Image taken by braindamaged217 (flickr) Corn snakes have a well earned reputation within the reptile hobby as ideal beginners snakes, yet they still hold a special place in the hearts of experts alike. Corn snakes are certainly amongst the easiest to keep snakes; they are hardy, docile, great feeders and due to the work of a few generations of selective breeding they are available in a wide array of colour morphs. My humble opinion is that these snakes have a place in the collection of every reptile enthusiast, and you should look no further when selecting your first snake.
Corn snake information
Corn snakes have the scientific name Pantherophis guttatus. They were formally known as Elaphe guttata guttata but they were reclassified in 2005. Although no longer being in the typical rat snake genus “elaphe” they should still be considered rat snakes. Guttatus comes from guttata which means spot or speckle.
Corn snakes have that name because they are often found in American corn fields where they would feed on the mice within the field. They are found more or less throughout america (Alabama, Arkansas, West central/Southeast Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Southern Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Eastern Utah, Virginia). They have also been reported in Mexico (Chihuahua, Coahuila, North Durango, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas – taken from anapsid ) and parts of the cayman islands.
Corn snakes are nocturnal and you will generally see them around dawn and dusk. They usually hide and sleep during the day.
Corn Snake Housing
Corn snakes are easily pleased when it comes to housing, however this does not mean you should cut corners.
Housing for corn snakes can be provided in many forms, from plastic storage tubs to elaborate plastic mould vivariums. For hatchlings I like to use plastic faunariums (available from any good pet store, or online) whereas for adults you can’t beat a well built wooden vivarium (a guide to building one can be found on the DIY section of this website).
The size of the vivarium should be matched to the size of the corn snake. Hatchlings and juveniles will be happiest in a smaller vivarium (18x12x12inches) whereas larger corn snakes (large juveniles to adults) should be kept in something more like 30x15x15in. Adults shouldn’t be kept in anything less than 36x18x18in. You need to gradually increase the size of the vivarium as corn snakes are especially prone to becoming agrophobic.
For substrate there are a number of options. The safest and cheapest is newspaper or kitchen roll. There is no risk of impaction (gut blockage from substrate being ingested, more on that later) when using news paper or kitchen roll. The only problem with this is it doesn’t look very natural (then again, if you’ve got bright orange plant pot saucers as hides, what’s the problem?).
If you are looking for a more natural substrate then you can use aspen shavings or bark chips. If using bark chips avoid cedar or anything with a strong piney smell. The resins that give this smell are supposedly dangerous for snakes so they are best avoided.
If you choose to use anything other than newspaper/kitchen roll for your substrate it is essential that you feed your snake away from its substrate. If you do feed on top of the substrate there is a risk that the snake will ingest some of it and become impacted. If you choose to use natural substrate then you should get a plastic DIY storage tub to feed your snake in, they are very useful and almost like they were built for that job.
Decor is very important, yet very simple. So long as you get it right you shouldn’t have any problems. You need to provide a hide in both the warm end and the cool end of the vivarium (more about warm ends and cool ends in the heating section). Your corn snake will hide in whichever hide it chooses dependant on how warm it wants to be. The only other piece of décor which is required is a water bowl. It should be large enough for the corn snake to soak it in (it is quite rare for corn snakes to soak in their water bowls but they have been know to do it from time to time, especially around shedding). Those bits of décor are the essentials, if you wish you can add climbing structures for your corn snake to climb on (I have found they particularly like cork bark leant against the side or mopani wood to climb around).
Those are the basics to housing your corn snake covered. When adding decor of your choice use common sense. Avoid things with a particularly potent smell, avoid sharp edges, things which may be harboring parasites, etc.
Cleaning your corn snake
Keeping your corn snakes vivarium clean is essential if you want a healthy snake, luckily it is very easy.
All you need to do is spot check for faecal matter (poo) once a week (a corn snake will poo as often as you feed it so it will it will poo once a week). You should remove the faecal matter as soon as you find it, as well as the surrounding substrate which should be replaced. You should clean any décor which the matter is on in hot water (no soap unless its special reptile safe stuff).
You only need to do a complete vivarium clean once a month if you are stringent with you “poo collecting”. To do this, remove all of the décor and wash it in hot water. You can use special reptile disinfectants if you wish. You should remove all of the substrate and replace it with fresh substrate. You can wipe down the sides of the vivarium too if you wish. If you want to make the glass sparkle you can use water with a bit of vinegar in it, it will sparkle and the vinegar will act as a mild bacteria killer.
Heating corn snakes
Corn snakes, like all reptiles are cold blooded. They use external temperatures to control their own temperature, this means that they require a certain degree of temperature control within their enclosure. This means to successfully keep a corn snake (or most other reptiles for that matter, location dependant) you must provide a temperature gradient snake is able to regulate its body temperature (a process known as thermoregulation, and a term you’ll hear banded about a lot in the hobby). Providing a temperature gradient like this is actually quite a bit easier than it sounds, and luckily there is a whole range of reptile products to help us do this.
