Attention all herpetologists!
January 9, 2011 9:12 AM   Subscribe

Question for snake enthusiasts!

My partner and I are considering getting a snake as a pet. I love reptiles, and have done a bit of research into this over the past few years but I was never able to justify the initial financial investment. If I were to get such a pet, I would want to do it properly (ie. I don't want to cheap out). In the next several months we will be better able to make that investment, so I have questions for you, my darling mefites!

- I understand that corn snakes and ball pythons are recommended as beginner snakes. What are the pros and cons of each? Is there something else you'd recommend?

- We have two cats. We would make every effort to keep them out of the room the snake is kept in. Is this irresponsible? Might contact with the cats (through the terrarium wall, of course) stress out the snake?

- On a similar note, how ethical is it to keep an animal like this in captivity? Do they get depressed, or require stimulation? I've only ever had mammalian pets who have generally been happy as long as they have companionship, so I'm not sure if reptiles 'think' differently. I wouldn't want to be responsible for a suicidally depressed snake.

- Finally, are there any general resources you can direct me to?

For the record, we understand that a snake is a long-term commitment, and we are not squeamish about feeding it. There is a reputable reptile-only store with very knowledgeable staff about 45 minutes from where we live, and we would probably go there if/when we decide to get it.

Thanks so much, everyone :)
posted by torisaur to Pets & Animals (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: To answer your questions in order, corn snakes and ball pythons are both pretty mellow and low maintenance; they're fairly healthy and easy to handle, as are rosy boas.

Keeping the cats out of the room where the snakes are kept is definitely advisable, and contact with the cats may or may not be stressful to the snake, although as long as you can keep the cats off the top of the terrarium, the snake will probably be fine.

I don't think it's unethical to keep snakes, and they don't tend to be a species that requires a lot of stimulation. Of the many types of good reptile pet, they're probably the most mellow, the most interested in just chilling out and sleeping. If anything, they can be on the boring side, whereas turtles are sort of bumbling and cute and lizards can range from silly hams to amusingly grouchy curmudgeons. The foreseeable problem with your question is that even in the wild, a snake's behavior could be mistaken for depression; "Come out and play," call his friends, but the snake replies, "No man, I just want to sleep on this rock for about 10 hours, but you guys go ahead without me."
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:33 AM on January 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

My son has had a California King Snake in his room for about 5 years. They aren't so much pets as decorative accessories that you have to feed once a week or so. I don't mean that in a bad way, just that you shouldn't expect to have the normal "pet" relationship with a snake that you might with a dog, cat, or whatever.

IMO, snakes barely think at all. They are pretty much instinct driven, with a nervous system not that much more advanced than that of an insect. As long as the terrarium is large enough to not stress them physically, and allow for some temperature variation so they can regulate their body temp, you keep the living quarters clean, and you keep them fed, I think they are about as happy as a snake is going to be. I would go with a snake raised on frozen rodents. Easier on you, and quite frankly, easier on the snake. Captivity doesn't really provide optimum hunting grounds, and being confined in a small area gives a scared rodent the chance to do some damage to your snake.

But they are fascinating creatures - especially at feeding time. And don't discount the educational aspect of learning to respect and even like reptiles. A lot of people have a very irrational fear of snakes. Anything you can do to help negate that by owning one is a net pus for snakes.
posted by COD at 11:21 AM on January 9, 2011

Husband has owned both corn snakes and a ball python. In his experience, corn snakes are much more active, and ball pythons just sort of curl up in a ball. The ball python ended up being not very rewarding as a pet, but the corn snakes would roam around the terrarium all the time. YMMV, of course.
posted by lvanshima at 11:50 AM on January 9, 2011

Best answer: Ball pythons can be a bit of a crap shoot in that if you buy one that was farmed, rather than captive-bred, it may not be as easy to get feeding. Ball pythons feed on gerboas in the wild and don't necessarily recognize domestic mice and rats as food; captive-bred ones aren't as problematic. If you decide on a ball python, make sure it's feeding. I kept a ball python for a few years; it was a trick to get it feeding (and it was captive-bred: I hatched the eggs myself for the breeder), but after that it was fine. It was, however, extremely shy. A snake to handle but not so much to observe in its cage.

There are no significant issues with corn snakes in general (though individual snakes can, like with any other animal, be another story). In fact, corn snakes are pretty much the ideal pet snake. They don't get too large, they're generally tame and handleable, they're robustly healthy in captivity as a rule, they don't give you much trouble at feeding time, and -- most of all -- they don't cost very much.

In fact, I'd go so far as to argue that your first snake should always be a corn snake. It's my default answer. Sure, you could make a case for other species, but there's usually one or two areas where corn snakes have the advantage. So, when in doubt, and unless you have your heart set on something really specific that's close enough (like you have an irrational fixation on Baird's rat snakes, or are smitten by black pine snakes, or can't get enough of rosy boas -- all of which, by the way, are lovely), go with corn snakes.

