Rat Snake Care

American rat snakes come in several phases including yellow, black, greenish, gray, Emory’s, and Everglades. Besides these phases, other intergrades exist. Generally speaking, most rat snakes make great pets, especially captive-bred specimens. 

This page focuses exclusively on New World rat snake species.

Rat snakes as pets

This is a great snake that usually makes a wonderful pet. The reason I say, ‘usually’ instead of ‘always’ is because their numbers are not as docile as the corn snake. Their temperament is very close to their smaller cousins though. While most of the rat snakes I’ve kept over the years have been docile, I’ve also come across a few defensive ones.

Many times as hatchlings, both rat and corn snakes display defensive behavior. In other words, they might bite and rattle their tail. Such behavior usually subsides after the snake settles into its new environment. This can take anywhere from three to six months.

Yellow Rat Snake Video

Everglades Rat Snake video

Rat snake facts (New World)

  • Experience level: Beginner to intermediate
  • Temperament: Usually docile
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Scientific name: Pantherophis obsoletus, alleghaniensis, spiloides
  • Constrictor: Yes
  • Average adult size: 4 to 6 feet
  • Lifespan: 15 to 20 years
  • Venom: No
  • Hardiness: Hardy
  • Stress level: Low
  • Food: Rodents
  • Reproduction: Egg laying
  • Breeding level: Easy
  • Average Temperature: 80°H/70°L
  • Humidity: 40 to 60%
  • Habitat: Terrestrial, arboreal
  • UVB lighting: No, optional
  • Enclosure size: Adult - 3'L x 18"W
  • Average price range: $25 - $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.

Just starting my collection in the 1980s, my second snake was a magnificent Everglades rat snake. It was at least six feet in length. Unfortunately, the snake came infested with mites. The owner of the pet shop told me that snake mites come in on your feet from outside. I was very young at the time. Today, I know this isn’t true and that the snake had mites before I purchased it.

Due to my lack of experience when this occurred, I eventually lost the snake to the mite infestation. The pet shop owner also gave horrible advice in treating snake mites.

Among some of these suggestions was to completely cover the snake in Vaseline to suffocate the mites. Luckily, even at the age of sixteen, I didn’t fall for that one. By the early 1990s, I learned how to successfully eradicate snake mites for good.

Enclosure 

Rat snakes get big so they need a sizable enclosure. We’re certainly not talking about a boa constrictor here or even a bullsnake for that matter. They’re not nearly as active as the latter. An adult rat snake is comfortable in an enclosure four to six feet in length. A ten or a twenty-gallon fish aquarium isn’t going to cut it for adults but may comfortably house yearlings.

Keep babies in small enclosures and shoeboxes. Make sure the shoebox has some holes for air circulation. Such holes are easily made with an electric soldering iron. Just make certain not to burn yourself because the tips get extremely hot. I accidentally got nailed a time or two by a soldering iron.

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, they 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.

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%.

Growth rate

Rat snakes grow to become large snakes, one of the largest colubrids in our country. They tend to grow quickly too. There’s no reason to overfeed these snakes, their appetites are such that obesity easily results when power fed.

This is extremely bad for the snake’s health. Remember, an obese snake is an unhealthy one. A healthy rat snake raised under the correct conditions grows most of its length in the first two years of its life. Still, they never stop growing but slow down considerably.

Rat snake care

Rat snakes are generally easy to care for. They’re a lot like their close cousins the corn snake, only grow larger and aren’t quite as docile. Still, an excellent pet that grows to impressive lengths and with a natural beauty only Mother Nature can offer.

Gray rat snake
White oak rat snake AKA gray rat snake.

They become quite docile and learn to recognize their keeper. Sometimes they’re extremely curious while other times seem perfectly content laying still on your lap. It all depends on their mood.

Diet and feeding

Rat snakes are generally known for being good eaters. They usually switch over to frozen/thawed rodents without much trouble. Nevertheless, I recommend starting hatchlings out on frozen/thawed as soon as possible. On most occasions, they’ll readily take pre-killed pinkie mice as their very first meal. I condition mine to carrion feed. 

Carrion feeding‘ is when you simply lay a pre-killed rodent in the enclosure without artificially animating any movements. Think roadkill. I’ve found that many other snakes eat carrion, especially those classified as scavengers.

Shedding 

When it comes to shedding, I’ve only noticed one particular problem that this species of snake seems susceptible to. Rat snakes will sometimes retain dead skin on their tail. It’s an easy fix, simply soak the snake in lukewarm water for fifteen minutes and gently pull off the dead skin until it’s completely removed.

