Corn Snakes

Description and Background

The Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttatus guttatus), not a repetition error, is a North American species of rat snakes and it kills its prey by restriction. The name "corn snake" comes from hundreds of years ago when farmers would store their harvested corn in cabins and rats and mice would enter to feed on it. Then the snakes would come wait in the corn to then eat the rodents that came to feast on it. Corn snakes mainly live in the southeastern United States and have a pretty docile nature. They lack venom and help control rodent populations that ruin crop fields. Adult corn snakes normally get between 4 - 6 feet in length and have a very wide variety of colors and patterns. They live around 6 - 8 years in the wild but have been known to exceed 23 years in captivity.  Wild corn snakes prefer habitats like overgrown fields, trees, and even abandoned or seldom-used buildings or farms, from sea-level all the way up to 6,000 feet. In colder regions, the snakes hibernate for the winter months and will come back out when it's sunny so they can properly thermo-regulate. Due to all of these characteristics, corn snakes make a very good beginner snake in the pet trade.

Housing

Corn snakes are not very active, therefore a large enclosure is not necessary. A medium sized enclosure (30 gallon aquarium) is a great size to hold a single adult corn snake. Younger and smaller corn snakes will require a smaller enclosure of course. A good rule of thumb for a suitable sized enclosure for your snake is it should be about 1 square foot of floor space per 1 foot of snake and should also be about 1/3 of the snake’s length for the height. Since corn snakes are great escape artists, a tight fitting lid or clamps should be used to prevent the snake from breaking free. 


Temperature, Heating, Lighting

The ambient temperature in a corn snakes tank should be around 78 ºF (25 ºC), with basking spots between 85 - 88 ºF (29 - 31 ºC). The night time temperatures can drop down to the mid 70s with the basking spot being just slightly higher. The basking spot can easily be heated by a basking heat bulb. This isn't necessary since you can use a heat pad, but the light will make your snake more active and come out more often. If you would like to have a heat source on 24 hours a day then you must use either a heat pad or a red light. No special UVB lighting is needed for a corn snake, but that does not mean it may not help. Snakes get everything they need from their food so the UVB lighting will not help them in that aspect. It will however help to mimic natural day/night cycles which will also help to stimulate your snake. In addition to that, it will bring out the best colors in your snake.

Humidity

Humidity is not normally a problem with corn snakes considering they require low humidity levels. It should be kept around 45% at all times. This is a typical household humidity level so no extra misting is needed. If you live in a somewhat dry area, or you notice improper sheds with your snake, then you should mist about twice a week. This will help to raise humidity levels just enough to hydrate your snake and keep his sheds regular.

Substrate

There are a few suitable types of substrate that are commonly used for snakes. One of the top choices for snakes is chipped aspen. This is a very good choice since they are pretty sterile and are dust free. The next choice, and what most recommend, are aspen shavings. They are slightly different than chipped aspen because they hold better when snakes tunnel and tend to hold humidity a little better. Never use cedar for a substrate! This will kill your snake because cedar is deadly to all snakes so never use this!


Diet and Feeding

A corn snake should be given an appropriately sized mouse or rat every 7 - 10 days. They will readily accept more food, but try not to give them more than 1 mouse a week. This will give them time to digest and rest before going into feeding mode again. Rats are nutritionally better so when your corn snake gets large enough, try to switch over to rats if you can. Also, try to feed frozen prey items because then there will be no chance of your snake becoming the meal. This happens more often than not and should be avoided if possible. 

 

Water

Water is a huge deal when it comes to snakes. There should absolutely always be water present in a snake’s enclosure. The bowl should be large enough to allow your snake to comfortably soak in. This doesn't mean you need an extremely large bowl, but just a decent sized one. The water should be checked and changed daily if it gets low or contaminated.


Shedding

There are 3 main signals to indicate that your corn snake is about to shed its skin. The first indicator is that the belly of your snake will start to turn pink. The next signal is that the color of your snake will begin to dull quite a bit. The last way to tell if your snake is about to shed is the fact that its eyes will turn a milky white color. After a few days the snake's eyes should clear up and when they do, you should expect to see it shed within the next day or two. Depending on how old your snake is, it will shed every 4 - 6 weeks. Corn snakes normally do not have problems with shedding. This is due to the fact that they do not need high humidity. If your snake does however have a partial shed, soak it in warm water for 1 - 2 hours and then the remaining skin should be easily removed. Important spots to check on your corn snake to ensure proper shedding is the tip of its tail and its eye caps. If you have improper shedding multiple times, there are a few things you can do to stop this. Moving the water dish under the light will increase evaporation and also the humidity. Also, soaking the snake before it actually sheds will help the dead skin come off much easier. The last thing you could try is to cut off more ventilation to retain the humidity in the tank.

Handling Corn Snakes

Corn snakes are a very easy snake to handle because they are pretty docile and tame. When handling you want to make sure you do not hold your snake too tightly and let them move through your fingers as they wish. Also, make sure you do not hold them for longer periods of time every day. Even though they very rarely bite, excessive holding will stress out your snake which can cause them to lash out. That being said, holding your snake 20 - 30 minutes a day will be enough to tame any corn snake you own.


Cleaning

Cleaning a corn snakes enclosure is relatively easy and should only happen about every month or so. Since the snakes only eat about once every 5 - 7 days, they defecate less often, meaning less time having to keep their cage clean. Spot cleaning should be done every week or whenever it is necessary. Then every 5 - 6 weeks you should remove everything from the enclosure and clean it with a reptile safe product to ensure no bacteria is building up. Completely dry everything before putting it back into the enclosure and add new substrate. 

