7 things you should know before getting a kingsnake
Are you looking for a small, harmless, cute, but also gorgeous and dangerous-looking snake? Kingsnakes offer all that and come with a badass name too. There are dozens of color variations with many of them looking exactly like pit vipers, copperheads, scarlet snakes, pigmy rattlers, and other beauties.
What are the key characteristics that make kingsnakes special?
Kingsnakes are one of several pet snake species that are ideal for new snake pet owners. Medium in size, nonvenomous, and stunning to look at, they are lively and social too. Of course, good tap and hook training are still recommended but with the right care and socialization, kingsnakes can make for phenomenal pets.
The 7 things you should know before getting a kingsnake
1. Kingsnakes are nonvenomous, docile, and generally harmless even if they bite you
Kingsnakes are one of the safest pet snake types you can get. With the proper training they can easily learn to tolerate and enjoy being picked up and petted.
Additionally, even if you mess up and irritate your kingsnake to the point of it biting you, these snakes’ bites are not only nonvenomous but also generally harmless. Unlike the bite of a larger python which can hurt a lot, you should usually be able to shrug off a pinch from a kingsnake.
Of course, you’d still want to not get bit at all so proper training and socialization are a must. Target training, for example, is a good thing to do with more bitey snakes as you don’t want them to mistake your thumb for a baby mouse when you handle them. Here’s a good target training instructional video by Reptiles and Research.
2. There are 45 different kinds of kingsnakes, giving you plenty of choices
Most kingsnake varieties are beautiful to look at which is a big reason why they are so popular. 24 of the 45 different kinds fall in the “milk snake” subspecies which are generally smaller but just as beautiful.
A lot of the kingsnake and milk snake variations look like venomous snakes such as the pit vipers or the pigmy rattler which is why kingsnakes in the wild are killed at a very high rate.
Aren’t kingsnakes rattling snakes themselves?
Yes, kingsnake can rattle their tails too, hence why a lot of people are scared of them. They are still nonvenomous, however, and the rattling is just a harmless defense mechanism.
3. This is a great beginners’ snake as it’s very easy to take care of
Kingsnakes are relatively small so they don’t require too much space. A kingsnake will rarely grow above 1.5 meters (60 inches) with most subspecies such as milk snakes stay in the ~60cm (24 inches) range. This means that they are both easy to handle and easy to house.
How big of a tank does such a snake require?
The rule of thumb for snake tanks is that they should be as wide as the snake’s length and twice as long. So, for an especially large 1.5-meter kingsnake you’d want a 3m x 1.5m tank or a 60-gallon tank. These are physically active snakes so they like to move around.
Keep in mind that kingsnakes like to climb even though they are not arboreal so plan your tank three-dimensionally and add some stuff for the snake to climb on.
Aside from the housing situation, kingsnakes also don’t need too much extra lighting as they are nocturnal. That, plus the easy training and handling makes kingsnakes great for beginners.
4. Kingsnakes need to be fed every week
Unlike certain bigger snakes that can be fed once every few weeks, even an adult kingsnake has to eat at least once per week. Younger kingsnakes should be fed every 3-4 days and even a fully adult kingsnake that’s underfed (you can see its backbone or ribs, it’s not rounded enough) should eat twice a week.
This is ok for most people but it creates issues if you want to travel for more than several days as you’d have to find someone who can feed your snake for you. Getting in touch with fellow snake owners in your community is usually the smartest way to go about it.
What does a kingsnake eat?
As with most snakes, you should feed your kingsnake mice or baby rats. The size of the meal is easy to judge – the body of the rodent has to be as long as the snake Is wide in its widest part (not counting the width of the snake’s head).
Live or dead prey?
Some people like feeding their snakes live mice. The reason is either for the love of the sport or cause “it’s natural”. We definitely recommend pre-killing your snake’s prey or even keeping it in the freezer and thawing it before mealtime. There are several reasons for that:
Feeding your snake live prey stimulates her hunting instinct toward warm-blooded creatures and makes the animal more likely to bite you.
Even a small mouse can harm your snake if it’s alive by scratching the reptile’s scales, eyes, etc.
Keeping your snake’s food frozen is much easier and more manageable in the long run.
All in all, kingsnakes are easy to feed and have a simple and economic diet.
5. Tap and hook handling training are still smart even for such a harmless snake
Tap and hook training are simple but crucial parts of owning a snake. Even calmer species like most kingsnakes should be thought that contact with a hook means socialization and not food – this way you can rest assured that the snake won’t attack. This instructional video by Dbcb Exotics is a good starting point for getting into tap and hook training.
6. These snakes are escape artists – make sure their confinement is 100% secure
Kingsnakes are a terrestrial and not an arboreal species but they are still good climbers. They are also quite active, especially at night, and they like to explore. All these combined means that your kingsnake terrarium must be 100% secure if you don’t want your kingsnake to escape its tank in the middle of the night. This is especially important if you have kids or small pets.
Another thing to keep in mind is that kingsnakes can squeeze through holes that can look impossibly small. It’s common for people used to other similarly-sized snake species to reuse old terrariums and to get surprised by their new kingsnakes escaping through holes the previous inhabitant of the tank couldn’t get through.
7. Keep your king snake alone in its cage for it might eat its roommate
Kingsnakes and even smaller milk snakes should be kept alone in their tanks as they can often try to fight, kill, and eat the snake they are kept together with. It’s both a gruesome and an unfortunate sight if you’re fond of both snakes so invest in separate confinements if you want to look after more than one snake.
If you want to see a video of a kingsnake being fed a different snake, here’s a good video by Reptiles and Research.
How to prepare for getting a kingsnake?
The fact that kingsnakes are easy to take care of doesn’t mean that there aren’t quite a few things you’d need to get:
An average tank of 30-40 gallons for a milk snake or a 60-gallon tank for a larger kingsnake. The tank should be as wide as the snake is long and twice as long itself.
A standard mercury vapor bulb for basking heat placed at one end of the tank. The basking temperature you should aim for is 32-35°C (90-95°F)
A mercury vapor bulb or something similar can be a nice source of UVA/UVB light. Kingsnakes are nocturnal so they don’t need this as much as other snakes but it’s still beneficial. A good option is a 22” forest T5 HO fluorescent UVB bulb.
You need a thermometer to maintain the right temperature for a kingsnake - 24-27°C (75-80°F) on the cool side of the tank and 29-32°C (85-90°F) on the warm side
Get a good hygrometer to measures the tank’s humidity. Kingsnakes are tolerant in that regard and can thrive anywhere between 40% and 60% humidity but you still need a hygrometer.
Get enough substrate to carpet the tank with ~3-4”. A good substrate promotes good relative humidity in the tank and also proper hygiene and health for the snake. For a kingsnake, I’d recommend something like Reptichip, Lugarti Natural Reptile Bedding, Zilla Lizard Litter, or Zoo Med Forest Floor.
A heat pad or a ceramic heat emitter is a good source of additional heat for your kingsnake. Alternatively, you can get a second white heat bulb for the tank.
Get a durable and large water bowl for the snake to soak in. Ceramic is a good material for this – just remember to clean it regularly as snakes often defecate in their water.
All snakes can benefit from a humidity hide or a humidity box and kingsnakes are no exception. The goal of the humidity box is to give your snake an alternative place in the tank with a higher humidity they can hide in when they want to. Here’s a good video by Snake Discovery on making a good humidity box.