Thayer’s Kingsnake Care

Also known as the variable kingsnake and the Nuevo Leon kingsnake, it’s a good thing the variable kingsnake is worthy of having all these names. What makes this snake especially appealing is when all three different phases are present from a single clutch.

The three phases literally appear as three different species at a passing glance. This makes for an exciting breeding project and sometimes jet black specimens occur. As you can imagine, jet black variable kingsnakes go for a pretty penny. The variable kingsnake is a wonderful snake.

Variable Kingsnake

Thayer’s kingsnake location – Hailing from the plateaus of Mexico

These snakes originate from the eastern slopes of the plateaus in Tamaulipas, Mexico which is just south of Texas. In its native environment, the Thayer’s kingsnake primarily feeds on lizards.

This is a preference for many kingsnake species found in the mountains and deserts of the western, south/western region of North America. They’ll also eat frogs, rodents and other snakes in the wild. Luckily, they easily switch over to frozen/thawed rodents in captivity. They’re much easier to switch than the gray-banded kingsnake which is notorious for exclusively demanding lizards. 

Price and availability

These snakes have become popular and common in the pet trade. They’re easily found both online and at various reptile shows. More and more people breed them, and why not? They’re fantastic snakes. Babies usually go for around $100 while adults often go for $150-$200, especially for proven breeders.

Length and size

The adult length of the variable kingsnake ranges from three to five feet with three and a half feet being the average. Their body is somewhat heavy. They’re strong and durable similar to the Florida kingsnake.

Thayer’s Kingsnake Facts

  • Experience level: Beginner
  • Temperament: Docile
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Scientific name: Lampropeltis mexicana thayeri
  • Constrictor: Yes
  • Average adult size: 3 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
  • UVB lighting: No, optional
  • Enclosure size: Adult - 3'L x 18"W
  • Average price range: $100 - $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.

Thayer’s Kingsnake Video

These snakes obtain most of their length within the first two years of their lives. They never stop growing after that, but they slow down a bit as other snakes do.

Thayer’s kingsnake bite

A bite from a variable king snake isn’t much to speak of. This harmless, nonvenomous species is certainly not a medical emergency. While they have fairly strong jaws, their teeth are quite small. Little, if any bleeding occurs from a bite unless taking a hit from an extremely large specimen.

There’s not much cause for concern here though, the variable kingsnake rarely bites. Nevertheless, as with any other snakebite, clean the wound with warm water and soap. This is to prevent secondary bacterial infections which are rare, especially in the species of snake. You have more chance of getting a bacterial infection from a wild-caught water snake then you would a captive-bred kingsnake. Always wash the wound well and apply a topical antibacterial ointment if necessary.

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.

Heating and humidity

Keep the ambient temperature at about 80°F and with a warm spot to aid digestion. Keep humidity levels between 40 to 60%. In some cases, hatchlings are prone to poor shedding. When the time nears, keeping a humidity box in the enclosure with the snake is helpful in avoiding a retained shed.

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 a quality air purifier for snake rooms.

Thayer’s kingsnake breeding

 These snakes need a cooling period to stimulate breeding much like other snakes. Surprisingly, even though the snake is from Mexico, winters get chilly although not below freezing (55°F). Nevertheless, go for temperatures between 45 and 55°F for at least three months. Going as long as four months is also fine.

Make sure the snake defecated and hasn’t eaten for at least two to three weeks before slowly lowering the temperature to reach your target low. Always have fresh water available to them during the entire ordeal.  Keep them asleep for three to four months.

Slowly raise temperatures when brumation is complete. A wine cooler or small refrigerator is sometimes used as a hibernaculum. This also offers total darkness during brumation. Just make sure to open the door once a day for air exchange.

After they’ve warmed up, offer them food until they molt. Place the male in the female’s enclosure after its first shed. At this time, ovulating females release pheromones inducing reproduction with the male. Keep a distant eye on the process. Kingsnakes are cannibalistic and one may eat the other instead of mating.

The female produces her clutch (on average) after sixty days. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, so be sure to keep a shoebox in the female’s enclosure filled with moistened vermiculite. Have a hole for the snake to crawl in and out of. Check back several times a day to make sure she doesn’t lay her eggs in the water.

When the time draws near, only offer water for an hour or two, then take it away to avoid accidents. Hatchlings go for an average of $100+ a pop, so it’s a decent project to get involved in from a monetary standpoint. They breed easily in captivity.

