Tyrannosaurus Pets

North American Ratsnake Care Sheet

Pantherophis and Bogertophis ssp 

North American Ratsnakes are variably coloured and patterned snakes found throughout the US.  They are generally regarded as good starter snakes, as their medium size, generally docile nature, and easy care make them a good choice for a first time reptile pet.  They are captive bred in large numbers and a wide range of weird and wonderful colours are now available.  

As youngsters most have “attitude”. They will rattle their tails, hiss and some strike out. But with confident, gentle handling they become fantastic and impressive pets. 

Setting up the starter tank

  • Baby snakes are best kept in small plastic enclosures such as the Exo-Terra large flat faunarium.  These tanks are designed for baby reptiles,  and are escape proof providing the lid has been secured correctly.  Don’t use the small door as the plastic lugs may snap.  The large door is very useful, and can be used for spot cleaning and changing the water.  This tank will last until the snake is between twelve, and eighteen months old.  It will then need to be moved into a 36” or 48” adult vivarium. 

  • The easiest way to heat the small tank is to use a heat mat placed under the tank.  Unregulated heat mats can reach temperatures in excess of 40’c so it is essential that the heater is controlled by a thermostat.  Normally the sensor for a thermostat comes into the tank to monitor the temperature.  However with baby snakes any hole large enough to admit the sensor is a potential escape route.  To prevent this attach the sensor from the thermostat to the heat mat using a good quality tape such as duck tape.  The sensor needs to be attached to the black areas on the mat as these are the heat elements. 

  • Set the thermostat to 32◦c, this is higher than the temperature that we require but there will be some heat loss through the base of the tank.  This estimate should get the temperatures in the tank close to the desired level.

  • Place a thin layer of substrate on the base of the tank, around 5mm is sufficient.  Put the thermometer on the floor of the tank above the heat mat. The heat mat will only warm the base of the tank not the air, so the thermometer must be on the floor.

  • Leave the tank for two hours.  After this time the temperature on the thermometer should be 28 ◦c - 30◦c, this is in the orange section of the dial. If the temperature on the floor of the tank is not in the desired range please adjust the thermostat.  Leave the tank for another two hours then recheck the temperature.  Keep checking and adjusting until the temperature is correct. If the thermostat is set to maximum and the floor is still not reaching 28◦c, then you may need to raise the mat to touch the base of the tank.  Placing some insulating material such as polystyrene under the mat will also help to raise the temperature.

Setting up the adult tank

  • The adult tank needs to be set up like the diagram above.

  • Unscrew the light fitting from the roof of the vivarium.  Place the silver plate from the guard on the roof and re-attach the fitting.  The holes in the silver plate should match the screw holes for the light fitting.

  • Make a hole in the top corner of the vivarium at the same end as the light fitting.  Feed the thermostat sensor through this and let it hang down to 3” above the floor of the tank.  Place the spot bulb in the fitting and put the mesh part of the guard in place.  Plug the light fitting into the socket on the thermostat.  Plug the thermostat into the mains.

  • Set the dial of the thermostat to 28’c.  The thermostat will allow the bulb to heat the corner of the tank where the sensor is to 28’c.  At the basking spot (1) the temperature should be 28’c – 32’c.  At the cool end of the tank (2) the temperature should be 20’c to 24’c.  When checking the temperature put the thermometer where the snake will sit.  In the hot end this will be on top of the hide, and at the cool end measure the temperature on the floor of the tank.

  • When first setting up the tank leave it running for 2 hours before checking the temperatures.  If both ends of the tank are at the right temperature leave the tank for a further 2 hours to check the temperature is stable.

  • If the temperatures are not correct adjust the dial on the thermostat slightly.

  • Leave the tank for 2 hours and recheck again.  Keep adjusting and checking until the tank temperatures are stable and at the right level.

General Care

  • The snake needs to have two hides, one in the warm end, and the other at the cool end.  When the snake is young, one hide stretching from the warm end to the cool end helps them to settle as they can move from warm to cool without exposing themselves.

  • Keep the water dish at the cool end, this keeps it fresher for longer.  The snake needs access to fresh water daily.  When changing the water have a look around the tank and remove any obvious mess.  If the spot cleaning is done regularly the tank only needs to be fully cleaned out once every four – six weeks, put the animal somewhere safe.  Remove the water dish and any décor.  Remove and throw away the old substrate.  Wipe the tank down with a clean wet cloth.  Dry the tank and put in fresh substrate.  Replace the water dish and décor.  The snake can then be returned to the tank.

  • Don’t use household detergents, and disinfectants as they can be toxic to reptiles.  If the tank needs to be cleaned properly then use a reptile safe pet disinfectant.

  • Baby snakes will shed their skin once every four – six weeks.  When the snake is in shed its colours will become muted, and the snake’s eyes will take on a blue grey sheen.  When the snake is like this they can feel vunerable so it is best to leave them alone.  They may not feed so leave them until next week.

