Bullsnake Care

The bullsnake makes a great pet for snake keepers of intermediate experience. While most won’t bite, they’re still pugnacious, rowdy and always on the move. They grow large and are relatively hardy. While some bullsnakes take a defensive position when confronted, it’s all a bluff.

Bullsnake habitat and housing

Bullsnakes prefer dry, sandy, rocky habitats in the wild. They streak across open fields and prairies in search of prey. Sometimes bullsnakes are found near water. While they’re capable swimmers, they usually won’t take to the water often. They also burrow in different semi-loose soil types depending on their range.

Bullsnake Video

Bullsnakes tend to get big

This is something you should consider before buying one. A big snake needs a big enclosure. Large enclosures also prevent nasty nose rubs. A large adult bullsnake needs an enclosure six feet in length. This is especially important for overly active wild-caught specimens. Sometimes, captive-bred specimens reaching the same size are calmer and you can get away with a four-foot enclosure. Still, six feet is my overall recommendation to prevent stress in the animal and to avoid disfiguring nose rubs.

Also, be very careful with keeping them in fish tanks with wire-mesh screen lids. In the ball python Industry, a wired screened lid is referred to as a “cheese grater”. I think you get the idea. A bullsnake in too small of an enclosure attempts to break through the wire screen, while only accomplishing a disfiguring injury.

Enclosure size

While babies roughly up to a year are kept in various smaller enclosures, keep adults in enclosures at about 4’L x 18″W in size. Bullsnakes are strong. If kept in an aquarium-style terrarium, be sure to use tank locks. Over the years, I’ve only had two escape and it was my fault on both occasions.

In the mid-90s, I kept one in a terrarium without tank locks. He easily pushed his way out of the enclosure at some point in the evening. Luckily, a snake of that size isn’t difficult to find. Actually, he found me. He was at the foot of my bed the next morning looking up at me.

The second bullsnake that escaped from me was a nasty white-sided morph in the early 2000s. This snake was bad news and the only time in my entire life that I found myself losing patience with any kind of snake. Although I had him since he was a hatchling, he became progressively more defensive as he became bigger.

Aggressive vs. defensive

In this rare particular case, I’d call this snake aggressive because he had no reason to be defensive. I kept him in a breeding rack which I forget to close completely. The woman I was dating at the time who eventually became my wife found him on top of the kitchen cabinet. He was at least five feet long at that point. She wasn’t particularly fond of snakes, to begin with, so that made for an interesting discussion during dinner.

Bullsnakes are active

These snakes tend to be very active no matter what kind of enclosure you keep them in. While it seems they have a lot of nervous energy to work off, in actuality, they’re diurnal hunters in the wild.

They actively forage through the brush, grasslands, and prairies looking for any rodents they can find along with any other live food items. They’ll also take eggs when they come across them. These large and powerful constrictors have their pick of many small animals that they’re able to catch.

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%. The higher end of their target humidity level is especially important before a shed to help loosen eye caps.

Keeping a bullsnake too warm makes it even more active and on the edge. I find they use their warm spot the most after a meal, especially after a large one. In the wild, bullsnakes that have reached their optimal temperature and aren’t on the prowl for food look for a cooler area to hide. Hiding places include brush and rocky areas.

Bullsnake
Bullsnake pictures

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.

Bullsnake Facts

  • Experience level: Intermediate
  • Temperament: Usually docile
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Temperament:
  • Scientific name: Pituophis catenifer sayi
  • Constrictor: Yes
  • Average adult size: 4 to 6 feet
  • Lifespan: 20 to 25 years
  • Venom: No
  • Hardiness: Moderate to hardy
  • Stress level: Moderate
  • Food: Rodents
  • Reproduction: Egg laying
  • Breeding level: Easy
  • Average Temperature: 80°H/70°L
  • Humidity: 40 to 60%
  • Habitat: Terrestrial
  • UVB lighting: No, optional
  • Enclosure size: Adult - 4'L x 18"W
  • Average price range: $50 - $175

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.

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 when you stay on top of it. I highly recommend high-quality air purifiers for snake rooms.

Substrate

I keep my bullsnakes on paper towels without any problems. I triple layer the towels so the snake nestles in between them when they wish. This also makes cleaning a breeze because they usually defecate between the towels. All that’s needed is to simply roll them up and replace them with new ones. Even though this works for me and my snakes, sometimes, bullsnakes may need a more suitable substrate due to certain habits.

Wild-caught bullsnakes and sometimes even captive-bred specimens may need a substrate they can burrow in. I’m sure you noticed the nose of your bullsnake which is somewhat pointed like a spade shovel. My guess is they use this to invade pocket gopher nests in the wild.

Nose rubs

Such a nose makes a good digging tool, and moving loose sandy dirt doesn’t damage their nose. In captivity, when a bullsnake continuously rubs its nose against something hard like glass, plastic, or wood, it becomes bruised. This is known as a nose rub. 

