Banded Water Snakes as Pets

Water snakes make great display animals. Generally speaking, they don’t make particularly good pets. That’s not to say all individuals are skittish, musky, or nippy. I’ve seen some puppy-dog tame specimens over the years. Here’s what you need to know when keeping water snakes.

Our model for this article is the southern banded water snake found in Florida. This particular specimen came from western Florida, near the Gulf of Mexico.

Banded water snake
Up close with the banded water snake.

Banded water snake care

Banded water snake care is fairly straightforward. These snakes are most suitable as a display animal. Some handle better than others. They’re basically kept similarly to other colubrids such as corn snakes and rat snakes, but don’t expect the same pleasurable handling experience.

Still, it’s important that you handle your water snake as gentle as possible and never “punish” a snake for what you might consider “acting out“.

Snakes don’t understand punishments such as hitting. Such actions only make their disposition worse. Despite all this, these snakes seem rather intelligent. I saw a video on YouTube where a banded water snake slithered up on a dock and took a small baitfish out of a fisherman’s hand. 

Availability

The banded water snake and water snakes, in general, aren’t in great demand. Still, they’re not especially hard to find. Most water snakes sold through the pet trade are wild-caught specimens although a few keepers breed them.

While I don’t foresee any surge in captive breeding or popularity, they still make an interesting pet for some. What I like most about these snakes is their heavy body, coloring, and patterns reminiscent of the cottonmouth or water moccasin.

Banded Water Snake Facts

  • Experience level: Intermediate
  • Temperament: Defensive to docile
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Scientific name: Nerodia fasciata
  • Constrictor: No
  • Average adult size: 3 to 5 feet
  • Lifespan: 10 to 15 years
  • Venom: No
  • Hardiness: Hardy
  • Stress level: Moderate to high
  • Food: Fish, amphibians, rodents
  • Reproduction: Livebearer
  • Breeding level: Easy
  • Average Temperature: 80°H/70°L
  • Humidity: 40 to 60%
  • Habitat: Terrestrial, aquatic
  • UVB lighting: Optional, sometimes beneficial
  • Enclosure size: Adult - 3'L X 18"W
  • Average price range: $15 - $40

Proper snake handling for positive interaction

Gain trust from your snake through gentle handling. Be confident, handle confidently. Always treat your snake with respect. Don't be overly forceful.

Pricing

The banded water snake and water snakes, in general, are relatively cheap. In most cases, they’re priced at $30 or less. These snakes are not considered endangered and ranked as least concern on their official conservation status. Common in wetlands and other factors such as their often foul temperament keep prices low.

Enclosure size

While babies roughly up to a year are kept in various smaller enclosures, keep adults in enclosures at about 3’L x 18″W in size. Remember, never keep the enclosure completely submerged in water. All they need is a water bowl which you can add fish to when it comes time for feeding. Snake racks work fine, but terrariums work as well. Especially in the case of having a snake you can display.

I don’t find the banded water snake particularly active. After a good meal, they often find a place to hide, sometimes disappearing for a few days. Even a week after feeding, I’ve never noticed them actively foraging but they’re completely aware of when you’re feeding them. These snakes seem rather intelligent. It’s really your choice if you want to keep them on fish or switch them over to frozen/thawed rodents.

Heating and humidity

Keep the ambient temperature at about 80°F and with a warm spot to aid digestion. Nighttime temperatures can drop about ten degrees. Keep humidity levels between 40 to 60%. As with other snakes, target the higher end of their maximum humidity level before a shed. This helps the snake shed out of its old skin easier. Even so, it’s not the end-all, be-all solution to poor shedding and such problems.

Make sure the snake is well hydrated

While you don’t want the snake’s enclosure completely submerged in water, you do want it to have access to fresh water at all times. If you find your snake is tipping over the water bowl often, replace it with a heavier one. This often solves the problem.

Water snakes tend to like their warm spots but that doesn’t mean you should raise the thermostat more. Sometimes less is more and it’s actually a little better to keep it on the cooler side and not overly hot. That’s how snakes get burned which has become a growing problem in recent years.

Use a thermometer and a thermostat for your heating element

The reason burns in snakes occur is because many care sheets online recommend hotspot temperatures ten to fifteen degrees more than needed. Use your thermometer to check the temperature of the warm spot and go with what works. Obviously, if the snake is having digestive issues, the spot is too cool but I find the opposite a far more common problem.

Lifespan

In the wild, a banded water snake may live up to ten years. Wild snakes are more susceptible to predators, injuries, and disease than their captive counterparts. In captivity, specimens have the potential to reach fifteen years, sometimes more.