It’s important to catch this when it occurs because it eventually cuts off the blood supply to the tail. If this happens, the snake will lose the end of its tail. Other than that, rat snakes are kept at relatively low humidity until it comes time for shedding.

Rat snake bite

Rat snakes have many sharp teeth and a bite from an adult draws blood. Such lacerations aren’t a big deal though. These snakes are completely harmless. Bites heal quickly due to the curvature of their teeth.

Even small rat snake bites may draw a little blood. Captive-bred rat snakes aren’t particularly aggressive and remain fairly docile as adults so bites are rare. Gentle handling and feeding on a consistent weekly basis result in having a friend for life.

Habitat

Keep them dry with moderate to low humidity. Raise humidity a bit before they shed. I use paper towels as a substrate for most of my snakes. I triple layer them so the snakes can crawl between them to hide. This provides them with a sense of security. Paper towels are also extremely easy to clean and change out when soiled.

Other options include aspen bedding and cypress mulch. Aspen bedding is a bit dusty. While cypress mulch is great for retaining humidity and odor control, it’s somewhat risky when the snake eats. The snake may swallow a small, sharp piece of the mulch. These are the reasons why I ultimately choose paper towels as a substrate for most of my snakes.

Lifespan

Rat snakes live long lives, especially when captive-bred and raised from hatchlings. They only live half the time in the wild than in captivity. An old healthy rat snake may pass twenty years of age if cared for properly.

Rat snake morphs

Rat snake morphs are becoming more and more common in the reptile industry. White-sided black rat snakes are now available while it seems leucistic Texas rat snakes are the most popular of the morphs.

Scaleless Everglades rat snakes have also entered the scene and go for hefty prices averaging around $350 while leucistic Texas rat snakes average between $100 to $150.

Size

One great thing about owning a rat snake is the impressive sizes they get. They average out from 5 to 6 feet as adults but grow larger under the proper conditions. The record is now at 7 1/2 feet yet I feel eight footers have existed in the not so distant past. For some reason, it seems captive snakes don’t grow as large as those found in the wild.

One would think it would be the other way around. My guess is that they have more of a varied diet in the wild. While captives feed on a lifetime of mice and rats, wild specimens eat a variety of prey items including rodents, birds, eggs, squirrels and sometimes even rabbits. A varied diet is healthier because it offers different nutritional benefits and specific amino acids that occur less in a rodent exclusive diet.

Rat snake phases

Yellow rat snake

The yellow rat snake is probably my favorite of the New World rat snakes. Over the years I have made some observations on their habits. These snakes are quite nippy when young, but they usually grow out of it. The bigger they get, the more docile they become.

Rat snake as pets
This adult yellow rat snake retained its saddles into adulthood.

To be clear, I’m talking about captive-bred yellow rat snakes. Adult yellow rat snakes from the wild may stay nippy. Most wild-caught specimens also carry some type of internal parasites.

Yellow rat snake
The yellow rat snake makes a fine pet snake and handles well. This is the South Carolina phase.

The yellow rat snake is one of the most arboreal snakes covered in this article. Aggressive feeders, they rarely miss a meal and have the potential to grow the largest of rat snakes found in the United States. In the wild, they intergrade with the gray rat.

This occurs in western Florida. The intergrade is sometimes called the Gulf Hammock rat snake. Personally, I don’t care for the look of the Gulf Hammock rat snake. 

In central Florida, near Gainesville, the yellow rat snake takes on a greenish color reminding me of the liquid anti-diarrhea medicine given to me as a child. I’ve also found the greenish rat snake at Rainbow Springs in Dunnellon, Florida. Along the eastern part of the state, they’re more yellow in color. The further south you travel, the brighter the yellow becomes until it eventually crosses over to Everglades rat snake territory.

Everglades rat snake
The Everglades rat snake

Everglades rat snake

The Everglades rat snake is the most vibrantly colored of the North American rat snakes. All in all, this is one beautiful snake. I would say their temperament is about the same as the yellow rat snake.

If anything, they’re slightly more docile. 

These become large, robust. heavy-bodied adults with a ferocious appetite for any kind of rodent. Having a longer warm season allows this snake to become larger in the wild. Much like the yellow rat snake, the Everglades rat snake is the most likely of North American rat snakes to use its defensive musk glands when stressed.

The Everglades rat snake will usually musk a potential threat and not bite. If you run into one of these in the wild, there’s a chance you’ll get the best of both worlds, skunked and bitten. Captive-bred specimens usually make great pets, especially as they get larger.

Black rat snake

The black rat snake occurs in the northernmost range of the species. Their dark coloring helps them warm up quickly on cool days. My experience with this snake has always been positive and I consider them as one of the most docile snakes featured in this article.