Sometimes nose rubs become extreme and lead to permanent deformations. It seems wild-caught specimens are more prone to this activity. My captive-bred bullsnakes are happy in their paper towels and never attempt to “dig out” of the enclosure. This is another reason bullsnakes need sizable enclosures which is what I’ll cover next.

In closing, substrates a bullsnake can burrow into include aspen bedding and cypress mulch. Avoid pine shavings. Cedar shavings are even worse so avoid them like the plague.

Size

The bullsnake is known for being a big snake. Besides the indigo and rat snake, the bullsnake is one of our largest colubrids in the United States. Adults often reach at least five feet with over six-foot being the average. They can get even larger than that on occasion. The current record for the largest bullsnake is eight feet, four inches. That’s a large snake and a record I’m actively trying to beat.

Temperament

Stubborn and impulsive but not usually aggressive, these big, burly snakes are a lot of fun. They’re the closest you’ll get to free-handling a rattlesnake without actually handling a rattlesnake. Even when a bullsnake bites, its teeth aren’t very long so bleeding is usually minimal.

On the other hand, the jaw pressure of these snakes is rather impressive. Make sure their enclosure is large enough for them. Mostly diurnal, these guys are nearly as active as black racers.

Big bluffers

The bullsnake is also known to literally huff and puff. While a stressed pine snake sounds like a punctured tire releasing air, the bullsnake makes a comical puffing sound. I had a wild-caught specimen during the early ’90s that managed to escape from its enclosure.

One morning I awoke to a persistent huffing sound. I rolled over in the bed and looked down. The bullsnake was sitting there looking back up at me. I think that’s what made me so fond of them. I enjoy keeping several specimens today.

Bullsnake Bite

Bullsnakes have a mouth with many small teeth. While taking a bite from a bullsnake is minimal, they have powerful jaw pressure. Even a bite from a large specimen is nothing compared to a boa or python of the same size.

Just wash the wound with warm water and soap. Don’t worry, bites aren’t very common in my experience. As with any snake, treat them with respect.

Bullsnake
This male bullsnake is getting ready to shed.

Active snakes have a faster metabolism. They burn more calories at a faster rate than less active snakes.

Feeding

Bullsnakes are usually great feeders. In fact, they have a tendency for overindulgence when it comes to dinner time. Don’t power feed bullsnakes. Similar to gopher and pine snakes, the bullsnake is prone to regurgitation disorder. I recommend never feeding them especially large prey. You might get away with feeding rat snakes in such a matter, but bullsnakes are different.

Feed hatchlings to a year of age something small every four days. After a year, feed them appropriately sized rodents every seven to ten days. After a meal, allow 48 hours to pass before handling your bullsnake.

Bullsnakes and regurgitation syndrome

As a general rule pertaining to bull, pine and gopher snakes:

  • Don’t power feed them 
  • Avoid overfeeding 
  • Refrain from offering especially large rodents

Avoiding regurgitation syndrome

In theory, these snakes invade pocket gopher nests in the wild. Instead of offering one large rat, offer two or three smaller mice. When feeding bullsnakes, don’t offer anything that will leave a large bulge in their gut. This will reduce, if not totally eliminate the chance of regurgitation. Regurgitation syndrome can become chronic with these snakes so take proper steps to avoid it.

If your bull snake regurgitates, wait a minimum of ten days before offering its next meal. The enzymes in the snake’s stomach that are lost from vomiting need to build up again. If fed too soon, the snake will regurgitate again. Regurgitation has a very negative impact on bullsnakes and when it occurs several times in a row, irreversible damage will result. Regurgitating once is bad enough.

Water bowls and bullsnakes – use a heavy one for strong adults

Always supply your bullsnake with a fresh bowl of water.  I change out my bullsnakes water bowls every second day. Proper hydration also helps in the shedding process. Sometime bullsnakes defecate in their water bowl. While this is easier than cleaning the entire enclosure, make certain the bowl is completely clean and sterilized before placing it back in the enclosure. Do this with hot water and regular dish soap.

After the bowl is properly scrubbed and sanitized I start what I call the “three rinse rule“. Rinse the bowl clean of soap with warm water no less than three times. I then rise it out with cool water a few times as well. Never add hot water to a dish placed in the enclosure. Cool or lukewarm water is the way to go. Snakes actually drink water often.

Bull snakes are strong

They’re known for knocking over their water dish causing you to change out the substrate before it’s necessary. In a perfect world, the substrate is only changed out after a defecation episode. Solve this by using a heavy water dish made of plastic or ceramics.

