Okay so we’re going to try taking a new route today – a fun one, an interesting one, a reptilian one. I realize my blog is mostly about dogs, cats, animal welfare and all that four-legged jazz, but I thought you all might want to take a walk on the wild side with me and learn something new from “Jim the Reptile Guy.” Jim has raised snakes for practically his whole life and is also a great writer. He’s very passionate about all kinds of snakes, not just his own, as well as geckos, lizards, turtles, and other reptiles.
So we all know that there are tons of guys and gals and kids just like Jim all over the world. I mean, there are literally hundreds of thousands of young boys out there begging Mom for a snake or lizard right this very minute, right? So Jim has kindly put together a very detailed and informative article on the best snakes for beginners and kids. You’ll hear from Jim the Reptile Guy again in a about a month!
Who knows, maybe BlogPaws Nashville will see an appearance of a snake… or gecko…? (After all, we did have a Capybara this year!) (+ I would have to borrow one, lol!)
Are you a budding reptile enthusiast or a parent to one? Do things with scales and shells appeal to you more than those with fur or feathers? Perhaps you’re a lover of all animals and are simply looking to add a cold-blooded critter to your family? No matter the reason, the rhyme, or the season, anyone interested in learning more about reptiles is welcome company in my book.
Today I’m going to be sharing some basic information on my favorite member of the reptile family – the snake. More specifically, I’m going to be talking about which snakes make the best pets, especially for your little people (children.)
I’m an animal enthusiast, but there’s just something about snakes that I’ve always loved. While many in our culture see them as the villains of the animal kingdom (thanks a lot, Bible), or the stuff of nightmares, there’s no denying that snakes are one of the most unique animals on the planet. They can perfectly adapt to a variety of environments and, while not all snakes would be happy living with humans, there are a handful that, when cared for properly, do make wonderful pets.
First things first, though. Before we talk about which snakes may be a good fit for your home, there are some things you’ll need to understand:
- Snakes are NOT domesticated like dogs and cats. While most snakes in the pet trade have been born into captivity, that doesn’t mean they’re domesticated. They’ve evolved over thousands of years to eat, breed, and survive. It’s our job as their caregivers to understand this first and foremost. If you start treating a snake like a cat or dog, letting them roam free, bringing them out for every guest to greet, and not considering their needs first, accidents can and will happen.
- Snakes are reptiles, and reptiles are cold-blooded animals. Snakes use thermoregulation to manage body temperature, thus, you’ll need a hot side and a cool side for your tank or terrarium.
- Snakes and reptiles kept as pets will likely require veterinary care at some point in their lives. Before you add a reptile to your family, please be sure to have access to a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles.
- A snake is a long-term commitment – many live 20 years or longer.
- Snakes eat rodents. While frozen/thawed rodents are best, some snakes (like Ball Pythons,) can be finicky eaters and may eat only live rodents. Make sure you have access to these should the need arise.
- Snakes are known in the reptile community as master escape artists, so be sure to have an escape-proof tank.
- When considering a snake as a pet for your child, consider the size and temperament of the snake and always supervise children when handling. I’d recommend six as the minimum age at which you’d acquire a snake as a pet for a child.
Now that we have the prerequisites out of the way, let’s look at some great options for you or your child’s first pet snake! I’m going to list the top five breeds I’d recommend for a novice snake owner, five being the one I’d recommend least and one being the best.
5. Boa Constrictor
Boas make the list at number 5 because they’re commonly found in pet stores and are a favorite in the pet trade. I do NOT, however, recommend a Boa for a first snake, especially
for a child. I own a Boa. I’ve owned many Boas and love them. They are absolutely my favorite snake, but I’m an experienced guy who’s been keeping snakes for years (I’ve even bred them). So why don’t I recommend them for a beginner or a child? Because Boas get BIG!
