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Colubrid Care Sheet

Developed with and approved by a qualified veterinarian.

This care sheet covers a variety of colubrid species, including:

colubrid care sheet

Table of contents

 

Overview

These snakes belong to the Colubridae family. This is the largest family of snakes, containing about 2,000 different species that make up about two thirds of the snakes in the world. They live in varied geographies and are native to temperate and subtropical areas of North America, Europe and Asia. Certain colubrids are venomous, but others are not. They vary greatly in life span and size, depending on the species. Some colubrids are small insectivores (insect-eaters), while others are large constrictor snakes. Several colubrids, such as the rat snake, corn snake, African house snake and king snake, make wonderful pets when cared for properly.

Typical appearance and behavior

  • These snakes will reach adult size in two to three years, depending on the species and if cared for under ideal conditions
  • Most species have teeth at the back of their upper jaw, and some also have fangs in the front of their mouths
  • Snakes have no external ears (just inner ears that look like small holes on the sides of their heads) and no eyelids
  • As snakes get ready to shed, their eyes turn a milky blue/gray color over the course of a few days, and their skin color will start to dull and develop a whitish sheen. They also may become irritable, so avoid handling if possible
  • Snakes will shed skin as well as the surfaces of the corneas of their eyes (spectacles, or eye caps)

Characteristics

Care Difficulty Intermediate
Average Life Span Up to 15 years with proper care, depending on species
Average Adult Size 1-6 feet long, depending on species
Diet Carnivore
Minimum Habitat Size 20-gallon long tank for one hatchling; larger tank for adult, depending on species

Supplies

Habitat

Habitat size

The appropriate size and shape habitat for an adult colubrid varies depending on the size of the species. The habitat should be large enough to accommodate normal behavior and exercise, at least a 20-gallon long tank for a hatchling to a 40-gallon long breeder tank for an adult. All tanks should have a securely fitting screen top to promote ventilation and prevent escape

Building your habitat

  • Colubrids should be housed individually. Provide a hiding area just large enough for your snake to fit inside.
  • Décor – include décor such as driftwood, cork bark and/or vines to climb on
  • Substrate – Commercially available paper-based bedding that is digestible if eaten, or reptile carpet, is ideal. Clean reptile carpet or replace it often. Particulate matter substrates such as wood chips, sand and walnut shells are not recommended, as they can irritate eyes and mouth and, if eaten, are indigestible, potentially leading to life-threatening gastrointestinal tract obstruction
  • Humidity - Depending on specific species’ humidity requirements, add moist sphagnum moss to the hide box to aid in shedding. Replace moss frequently to prevent mold growth. Humidity requirements vary by species; most colubrids can be maintained at 40 to 60% humidity and monitored with a humidity gauge; humidity typically needs to be higher during shedding
  • Temperature – Provide a temperature gradient with a warm end and a cool end so that snakes can move around and regulate their body temperature. Exact temperature requirements vary by species, but most pet colubrids require 90°F for the warm end and no lower than 70° for the cool end or at night. Use an incandescent light or ceramic heat bulb as the primary heat source with an under-tank heater for supplemental heat if needed. Use a thermostat/rheostat with under-tank heat pads to turn off the heat if it gets too hot so the snake doesn’t get burned. Never use a hot rock, as reptiles commonly get burned from sitting on them. Monitor tank temperatures with at least two thermometers, one in the warm zone and the other in the cool zone
  • Lighting – Snakes need a photoperiod light cycle; provide eight to 12 hours of light daily. An incandescent bulb can be used to provide light during the day; a nighttime bulb should be used at night. It is controversial as to whether snakes require ultraviolet (UV) light, as they eat whole prey and get calcium and vitamin D from their food. Other reptiles rely on UVB rays to make vitamin D in their skin to help them absorb dietary calcium. Studies have shown that snakes thrive when UV light is provided; UV light may improve their immune system function and aid in their color vision. A UV bulb should be approximately 1 to 2 feet away from the snake and should be replaced every six months, as its potency wanes

Cleaning your habitat

  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect water and food bowls daily
  • The habitat should be spot-cleaned daily to remove droppings
  • Thoroughly clean the habitat at least once a week:
    • Place the snake in a secure habitat
    • Scrub the tank and furnishings with a reptile-safe habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution
    • Rinse the tank and all furnishings thoroughly with water, removing all traces of habitat cleaner or bleach smell
    • Dry the tank and furnishings before putting the snake back in the habitat

 

Feeding

A well-balanced colubrid diet consists of:

  • Appropriate size frozen rodentsthawed/warmed to above room temperature
  • Feeding live rodents is not recommended, as live rodents can inflict life-threatening wounds in snakes who do not eat the rodents immediately
  • If you must feed your snake live rodents, do not leave them unattended

Things to remember when feeding your colubrid:

  • Feed juveniles once a week, adults every one to two weeks
  • Feed in a separate tank so that your snake doesn't associate your hand or the habitat being opened with feeding
  • Prey should be no larger than the widest part of the snake, as snakes swallow prey whole and do not chew them up
  • For smaller snakes, you may need to offer multiple smaller rodents, rather than one large one, to fulfill the snake’s nutritional needs
  • Do not offer food to snakes in shed, as they generally will not eat while shedding
  • Never microwave frozen rodents to thaw them, as that can leave hot spots that will burn the snake’s mouth
  • Provide a large bowl of warm water big enough for your snake to soak in to aid in hydration and proper shedding; change this water daily

Colubrid care

Snakes regularly shed their skin; unlike other reptiles who shed skin in pieces, healthy snakes should shed their skin all in one piece. Ensure humidity of habitat is at appropriate level to allow snake to shed properly. If your snake is shedding in pieces, the humidity may be too low. Increase habitat humidity by misting with water and encourage daily soaking. 

Where to buy a colubrid

Colubrids are available for purchase at your local Petco Pet Care Center location. Please call ahead to check availability.

Habitat mates

House adult colubrids singly and do not house different snake species together

Health

Signs of a healthy colubrid

  • Active and alert
  • Clear eyes (except when shedding)
  • No discharge or bubbles from eyes, nose or mouth
  • Eats and passes stool regularly
  • Supple skin without lesions, swelling, scabs, parasites (mites, ticks) or discoloration
  • Sheds regularly in one complete piece
  • Moves body symmetrically by slithering on abdomen with head held slightly off the ground
  • Can upright self when lying on back

Red flags (If you notice any of these signs, contact your veterinarian.)

  • Unusually frequent or infrequent shedding
  • Bubbles or discharge from eyes, nose or mouth
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Inability to close mouth
  • Unusual feces or lack of feces
  • Lesions, swelling, scabs, parasites (mites, ticks) or discoloration of skin
  • Labored breathing with open mouth
  • Difficulty shedding/shedding skin in numerous pieces/retained skin after shed
  • White, cheesy substance or redness or discharge in mouth
  • Retained skin over eyes (spectacles, or eye caps) after shed
  • Lying on back, unable to turn right side up, or prolonged staring (star-gazing)

 

Common health issues

Health Issue Symptoms or Causes Suggested Action
Health IssueDermatitis Symptoms or CausesBlisters, red skin, scabs or rapid shedding caused by skin infection from bacteria, fungi, viruses or parasites, or an unclean habitat or one that has inappropriate temperature and humidity. Suggested ActionConsult your veterinarian, clean the habitat, and ensure proper temperature and humidity.
Health IssueRespiratory disease Symptoms or CausesLabored breathing, open-mouth breathing, stretching neck out, mucus or bubbles in mouth, eyes or nostrils. Can be caused by infection with viruses, bacteria, parasites or fungi, or a habitat that has inappropriate temperature or humidity. Suggested ActionConsult your veterinarian and ensure proper temperature and humidity.
Health IssueBacterial infections Symptoms or CausesCloudy eyes, open sores and/or reddening of the skin. Suggested ActionImprove water quality; use a commercial antibacterial remedy as directed, consult your local aquatic specialist or aquatic veterinarian for treatment.
Health IssueStomatitis Symptoms or CausesRed, swollen or scabbed gums and/or white, cheesy discharge in the mouth, loss of teeth, decreased appetite. Can be caused by bacterial, viral or fungal infections, or inappropriate temperature or humidity. If untreated, can be fatal. Suggested ActionImmediately consult your veterinarian and ensure proper temperature and humidity.
Health IssueTicks and mites Symptoms or CausesParasites on skin causing itchiness, red skin and hyperactivity; can transmit disease. Suggested ActionConsult your veterinarian. Empty habitat and thoroughly disinfect it.

FAQs

  • Are there venomous colubrids? Yes, some colubrids are venomous.
  • Do colubrids have fangs? Yes, some colubrids have fangs, with most being rear-fanged.
  • How do colubrids kill their prey? Colubrids either chase their prey or ambush it. Some then kill their prey through constriction with their bodies, while other use fangs in their mouth to impale prey.
  • What makes a snake a colubrid? The Colubrid family of snakes is the largest family of snakes. Colubrids have no hind legs, an absent or reduced-size left lung, no teeth on the premaxillary jaw, few head scales and ventral scales as wide as the body.

 

Additional care sheets

 

Notes and resources

Ask a Pet Care Center associate about Petco's selection of products available for the care and happiness of your new pet. All products carry a 100% money-back guarantee.

Because all snakes are potential carriers of infectious diseases, such as salmonella bacteria, always wash your hands before and after handling your snake and/or habitat contents to help prevent the potential spread of diseases.

Pregnant women, children under the age of 5, senior citizens and people with weakened immune systems should contact their physicians before purchasing and/or caring for a snake and should consider having a pet other than a snake.

Go to the Centers for Disease Control at cdc.gov/healthypets for more information about snakes and disease.

The information on this Care Sheet is not a substitute for veterinary care. If you need additional information, please contact your veterinarian as appropriate.