Keeping Rat Snakes
All the rat snakes listed below used to belong to a Super Genus Elaphe, consisting of around 40 species of snake. The snakes belonging to the genus Elaphe, have recently been broken up and many snake species have been reclassified into several new genera. This has no effect on the snakes biology or captive care. I therefore have omitted scientific names from this article.
North American Rat Snakes
North America is home to several rat snake species of medium to large size and as their name suggests these snakes feed mainly on rodents. The care of North American Rat Snakes is very simple and these snakes make hardy long lived pets. My first snake was a Yellow Rat Snake who is now thirteen years old and is still going strong.
General Care of North American Rat Snakes
These snakes can reach nearly 2m in length and need larger cages than smaller species such as corn snakes. The minimum size cage for an adult should be 1m x 45cm x 45cm . The cage must contain a dry substrate such as newspaper or aspen shavings. A water bowl, hide box, plastic plants and driftwood complete the habitat. In South Africa heating is only required in winter or in the event of an unexpected summer cold spell. Provide heat by using a heat pad to create a hot spot in the cage. The hot spot should not exceed 30 degrees C. American Rat snakes feed on rodents their whole lives, hatchlings will take pinkie mice and adults can consume a medium size rat with no problems. These snakes breed well in captivity and finding a captive bred hatchling is not a difficult task, although some species/subspecies are easier to find than others. These snakes vary in temperament but can be tamed if they are handled on a regular basis, however some individuals will remain aggressive no matter how often they are handled.
Yellow Rat Snake
Like all American rat snakes this snake starts off life as a 30cm long grey snake with darker blotches on the back. The adults go through a colour change at around 1 year of age and transform into a yellow snake with two dark brown lines on its sides, dark brown saddles on the back may be visible . Also called Yellow Chicken Snakes by farmers due to this rat snakes tendency to raid chicken coups where an adult Yellow Rat Snake will eat several chicks and even eggs. Yellow Rat Snakes are good climbers and are often found in trees in the wild. Captive Yellow Rat Snakes also enjoy climbing and branches are a good addition to this snakes cage.
Grey Rat Snake
This rat snake retains its juvenile colouration and is not as popular as other North American Rat Snakes due to its bland grey colour. This is a shame as these snakes are easy to keep and are a perfect snake for novice keepers. These snakes can reach 2 in length but are usually smaller with adults averaging 1.5m in length. This snake has a good temperament and can be handled easily.
Black Rat Snake
The adult colour of this snake is black with a white chin, juveniles are grey with dark saddles on the back. This is an easy snake to take care of and the captive conditions are the same as other American Rat Snakes. This snake is a large robust species and is one of North Americas largest non venomous snakes, potentially reaching over 2m in length, requiring a spacious and secure cage. Some individuals may rub their snout against the glass if their cage is too small. This can lead to mouth injury and in severe cases bacterial mouth infections . This snake is captive bred in large numbers and two different albino morphs are available.
Texas Rat Snake
This snake has a dark grey, yellowish or pinkish background colouration obscured by black blotches and dark speckles. This snake can grow to 1.8m-2m in length. This snake has a reputation for being very aggressive and difficult to tame. A leucistic morph, where all pigment is missing, producing a pure white snake with greyish blue eyes is available. Many leucistic Texas Rat Snakes have popping out eyes which is a sign of inbreeding depression and individuals with this trait should not be used for breeding purposes. Scaleless Rat Snakes are sometimes seen. This random genetic mutation poses multiple health problems for the snake and it is unethical to selectively breed scaleless snakes to sell for a huge profit as a new “morph”.
Everglades Rat Snake
This snake is very similar to the Yellow Rat Snake in most respects with the exception of having an orange background colour. Hatchlings of this subspecies can be reluctant to feed on pinkies due to their small size. The most stunning individuals of this subspecies are pure orange in colour with no dark lines or blotches and are highly sought after by snake enthusiasts. In the USA this rare colour form occurs naturally in parts of Florida. Finding a pure orange Everglades Rat Snake is often the main reason that American snake lovers organise herping trips to the Florida Everglades.
European Rat Snakes
There is a great diversity of European Rat snake species that are suitable to keep in captivity. However there is a lack of interest in keeping and breeding these snakes and unfortunately relatively few species are available.
General Care for European Rat Snakes
There are a several species of rat snake living in the Mediterranean and Southern parts of Europe including: Italy, Spain, Sicily and surrounding islands. Rat snakes also occur in colder regions of Europe but these species tend to be smaller and more difficult to care for than their larger cousins from warmer regions. These can be big snakes that require a large cage with a dry substrate such as newspaper or aspen shavings. Include a hide box, water bowl and cage decorations to provide visual barriers. As they come from Europe, a heat pad is only necessary to heat the snakes during winter in South Africa. These snakes will feed readily on mice or rats. A cage measuring 1m x 45cm x 45cm is required for a single adult. These snakes would make a nice substitute to one of the larger North American Rat Snake species such as the Texas Rat Snake or Black Rat Snake.
