Great Basin Gopher Snakes as Pets

The Great Basin gopher snake is a desert-dwelling species closely related to bull and pine snakes. While similar to their cousins, the Great Basin gopher snake differs when it comes to pattern, head shape, and personality. It also doesn’t grow as large as the pine or bullsnake.

Adults average out to four and a half feet making them the smallest of the Pituophis family. In captivity, these snakes can live up to twenty years or more. Their lifespan in the wild is much shorter.

This snake naturally occurs across the western range of the United States. The Great Basin gopher snake is often confused with the venomous prairie rattlesnake. I can say with certainty that it’s difficult to confuse a Great Basin gopher snake with any kind of rattlesnake but it’s not as easy for laypersons. This species mimics the rattlesnake vibrating their tail when stressed.

Gopher snake
Female Great Basin gopher snake

They also coil up in an impressive striking pose but it’s a complete bluff. While being on the nippy side as hatchlings, the Great Basin gopher snake usually tames down to make a great pet.

Great Basin Gopher Snake Video

Great Basin gopher snake range

The Great Basin gopher snake is found in the western United States among arid, rocky regions including grasslands, woodlands, deserts, and scrub. An active snake, they’re found climbing fences, streaking across roads, swimming across ponds and burrowing down into sandy soil.

Great Basin Gopher Snake Facts

  • Experience level: Intermediate
  • Temperament: Usually docile
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Scientific name: Pituophis catenifer deserticola
  • Constrictor: Yes
  • Average adult size: 4 feet
  • Lifespan: 20 to 25 years
  • Venom: No
  • Hardiness: Hardy
  • Stress level: Moderate to low
  • 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: $40 - $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.

Great Basin gopher snake care

The Great Basin gopher snake is a beautiful specimen. Intelligent and alert, they’re hardy and fairly easy to keep although I wouldn’t place them in the same category as the corn snake for first-time snake keepers.

This is only because gopher snakes and their close relatives, the bull and pine snakes, are more flighty. Still, I keep several specimens from the Pituophis family and bites are uncommon. Most bites from this species occur from nervous hatchlings or feeding errors.

Handling

These snakes seem to handle better than their close relatives. Bullsnakes are easy to handle too, but they won’t stay still for any amount of time like a gopher snake. They’re not as jumpy or nervous.

Be gentle when handling your snake and it will do the same for you. When handling a snake, always take confidence. A snake picks up on any fear or intimidation you may have. Rough handling will most certainly lead to a bite. Never punish a snake for biting, they won’t understand any kind of retaliation. Besides that, it only worsens your relationship with the snake. Mistakes are always considered a mistake by the handler, not the snake. That’s being a true snake keeper, conservationist, and naturalist.

Great Basin gopher snake bite

A bite from a Great Basin gopher snake is nothing to fret about. They have small teeth but rather strong jaws. Only small, quickly healing lacerations result. As with any non-venomous snake bite, clean the area thoroughly with warm water and soap. Bacterial infections are not common with these snakes but if bit by a wild specimen, use an antibacterial ointment like Neosporin as a preventative. As these snakes get older, they’re less likely to bite and only do so when under stress.

Use forceps or hemostats when feeding snakes

In their excitement, when they know a rodent is near, they have somewhat poor aim. I do however appreciate their enthusiasm. In my experience, bullsnakes have an even worse aim. Accidental bites may result from hand feeding. Don’t hand-feed your gopher snake or any other snake for that matter. It’s not a good practice.

This is a gopher snake bite.
Gopher snake bite.

Diet

A desert dweller is a scavenger. In captivity, feed your gopher snake rodents. Mine eagerly accept any kind of rodent given to them and I’m careful not to overfeed them. They’re extremely enthusiastic feeders and I doubt they have the sense to say no. Still, they’re a great snake to keep.

Size

The Great Basin gopher snake is a moderately sized colubrid. They don’t reach the same length or girth as their close relatives the pine and bull snakes. Adults range between three to five feet, most averaging at four feet in length.

Great Basin gopher snake
Male Great Basin gopher snake

Great Basin gopher snake setup

The Great Basin gopher snake is kept in a simple or complex enclosure. While they usually handle well as adults, they also make a great display animal. I keep mine in a simple enclosure as I do all my snakes. It’s easier when keeping so many specimens at large numbers. Just make sure the snake always has clean water and a place to hide.

Hide box

You can make hide box from just about anything as long as it’s big enough for the entire snake to fit into and has a hole for easy entry/exit. These snakes have a tendency to tip over their water bowl. If this happens, don’t allow the water to sit for an extended period. High humidity levels for long periods of time are not healthy for a desert dweller and may lead to an upper respiratory infection.

If the snake continuously knocks the bowl over, use a heavier one made of plastic or tin with a rubber liner around the bottom of it. This will prevent both tippings of the water bowl, and moving it around the enclosure. I often wonder about the purpose of moving the water bowl. It usually ends up directly over the heated area raising the humidity a bit.

These snakes aren’t as easily stressed as other species but still need some quiet time. Just remember that a display enclosure is more work to clean than a simple tub.

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.

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%.

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. They work great!

Great Basin gopher snake temperament – You may have to work with them a bit

The temperament of the Great Basin gopher snake seems to improve with age. This means hatchlings are nervous and nippy. Juveniles rattle their tails, puff up and strike impressively. With time and gentle handling, your Great Basin gopher snake should calm down and make a fine addition to the family.

