Keeping Milk Snake: 7 Things to Know
Do not be fooled by the bright colors and striking pattern – the milk snake is non-venomous and completely harmless. Belonging to the king snake family, the milk snake ranks high on the top five best pet snakes list. In this article, we will explain why getting a milk snake is a decision you will never regret.
What to consider before getting?
If you are into snakes and thinking about getting a milk snake, these are the basic considerations.
Generally speaking, milk snakes are easy to handle. However, there are few things to keep in mind. First of all, milk snakes are extremely active, quick, and wiggly so you need to make sure you are holding them securely but not too tightly.
Secondly, they have the unusual tendency of diving towards the ground when held or placed on a higher surface. It goes without saying that high falls can result in injuries.
Finally, milk snakes may bite. This is not because of an aggression trait or a defense mechanism but because of their voracious appetites. Namely, if something smells nice (for example, your hands after handling another reptile) it is worth biting. The bite is not dangerous but there might be a few blood drops.
Milk snakes are very easy to take care of. They can fit and thrive in both racks and tanks, require feeding once in two weeks, the water needs to be changed daily, and the bedding or substrate spot cleaner daily and replaced on an as needed basis. All in all, they do not have any specific care requirements.
In terms of hardiness, milk snakes are definitely low-maintenance. All they need is proper enclosure and meeting their basic needs such as food, water, and basking spot. Plus, they are durable and score high in handleability.
Although not as readily available as their smaller corn snake cousins, milk snakes can be classified as reasonably available. The best way of finding a milk snake is through a professional breeder. However, they can also be found on expos and in some pet stores.
5. Upfront costs
Another reasonable thing about milk snakes is their cost. The usual price you should expect to pay for a milk snake is between $50 and $100, which is extra cheap for a snake. The cage and all cage accessories can cost anywhere between $150 and $500.
Although there are 24 different milk snake subspecies they all fall under the “easily manageable” category. Namely, with adult lengths varying between 14 and 69 inches (35.5 and 175 centimeters) milk snakes are the size for a pet snake.
They are small enough not to require heavy handling yet large enough to allow healthy interaction. Plus, because of its size, if a milk snake escapes (yes, they are notorious for their escape artist skills) it will be easily found.
If you have another reptile you need to understand that milk snakes are not fond of roommates and prefer solitude lifestyles. In their wild habitat, milk snakes feed on other reptiles.
They even have cannibalistic tendencies – they eat other snakes including the highly venomous coral snakes whose color and pattern they are mimicking because of protection purposes.
How to care for it?
Once you have decided a milk snake is a good fit for you, it is time to learn how to properly take care of your new reptile friend.
For housing purposes, you can use a tank or rack. If using a tank make sure it has a sliding lid so the milk snake cannot push the lid and escape.
Also make sure the joints of the enclosure are sealed with special silicone sealant (formulated for fish tanks not household use). This is critical as milk snakes have small heads and unusually durable skulls that can fit through very tiny gaps.
Compared to their size, milk snakes need relatively big enclosures because of their active lifestyles. Young milk snakes (babies and juveniles) can be housed in 10 gallon tanks while adults, based on their exact size need between 20 and 70 gallons tanks.
Check out how to properly set up your milk snake’s enclosure in the following video:
Heating and humidity
For heating purposes, the enclosure must feature a heat source – heat pad, head tape, or light bulb. Heat pads are more practical if using a tank while heat tapes for racks. In both cases, they need to be attached to a thermostat.
The heat source must be positioned on one end of the enclosure and not in the middle. This is because, as cold-blooded creatures, milk snakes need a thermal gradient – one extra warm (basking) area, one room temperature area, and a moderately tempered middle section.
Generally, the temperature in the warm end should be 80-85⁰F (26.6-29.4⁰C) and 88-92⁰F (31.1-33.3⁰C) in the basking area. The temperature on the cooler end can vary between 75 and 82⁰F (23.8-27.7⁰C).
To maintain proper humidity levels (40-60%) in the enclosure, you can use a homemade humidity box positioned in the warm end of the tank. The humidity level can also be influenced by adjusting the water bowl size and ventilation.
Compared to other reptiles, milk snakes are not overly dependent on lighting because they do not synthesize vitamin D this way.
However, lighting is still important because of two main reasons – it modifies the breeding behavior and enables good visualization of the snake. Keep in mind milk snakes, and snakes in general are secretive reptiles and prefer subdued lighting.
Ideally, you should ensure between eight and 12 hours of light during the day and a nocturnal infrared light at night.
In terms of enclosure decoration you should add items like hides or caves (one at each end of the cage), wood barks, rocks, and plants. In addition to increasing the aesthetic factor, these items will serve as entertainment forms – hiding and climbing.
