CORN SNAKES/RAT SNAKES
(Pantherophis guttatus)
[formerly Elaphe guttata]

Corn snakes occur naturally over much of the eastern United States, with their northern range extending into the pine barrens of New Jersey, south through Florida and Louisiana, and west into Tennessee. There are two separate theories on how they derived the common name of corn snakes. One is related to the checkered ventral pattern that resembles Indian corn, or maize. The other would be their propensity for habituating the vicinity of cornfields, where they search for their favorite prey item, mice. Corn snakes start their lives as hatchlings at anywhere from 9 – 14 inches in length, and as adults range from two and a half to five feet, with males generally attaining larger size than females. Their average life span, given proper care in captivity, would be around ten years. Physically, corn snakes are characterized by a series of attractive red/orange blotches running the length of the animal, usually bordered in black. The ground color can be red, orange, brown or gray, and the ventral coloration is typically white and/or light orange with the aforementioned black and white or black and orange checkered pattern. It should be noted that hatchling corn snakes usually do not display the coloration that they will as adults, as the effect of the orange pigmentation takes the better part of a year to manifest itself.

Why Keep a Corn Snake as a Pet? – Captive bred corn snakes have a reputation among reptile hobbyists as the best snake to keep as a pet. The reasons for this are:

  • Their generally docile disposition, allowing them to be handled readily
  • Their attractive appearance and reasonable size
  • Since they originate in the temperate zone of the U.S., they do not have particularly difficult environmental needs to meet with respect to temperature, humidity and lighting
  • They readily adapt to a diet of mice, which are relatively easy for the keeper to obtain
  • The easy availability of captive bred animals, along with the great variety of color and pattern morphs to choose from
  • The ease at which the keeper can breed the snakes, adding to the enjoyment of the hobby

Choosing your snake – First, it should be emphasized that in all cases you should attempt to acquire a captive bred specimen. There are several reasons for this – first, captive bred animals are almost always healthier than their wild collected counterparts, being generally far less likely to have been exposed to such maladies as internal and external parasites and other diseases. Also, captive bred animals usually adapt more readily to being kept as pets. Finally, the plentiful availability of captive bred snakes reduces the necessity to collect wild specimens for the pet trade, thus relieving the pressure on the natural population. Although corn snakes are not endangered in the wild, it is better to leave them in their natural environment.

Your next choice will be whether to purchase an adult or hatchling snake. Although there are arguments to be made on both sides, it is generally better to start off with a hatchling for several reasons. First, there will be a wider variety to choose from. You will also know its age and, if buying directly from a breeder, its genetic background, which will be important if you intend to breed the animal in the future. You will be virtually assured that it has been captive bred, since very few hatchlings are wild collected. Finally, you will have the satisfaction of watching your snake grow and mature into its adult coloration.

Whether you are buying a hatchling or an adult, there are several items you should check to attempt to determine the animal’s health. Check that it appears alert and responsive as you handle it, making sure that it flicks its tongue in and out to check out its environment. Also check its body weight and muscle tone – it should not appear emaciated or have its ribs protruding, and should not have visible scars or “kinks” in its spine. Ask if it has been feeding regularly. Check its vent, called the cloaca, to make sure that it appears dry and closes properly. Try to listen to its breathing – if it appears to be wheezing or if mucous is present around the mouth, this may be a sign of respiratory infection. The mouth should close tightly and not display any scars or lesions. Finally, check the animal for the presence of any external parasites such as mites or ticks.

Housing – The most important point to emphasize is that corn snakes, in fact all snakes, are amazing escape artists, and if there is even the slightest opportunity to escape, they will certainly find it. Make sure the lid is tightly fitting and well fastened. Hatchling corn snakes can be maintained in small enclosures such as a 12 x 6 inch cage, until they are a year old. Adult corns should be kept in cages that are a minimum of one half their body length. In addition to the standard fish tanks with screen covers, there are a variety of cages built specifically for snakes on the market. Whatever cage you choose, how you set up your enclosure depends on whether you are maintaining multiple cages for several snakes and trying to maximize efficiency, or whether you desire to make the habitat more esthetically pleasing from a human perspective, but each should have the following minimum requirements:

Substrate – Avoid cedar (toxic to reptiles) and sand or gravel (not absorbent, thus promoting bacterial growth). You could use something as simple as newspaper or paper towels, especially if you are looking to maximize efficiency of cleaning, or aspen or pine shavings.

Water – Clean water must be available at all times in a bowl that is heavy enough that the snake will not constantly tip it over.