It is important to develop trust with the snake. Once you do that, you have a friend for life. These guys are not as jumpy as bullsnakes and are more likely to sit resting on your lap or in your arms. Just watch for sudden bursts of speed with younger specimens.

Feeding

As a scavenger, the Great Basin gopher snake eats whatever it can catch, overpower, and fit in its mouth. In the wild, these snakes feed on rodents and occasionally lizards, bird eggs and amphibians.

In captivity, these snakes thrive on an exclusively rodent based diet. Do not power feed this snake. Feed juveniles an appropriately sized rodent once a week. These snakes are not as active or flighty as the bullsnake. 

The metabolism of the Great Basin gopher snake

The metabolism of the Great Basin gopher snake is slower than a bullsnake which is why they’re fed every seven days as juveniles. As adults, feed these snakes every seven to ten days.

As with all Pituophis, do not feed them especially large prey items. They’re sensitive to regurgitation and more likely to do so more than other species of snakes. Instead of feeding the gopher snake one large item, it’s better to feed them two or three smaller rodents. This feeding mimics the snake raiding of a pocket gophers nest in the wild.

These snakes readily take frozen/thawed

These snakes should readily take frozen/thawed and will carrion feed as well. They greedily accept what’s given to them because the snake doesn’t know the next time it will eat. You, however, do. While feeding the snake more might seem like a good idea, it actually isn’t.

Avoid the temptation feeding it again seven days later. You’ll have a healthier gopher snake with greater longevity. One must learn to understand the snake from a human’s point of view at the right time. Alternatively, understand the snake from a snake’s point of view at the proper time as well.

Treatment for Snake Mites

Shedding issues

Shedding issues aren’t usually prevalent with the Great Basin gopher snake. Unlike their close relatives the bullsnake, the Great Basin gopher snake usually doesn’t retain its eye caps. I believe this is because the Great Basin gopher snake is not as flighty as the bullsnake and take their time while shedding.

If a retained eye cap should occur, dab mineral oil on it with a q-tip and leave it overnight. It should fall off the next morning. If it doesn’t, repeat the simple procedure again. I’ve never had to treat a retained eye cap more than two times using this method.

Great Basin gopher snake breeding

These snakes are among the easiest to breed in captivity. The most basic rules of breeding colubrids apply here. First, only attempt breeding these snakes when they’re at least three to four years old.

I would wait four years because females are less likely to become egg bound. Next, make sure your potential breeders are well-fed and at decent body weight. Stop feeding them at least two weeks before putting them to sleep.

When its time for brumation

After they have passed their last meals, you can begin brumation by slowly lowering the temperature of the enclosure ultimately descending to 55°F.

You may need a refrigerator or wine cooler to do this. Open the door once a day so air can exchange. Provide an extended cooling period over the winter months. Always provide water during the three to four months of brumation.

Once the snakes have risen from their slumber, make certain that both the male and female have eaten and are back to decent body weight.

Introduce the male into the female’s enclosure after her first shed. At this time, the female releases special pheromones to induce breeding. After copulation occurs, separate the two. Keep the female well-fed and warm while gravid.

Prepare for the eggs

The Great Basin gopher snake is an egg layer. Six weeks after breeding it’s time to prepare for the eggs. Take a plastic shoebox and make a hole big enough for the snake to easily enter and exit from. Place moist vermiculite on the bottom of the shoebox and place it in the female’s enclosure.

Check back every day for eggs as the time draws near. At this time, remove the water bowl so the female doesn’t lay her eggs in it. Any eggs left submerged in water will die.

Once the eggs have been laid

Once the eggs have been laid, carefully take them out without tipping them over. Mark the top of the egg and place them in another shoebox full of either moist vermiculite or an egg-laying substrate product such as HatchRite.

To get a decent mix of males and females, incubate the eggs at about 80°F. Be sure to keep the temperature consistent. The eggs should hatch in about two months. Begin feeding babies after their first shed.

Other kinds of gopher snakes

Other locations feature other phases of the gopher snake. Just about all are common and easy to get either online or at reptile shows. These subspecies include.

  • Sonoran gopher snake
  • San Diego gopher snake
  • Pacific gopher snake
  • Santa Cruz gopher snake

The price of these snakes are very reasonable and some morphs occur. They’re all very impressive specimens.

Conclusion

Although the Great Basin gopher snake starts out nervous and nippy as hatchlings, they usually calm down nicely after six to eight months. It’s all about gaining their trust and spending some quality handling time with them.

These snakes don’t get as heavy-bodied or as big as others in the Pituophis family which include the pine and bullsnakes. They’re also not as flighty as bullsnakes and tend to have a better temperament than the pine snakes. Out of the entire Pituophis family, the gopher snake is the best choice for those new to snake keeping.

Just remember not to power feed these snakes, or offer them food that’s too large. Like others in the Pituophis family, they’re prone to regurgitation when fed too large of a meal or too often. Ultimately, a captive-bred Great Basin gopher snake that’s bought as a hatchling and raised up to an adult makes a decent pet snake.

The Great Basin gopher snake makes a hardy pet that eventually adjusts well to handling. Tell us in the comment section below about your experience with gopher snakes. What’s your opinion on their temperament?

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