The Cornsnake or Red Rat Snake (Elaphe guttata) originates from the USA (South Eastern to Northern Mexico), and can be found in diverse habitats from fields to mixed woodlands to rocky hillsides. They are naturally fairly secretive and active mainly at night or between dawn and dusk, only appearing to bask for short times in the day. The following guidelines apply to all corn and rat snakes.
Cornsnakes belong to the Order Squamata, Suborder Serpentes/Ophidia, Family Colubridae, Genus Elaphe.
A wooden/chipboard vivarium with good ventilation and sliding glass doors makes the most appropriate setup for snakes, being easy to clean, insulate and keep secure. The minimum recommended size for an adult cornsnake would be 1m long x 45cm deep x 45cm high, but obviously these snakes will enjoy as large an enclosure as it is practical to keep.
Inside the vivarium, a hiding place should be provided which may be half a log, a purpose built cave or even just an empty box with a hole cut in the side. Branches can also be placed for climbing but should be at least one and a half times the diameter of your snake’s body.
A vivarium should be “spot-cleaned” daily to remove any droppings, or uneaten food. Once a week, the whole vivarium can be cleaned with a disinfectant suitable for reptiles (further details of suitable disinfectants can be obtained from your vet). It is important to always wash your hands thoroughly after handling reptiles as they can carry Salmonella.
It is important to use a substrate that is easy to keep clean and replace, and is not going to cause a problem if accidentally eaten. Newspaper therefore makes the ideal substrate, but another alternative would be certain types of shavings (such as aspen) or wood chips.
Reptiles are not capable of regulating their own temperature so it is very important to keep their environment at an appropriate temperature at all times. A temperature gradient should therefore be provided, giving your reptile a hot end where they can bask and a cooler end to which they can retreat.
There are several types of heat sources available for vivariums including ceramic heaters (infra red light bulbs), tube heaters, reflector bulbs (incandescent spot lights) and heat mats. Incandescent spot lights will provide an ideal basking spot for your snake, but should not be used as the sole heating source whereas heat mats are more useful in providing a background heat for the whole vivarium.
It is important whichever form of heating is chosen, to always monitor it carefully with a thermometer, and use some form of thermostat so that temperature can be accurately controlled. Heat sources should also be protected with a wire mesh guard or similar safety device if they are within a snake’s reach.
The ideal temperature range at which to keep a cornsnake would be 24-26°C (75-78ºF) in the daytime, with a basking spot of 27-30°C (80-86ºF), and temperatures falling no lower than 21°C (70ºF) at night.
This should ideally be measured with a hygrometer and kept moderate (30-70%)
Most reptiles need to have access to both UVA and UVB rays, which many supposedly “full spectrum” reptile bulbs do not supply, so it is important to check this before purchasing a bulb. UVB rays are very important to allow a reptile to produce Vitamin D, which is essential for the absorption and use of calcium. Without this, lizards and tortoises are at risk of developing Metabolic Bone Disease, which can often be fatal.
It is controversial whether snakes actually require UV light or not, as naturally these reptiles are only active at evening and night times. Captivity however, can never simulate a totally natural environment and Metabolic Bone Disease is seen in snakes, so it is a good idea to provide UV light for 12 hours daily, but using a bulb with a lower output (2% should be sufficient) than that used for most other reptiles. Bulbs will need replacing every 6 months.
Cornsnakes are carnivores and in the wild their diet would naturally be frogs, small lizards and the occasional rodent. In captivity, they should be offered small pre-killed rodents such as mice, starting off with pinkies for hatchlings and progressing to adult mice for adult snakes. Adult snakes require feeding weekly, although during the winter months it is not unusual for cornsnakes to go off their food for a few weeks as they would in the wild.
It is illegal and unethical to offer snakes live vertebrate food.
Fresh water should be supplied once daily in a shallow bowl.
Cornsnakes generally live up to about 20 years.
Signs of Health
A healthy snake will be bright and alert with clear open eyes and nostrils and a clean vent. Skin should be undamaged with no sign of parasites, and shedding should occur regularly. Your snake should also be keen to eat, and pass faeces regularly. It is important to become familiar with your snake’s normal appearance, movement and behaviour, in order that signs of illness can be noticed at an early stage.
It is advisable to take your snake to a vet who routinely deals with reptiles for a general health check and faecal sample at least once a year.
Signs of Illness
Reptiles will often not show obvious signs of illness until they are very sick, but you should look out for any changes in appetite or faeces passed, as well as changes in weight, behaviour, skin colouration or breathing. Other signs of illness include discharges from the eyes, nose or mouth or problems with shedding.
If you have any concerns, do not hesitate to contact a reptile vet as soon as possible.
Return to exotics
This caresheet is only intended as a general guideline, so please ask for further information. Written and researched by Joanna Hedley BVM&S MRCVS