Unfortunately, we simply don’t have the data on water snakes like we do more common snakes available in the pet trade. Under the proper care and conditions, I wouldn’t be surprised if a banded water snake reached or even surpassed twenty years.

Size

Surprisingly, these snakes can get pretty big. Five-foot specimens are not uncommon while six-footers aren’t out of the question. The adult average size ranges from four to five feet. The water snake has its best chance of reaching its full-size potential in the wild, not in captivity. This is because of the varied diet available to a wild snake.

In captivity, we tend to feed our snakes one type of food item. This limits various amino acid levels which differ from animal to animal. For example, rodents have a different amino acid profile than fish. This is why a varied diet leads to larger snakes.

Breeding the banded water snake

Banded water snakes breed similarly to other colubrids. They’re livebearers and produce decently sized litters. Most water snakes born in captivity originate from wild-caught mothers who were already gravid before being captured.

Start babies out on fish scented pinkie mice. If they won’t take scented rodents, offer small fish to their water bowl to get them started. It’s important to get all snakes feeding as soon as possible. Feeding tweaks come afterward.

Water snake keeping tips

Water snakes are also kept healthy and happy in breeding racks with the same basic rules. I guess most people who keep water snakes have them as display animals which is fine. The substrate can vary from paper towels to coco husk bedding but avoid dirt, potting soil, and aspen.

While aspen is popular bedding for snake keeping, it’s not good when constantly wet. If the snake moves in and out of its water bowl several times a day, aspen will quickly become nasty while coco husk readily absorbs excess moisture. In fact, colonies of beneficial bacteria grow in wet coco husk that breaks down waste and controls odor. Such a substrate is very popular among monitor lizard keepers.

Banded water snake bite

While the banded water snake is nonvenomous and nearly harmless, a bite from one will draw some blood. The wound comes in the form of light lacerations. Banded water snakes also have an anti-blood-clotting property in their saliva which makes wounds bleed slightly longer than other nonvenomous snake bites.

Bites from wild water snakes carry the risk of bacterial infections that are sometimes serious

To protect yourself from infection, thoroughly clean the wound with warm water and soap. Once your hands become sterile and clean, add an antibacterial cream such as Neosporin.

Wild water snakes caught by hand most certainly leads to multiple bites. They also release a foul-smelling musk when disturbed which I find far worse than their bite.

Watersnake enclosure and setup 

I’ll start with how a water snake is properly set up because this is the most common mistake made with these snakes. Don’t keep water snakes in an enclosure filled with water. Yes, they’re “water” snakes, but if kept in water too long, they develop blisters and other health issues. A water snake needs a spacious, dry terrarium with only a small to the medium-sized water bowl.

I also discourage water snakes from spending too much time in a water bowl by replacing it with a smaller one. Only offer a larger water bowl when the snake is getting ready to shed. Snakes eyes glaze over when shedding is near. Some recommend keeping them under UVB lighting. While UVB lighting looks nice as a display, it’s only a matter of opinion.

Cleaning snake enclosures

Keep your snake’s enclosure clean for both its health and to prevent unpleasant odors from forming. Snakes have no hair, therefore, produce no dander.

If a snake enclosure smells, it’s due to bacteria buildup and needs proper cleaning

The way and frequency of cleaning depend on the enclosure, the snake, the substrate, and most obviously, the smell. Spot cleaning is okay as long as all the bacteria is scrapped up in the process. If you still smell an odor, you didn’t get it all. While spot cleaning works in some situations, clean the entire enclosure when necessary.

A more thorough cleaning is required when unfortunate events such as regurgitation occur. Simply scrub down hard on soiled areas and decide by your own sense of smell if you eliminated all odor-causing bacteria. It’s not hard to keep a snake enclosure from smelling but you have to stay on top of it. I highly recommend high-quality air purifiers for snake rooms.

Banded water snake care
A docile banded water snake. This one is a decent pet.

Water snakes feeding and diet

Again, when keeping “water” snakes one assumes it only eats fish. Minnows and guppies in particular. In the wild, water snakes eat fish, frogs,  insects, other snakes, rodents and pretty much anything else they can overpower and swallow. 

Water snakes are also known to carrion feed in both the wild and captivity. If you don’t mind traveling to the local pet shop or bait store once a week to pick up fish, that’s certainly an option. I prefer feeding all my snakes frozen/thawed rodents. I also keep many snakes so frozen/thawed is the cheapest and most convenient way to go.

Now for the catch 

The problem with feeding rodents to water snakes lies in their refusal to eat them while in captivity. This is common with many species while some switch over without a second thought. For those who refuse to eat rodents, I have a neat little trick that works just about every time. 

