Milk Snake Care Sheet
Developed with and approved by a qualified veterinarian.
This care sheet covers a variety of milk snakes, including:
Milk snakes are found in a large geographic area from South America to Canada. Milk snakes are nonvenomous and belong to the Colubrid family of snakes. They are comprised of 24 different subspecies that vary in appearance. These snakes are popular as pets, as they are some of the most beautiful in the world and come in a variety of colors and patterns.
Typical appearance and behavior
- Despite variations in color and pattern, nearly all milk snakes have alternating red, yellow and black circumferential bands down the length of their bodies. They closely resemble the venomous coral snake, often found in the same geographical areas, which helps them avoid potential predators. Nonvenomous milk snakes can be distinguished from venomous coral snakes simply by the arrangement of the colored bands. In milk snakes (except the Eastern milk snake that does not have distinct banding), the red bands are always surrounded by black bands, while in the coral snake, red bands sit adjacent to yellow bands—hence the old rhyme “red on yellow, kill a fellow”
- Milk snakes are generally docile, but when they feel threatened by a predator, they may shake their tails and strike or defecate or urinate on the predator to deter restraint.
- To get them accustomed to handling, pick them up regularly and move hand over hand with them as they move, being sure to avoid their faces
- As your snake gets ready to shed, their eyes will turn a milky blue/grey over the course of a few days and their body color will start to dull and develop a whitish sheen. They may become irritable; avoid handling if possible
|Average Life Span||Up to 15+ years with proper care, depending on species|
|Average Adult Size||2 to 4 feet long, depending on species|
|Minimum Habitat Size||20L tank minimum for one adult|
A 10-gallon tank is adequate for a juvenile; however, increase habitat to a 20L tank to house a medium-sized adult. They will reach adult size in 3 years, depending on species and under ideal conditions. Larger snakes should be housed in 40B tanks. Provide an appropriately sized and shaped habitat for an adult milk snake to accommodate normal behavior (including stretching out) and exercise. Habitats should have a tightly fitting screen top to allow adequate ventilation and prevent escape.
Building your habitat
- Substrate - Commercially available paper-based bedding is ideal, as it is digestible if accidentally ingested. Aspen shavings are also acceptable. Pine and cedar chips should be avoided, as they have oils on them that can irritate their skin and respiratory tracts. Substrate should be deep enough for the snake to hide in. If using reptile carpet as a substrate, be sure to provide at least one hide box to allow the snake to feel secure
- Décor– Provide driftwood, commercially available half logs or large rocks, artificial plants or cork bark to make a hiding area just large enough for your snake to fit inside, plus branches or other décor to climb on. Décor is also important for snakes to rub on when shedding
- Humidity - The habitat should contain a water dish large enough for the snake to soak in, help sustain humidity levels, keep the snake hydrated and aid in shedding. Maintain humidity between 40% to 60%; monitor humidity level with a humidity gauge. Humidity should be higher during shedding. Humidity may be increased during shedding by creating a humid hide containing moist sphagnum moss. Moss should be changed frequently to prevent mold growth
- Temperature - Snakes are ectothermic reptiles, which means they rely on their environmental temperature to control their body temperature. To help them regulate their body temperatures, provide a temperature gradient (85°F for the warm end and 70-75°F for the cool end/nighttime) in the tank. Monitor temperature with at least two thermometers—one in the cool zone and the other in the hot (basking) zone. Heat may be provided by a heat bulb, ceramic heat bulb or an under-tank heating pad. Heat sources should be attached to thermostats to regulate temperatures. Thermostats are especially important with heating pads, which can get hot and cause burns through the tank floor if not regulated properly. Hot rocks should not be used as a heat source, as they can burn reptiles. Reptiles not kept at the appropriate temperature ranges are more likely to become immunosuppressed and get sick
- Lighting - While snakes do not require ultraviolet (UV)B light to survive, some studies suggest that UVB light may increase snakes’ activity levels and aid in their overall health. Providing snakes with a low-level UVB light helps provide a clear day/night cycle (with 10 to 12 hours of daylight) that milk snakes need to perform their normal daily activities. UV bulbs should be replaced every six months, as their potency wanes
Cleaning your habitat
Spot-clean the habitat daily to remove droppings. Thoroughly clean and disinfect the habitat at least once a week:
- Place snake in a secure habitat
- Remove all substrate and habitat décor
- Scrub the tank and furnishings with a reptile habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution
- Rinse tank and furnishings thoroughly with water, removing all traces of habitat cleaner or bleach smell
- Dry the tank and furnishings completely
- Add clean substrate and put furnishings back into the tank
- Put snake back into their clean, dry habitat
A well-balanced milk snake diet consists of:
- Appropriately sized frozen rodents, properly thawed and warmed
- Pinkies up to small mice may be fed to hatchlings/juveniles; large mice or rats are typically fed to adults
- Live rodents should not be fed, as live rodents may bite snakes who are not hungry and can cause life-threatening injuries. If you must offer live rodents to a snake, never leave them unattended in the tank with the snake because of the potential risk for injury to the snake
Things to remember when feeding your milk snake:
- Do not use a microwave to defrost frozen rodents, as microwaved rodents can have hot spots that can burn snakes’ mouths when they eat them
- Do not prepare frozen rodents for feeding in the same area that you prepare human food. If it is unavoidable, be sure to thoroughly disinfect the area. See the Feeding Frozen/Thawed Foods Care Sheet for more information
- Feed juveniles once to twice a week and adults once a week; decrease feeding adults to every other week if they are becoming overweight
- Feed in an empty tank separate from the habitat so the snake doesn’t associate your hand or the habitat lid opening with feeding and doesn’t accidentally ingest bedding off the habitat floor when eating
- Fresh, clean water should be available at all times in an untippable bowl large enough for the snake to soak in. The bowl should be placed in the cool end of the habitat so that the water doesn’t evaporate too quickly
- As snakes will not typically eat while shedding, avoid feeding when snakes are in shed
- Snakes will regularly shed their skin and the covering over their eyes (called the eye cap or spectacle); ensure humidity of habitat is at appropriate level to allow snake to shed properly. Skin should be shed in a single long piece
- Never try to remove retained eye caps by yourself, as you can easily cause damage. Seek veterinary care if eye caps are retained
Where to buy a milk snake
Milk snakes are available for purchase at your local Petco Pet Care Center location. Please call ahead to check availability.