Caring for hatchling Thayer’s kingsnakes

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, you can 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. Never power feed these snakes and remember, always offer a bowl of fresh water for them.

Lifespan

The hardy variable kingsnake has one of the longest lifespans of the kingsnake family. Properly cared for specimens may reach twenty years, or even surpass it. As with any snake, avoid power feeding which leads to obesity.

Ultimately, overfeeding snakes leads to a much shorter lifespan. It’s very rare to see an obese snake in the wild because of feeding frequency and its heightened activity. Obviously, a wild snake is more active than a captive specimen which puts them at a greater risk for obesity.

Diet in the wild

The variable kingsnake enjoys a variable diet in the wild. These snakes share many things in common with the gray-banded kingsnake. In the wild, they are quite fond of lizards as the main part of their diet. In captivity, they easily switch over to rodents which are far more convenient for us keepers.

The variable kingsnake is usually easier to switch from lizards to frozen/thawed rodents than the gray-banded kingsnake. They’re also easier to switch over than the Arizona mountain kingsnake. So, out of these three kingsnakes, the variable kingsnake is without a doubt the best choice for a beginner.

Thayer’s Kingsnake

Feeding

As I alluded to earlier, these snakes readily eat when food is available to them. Take special care here. The snake doesn’t know when it will get its next meal, so it’ll eat as much as it can.

That doesn’t mean you should feed them every time they seem hungry.

Power feeding any snake is a bad choice for several reasons. Feed yours an appropriately sized rodent once every seven days. While this snake doesn’t appear as prone to regurgitation as the bullsnake, multiple health problems arise from overfeeding. This includes liver and kidney damage so feed your snakes the correct way.

Switching a baby kingsnake from lizards to frozen/thawed rodents

Let’s say you bought a new variable kingsnake as a hatchling. You get it home and set it up correctly. After a few days of allowing the snake to become acclimated with its new surroundings, you attempt to feed it a pinkie mouse. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether the pinkie is alive or frozen/thawed.

Much to your dismay, the snake won’t take the pinkie. I know the feeling, it’s that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. Small beads of perspiration gather at your hairline. Here’s a way around it.

You have to get a lizard. Either a gecko or an anole will do. If you don’t have them locally, these lizards are pretty cheap. Lizards such as Mediterranean house geckos, are cheap and often used as feeders and for this specific purpose. You certainly wouldn’t want to buy an expensive leopard gecko for feeding your new snake.

On the other hand, if you already have a pet leopard gecko, you could use it to scent the pinkie mouse to possibly get the snake eating. All you have to do is take the pinkie and rub it up and down the back of the lizard. Then, offer it to the snake. If you have a dead lizard, put the lizard and the pinkie mouse in a plastic bag together and allow the juices from the lizard to saturate the pinkie.

More extreme measures to boost feeding response 

A more extreme measure is to cut the lizard open and place the pinkie in the lizard’s guts. I know this sounds absurd and disgusting, but it sometimes works. Another little trick is to open the skull of the pinkie (or mouse with larger specimens) to expose its brain matter. This can entice a non-feeding snake to eat in some cases.

I know these ideas sound like a long shot and even repulsive, but they’re steps taken to get non-feeding snakes to eat, or to switch them over from lizards to rodents.

Some reptile dealers offer Mediterranean house geckos for sale exclusively for feeding purposes. This is certainly an option if you don’t mind having a package shipped to you every couple of weeks. That’s actually if the snake takes them dead. If it only takes a live gecko, it’s not feasible to order a single lizard every single week. That’s why it’s best to switch them over to rodents.

Thayer’s kingsnake shedding and regurgitation?

On the subject of regurgitation, there’s one thing I’ve observed with many of the more delicate species as hatchlings. This goes for both the Arizona mountain kingsnake, the variable kingsnake and other lizard-feeding kingsnakes around their range.

Do not feed your hatchling kingsnake right before it sheds. If you do, there’s a good chance the snake will regurgitate. When you notice the eyes are cloudy and its colors become drab, wait until after the snake sheds to feed it. I guarantee the snake will readily eat after it sheds and won’t regurgitate.

Thayer’s Kingsnake
The Thayer’s kingsnake is a great snake for those new to snake keeping.

Temperament

It took me this long to finally get to discuss temperament of these awesome snakes. As you may have already picked up on, the variable kingsnake demonstrates an excellent temperament and doesn’t seem prone to stress. The variable kingsnake is not nearly as delicate as the Arizona mountain kingsnake, especially once they grow past the hatchling phase.

