Pet Garter Snakes: An Introduction to Their Care

Pet garter snakes are some of the most rewarding reptiles to keep in captivity. Unlike so many other snake species they may be kept safely in groups, they thrive in beautiful naturalistic vivariums, they grow only to a very modest size and the snakes themselves are absolutely stunning in appearance. 

In this introductory care sheet we’ll look at the care and maintenance of pet garter snakes from the perspective of the home reptile keeper. As you’ll see, pet garter snakes are quite simple to keep when you meet a few basic requirements, which we’ll be discussing below.

Appearance & Lifestyle

Pet garter snake

Garter snakes are some of the smallest of the commonly-kept pet snakes. This naturally means that their caging requirements are quite modest. It also means they can be easily accommodated in most homes. 

Unlike many of the more popular pet snakes, garter snakes benefit from being awake during the day (often known as being “diurnal”). This means that you’ll be able to watch your snake out and about during daylight hours, which can greatly add to their appeal.

Garter snakes are quite widely distributed in the wild, and may be found in all manner of habitats, from damp woodland to the edges of rivers and streams. 

The diet of garter snakes often reflects this semi-aquatic nature, with anything from fish to frogs often represented. Fortunately, there are alternatives for pet garter snakes that will save you having to hunt down wild frogs to feed your snake. 

One final point that helps pet garter snakes stand out from other common snake species is that they can be kept together. Almost all other typical pet snakes – king snakes, corn snakes, ball pythons and the like – are kept separately for fear of fighting or cannibalism.

Given suitable space, however, pet garter snakes can be kept together. This adds further interest to keeping them in the home, increasing the chances there will be a snake on display whenever you peer into the cage.

Vivariums & Housing

A huge range of different vivariums can work well for garter snakes. Possibly the best are those that won’t rot or rust if they get wet. This makes glass or perspex vivariums particularly successful. 

Two of the best options are:

Glass Terrariums

Glass terrariums look amazing. The front-opening doors make feeding and maintenance very simple indeed. They have a mesh grill lid to permit suitable ventilation. It is also possible to buy a separate lighting hood to create a bright and attractive setup.

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Aquarium With Suitable Lid

A cheaper but slightly less practical alternative is to use a suitably-sized fish tank. If you go down this route, however, you need to be aware that all snakes are natural escape artists, so a tight-fitting lid is essential. It is possible to make them yourself if you’re handy with tools, but many people opt to purchase a pre-made tank topper for ease and security. 

Related:  Feeding Ball Pythons

Cage Size

Garter snakes are quite modest in size, even as adults. Of course, the number of pet garter snakes you keep together can also impact the overall cage size required. 

Hatchling garter snakes are tiny and so a cage of 30cm square is likely to be perfectly sufficient for the first few months. As your garter snake grows you will of course have to scale up the housing. 

Depending on the exact species of pet garter snake you choose you should expect an adult size of around 90-120cm. Most reptile keepers subscribe to the theory that the length and depth of your snake cage added together should be no less than the overall length of your snake. In this case a cage that is 90cm long and 30cm deep should be suitable for an adult pet garter snake. 

Be mindful that garter snakes are quite active snakes. While this makes them great pets to watch, it also means that some people opt to offer a larger-than-average cage so they have plenty of space to move around. 

Pet Garter Snake Setups

A huge range of different setups are used for pet garter snakes. For those on a budget they can be kept in quite a simple enclosure with a decent depth of substrate, a water bowl and a hide into which they can slither.

Note that garter snakes may soak in their water, so you should be careful to avoid the substrate getting too wet as a result of any spillage. 

The lifestyle of garter snakes, however, also makes them perfect for a more naturalistic setup. Being gregarious and active during the day they can make an absolutely amazing display reptile.

In these situations far more decor can be used, including live moss, artificial plants, leaf litter, securely-fitted pieces of cork bark and wood. The end result can resemble a beautiful forest floor through which your garter snake can hunt and explore. 

Hides

All pet garter snakes should have the opportunity to conceal themselves out of view. Such a hide will help your snake to feel comfortable and secure in their home.

A wide range of reptile hides are available to suit all tastes. The most important thing to purchase one of a suitable size. Your pet garter snake should be able to fully conceal itself within their hide for best results.

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Artificial Lighting

Garter snakes are active during the day. They are also visual predators, using their better-than-average eyesight to help them identify suitable prey items. If your garter snake cage is kept in a bright room receiving plenty of natural light then no additional lighting is strictly necessary.

Related:  Bullsnake Care Sheet

Many keepers, however, opt to add some form of lighting. This not only makes your garter snake display more attractive but also ensures your snake has all the light that it would experience in nature. 

Some keepers also claim that reptile bulbs that offer a small amount of UV light can also positively impact behavior, making for happier, healthier pets. 

Whether you opt to use artificial lighting or not be sure that your garter snakes have access to uninterrupted darkness during the night. If necessary, use a timer to turn off the tank lights in the evening.   

Heating & Temperatures

Like most other pet snakes, garter snakes appreciate a basking spot where they can warm up. The other end of the cage should remain cooler, so your pet garter snake can choose the area that suits them best.

A range of heating equipment is available for reptile keepers, but probably the most effective for garter snakes is a ceramic bulb placed over the cage, radiating through the mesh lid. Be sure to follow all the proper precautions when using reptile heaters, including the use of a guard to prevent burns and a thermostats to avoid overheating in warm weather. 

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An ideal basking temperature for garter snakes is 82-86’F/28-30’C, while the cool end can safely drop to 72-75’F/22-24’C. There is nothing wrong with providing a gentle drop of a few degrees at night, should your home naturally cool overnight. 

Food & Feeding

In the early days of the reptile hobby pet garter snakes were often fed almost exclusively on various small fish. The one issue with this is that some fish contain an enzyme thiaminase that breaks down vitamin B1. This can result in some nasty side-effects, and even the untimely death of your snake.

These days a far more balanced diet is more typical. While small amounts of fish may be fed, suitable alternatives include mice and earthworms. Most snakes are capable of swallowing a prey item equivalent in size to the widest part of your snake, so choose your rodent prey carefully to ensure your pet garter snake can swallow it whole.  

Temperament & Handling

One of the reasons that garter snakes have fallen behind the popularity of ball pythons is their temperament. It would be wrong to say that garter snakes are in any way aggressive, but they certainly aren’t as calm as a ball python when out of their cage.

Broadly speaking garter snakes can be handled safely and without worry of bites, at least once your pet becomes familiar with the routine. Unlike ball pythons, however, garter snakes tend to be far more active and likely to move around during handling.

This means you’ll need to pay that little bit more attention to keep both them and you safe. Fortunately, with just a little bit of effort most garter snakes will calm down nicely and accept regular bouts of handling.

Garter snakes can make an ideal “beginner” species of pet snake specifically because they are so docile in nature and take to handling in this way. All the same, if you’re looking for a pet snake specifically to handle then there are probably better options out there. 

Richard Adams

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