Captive Bullsnake Care

There are many care sheets out there for Bull Snakes. Most of them are pretty similar and have only minor differences. Please take this and any care sheet as a guideline only. Snakes, just like people, do not all have the same preferences even within the same species. So the best advise is to use care sheets to do your initial set up and then make adjustments based on your pet’s use of the habitat and their activity levels. Observing your pet and its behavior and making the appropriate adjustments to its environment and feeding will provide your pet with the best possible life and allow you to enjoy your pet to the fullest.

General

Bull Snakes are large, heavy-bodied constrictors covering the central US. Their range extends from Northern Mexico and continues all the way up to Southern Saskatchewan and Alberta, Canada. Adult length averages from around 5′ to 7′. They commonly have a base color of yellow or yellowish brown with darker saddles covering the upper part of the body. The pattern near the head is generally more dense and dark, turning into dark bands towards the tail. There are many regional variations on this coloration with some of them being more red or sandy colored as adaptations to their local environment. In the wild, their habitat ranges from near rivers to semi-desert. They are avid burrowers in search of food and shelter and are built for digging in loose soil. Their prey is mainly rodent species however they also eat birds and their eggs.

Enclosure

Bull Snakes can be housed in a rack system or in traditional display vivarium. These are large, active snakes so you will want to lean towards the larger size for the chosen habitat. The formula 66% x 33% of the snakes length works well for vivarium dimensions. A 10 gallon aquarium is suitable for newborns on up to about 30″ in length. For most adults a 4′ x 2′ x 2′ size works well for a traditional vivarium. The height is not that important as these are mainly terrestrial snakes, although the height to allow some climbing is appreciated by many specimens. If provided, the piece selected to allow climbing should be firmly secured to the vivarium for the snake’s safety. As stated earlier, these are powerful snakes with strong neck muscles that easily rearrange and topple unsecured items in its enclosure.

These snakes appreciate having a substrate to burrow in. Aspen shavings, cypress mulch and ground walnut husks are common and allow the captive to burrow. As with other snakes, do not use cedar or pine chips as these can be toxic to them. Some alternatives for lining the habitat are newspaper, paper towels and products such as Zoo Med Cage Carpet and Zilla Terrarium Liner.

Hides should be provided on both the warm and cool ends of a display vivarium. They should be large enough for the snake to fit in snuggly and completely cover the snake. These can be anything from cardboard boxes to manufactored hides and cork tubes, etc.

Cleaning

Habitats should be spot cleaned daily. Snakes do not want to smell their own excrement any more than we like the smell of ours. You will notice they are often very active after defecating. The snake is likely trying to move away from the odor. Do a full cleaning of the habitat monthly or earlier if an odor remains after daily spot cleaning. For wooden enclosures or other porous surfaces that cannot be submerged in water, you need to stay with non-toxic cleaners. I like to use a mild dishwashing soap and water mixture for stains followed by a clean water wipe until no smell of the soap can be detected. I follow that with Natural Chemistry Healthy Habitat. For aquarium and other enclosures that can be liberally dosed with water, I would suggest the following bleach mixture for cleaning: 1/4 cup bleach per gallon of water. Follow this with a thorough clean water rinse until no bleach smell remains.

Temperature

Provide daytime temps of around 87 degrees Fahrenheit on the warm end and 75 degrees Fahrenheit on the cool end. Night temps should drop to near 80 degrees Fahrenheit on the warm end and close to 70 degrees Fahrenheit on the cool end. This can be achieved with heat lamps, ceramic heat emitters, heating pads and even incandescent bulbs. Bulbs and heat emitters should not be where the snake can ever come in contact with them as severe burns will result. Make sure you use some sort of thermostat to control the temps and check them often with a temp gun or another thermometer to monitor for accuracy. I prefer to use a combination of an on/off thermostat set to a higher temp as a fail-safe backup to a proportional thermostat that allows a preset night drop for optimum temperature control.