Some water bowls have a rubber band completely around the bottom circumference of the bowl which makes moving it around much more difficult for the snake. Never punish a bullsnake or any other snake for tipping it’s water over by taking the bowl out of the enclosure. This is cruel and doesn’t serve any point. The snake doesn’t understand why you removed the water bowl so it cannot learn any lesson for the future. Remember, sometimes you have to think as a snake thinks.

This bullsnake will soon shed.
This bullsnake will shed soon. Remember to watch for retained eye caps.

Shedding and retained eye caps 

While bullsnakes usually shed out of their old skin without much trouble, they seem prone to retained eye caps. A retained eye cap can become a serious problem and is scary for the snake keeper. In actuality, the eye cap is a modified scale.

I believe the impulsive nature of the bullsnake leads to this problem. Whether they’re eating, shedding or anything else, the bullsnake goes full speed. Luckily, most of the time they manage to pop off both eye caps.

How to remove an old cap that didn’t shed 

If your bullsnake retains an eye cap, dip a q-tip in all-natural mineral oil. Gently work the q-tip over the retained cap including around the edges. After that, place the snake back in its enclosure. The retained eye cap should pop off on its own by the next day. If not, repeat the steps again.

I’ve never had an eye cap that didn’t pop off after more than two treatments. There’s no need to pull the cap off yourself. You may end up pulling the snake’s entire eye out of the socket. No one wants that.

A hungry bullsnake.
While the bullsnake is a good choice for a pet, I recommend them for keepers with at least some experience.

Breeding – fairly easy

Bullsnakes breed easily under the correct conditions. They definitely require a cooling period, especially those from northern and mountainous ranges. They’re also egg layers. Please refer to the Great Basin gopher snake page for basic breeding information. Breeding conditions are nearly identical to the bullsnake and are found HERE.

When it comes to the temperament of individual bullsnake hatchlings, there’s a 50/50 chance of them being docile or defensive. The good news is that they usually grow out of it. Although stubborn, I believe bullsnakes are the least likely to bite compared to gopher and pine snakes.

Experience level recommendation

Bullsnakes make great pets but I wouldn’t recommend them to first-time snake owners. While not especially prone to biting, a bullsnake can still be a handful. I wouldn’t consider them easily stressed, but they have strong personalities meaning they’re stubborn. You won’t be able to handle them as much as a corn snake or rat snake.

Bullsnakes have specific dietary needs. This means, no power feeding and no overfeeding. They require a larger enclosure than a corn snake or kingsnake. They’re active and easily tip over water bowls that are light. Their tendency to occasionally retain eye caps concludes my reasoning for why this snake should only be undertaken by someone with experience.

Bullsnake vs pine snake vs gopher snake 

I can hear the criticism now over the argument my classification might induce. Bull, pine, and gopher snakes are all similar in appearance. Still, I think there’s more to each individual snake than mere location.

A pair of gopher snakes.
A pair of Great Basin gopher snakes
  • Bullsnake
  • Northern pine snake
  • Eastern/Southern pine snake
  • Florida Pine snake (protected)
  • Mexican pine snake
  • Louisiana pine snake (protected)
  • Black pine snake (protected)
  • Great Basin gopher snake
  • Sonoran desert gopher snake
  • Cape gopher snake
  • Pacific gopher snake

Some Pituophis observations over the years 

Personality-wise, they’re all different. The bullsnake and gopher snake have different heads. The head of the pine snake is more similar to the bullsnake. I also believe their habits are different. Pines tend to hide more while bulls are more active. Both pines and bulls grow larger than gophers.

A stressed pine sounds like a deflating tire while bulls huff and puff. While examples of docility exist in all three snakes, I find the bullsnake least likely to bite. Out of the three, the pine snake is the most temperamental and the gopher is the biggest bluffer.

Female bullsnake

Bullsnake verses rattlesnake 

Unfortunately, the bullsnake is often mistaken for the rattlesnake in the wild. Consequently, they’re often killed unnecessarily. This is a shame and I’d like it to stop.

The only way to avoid this is through education. It’s important to educate people who are not well-versed in snake identification. Bullsnakes like all snakes have their purpose in our natural ecosystem. They’re here for a reason. Humans should not kill them unnecessarily.

Conclusion

The bullsnake is a big, burly snake who is usually all bluff. They’re the most flighty of the Pituophis family but certainly not the most defensive or aggressive. They make good pets but I don’t recommend them to first-time snake keepers because their flightiness is somewhat intimidating.

A ball python or corn snake handles easier and gives newcomers more confidence when handling and caring for snakes. Bullsnakes also tend to get excited when it comes time to eat, often bursting out of their enclosure with mouth agape. This isn’t a sign of aggression but a food response. It sometimes leads to an accidental bite. Still, they’re hardy and strong and make long-lived pets.

Are bullsnakes one of your favorite pet snakes? They truly have a cult following that continues to grow.  Share you bullsnake husbandry tips and experience in the comments section below! 

Bullsnakes as pets

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