Garter snakes are one of the most wonderful and easy to keep snakes in the reptile hobby. With over 75 species and subspecies from which to choose, you're sure to find one to which you are drawn. Easy to feed, easy to maintain, and remaining a manageable size, these little beauties of the serpent world make a great addition to anyone's reptile collection.
The various species of Garter Snake range from Alaska into central America. Most can be maintained at room temperature, but will thrive with a heat source providing opportunities to thermoregulate (change their body temperature by moving into a warmer or cooler area). They are diurnal (active during the day) which may be one of their biggest benefits as a pet. They are awake and active when most owners are awake to watch their antics.
Garters are extremely active and curious, and will make use of all of the space you give them, burrowing, climbing, and taking breaks to bask in the warmth of the hot end or nap in the cool of a hiding spot. Best of all, these snakes are gregarious, and, with few exceptions, can be kept in groups, unlike almost all other snakes. Most are avid swimmers, and will often be seen enjoying a dip in their water bowl if one large enough is provided.
In order to properly care for your garter snake, you'll need to address the following factors in their husbandry:
1. Enclosure: Minimum cage size for snakes is usually figured by the following: tank length + tank width = snake length. This allows snakes to fully stretch out their lung area allowing for proper breathing. However, Garter Snakes will use all the space you give them, so you can put a snake in a much larger than minimum tank.
Additionally, Garters are active climbers, so will use any height and climbing surfaces. A great tank for a baby to juvenile is a standard 10 gallon tank, and pair of adult snakes would love a 40 gallon tank.
As active as they are, a very secure lid is necessary. Screen lids are necessary for fresh air flow. Many screen lids are available, some even integrated with locking features. If you choose separate screen lid, make sure you use the provided clamps and secure tightly.
2. Substrate- Substrate is the hobby term for bedding. Many options are available, from standard paper towels or newspaper to blended bark mixes. Never use sand, gravel or pebbles.
Paper towels and newspaper are best for baby snakes, as it is easiest to find the little ones, and monitor their growth and health. They are also more affordable alternatives.
More expensive, but much more natural are the barks and bark blends, sold in pet stores. Many are designed to emulate the natural habitat of the snakes. They can be readily spot cleaned, and hold humidity well, without being soggy.
3. Water- Garter Snakes love the water. Most are avid swimmers. For the keeper of these hydrophillic snakes, it is much easier to maintain a larger container of water than a smaller one. A good deal of moisture is lost to evaporation, so a larger container will help maintain proper humidity, and not dry out as quickly as a smaller one. They will soak in the water when they feel dry, or before they shed, so a bowl into which they can fit their entire body is a minimum standard. Clean at the minimum of once a week, or immediately upon noticing feces or urates in the water.
4. Cage "furniture"- Garter Snakes love to hide and climb. While some keepers choose elaborate tanks planted with live plants, some of the best hides are low maintenance, and even free and disposable. Silk or plastic plants from craft or dollar stores are wonderful, and most can be washed in the dishwasher when soiled. Pet stores carry a variety of hides, or rolls from toilet paper or paper towels are free and can be disposed of when soiled. When choosing hides and decorations, ensure that your snake cannot get stuck in them or injured by sharp edges.
5. Light and Heat- Providing a heat source, while not critical, is most preferable. A standard 40 w light bulb will provide more than enough light and heat for your snakes. Instead of the expensive fixtures at pet stores, try a "clamp lamp" available at most home improvement centers. Merely rest it on top of the screen top, and the screen will prevent the snake from touching the bulb and causing burns.
Under Tank Heaters are available, but are expensive and require the use of an equally expensive thermostat. Heat rocks are advised against, as they have been known to malfunction and cause burns to the snake.
6. Food- Garter Snakes in the wild embrace a wide variety of prey, from fish and amphibians to earthworms and mice. Most commonly in captivity, keepers choose to feed nightcrawlers, tilapia, salmon, or mice and rats. Live feeders may be necessary for some reluctant eaters, in which case, guppies or dace minnows should be used, and they should be switched to another food as soon as possible.
Nightcrawlers, previously frozen fish, and rodents can all be cut into smaller pieces for ease of feeding, especially for baby and juvenile snakes. Ensure that any food that was previously frozen is thawed to at least room temperature before offering. Baby snakes should be fed every 1-3 days, juveniles every 2-5 days, and adults 1-2 times weekly.
Do not feed goldfish or rosy red minnows to your snakes. These fish, while commonly available at the pet stores, are toxic to garter snakes. They contain Thiaminase, an enzyme that breaks down the B vitamin Thiamin. While one won't kill your snake, the cumulative effects of this enzyme in the snake's diet will cause neurological symptoms and death over time, usually as quickly as 6 months.
Use caution when purchasing worms. Ensure you feed only nightcrawlers. Red wigglers are available in bait stores, but are toxic to Garters. Red wigglers can be identified by their red and yellow banding, while nightcrawlers are a uniform brownish-pink, and usually much larger than the wigglers.
Following the guidelines above, you should get from 10-15 years of joy from a snake that is unique, full of personality, and a colorful addition to any family. Now your only dilemma is which of these beauties to choose.