To verify you have the temps that your snake prefers, you should see the pet using both sides of the habitat to thermoregulate. If they are spending all the time on the cool end or the warm end, you need to make the appropiate adjustment after you verify the captive has secure hiding places on both ends.

Humidity

Humidity requirements are low for Bull Snakes; however, they should have a water bowl large enough to soak in if desired. Humidity in the 30% to 40% range is about right when the snake is not in shed. Raise the humidty to 40% to 50% while they are in shed to insure a complete shed process. If you notice your Bull Snake soaking in its water dish, verify that the humidity is correct. They may be telling you something. Keeping the humidity above 50% can lead to various health issues such as respiratory infections and blisters on the body of the snake.

Lighting

As with most snakes, just room lighting will suffice for them. I prefer to mimic as closely as possible the natural light cycles by using wide spectrum florescent lights connected to a timer that follows the sunrise and sunset times. Leviton and GE both produce timers that can follow this yearly cycle and can be found at Home Depot and Lowes.

Feeding

The use of frozen/thawed feeders is preferred for the safety of your snake. Live prey can bite your pet, causing a severe injury and rats in particular have been known to turn on and kill the snake. Captive bred snakes are usually already feeding on frozen/thawed and is another reason get your pet from a breeder and to leave the wild populations alone. It will be in your best interest to switch your pet to rats as soon as possible and never go back to mice. Waiting to make this change can result in an adult that you have to feed 5 or 6 large mice at a time. You will want the prey item to be around that same diameter as the snake at its largest point. Do not feed prey items that are more than 1 1/2 times the snakes girth as it can cause regurgitation. Newborns will feed every 4 to 5 days. As snake matures the feeding should be changed to once a week or two. Do not power feed these guys. They can be voracious feeders and easily be overfed. Heart disease is just as devastating to reptiles as it is to other animals. Some snakes will go off feed at certain times of the year. If that happens, just keep offering food once a week until normal feeding patterns resume. Monitor the snake’s body condition and get the snake to your veterinarian if weight loss is evident.

Find a feeding routine and stick to it. If you choose to feed in the vivarium, use tongs or hemostats to offer the prey item. They catch on quickly as to when to expect food and when not to. This will help to prevent feeding response bites when removing the captive from its enclosure. I offer the prey item on a paper plate to keep the prey item free of substrate to avoid any issues with compaction.

Handling snakes after they have fed can lead to regurgitation. Let them rest for at least 24 to 48 hours after feeding before handling again. Also, handling right before feeding can cause stress that affects a snake’s interest in the prey item.

Water

Fresh water should always be provided. Use dechlorinated or natural spring water. You can buy treatments to remove the chlorine or leave the water out for about 24 hours to let the harmful chemicals evaporate. The water bowl should be large enough for the snake to curl up in if desired.

Shedding

Shedding occurs more often in young, fast-growing snakes than it does in older, mature ones. By keeping an eye on the clarity of your snake’s eyes you will notice a blue tinge in their eyes and a dulling of the body color when it is starting to go into a shed cycle. At this point you should raise the humidity to in the 40% to 50% range to insure a complete shed. The eyes will then turn a milky, blue color in a few days. Snakes cannot see very well at this point and are likely to be more defensive and refuse food. This “opaque” stage of the process will last several days. Once the eyes clear up, the snake will shed in a few days. A rough surface to assist with the shedding process should be provided. Remove the shed skin as soon as possible and check to make sure the shed is complete. Of particular importance are the eye caps. Any remaining shed can cause health issues. You should take your pet to a qualified vet if the shed is not complete and you are not experienced in how to handle this. Make sure you return the humidity to its previous levels.

Handling

As a whole, Bull Snakes do not seem to appreciate being held. They tend to be actively moving around while being held. That being said, frequent handling when young will make them more calm and less flighty when being handled on down the road. Confidence is a must when handling these snakes. This is the main reason they are often considered to be not for a first time snake owner. They are well known for being hissers and tail rattlers; however, this is usually a bluff. This display is just their natural response to what is perceived by the snake as a possible threat to their safety. Again, each snake is an individual and there are always exceptions to the rule.

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