How to switch a water snake from fish to frozen/thawed rodents

Go to the supermarket and buy a fillet of tilapia. Take five appropriately sized rodents and place them separately in five plastic baggies. Cut the fillet of tilapia into five pieces and place one piece in each baggie with the rodent. Place four of the bags in the freezer while allowing the fifth bag to sit for a while. Allow the liquid from the tilapia to thoroughly saturate the rodent. After an hour or so, place the fish-scented rodent in the water snake enclosure. It should take it without delay. 

Repeat this once a week for the next four weeks. By the fifth week, place an unscented frozen/thawed rodent in the enclosure. The snake should readily take it. Now your water snake has successfully transitioned to rodents.

A docile banded water snake
Banded water snake as pet

Besides convenience, why else should I switch my water snake over to frozen/thawed rodents?

That’s a good question and I have a good answer. First live fish, especially feeder goldfish have parasites. While a healthy snake usually handles certain internal parasites without trouble, some get sick. The parasites are also expelled during defecation.

Do you want to come in contact with any kind of parasite when cleaning a snake enclosure? Thank you, but I’d rather not. Cleaning a water snakes enclosure brings me to the second reason why you should switch waters snakes over to frozen/thawed rodents.

When a snake passes a rodent meal, it’s bad enough. If the snake passes a fish meal, it’s much worse. It’s not only the odor, but clean-up is also more difficult.

Often times the remains of the fish meal smear across the bottom of the enclosure and when it dries up, it’s even harder to clean. I think those are some pretty good reasons why someone would switch from fish to frozen/thawed rodents when feeding a water snake. I know some people disagree with me and that’s fine.

A banded water snake at home
Water snakes are live-bearers meaning they don’t lay eggs.

Banded water snake temperament

Water snakes are of questionable temperament. Many water snakes readily bite and musk no matter how long they’ve been in captivity. This goes for captive-bred specimens too. While most water snakes sold are wild-caught, captive-bred specimens are sometimes available.

Frequent handling once the snake has settled might calm it down in the long-term, but not always. I don’t know what’s worse, being bitten or the snake releasing musk. The musk is probably worse because the smell is sometimes difficult to wash away.

As stated earlier in this article, docile, well-mannered water snakes do exist. It really comes down to luck. I used to catch northern banded water snakes while growing up in upstate New York. They grew to impressive sizes sometimes reaching five feet. None of them would have made a good pet. They were very common at Lake Kanawauke in Harriman State Park. I observed dozens of specimens one spring day in the 1980s before the lake drained.

The bright underbelly of a banded water snake.
The underbelly of a banded water snake.

As with anything else, exceptions occur

If you’re looking for a snake you can handle without much trouble, many water snakes won’t make the grade. Nevertheless, exceptions do occur. I once had a baby southern banded water snake that didn’t initially bite.

For some reason, the snake became nippier with age. Sometimes, the opposite occurs and they calm down with age. Still, these snakes make great display animals with nice colors and patterns. Especially the sides and underbelly.

When met in the wild, banded water snakes are often mistaken for venomous cottonmouths

Never handle a wild snake if you’re not sure what it is. Instead, walk the other way and leave it alone. Most venomous bites occur when people try to kill them. Such occurrences are easily avoided.

Cottonmouth/water moccasin vs banded water snake

While similarities exist with colors, pattern, and the head is unmistakably different. The eye of the cottonmouth is also elliptical, but don’t get close enough to identify one this way. Water snakes are also heavy-bodied, especially for colubrids. They’re still not as heavy-bodied as the cottonmouth. In upstate New York, where the venomous cottonmouth isn’t found, many mistakenly call them water moccasins.

Leave venomous cottonmouth snakes alone when encountered in nature. While a bite from a cottonmouth isn’t always deadly, deaths have occurred along with permanent deformities. Such deformities include missing fingers and possibly losing an entire hand. Different people react to venom different ways but all venomous snake bites are a medical emergency. Head straight to the hospital if you get bit. Don’t try to wait it out because time is of the essence.

Conclusion

While the banded water snake and most water snakes, in general, are known for being nippy and ready to use their repugnant musk to their defense, it’s important to note that exceptions are out there. Finding a well-tempered water snake is possible but sometimes difficult. A lot of it comes down to luck. Still, they make great display animals and do well in captivity as long as their terrarium or enclosure isn’t totally submerged in water.

Remember, banded water snakes and their many cousins only need a bowl of water. Excessive exposure to water and high humidity levels leads to cysts and sores that usually don’t heal on their own. If this happens to your snake or even a snake of a completely different species, place the snake in a well-ventilated enclosure with only a small water bowl.

