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Keeping Snakes: FAQ

By: Dr Gareth Evans - Updated: 3 Apr 2013 | comments*Discuss
Snakes Poisonous Pythons Boas Eyes

Snake keeping is an increasingly popular hobby and one which generates loads of questions, especially amongst those who are just starting out – and their friends and relations too! Here are the answers to a few of the ones which seem to be the most commonly asked. There are plenty of others, of course, but that’s half the fun of keeping any animal – no matter how long you’ve been doing it, you never really know it all!

You Want To Keep Snakes! But They’re Poisonous, Aren’t They?”

Well some of them are, certainly, but the facts may surprise you. Around a third of the world’s 2,700 or so species of snakes have some kind of poison, but even so, only a very small number of these are considered to pose a serious threat to people.

In the warmer parts of the world you might just come across something harmful, but even then unless you’re actually hunting for snakes – or just very unlucky – it’s not that common. In British pets shops, rest assured, you won’t be coming home with anything with a lethal bite. Owning poisonous snakes in the UK requires a licence and there’s a whole mountain of conditions and inspections to be gone through before it’s granted – as you’d expect.

Well OK, But Pythons Can Still Crush You To Death, Can’t They?

Actually, no. Pythons – and boas too – are constrictors, they kill their prey by holding it so tight that it can’t breathe, not crushing it – and the size of python that could do that to an adult would need a tank rather larger than the average home would be able to accommodate!

That said, obviously children shouldn’t be left unsupervised around big constrictors, but then they shouldn’t be left alone with small ones – or pet hamsters either, for that matter.

Will I Have To Feed My Pet Live Food?

Apart from a few specialist feeders, such as the Egg-Eating Snake (Dasypeltis), in the wild, snakes take living prey, but many – especially captive bred ones – will happily accept pre-killed rodents or day-old chicks, depending on their size.

My Snake Never Seems To Blink. Is It Ill?

It doesn’t because it simply can’t. Snakes have no eyelids, their eyes being protected instead by a single transparent scale – which you can see very clearly in a shed skin. This inability to shut their eyes is one of the reasons why providing them hiding places and having separate heating and lighting systems in your tank is so important.

Is It True Snakes Smell With Their Tongues?

Yes, it is. The forked tongue picks up scent molecules from the air – just like a dog does when it sniffs – and then transfers them to a special spot inside the roof of its mouth, known as the Jacobson’s Organ, and it “smells” things there. This gives snakes a very good sense of smell – allowing them to sniff out water or track prey.

I’d Really Like To Breed Snakes. Is It Difficult?

Captive breeding is definitely something to be encouraged – not least because it removes the need for wild-caught specimens and helps conserve snake species. It’s difficult to make too many generalisations about how hard it is to get your own to breed – some kinds of snakes such as the King Snakes and their relatives breed well in captivity, while others are more difficult.

If you want to try to breed some youngsters, you’ll need to do some careful research about the particular snake species to make sure you can provide all the right conditions. Many snakes benefit from having the day length and temperature in their tanks adjusted to mimic their natural breeding season. If you do get your animals to mate successfully and produce eggs, you’ll also have to be well-informed about incubation needs too – and then keep your fingers crossed!

Do All Snakes Lay Eggs?

Most do, but in some species – like our own native Adder (Vipera berus) – the females incubate their young inside their bodies and give birth to live offspring.

I Bought My First Snake A Few Weeks Ago. Now It’s Started To Look Really Dull, Its Eyes Have Gone All Milky And It’s Stopped Eating – Is It Sickening For Something?

It sounds like it’s about to shed its skin. Make sure it has a bowl of water big enough for it to soak in – it helps soften the old skin – and don’t worry. Keep an eye on it, of course, and if it doesn’t shed shortly, then have a word with your vet; you should soon be treated to seeing your new snake looking at its brightest and glossiest in its brand new skin.

Snakes are some of the most rewarding of exotic animals to keep, not least because there’s always something new to find out about these truly fascinating reptiles.

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