Russian Rat Snake
This is a large heavily built rat snake that grows to a maximum length of 1.5m. It is black in colouration with narrow white, cream or yellow cross-bands. This snake originates from Eastern Siberia and a subspecies, the South Amur Rat Snake inhabits portions of China, Korea and Mongolia. All these regions are relatively cool and therefore the Russian Rat Snake requires a maximum temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. A winter cooling period of three months at a temperature of 10-12 degrees is needed for breeding to take place. Russian Rat Snakes which are not intended for breeding do not need this winter cooling period and can be heated with a low wattage heat pad during winter to keep them active
Named after the Greek God of medicine and healing, whose symbol includes a snake coiled around a staff. This a slender species growing to 1.5m-2m. It is olive brown with white speckles and has a brown band around the neck. Juveniles are more brightly coloured than adults. Melanistic specimens have been reported. This snake is native to Central and Southern Europe but is absent in most of Spain and Portugal. These snakes make good captives but please note that these snakes are not a suitable species for a rack system, especially when adults, due to large size and active nature.
Four Lined Snake
This is a large and bulky rat snake that can exceed 2m in length. It has strongly keeled scales giving it a rough appearance and feel. The Four Lined Snake gets its name from the four dark stripes running along the body. A second dark stripe runs from the eye along the jaw. This Rat Snake is native to Italy, the Balkans and into Central Asia. There is a smaller subspecies that is found on certain Greek Islands. This large snake has thick bodied hatchlings that can start out at nearly half a meter in length.
This large rat snake is easy to care for but can be aggressive. It can reach 1.5m in length and unlike the Four Lined Snake has smooth scales. It is a brown snake with a pair of dark stripes running down the back. Hatchlings are yellow with dark crossbars forming a ladder pattern. Juveniles may be mistaken for a viper if seen amongst foliage or between rocks. This snake is native to Spain, Portugal and S W France. This snake is not common in private collections and no selectively bred colour morphs are available.
Asian Rat Snakes
General Care of Asian Rat Snakes
Asia has an abundance of rat snake species. Some tropical species are large and active, requiring bigger cages than their Western Hemisphere relatives, at least 1.2 m in length x 60cm x 60cm for an adult. Tropical Asian Rat Snakes require a warmer temperature and a higher humidity than American and European rat snakes from dry temperate regions. A hide box filled with moist sphagnum moss is beneficial. A hot spot of 30-32 degrees C must be provided using a heat pad or basking light. Asia is a large continent which has multiple habitat types and climates, meaning that some rat snake species will require cooler temperatures and lower humidity levels. Most Asian Rat Snakes will feed on rodents of the appropriate size.
A group of rat snakes consisting of the Taiwanese Rat Snake, Ridley’s Rat Snake, Vietnamese Blue Beauty Snake and a few rarely seen species. These snakes are large and active. The Taiwanese Rat Snake can grow to nearly 3m in length and is a giant amongst colubrid snakes, the other species mentioned can reach 2m in length. These snakes can be difficult to handle due to their tendency to want to explore areas outside the safety and comfort of your hands, basically they don’t stop moving while you are trying to handle them. Beauty Snake hatchlings dwarf their Western Hemisphere cousins in size and usually will feed on fuzzy mice as their first meal. Feed these active snakes on a weekly basis.
Mandarin Rat Snake
The Mandarin Rat Snake comes from China and other neighbouring South East Asian Countries. The Mandarin Rat Snake is a small docile species that prefers to hide rather than bite. This 1m long snake has a grey background colour with yellow and black markings along its back and cannot be mistaken for any other Asian rat snake species. These snakes require a high humidity and a relatively low cage temperature of 20-25 degrees Celsius. Using bark chips or coconut mulch as a substrate will maintain humidity, even adults prefer pinkies or fuzzies over adult mice. Only buy captive bred Mandarin Rat Snakes as wild caught individuals have great difficulty adapting to captivity and often perish due to stress, dehydration, parasites and refusal to feed.
Radiated Rat Snake
The Radiated Rat Snake is a pretty rat snake species that can grow to an adult length of 1.5m-2.3m. Its natural range encompasses the following countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam. Wild Caught Radiated Rat Snakes from these countries will be riddled with external and internal parasites and take time to adapt to captivity often being shy, nervous and very aggressive and often remaining this way. Captive bred individuals do far better in captivity and two different albino morphs of this Rat Snake have been selectively bred by snake keepers and are highly sought after in the hobby. This snakes care is similar to Beauty Snakes in regards to temperature and humidity.
Rat Snakes are some of the most commonly kept snakes in captivity and many snake keepers started out with one of the rat snake species listed above. The advantage rat snakes have over the now massively popular Ball Pythons is the number of different species that can be kept as opposed to the huge number of morphs of the same species. Add some variety to your snake collection and buy a rat snake at the next reptile expo, you will not be disappointed.