Cats and snakes. Since we have always had both, I can speak to this question. Generally speaking, cats get over the novelty of snakes over time -- but then we've been bringing kittens into a home that already had snake cages. In the meantime, will the snakes get stressed? Yes. I have a corn snake and a Baird's rat snake that are the gentlest creatures ever -- in more than a decade, they have never bitten anyone, and they've struck at the cats when they sat next to the cage or on the lid. Snakes know what cats can do -- namely, nom on small animals. I think, however, that concerns about stress in snakes are a bit overstated, especially with corn snakes. An encounter with a cat will not be enough for it to go off its food for months at a time.

Ethical concerns are generally moot: snakes simply aren't that smart. They're not social animals. They don't need attention -- period. In fact, I'd argue that there are more ethical concerns with keeping birds and mammals than there are with keeping reptiles, amphibians or fish -- there's more brain to damage. (Having said that, they're quite a bit more intelligent than an insect. Let's not go overboard here.) I'm vaguely uncomfortable with what happens to the personalities of social animals like parrots, who need company, bonding with people because they have no other option.

General resources. Melissa Kaplan's site is a bit dated by now, but it's still good, I think: here's the snake section. Otherwise, there are a number of books out there on snake care in general and corn snake care in particular; go ahead and read as many of them as you can. I'm serious: read 'em all -- it'll give you a sense of what else is out there, even if you've decided on corn snakes or ball pythons. Barron's and Advanced Vivarium Systems each have lines of pet guides aimed at beginners. (But don't bother with the ones from TFH Publications: they're not that informative.) One specific recommendation I will make is a general guide to snake health: What's Wrong with My Snake? That book you have to own.

Any other questions?
posted by mcwetboy at 1:08 PM on January 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Okay, I'm late to this one, but then, I only just signed up. But this is a question I am qualified to answer, so I shall give my opinions.

Corn snakes and ball pythons are both great. Which would be better for you depends on what you're looking for in a pet snake. Corns are slender, quicker, and less inclined to just hang out with/on you, whereas ball pythons are rather thick snakes, though still small, and tend to be a lot more relaxed. They're good "cuddle-snakes". Some corns will curl up in your pocket or around your neck while you work or watch TV or read, but only one of mine does, and that one only occasionally. They tend to prefer to explore. Both corns and ball pythons come in a variety of color morphs, but corn morphs are cheaper. (And, in my opinion, prettier. But then, I have 5 corns and no ball pythons, so I am a bit biased.) Both species often spend a lot of time hiding, especially during the day. But both species are very docile and easily socialized to enjoy, or at least put up with, being handled.

I obviously don't see any ethical concerns with keeping snakes, as long as you provide them with a proper environment-- appropriately-sized cage, hides, UTH on a thermostat, correct substrate, big enough water bowl, enough cover, things to climb on, et cetera. They don't seem to mind it. I have a couple of corns who seem to actively want to come out and play. They climb into my hand when I reach into the cage, perfectly aware that I am going to take them out. I also have a carpet python who slithers into my sweater or under the covers with me and curls up for an hour or more. Once they start to trust you, you become a warm tree to explore. They seem to enjoy it, but it's true that they don't *need* interaction.

It sounds like you might benefit from more personal experience with various species of snake before you decide what kind is right for you. Are there any herp societies or reptile shows in your area? You can find this stuff easily through google. Either of those will enable you to handle some snakes before you buy one, and get to know the species better.

I would like to put forth the strong suggestion that when you are ready to buy a snake, you find a reputable breeder and purchase from them. Pet stores are notorious in the reptile community for not taking care of their animals, and often not even knowing how to. Not all of them are like that, of course, but many are. And you don't want to get a snake with mites or an upper respiratory tract infection, especially not as your first. Breeders are easy to find, and you can check the Board of Inquiry at to see how other people have reviewed them.

Cats and snakes-- I keep mine separate. I know lots of people who don't. But I prefer to, because I love both my cats and my snakes, and I really kinda hate the idea of one of my babies killing another out of nothing but instinct.

I don't know about resources for ball pythons, but I do know that is an absolutely wonderful site. All of your questions will be answered there. Also, Kathy Love's book on corns is really, really good.

Good luck! If you have any questions at all, feel free to MeMail me-- I can't shut up about snakes, so I might as well tell it to someone who's interested. They're really amazing animals. I think you'll enjoy them a great deal.
posted by Because at 3:19 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, sorry, I missed the part where you said you already knew where you would probably get the snake. If it's a good store, you're definitely in luck! I've never lived in a town where there was a good one, though I've been to a couple I wished I lived near. I still recommend going to an expo, though. They're both educational and fun!
posted by Because at 3:23 AM on January 19, 2011

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