Keep them warm, but not excessively hot allowing them to escape to a cooler space in the enclosure. From there, you’ll have to take your snake to a reptile competent veterinarian to administer antibiotics to kill the bacterial infection. Left untreated, the snake will die.

Is there anything you’d like to add to this article on keeping water snakes as pets? Please add your comments in the section below. 

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Thanks for all the info. I recently captured a baby banded water snake in my living room. After sending the photo to the local Wildlife refuge to make sure it wasn’t a baby cottonmouth, I let him go near the lake out back. The following day, there was yet another baby snake near the front door. Do they nest on land and underground as I don’t see where they may be coming from? Thanks!

    1. Avatar

      Hi Carol and thanks for dropping by! We’re at the height of summer now and it’s the season for baby snakes! I’m glad to hear you let it go and didn’t kill it. If there’s ever a question about whether a snake is venomous or not, it’s best to leave it alone. People often get bit when trying to kill snakes.

      It’s possible that since you live near a lake, a female had her babies nearby. These snakes don’t dig holes underground but may take advantage of the burrows left from other animals. They may also be found in crawl spaces under homes. It’s best just to leave them be since they have a very important part of our natural ecosystem. As the summer winds down, activity should decrease. Keep me updated!

  2. Avatar

    I recently caught a banded water snake in my friends house (because she was terrified and wanted it gone, bad.) I thought it was adorable and since it wasnt biting me or anything that it was cute. This all sounds like bad ideas I know but it was irresistible ;-; ok so I bought a 20″×10″ tank and a decently sized water bowl along with a bit of climbing stuff and a little hideout because it really likes dark spaces and a day/night lighting setup for temperature control. I was just wondering if a mulch bedding is ok? Is smaller chips and it was what the Petco near me recommended. But before they did, they said to use Aspen and I noticed in the article it says to avoid that so I was just wondering if you could give me and tips on ways to better take care of my juvenile banded water snake?

    1. Avatar

      Hi Zoe, thanks for visiting!

      Aspen gets nasty when it gets wet and the water snake will be in and out of the bowl, you’ll be constantly removing aspen from it. Forest mulch blend bedding from Petco is fine. The small chips are another option though I’d go with the mulch or coconut husk bedding over it. I’m currently using coconut bedding for my Amazon tree boa and it works great!

      When it comes to raising snakes under a year old, I’d recommend paper towels as bedding to prevent impaction or the snake accidentally swallowing a piece of the bedding. It depends on age and size.

      Make sure there’s enough room for the snake to completely dry out to avoid blisters and other health ailments.

      Lights are not mandatory but definitely beneficial for water snakes.

      Hope this helps, good luck!

  3. Avatar

    Hi, i found a tiny banded water snake thos morning. Its so small i have no idea what to feed it. Cpuld you please point me in the right direction.
    Thank you

    1. Avatar

      Hi Brookes!

      Sure, I’d be happy to help.

      Set the snake up in a ten-gallon tank. Use a screen cover with tank locks. Since it’s so small, use paper towels as a substrate to prevent impaction. Do not fill the tank with water! Instead, use a water bowl just big enough for the snake to sit in. If the snake spends all its time in the water bowl, use a smaller bowl so it can drink from it. The idea is to prevent blisters and other health ailments from the snake staying in the water for elongated periods of time. This is contrary to their name, “water snake” but it’s the correct way to set them up in captivity.

      Go to your local pet store and buy live guppies or toughies. Get really small fish. The snake sounds too small for goldfish at this time but eventually, you want to switch them over to frozen/thawed rodents. I explain how to do that in the article, but that’s later on. First, get the snake well started on the food it most likely will consume. Place the guppies in the snake’s water bowl and it should take them. This is another reason it’s better to use a smaller water bowl. While UVB/UVA lighting isn’t essential for the snake’s survival, water snakes do benefit from it.

      Provide a warm spot in the terrarium for the snake to thermoregulate and digest its meal. Do this with either an under the tank heat mat or a 50 to 75w UVA bulb depending on the temperature of the house. Make sure the snake has plenty of room to move away from the warm spot and a hide-box to reduce stress. Handle minimally until you know the snake is eating and starts to thrive. Thanks for visiting Snake Hacks!

  4. Avatar

    Thank you so much for this easy to understand article. I work at a haunt every October that features a snake pit full of water snakes. They are wild-caught, and at the end of the season we release them back into the swamps. This year I decided to take one home, he’s a bitty baby, and this article was exactly the information I needed to get him set up in a cozy new home. Thank you!

    1. Avatar

      You’re most welcome Amber! If I can be of further assistance, just let me know! Thanks for visiting Snake Hacks! Feel free to subscribe to my YouTube channel!

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