Big snakes need big enclosures. Big snakes also need bigger food. Lastly, bigger snakes are harder to handle. They are heavy and while most experts will tell you that any snake over nine feet will require at least two adults present when handling, I say seven feet. A female Boa can easily reach the 8-13 foot range while males will usually reach between 6-8 feet. Your child may be very happy with a baby or juvenile Boa, but once that cute little baby reaches adulthood, your eight or nine-year-old won’t even be able to handle it. The snake will simply be too big, and at that size, could overpower a child.
A Boa is a terrific intermediate snake for those who’ve gained the experience and have the desire to add a larger snake to their home. Captive Boas come in a wide variety of beautiful color patterns. They are often a favorite among teenage boys.
Appearance: “The coloring of boa constrictors can vary greatly depending on the locality. However, they are generally a brown, grey or cream base color, patterned with brown or reddish brown “saddles” that become more pronounced towards the tail. It is this coloring that gives Boa constrictor constrictor the common name of “red-tailed boa” (per Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boa_constrictor)
Size: Typically, they range in length from 20 inches as neonates to 13 feet as adults.
Life span: Captive life expectancy is 20 to 30 years.
Food: Baby Boas will eat pinky rats and mice. Juvenile boas will eat small rats and graduate up to medium, large, XL, and big adults can eat Guinea pigs and rabbits.
Here’s a picture of my six-year-old daughter, Mena, with our Sharp Sunglow female Boa, Bianca. Bianca is a little over one-year-old in this picture and is still growing like a weed. Bianca has been handled regularly since she was a baby and Mena has also been well versed (by me) as to the proper
handling and care of our pet. Because of my love for the snake, Mena has been raised not to fear them. She simply sees a beautiful animal that she loves. Over time, though, Bianca will get much bigger (see the adult female pictured above.)
4. Milk Snakes
Milk Snakes are generally very docile, hardy and are good snakes for beginners and children. They come in a wide variety of color combinations, but the most common is black/red/yellow.
Size: Hatchling milk snakes range in size from 12-15 inches in length. Adult milk snakes reach anywhere from 3 to 5 feet depending on the locality from which they originated.
Life span: Usually 12 – 15 years, though they can live as long as 20 years.
Food: Baby milk snakes will eat pinky mice and graduate up to hopper mice. Adults will typically eat a large mouse or weanling rat.
Fun Fact: The common milk snake is often confused with the deadly coral snake because of the similar colors and pattern. A milk snake has yellow bands with black bordered on either side. A coral snake has black bands bordered by yellow bands on either side. Here’s a handy rhyme I learned as a boy that will help you differentiate between the two:
“Yellow then black, venom they lack. Black then yellow will kill a fellow.”
Milk Snakes are a good beginner snake for kids because they’re easily handled, and are pretty active in their cages. Ensuring you have an escape-proof enclosure will be paramount. Also, because of their colors, kids really seem to like them. Please note, however, that baby snakes (no matter the breed) can be a little nippier. They are tiny and vulnerable, so until they get bigger and are used to being handled, they may bite if they feel threatened. No worries, though, the bites are painless.
3. King Snakes
King Snakes, like Milk Snakes, are generally very docile, hardy and good snakes for beginners. They come in a wide variety of color combinations, but the most common is the California King Snake which is black/white.
Size: Hatchling King Snakes range in size from 12-15 inches in length; adult King Snakes reach anywhere from 3 to 6 feet.
Life span: Usually 12 – 15 years, though they can live 20 years or longer.
Food: Baby king snakes will eat pinky mice and graduate up to hopper mice. Adults will typically eat a large mouse or weanling rat.
King Snakes are a good beginner snake for kids because they are easily handled, and are pretty active in their cages just like Milk Snakes. Ensuring you have an escape-proof enclosure will be paramount. While their colors aren’t as varied as Milk Snakes, they’re still quite beautiful. As with Milk Snakes, baby King Snakes may be a little nippier at times.
King snakes will eat other snakes as well as lizards, fish, and rodents. Because of their willingness to eat other snakes, they should always be kept alone. King snakes are also immune to the venom of rattle snakes and will eat them in the wild!