I’ve never been bitten by one or observed other defensive behavior such as tail rattling. That should close the subject of temperament for this species, at least for now.

Is the Thayer’s kingsnake good for beginners?

Yes, absolutely! Just try to get one that is well-started. The term ‘well-started’ in reptile lingo means that even though the snake is very young, it’s already feeding well and starting to thrive. If you’re new to snake-keeping, never buy a hatchling that hasn’t fed a few times, preferably frozen/thawed.

This is especially the case with certain species of kingsnake that eat lizards in the wild. Let the breeder get them switched over and the hard work will be out-of-the-way. If you still end up in this situation, scent a small pinky with a lizard to get it feeding. You can also refer to the snake feeding hacks page HERE.

On the subject of the best snakes for beginners

Many species of kingsnake are perfect for first-time snake keepers. On the other hand, some kings are more delicate and prone to stress. Here’s a list of ideal kingsnakes for first-time keepers and the ones for experienced hobbyists.

Ideal kingsnakes for novice snake keepers 

California kingsnake

Extremely hardy and reasonably priced. They come in two attractive phases, striped and my personal preference, banded. Some morphs are also available. At one point, this was the most popular and sought-after species of kingsnake. It seems like only yesterday but this goes back to the 80s and 90s. 

Florida kingsnake

An extremely hardy specimen that eats great and can handle stress. I kept these in the 90s and have nothing but good things to say about them. They’re readily available today at cheap prices.

These snake getting pretty long and thick for a kingsnake. They also have extremely voracious appetites. As cannibals, never keep two specimens in the same enclosure except when it comes time to breed.  A great pet snake that’s highly recommended for beginners. 

Desert kingsnake

Similar to the California kingsnake. 

Eastern kingsnake

While similar to the Florida kingsnake in ways, they can sometimes be picky feeders and a little more prone to stress.

Western Mexican black kingsnake (see the main article)

In actuality, I’m tempted to put the western Mexican black kingsnake on the advanced hobbyist list. I have my reasons so hear me out. Yes, the Mexican black kingsnake is hardy, a good eater and very docile when properly acclimated.

The reason why I’m hesitant to recommend them to first-time snake keepers is that they’re very expensive. This means any major mistakes resulting in the snake’s death are costly. It’s better to start with a California kingsnake or Florida kingsnake since prices are far more reasonable.

While I like the Mexican black kingsnake, I feel paying $250 + shipping for a hatchling is a tad bit excessive. Like with any other industry, trends exist in the reptile industry too. If you’re new to snake-keeping and insist on starting out with a Mexican black kingsnake, make sure you researched the heck out of them and know what you’re doing. Really, the same advice applies to any snake being kept by a first-time keeper.  Have the enclosure and everything you need set up and ready to go before buying the snake. 

Kingsnakes ideal for experienced keepers 

Arizona mountain kingsnake

Beautiful but delicate, these snakes are decent feeders once started but may go on hunger strikes for no clear reason. This isn’t a problem, they’ll eventually feed again but this kind of behavior might be too much for a first-time snake owner.

Gray-banded kingsnake

The gray-banded kingsnake is similar to the Arizona mountain kingsnake but more difficult. This is because specimens successfully switched over to rodents might switch back to lizards. A beautiful snake with an excellent disposition that should only be kept by experienced hobbyists.

Knobolichi mountain kingsnake

Similar to the Arizona mountain kingsnake, I’m interested in keeping this beautiful species myself.

Conclusion

I really can’t say enough good things about Thayer’s kingsnakes. These snakes come in various colors, patterns and are extremely docile.

Here’s what to keep in mind when buying a hatchling variable kingsnake.

Be sure to ask the seller if it’s eating. Furthermore, make sure it’s eating rodents and not just lizards. While I highly recommend this snake to new keepers, I don’t recommend buying one that hasn’t been switched over to rodents yet. Frozen/thawed rodents is always a plus. 

The variable kingsnake offers an exciting breeding project because you can end up with several phases from a single clutch. This makes them a fairly unique snake readily available through the reptile industry. Overfeeding these snake is not only unnecessary, but it’s also bad for their health. On the last point, remember that like all kingsnakes, the Thayer’s kingsnake is cannibalistic so don’t keep two specimens in the same enclosure unless during breeding.

Do you have something to add to this article such as husbandry tips through personal experience? Please give us your valuable information in the comments section below. 

Thayer’s Kingsnake as Pets

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