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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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