However, there are two things you need to consider – space and security. As mentioned, milk snakes are very active and will not feel comfortable if confined in an overcrowded enclosure. So, you need to be mindful about the overall space.
The second consideration is to have all décor items securely placed and stabilized as you do not want one of them collapsing and potentially injuring your snake.
Milk snake hatchlings and juveniles should be fed defrosted pinkies (one day old dead mice) at least once or two times per week while adult milk snakes can eat large or even jumbo mice once every two weeks. As mentioned, milk snakes are eating machines and if offered food more frequently will likely become overweight.
The good news is that milk snakes do not require warming of the meal. All you need to do is let the meal thaw at room temperature. Alternatively, to prevent offering foods with ice crystals (which can be dangerous) you can microwave the pinkies or mice after thawing overnight and then let them cool down to room temperature.
It is important to feed your milk snake in a separate container. That way it will not associate the opening of the enclosure with feeding time – which is particularly useful considering the milk snake’s biting tendency.
Click the following video if you want to see how a milk snake feeds:
The most difficult part about breeding milk snakes is determining the sex – after that, things are much simpler.
Once the male and female are put together, there will be visible signs of courtship – the male will follow the female and entwine himself around her while resting. Interestingly, milk snakes often copulate for hours.
Around one month after the copulation, the female will lay between two and 17 eggs, meaning milk snakes are oviparous snakes. The eggs have soft and leathery shells which unless properly incubated can quickly dry out.
In the following video, you can see how baby milk snakes are hatched:
The incubation period is between one and two months long. The hatchlings are relatively sizable and can be fed with pinkies, making the rearing process simple.
Milk snakes are clean and thrive in environments where the hygiene is kept on a high level. Generally speaking, the bedding needs to be spot cleaned daily. Usually a cat litter cleaning scoop is ideal for this task.
When performing a more thorough enclosure cleaning, the bedding needs to be replaced completely and the tank as well as all décor items inside washed and cleaned with a snake-friendly disinfectant.
Drinking and bathing
As physiological needs, drinking and bathing are classified under the same category because they can both be fulfilled by providing a simple water bowl.
The water bowl size is determined by the milk snake’s size – it should be large enough for the milk snake to bathe inside if she feels like bathing.
The water bowl should be placed in the cooler end of the enclosure and the water changed daily. This is critical because stall and dirty water quickly becomes the biggest infection source in the enclosure.
You also need a good substrate or bedding for the enclosure. The cheapest option is old and shredded newspapers. However, the ideal choice is aspen shavings. Milk snakes like digging tunnels and aspen shavings can hold really well.
The bedding should be deep enough to allow your milk snake to bury itself in case it needs hiding.
It is advisable to spray the bedding with an anti-parasitic to prevent mite infestations. Usually, one spraying per month is enough but the exact instructions will be proved on the product you purchase.
Brumation is a dormant, sleep-like period – the cold-blooded equivalent to hibernation in mammals. During brumation, the milk snake’s metabolism slows down but the snake is not fully asleep.
Namely, it can occasionally wake up to rehydrate. Brumation is an adaptive mechanism that helps snakes and other reptiles survive the scarce resources associated with winter months.
Brumation is also important for setting the breeding season. In the wild, milk snakes copulate in spring after they wake up. In captivity settings you can mimic the spring start by increasing the ambient temperature and length of light exposure.
If you are a first-time snake owner, the shedding will probably seem scary, but it is completely normal. Adult milk snakes shed every two or three months while juveniles because of their rapid growth can shed up to 12 times per year. Usually, the shedding lasts between one and two weeks.
The most important factor ensuring proper one-piece shedding is air humidity. Normally, the humidity within the enclosure should be kept between 40 and 60%. During shedding, it can be allowed to go above 60%.
Finally, it should be noted that handling must be avoided during shedding season. At this point the snake’s skin is very fragile and can easily tear even if handled gently.
Who are milk snakes right for?
Milk snakes are the ideal snake pet for beginners. In fact, they are the ideal snake pet for every snake enthusiast.
Milk snakes are non-venomous, easy to care for, and low maintenance. Additionally, because of their high activity levels and flamboyant colors and patterns, milk snakes are extremely fun and entertaining.
Despite their occasional biting outbursts as milk snakes grow up they usually become very friendly.
Snakes used to be the most misunderstood reptile group. Luckily, as the number of people keeping snakes spiked, many misconceptions have been dispelled.
Today, snakes are a popular pet choice, especially for herpetology enthusiasts. All in all, if you want a strikingly colored snake with go-all-day stamina and a huge appetite, the milk snake is your number one choice.