is obviously going to be the best substrate for a Kenyan sand boa.

There is some truth to this, though it is always advisable to choose special reptile-safe sand, bought from a reputable manufacturer – rather than simply making do with “builder’s sand”. This not only ensures that it is chemical-free, but if any is eaten by your snake then it should pass through the digestive tract without issue.

Sand may be a good substrate, but it’s not the only choice available. Aspen bedding can work well, as can corn cob granules or even dry coir substrate. Some keepers even like to provide an assortment of substrates in the cage, allowing their snake to explore different environments.

The key really is to offer a generous depth of substrate. I would suggest several inches in at least one corner of the tank – so that your pet can fully hide away from view and behave as they might in their wild habitat.

Vivarium Decor

As Kenyan sand boas are such active burrowers it generally doesn’t make sense to provide them with too much tank decor. The risk is that they end up getting crushed by a rock or big piece of wood in their ongoing subterranean adventures.

If you do opt to include decorative items then be sure to properly fix these in place to prevent such accidents. Silicon sealant intended for fish keepers can be a handy tool for this.

While your sand boa is likely to spend much of its life partially buried in the substrate I still believe it makes sense to include at least one proper hide above ground. These can be as simple or as complex as you desire; the key is that your sand boa should be able to entirely conceal itself within.

Sometimes something as simple as an old cereal box laid on its side can work well; they’re cheap, they’re practical, they’re easily disposed of when they become messy and they’re very lightweight if your boa burrows underneath it.

Feeding Sand Boas

Kenyan sand boas will eat a range of different prey items in captivity, though the easiest option is to feed them defrosted rodents. Due to their modest adult dimensions this typically means mice of varying sizes; from pinkies for hatchlings due to small adult mice for fully-grown female sand boas.

The best way to decide on the most suitable size of rodent prey is to consider the girth of your snake at it’s fattest region. Try to select a rodent of a similar girth and you should be fine. Over time you’ll want to slowly increase the size of prey items given.

I don’t recommend feeding live rodents to any snake. This not only risks damage to your snake (through bites and scratches) and also isn’t the most pleasant experience for the mouse. Instead buy frozen pre-killed rodents in bulk and keep them in the freezer at home. Just defrost one rodent once every week or so to keep your sand boa in top condition.

Handling Sand Boas

Kenyan sand boas are generally quite even-tempered and can be easily handled. Even a flighty animal should start to calm down with regular, gentle handling.

The first step is to try and avoid surprising your snake. Instead, let the snake know that you are present. If necessary retrieve it from it’s hide or beneath the substrate gently with a snake hook. You can then gently scoop your snake up, trying to support the snake’s body right along its length.

Don’t overdo it at first while your snake gets used to this new sensation. With a little patience you should be able to easily retrieve your snake from its cage and enjoy some quality time together on a regular basis.

As with other pet reptiles, try to hold your pet over a low, soft surface such as a couch or mattress. In this way, if you are unlucky enough to drop your pet then it should survive the fall without issue. Dropping a snake onto concrete from a good height is unlikely to end quite as well.

Richard Adams

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