A beautiful subspecies of King Snake is the Grey Banded King Snake.
2. Ball Python
The Ball Python is my personal favorite as far as a beginner snake. They grow to a maximum size of only 3-5 feet. They’re also docile and easy to handle. Their name comes from the fact that, when threatened, they roll themselves into a ball, using their big bodies to protect their small heads. Were it not for the fact that they can sometimes be very finicky eaters, they would have been #1 on my list.
Size: Hatchling Ball Pythons range in size from 12-15 inches in length. Adult Ball Pythons reach anywhere from 3 to 5 feet. Females grow larger than males.
Life span: 20 years or longer.
Food: Baby Ball Pythons will eat mice and weanling rats. Adults will typically eat small rats.
Ball Pythons are a great beginner snake for kids because they are so docile and so easy to handle. They aren’t active until nighttime, though, so if your child is looking for a snake that will be active during the day, a Milk, King, or Corn Snake would be a better choice. As with Milk Snakes and King Snakes, baby Ball Pythons may be a little nippier at times, especially near feeding time. On the opposite end of the scale, they may be so shy that they don’t eat at all. While docile and lovely, Ball Pythons require a lot of patience. Making them feel comfortable means maybe not picking them up for a week or more. Excited kids wanting to interact with their pet may find this a difficult task.
Because of their popularity in the pet trade, Ball Python breeders have selectively bred animals over the last 20 years or so for a wide variety of color and pattern mutations. We refer to them as “morphs,” as they are genetic mutations. Here are a few examples:
Here’s a dominant mutation known as a Pinstripe:
Here’s a co-dominant mutation called a Pastel:
1. Corn Snakes
Corn Snakes are #1 on most “best pet snakes” lists and they clinched the #1 spot on my Best Snakes for Children/Beginners list as well. They are very docile, hardy and great snakes for beginners. They come in a wide variety of color combinations, but the most common is red/orange.
As a pre-teen, I owned several corn (and rat) snakes. They are easily kept, handled, fed, and they seem to have a very outgoing personality. Yes, snakes have personalities. I’ve met Corn Snakes who were jerks and ones that seemed sweeter than many dogs I’d known.
Size: Hatchling Corn Snakes range from 12-15 inches in length. Adult corn snakes will reach anywhere from 4 to 6 feet.
Life span: 15-20 years or longer.
Food: Baby Corn Snakes will eat pinky mice and graduate up to hopper mice. Adults will typically eat a large mouse or weanling rat.
Corn Snakes are the best beginner snake for kids because they are easily handled, reluctant to bite, active, colorful, and big enough to be cool but not so big that you’d worry about your child handling his or her pet. Ensuring you have an escape-proof enclosure will be key as Corn Snakes are pretty active. They come in a variety of colors and there are now even scaleless Corn Snakes! As with Milk Snakes, baby Corn Snakes may be a little nippier, especially near feeding time, but with regular handling and a full belly, this will quickly fade.
Like Ball Pythons, Corn Snakes are extremely popular as pets. Also just like Ball Pythons, Corn Snakes are available in a wide variety of color and pattern mutations. Here are a few examples:
So there you have it, my top five. Now you’re probably wondering where to potentially acquire one of these awesome critters. Well, believe it or not, all of the varieties I’ve talked about can probably be found in a local pet store, especially one that specializes in reptiles, but they won’t have all the color and pattern mutations. If you’re interested in acquiring a morph, my two favorite sites are http://www.kingsnake.com and http://www.faunaclassifieds.com. The former has a classifieds section and the breeder should be able to ship your new pet priority overnight right to your door.
*Habitat setup is the most important thing you can do as the owner of a new pet snake, but we’ll talk about that in another article!
Jim Moorman is an author, father, and reptile-lover; you can learn more about him on his website. Jim has been keeping reptiles for over 20 years and has learned through hands-on experience, through research, and from being an active part of the reptile community how to best care for and keep many types of reptiles as pets.