- Appropriately sized habitat
- Sphagnum moss
- Water dish
- Hideaway place
- Climbing décor
- Heat light/emitter
- Heat fixture
- Under tank heater
- Humidity gauge
- Low level UVB bulb
- UV bulb fixture
- Separate feeding tank
- House milk snakes singly
- Do not house different snake species together
Signs of a healthy snake
- Active and alert
- Clear eyes (except when shedding)
- No discharge or bubbles from eyes, nose or mouth
- Eats food and passes stool regularly
- Supple skin without lesions, swellings, scabs, parasites (mites, ticks) or discoloration
- Regularly sheds skin in one complete piece
Red flags (If you notice any of these signs, contact your veterinarian)
- Unusually frequent or infrequent shedding
- Lethargy or reluctance to eat
- Abnormal feces or lack of feces
- Lesions, swellings, scabs, discoloration or parasites (mites, ticks) on skin
- Labored breathing/breathing with open mouth
- Difficulty shedding/shedding in numerous pieces/retained skin after shed
- White, cheesy discharge or redness or scabs in mouth
- Laying 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, rapid shedding caused by skin infections from viruses, bacteria, fungus or parasites, or an unclean habitat or one that has inappropriate temperature or humidity||Suggested ActionConsult your veterinarian, clean the habitat, and ensure proper temperature and humidity.|
|Health IssueRespiratory tract 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 bacteria, viruses, fungus, parasites or a habitat that has inappropriate temperature or humidity.||Suggested ActionConsult your veterinarian and ensure proper temperature and humidity.|
|Health IssueStomatitis||Symptoms or CausesRed, swollen or scabbed gums and/or white, cheesy discharge in the mouth, loss of teeth, decreased appetite or weight loss. May be caused by bacterial, viral or fungal infections or inappropriate temperature or humidity. If untreated, may be fatal.||Suggested ActionImmediately consult your veterinarian and ensure proper temperature and humidity.|
|Health IssueTicks and mites||Symptoms or CausesParasites on skin can cause itchiness and hyperactivity and can transmit disease.||Suggested ActionConsult your veterinarian. Empty habitat and thoroughly disinfect it.|
- What do milk snakes eat? Milk snakes should be offered appropriately sized frozen rodents (mice and rats, depending on the snake’s age and size), properly thawed and warmed.
- How big do milk snakes get? Milk snakes can grow 2-4 feet long, depending on species.
- Is a milk snake poisonous? No, milk snakes are not poisonous or venomous.
- Where do milk snakes live? Milk snakes are found in a large geographic area from South America to Canada.
- What is a milk snake? Milk snakes are nonvenomous and belong to the Colubrid family of snakes. They are comprised of 24 different subspecies that vary in appearance.
- How long do milk snakes live? Milk snakes can live up to 15+ years with proper care.
- What does a milk snake look like? Despite variations in color and pattern, nearly all milk snakes have alternating red, yellow and black circumferential bands down the length of their bodies. They closely resemble the venomous coral snake, often found in the same geographical area, which helps them avoid potential predators. Nonvenomous milk snakes can be distinguished from venomous coral snakes simply by the arrangement of the colored bands. In milk snakes (except the Eastern milk snake that does not have distinct banding), the red bands are always surrounded by black bands.
- How big does a milk snake get? Milk snakes can grow 2-4 feet long, depending on species.
Additional care sheets
Notes and resources
Ask a Pet Care Center store employee 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 reptiles are potential carriers of infectious diseases, such as salmonella bacteria, always wash your hands before and after handling your reptile or habitat contents to help prevent the potential spread of disease.
Pregnant women, children under the age of 5, senior citizens and people with weakened immune systems should contact their physicians before purchasing or caring for reptiles and should consider having a pet other than a reptile.
Go to the Centers for Disease Control at cdc.gov/healthypets for more information about reptiles and disease.
The information on this Care Sheet is not a substitute for veterinary care. If your pet is ill or if you need additional information, please contact your veterinarian as appropriate.