Health

Corn snakes are very hardy animals and rarely become ill if properly cared for, but there are a few common illnesses that you may come across.


Ectoparasites: These are parasites that live outside the body. They are typically ticks and mites, which are fairly easy to get rid of. For the tick, just apply a small amount of vaseline or alcohol and pull the tick off. For mites, just attach a small piece of fly paper (No pest strip) in the cage for about 3 days which will hopefully remove any mites.


Endoparasites: These are parasites (worms) found inside your snake. Ridding your snake of any worms is as easy as bringing a fecal sample to the veterinarian and they will give you an appropriate treatment.


Mouth Rot: This disease is normally caused by stress or mouth injuries. It is noticeable because your snake will have white gunk all along its mouth. To treat this, you must use cotton swabs to clean the mouth and then rinse it off with hydrogen peroxide. Continue everyday until mouth rot has disappeared, normally in 1-2 weeks.


Respiratory Infection: This occurs when the snake is in an enclosure with too low of a temperature or humidity. You may see your snake wheezing, mouth gaping, have nasal discharge, or no appetite. Turn up the heat or increase humidity and if the symptoms continue, call your vet. Your snake may need antibiotics.


Stomach Rot: This is when the snake lives in a dirty cage. The stomach will turn red or brown and get bubbles on the scales. Take your snake to the vet immediately to ensure proper treatment.


Breeding Corn Snakes

First things first, the age of the snake is the most important thing to consider before breeding. A male should be at least 2 years old, and the female should be 3 years old at the earliest. The next most important thing is to make sure you actually have a female and a male. Trying to breed 2 snakes that you believe are a male and female but actually turn out to be 2 males or 2 females, will be a waste of time and very upsetting. To be sure of the sex, you can either probe the snakes yourself or take them to a vet if you are inexperienced. 

The next step once you have your male and female, or multiple pairs, is to replicate a "cooling" period for about 3 months. Temperatures at all times should be between 50 - 55 ºF (10 - 13 ºC). No belly heat should be added in the cage as well. Also, removing the substrate will help with keeping the temperatures much cooler in the cage. You should greatly reduce the amount of light given to them during this period. It should not be completely dark, but no light other than the outdoor light should be available.

After 3 months you may now return the cage to its normal temperatures and bring the belly heat and substrate back. At this point, you should make sure that all the males have shed their skin. Once they shed their skin, approximately 2 weeks later all the females will shed their skin. During this time you should be feeding all of the snakes heavily to put their weight on just before the breeding process takes place. After this, you will add your female to the male’s cage or vice versa, doesn't seem to matter. Just make sure you add one snake to the others cage until you are absolutely certain that your female is gravid. If you remove it too soon, thinking it is gravid but it is not, then you just lost that snake's eggs for the year. It will not hurt the snake if you keep it in a male’s cage even though it is gravid. You can tell a female is gravid just by the fact that it looks as if the snake just ate one of the largest meals in its life. This only lasts about a day or two, so you may miss it but it is hard to catch anyway. Don't worry about seeing it though, as long as you put your snakes together during these times, then everything should go very smoothly. 

After about 3 months of rewarming their cages, the females will begin to lay, but this is not always accurate. Snakes have been known to take up to 5 months to lay their eggs after rewarming up. THAT'S OKAY! As long as they still lay their eggs, you should be okay. Not all snakes will become gravid at the same time. Make sure that there is a small box filled with damp sphagnum moss so that your snake can lay her eggs in there. Once the eggs have been laid, carefully remove her from around her eggs and put the eggs in a small container filled with damp vermiculite. It's important to wash the female after you remove her from her eggs that way she will forget about them and immediately resume feeding. Hatching the eggs is done best at temperatures between 78 - 80 ºF (26 - 27 ºC) but variations have been done with much success.

Sex Determination

A way to guarantee the gender of your snake is to do a cloacal probing or popping test. For the probing, you or a vet will insert a tiny metal probe into the cloaca and see how far it goes in. It will go further for males, typically 6 - 8 scales. For the females it will go in only around 2 - 3 scales. For the popping, this must be done with extreme caution because it has a chance of hurting the snake. You or a vet will press on either side of the cloaca and see where the male genitalia pops out.

Baby Corn Snake Care

Baby corn snake care is identical to the adult corn snake care, with a few exceptions. The main difference is that the enclosure must be much smaller and possibly even darker because the baby snakes would like to hide much more often than an adult would. Another difference would be to choose a smaller mouse or rat size. Adult mice would not be appropriate to feed a 3 week old hatchling, therefore you want to change the size of the food. A major thing to pay attention to for all hatchlings and baby snakes is to make sure they properly shed each and every time. An improper shed could cause problems for the future and even change the behavior the snake. Keeping the humidity high, a stable temperature, and constant food will help to ensure a nice clean shed for your baby.


Recommended Item Checklist

Glass aquarium

Screen top

Cage clips

Ceramic dome fixture (only if using light bulb)

50 watt heat bulb or heat pad

UVB light strip (Not needed)

Aspen shavings

Hides

Water bowl

Spray bottle

Chlorhexidine

Frozen mice/rats

Scooper

Scale to weigh them

Digital Thermometer

Hydrometer

Probe set (If breeding)