My preference for heating corn snakes is with the humble heat mat. Heat mats are cheap, long lasting and once attached to a thermostat they become safe, reliable sources of heat. Thermostats are temperature controlling devices which work in a number of ways, more often than not with the cheap models this simply involves turning the heat on and off to maintain a reasonably constant temperature. I am just going to take a moment here to stress the value and importance of thermostats in the hobby. They aren’t expensive, less than $50/£30 for the cheaper ones, which to be honest are all you really need for a heat mat – a small price to pay for the piece of mind.
Once attached to a thermostat you need to place the heat mat underneath the warm end of the vivarium. It should cover no more than 50% of the floor space (generally the aim is 30-50% of coverage). This will form the warm end of the vivarium for your corn snake. Essentially all you will be doing is using the heat mat to create optimum warmer temperatures, leaving the cool end down to room temperature. You’ll find that so long as the corn snake has access to these two temperatures (and feels comfortable in both areas – you’ll need a hide in both the warm and cool area of the vivarium, more on that later). Obviously common sense is required, if your snake is kept in a room which sometimes gets too cool in winter (ie below 65f for instance) then supplemental heating may be required). For this there are a few options, including light bulbs and ceramic bulbs (both of those options will require a guard and a different thermostat, dimmer and pulse proportional, respectively).
Corn snakes need the following temperatures:
Warm end: 90-92f
Cool end: 76-78f
Position your heat mat under the warm end and put the thermostat probe where the snake will come into contact with it, lying on top of the substrate – this is quite important. Then use a thermometer to play about with the dial on the thermostat until you get 86-88f. The dials on thermostats are often slightly inaccurate so you will need a thermometer in there to get accurate temperature readings. You generally don’t need to worry about the cool end temperatures providing the warm end is warm enough. If you can’t achieve high warm enough temperatures in the warm end you should supplement them with a light as aforementioned.
Corn snake humidity requirements
Corn snakes don’t have any special humidity requirements. They are generally quite happy at room humidity (roughly 40% depending upon your location). When they are shedding their skin it is worth increasing the humidity slightly to help them shed. To do this just mist lightly every other day from when they go milky/dull until they shed. Make sure you have adequate ventilation so condensation doesn’t build up.
Feeding corn snakes
Image by Sirenz Lorraine (flickr)
Corn snakes eat rodents. Generally in captivity you can form all of their diet with mice (although some larger specimens may prefer weaner rats).
You should feed your snake once a week, no more often, no less often. I find you can successfully feed a corn snake once a week throughout its life. You should feed hatchlings 2 pinkies (hatchling mice) a week, then juveniles 2 fluffs (5-7day old mice) a week. Larger juveniles should be given 1 small mouse a week. You can then move onto medium and large mice as the snake grows.
There is a very simple method of judging how big a rodent you should feed to your snake. You should feed something which is no larger than 1.5x the girth of the snake at its widest part (usually somewhere about half way down the snake). It should leave a small bump in the snake but nothing major.
Feed hatchlings 2 pinkies once a week
Juveniles 2 fluffs once a week
Large juveniles 1 small mouse once a week
Gradually increase the size of food using 1.5x the girth of the widest part of the snake as a guide. Only feed 1 item once a week
My preferred method of feeding corn snakes is the "strike method". You wiggle the mouse in front of the snake to encourage it to strike at the food. Snakes in captivity are prone to becoming lazy, this gives them a bit of action so to speak. Occasionally I will simulate a chase where I move the mouse around to get the snake to follow it, I wouldn't really recomend this though as the only time I was ever bit by a corn snake was when I was doing this. It should be noted that the snake was biting me because it thought I was food, not because it was agressive.
Once the snake has bitten onto its food leave it in peace to eat it, they don't really like feeding in front of people as they feel quite vulnerable (having no use of their mouth and limited mobility).
All reptiles shed their skin and corn snakes are no exception. From time to time they need to shed their old skin in order to grow. Mammals (us included) shed their skins too but in smaller pieces so it’s not really noticed. Snakes on the other hand do it on one piece and a shedded snake skin can look quite impressive.
Younger snakes shed more often than older ones, they can do it every few weeks whereas adults only do it every few months. This is obviously down to the reduced growth rate of adults. Snakes never stop growing so they never stop moulting (shedding), they just do it quite infrequently as adults.
The first sign that a snake is going to shed its skin is its skin colour, it will dull down and the snake will have a slightly greyer appearance. The snakes eyes will also go a milky colour (they shed the cuticles too). It is usually a good idea to slightly decrease humidity when the snake looks like its about to shed its skin, just spray the tank lightly every other day until shedding is complete. Snakes require a rough surface to start shedding on, this will usually be a rock, the entrance to as hide, a rough piece of wood, etc. Make sure you have something a bit rough in the tank to aid shedding.
The whole process from the eyes going milky to the snake actually shedding can take anything from 3-12 days.