Heating - Probably the most important aspect to keeping your pet healthy. Corn snakes enclosures should have an area with the temperature ranging between 75º to 85º F. This can be accomplished by installing heating under the tank, either by a heat pad or heat tape. Be careful not to let the heat source get too hot – usually it is best to attach it to a dimmer switch so that you can control the accuracy of the temperature. The heat source should cover only about 1/3 of the surface area of the cage bottom. Thus, the snake has a choice between the heated side and the portion that is at room temperature. Having this heating gradient will allow your pet to thermoregulate its own temperature, which is what they would do naturally in the wild. (Note: to avoid excessive humidity, place the water bowl on the unheated side.)

Lighting – Since corn snakes are nocturnal, no special lighting setup is necessary.

Hiding – Corn snakes need a hiding spot to feel secure, which also replicates their natural behavior in the wild. A hiding spot can be fashioned from almost anything – plastic or rock caves purchased commercially, or small boxes with a hole cut out for access. The hiding place should be just large enough to allow the snake to fit in – remember, snakes are never claustrophobic, in fact they like being wedged into small snug places. Ideally, your cage would have two hide spots, one on the heated portion and one on the unheated side. This way, the snake does not have to choose between their natural inclination to hide and the need to thermoregulate.

Feeding – Corn snakes, like all snakes, are 100% carnivorous. Although there are several different food choices, there is no reason to feed captive corn snakes anything but rodents, mainly appropriately sized mice. For the most part, corn snakes will accept frozen mice that have been completely thawed out. Although there is some discussion among hobbyists that feeding dead prey robs the snake of the opportunity to exercise by constricting the rodent, as they would in the wild, it is generally agreed that the advantages of feeding thawed food items outweigh the exercise foregone. Start hatchlings off by feeding pinkie mice. The best method for feeding hatchlings is to place the snake and the pinkie in a small deli cup, which forces the snake to concentrate on the food item.

It should be noted that a small minority of hatchlings will insist on live prey initially, but even these can usually be switched over to pre-killed. As your snake matures, it will graduate to fuzzies, crawlers, and then small and ultimately adult mice. A general rule of thumb is to select a food item that does not exceed one and a half times the girth at the snake’s mid-body section. When feeding hatchlings in particular, exercise caution with respect to the size of the food item. Never feed a snake a prey item that is too large, because a hungry snake will often consume the animal only to subsequently regurgitate it. It is better to err on the side of caution – if you are not sure, feed two smaller items rather than one that may be too large. Once the snake has eaten, it will usually crawl off to the heated side of the cage and remain there for several days digesting the meal. Try not to handle the snake for 24 – 48 hours after they feed. Feeding schedules differ with respect to hatchlings and adults. For hatchlings, you can feed them as often as twice a week to as little as once every ten days. With adults, once every 7 to 14 days would be sufficient. If you are breeding your snakes, you probably want to feed the female more often in the weeks before breeding commences to prepare her for the rigors of laying eggs.

Breeding – Corn snakes are among the easiest of snakes to breed in captivity. There are many varieties of corn snakes available in the captive bred market, and if you choose this aspect of the hobby you can potentially accrue greater satisfaction from keeping your animals. A word of caution – before contemplating this step, make sure you are prepared and equipped to take care of the hatchlings that could result. Breeding snakes is an extensive subject not undertaken by the novice, and for more information we recommend acquiring one or more of the books listed below.

Books to Read - This care sheet is by no means intended as a comprehensive guide to corn snakes. For further information, read as much as can about these beautiful reptiles. We recommend the following comprehensive yet inexpensive books as a good starting point.

The Corn Snake Manual by Bill and Kathy Love, 2000. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Inc. (to purchase, visit their web site, www.corn-utopia.com)

Keeping and Breeding Corn Snakes by Michael J. McEachern, 1992. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Inc.

A Color Guide to Corn Snakes by Michael J. McEachern, 1991. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Inc.

Corn Snakes in Captivity by Don Soderberg

There are a tremendous variety of corn snake morphs, representing combinations of different colors and patterns. They have truly become the “designer” snake of the reptile hobby. The four different morphs of corn snakes that basically started the whole craze include: normal (shown above), amelanistic or albino (below left), anerythristic (below right), and snow (bottom).

Amelanistic (Albino)
Anerythristic
Snow

 

1 The information contained in this care sheet is written specific to the captive care of the corn snake, also known as the red rat snake, mainly because these particular animals are probably the most popular snake species kept by hobbyists.  However, it should be noted that the care instructions also apply for most other species of rat snakes (family Elaphe) maintained in captivity, including the black, yellow, grey, Texas, Emory and Bairds rat snakes.

Copyright LIHS © 2003

If you have additional questions about corn snakes or rat snakes try to attend one of the LIHS monthly meetings. You can e-mail us at info@lihs.org or write or call the LIHS at the address/phone number at the top of this sheet. Reading about your snake before buying it is always beneficial.