Also known as the pilot snake, their black coloring ranges from cryptic, solid black, or having prominent saddles. The former being the most common of the three. Somewhat underrated, this snake is the cheapest of all rat snakes so you get a great value for a great price.

Gray rat snake

The gray rat snake covers an extensive range. My favorite phase called the white oak rat snake originates from the Florida panhandle.

White oak rat snakes rival their cousins from the Everglades in beauty. They usually come with a disposition to match their appearance so I highly recommend keeping captive-bred specimens. They’re usually great feeders and tend to grow large.

Like the yellow rat, the white oak is also fond of climbing trees. When breeding, it’s advisable to keep white oak rat genes pure and not mixing them with other localities. A true white oak is worth a little more money. Besides the black rat, the white oak is the most docile of the rat snakes (generally speaking of course).

Texas rat snake demonstrates defensive behavior and is willing to bite.
A Texas rat snake displaying defensive behavior. This species of rat snake has a well-deserved reputation of being ill-tempered.

Texas rat snake

Saving the best for last? Not really. I do love the color and pattern of the Texas rat snake, but they have a well-deserved reputation for being ill-tempered. Even when the snake is captive-bred, they just can’t seem to gain trust in their keeper. I’ve had a few of these over the years.

Again, a truly beautiful snake, I just don’t understand where the excessive defense tactics come from. For some strange reason, the Texas rat snake has become the most expensive of the rat snakes discussed in this article.

Leucistic Texas rat snakes are a nice looking morph but it doesn’t change the snake’s disposition. Actually, I’ve found morphs more aggressive in general. I still prefer the natural version of the Texas rat snake which is how I feel about all snakes. I had a captive-bred Texas rat snake that I received as a hatchling.

Although determined in making it docile, the Texas rat snake won that particular battle of wills. I’ve become spoiled over the years by all the docile rat snakes I’ve come across. New World rat snakes originating from the United States are some of the best pet snakes available at a reasonable price. Always go with captive-bred over wild-caught.

Breeding rat snakes

Breeding rat snakes are easy. They need a period of cooling to prepare the egg follicles while arousing the male’s interest. Northern specimens need cooler temperatures than the Everglades or white oak. Some have found success in breeding this animal without a period of winter dormancy. To be on the safe side, I recommend a cooling period. Males unmistakably twitch when breeding is imminent. It’s actually kind of humorous to watch them display this kind of behavior.

For more details and information on breeding rat snakes, check out our corn snake page HERE since their habits are identical.

Caring for hatchling rat snakes

Attempt to feed the hatchlings after their first molt. Personally, I would first offer them a frozen/thawed pinkie. If they don’t take it, I would offer a live pinkie after two days. If that also fails, I would scent the pinkie with a lizard such as an anole or gecko.

Once they’re feeding, continue with the lizard scented pinkie a few more times before finally offering an unscented pinkie. They should take the unscented pinkie with no problems. If not, you may have to go back to scenting the pinkies for a while.

Only offer hatchlings a meal once a week. After several feedings and the snake is well-started, offer them an appropriately sized pinkie every four days eventually working your way up to fuzzy mice. Once the snake is off pinkies and fuzzies and on mouse hoppers, cut back feeding to once every seven days. Do not power feed these snakes and remember, always offer a bowl of clean water for them. A heavy bowl is the better way to go to prevent tipping. 

Conclusion

One of my all-time favorite snakes. The North American rat snakes usually make good pets, even for beginners. They don’t rank as high as the corn snake for first-time snake keepers, but they’re not too far behind. If you’re new to snake keeping, I’d recommend you to stay away from the Texas rat snake. These snakes are notoriously nippy and never seem to grow out of it.

I had one a long time ago with beautiful coloring but it had a poor attitude. The funny thing about the Texas rat snake is that you never know when it’ll take a swipe at you. I could handle mine for five to ten minutes but at some point during handling, he’d take an unprovoked strike at me.

Remember, the North American rat snakes get pretty big, significantly larger than corn snakes. While some recommend feeding them mice as adults, I actually recommend rats. Not jumbo rats, but a small to medium-sized rat every three weeks. Keep in mind that I’m referring to large adults specifically.

These snakes are hardy, do well in captivity, and are generally easy to handle. As with any snake species I talk about on this website, overfeeding and power feeding is not recommended. These snakes become obese easily and it’s not good for their health or longevity. They’ll grow just as fast if you feed yearlings appropriately sized mice weekly. Hatchlings can feed every four to five days. Just keep the pinkies and fuzzy size appropriate.

The New World rat snake covers a lot of ground when it comes to phases and personality. What is your favorite phase of rat snake? Do you have further information of value to add to this article? If so, please add your comments in the section below! 

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