  • After shedding, check the snake over to make sure that no skin is still stuck to them.  This will look like sellotape, or clingfilm wrapped around the animal.  With corn snakes it is normally the tip of the tail that causes the problem.

  • When you get your snake home, set up the tank as detailed above.  Put the snake in the tank.  The animal now needs time to settle in.  Leave them alone for one week, then feed them. Leave them another week then feed them again.  Once the snake has fed twice they have settled in and may be handled following the usual rules for handling.

  • When you move your snake into the adult tank it can take them a week to settle in to the new environment.  To help them settle in to the new environment leave them alone for a week.  Once they have fed in their new home you can handle them as before.

  • The only time the snake can be handled in the first two weeks is if it sheds, when it will need to be checked over.A

  • All the commonly sold snakes at Tyrannosaurus Pets eat a variety of dead mice and rats.  These are available frozen and must be defrosted before feeding to your snake.  The food must be defrosted steadily to room temperature.  Do not microwave the food, or put it into either hot or cold water.  It is easiest to simply wrap the food in some newspaper or kitchen towel and leave out to thaw.  Pinkies will defrost in around 45 minutes.  Larger prey items take longer.  Ensure that all food has thoroughly defrosted before use.

  • Always an appropriate size pair of feeding tongs to feed your snake. This will stop the snake from accidentally biting you instead of the food.  Hold the mouse in the tongs and wave it gently in front of the snake.  This should entice the snake to strike for the food.  If the snake has shown no interest in the food after 30 seconds, place the mouse on top of a hide and leave it in the tank over night.  If the snake does not eat in the dark, throw the food away and try again after a week.  Missing one or two weeks is not a problem for a snake, even as a baby, but any longer period may indicate that the animal is either unwell or not happy with the tank set up.  It is a good idea to fill in a feeding record so you can see how well the snake is eating.

  • Most baby snakes start out eating one pinkie per week.  As your snake grows it needs to be fed larger meals.  If after its finished eating it spends twenty minutes roaming the tank and is active after twelve or twenty four hours, then it is ready to move on to the next stage.  Each stage of food size lasts for around eight weeks.  A much better guide is the snake’s behaviour as detailed above.  The stages are listed below.

  1. 1 pinkie

  2. 2 pinkies

  3. 3 pinkies

  4. 1 fuzzy

  5. 2 fuzzies

  6. 3 fuzzies

  7. 1 small mouse

  8. 2 small mice

  9. 1 adult mouse 

The above guide is for small snakes such as Great Plains ratsnakes.  If you are feeding a Black, Yellow or Everglades Ratsnake you may need to go to weaner rats or small rats depending on how large your snake grows. Simply stage the snake up as follows:

  • 2 adult mice Stage 

  • 1 weaner ratStage 2 

  • weaner rats Stage 

  • 1 small rat

North American Ratsnakes come in a wide variety of sizes, colours and patterns. There are several subspecies which make up the Genus’ Pantherophis and Bogertophis.

Black Ratsnake:Pantherophis obsoletus obsoletus:

This is the largest of the Ratsnakes in North America. Adults are between 5-8 feet. They are heavily built and very powerful snakes. They are not often black but instead are shades of brown with cream, yellow or tan markings. Most lose most of their saddled pattern as they mature and darken with age. Exceptional animals are almost velvet black with slight white or red flecking around the neck and head. Black Ratsnakes are generally nippy as babies but will calm down with regular gentle handling. 

Yellow Ratsnake:Pantherophis obsoletus quadrivirgata:

This is another larger ratsnake. Most adults are 5-6 feet but larger animals can be 7 feet! These snakes live up to their name. They are straw yellow with white bellies. They have 4 stripes running the length of the body; these are black or dark brown. 

Grey Ratsnake:Pantherophis obsoletus spiloides:

This aptly named snake is grey in colour with darker saddles running along the back. They are subtly beautiful and can get quite large. Usually between 4.5-6 feet there have been larger specimens recorded. There is a paler form of this snake that occurs in the wild known as the White Oak Ratsnake. They are light silver and are not often seen for sale. Grey ratsnakes are excellent climbers and are often found in trees in the wild. When decorating the vivarium for an adult grey ratsnake, branches are much appreciated by these agile snakes.

Texas Ratsnake:Pantherophis obsoletus lindheimeri:

Texas ratsnakes have a terrible reputation as being very aggressive snakes that are very willing to bite. While wild specimens deserve this reputation, captive bred animals are often quite easy going. Nippy as youngsters, they should calm very well with time. These are drab brown and orange in their natural colour form, but recently a leucistic morph (pure white, with blue eyes and no pattern) has been developed. 

Everglades Ratsnake:Pantherophis obsoletus rossalleni:

Possibly the most visually striking of the north American ratsnakes, the Everglades ratsnake is usually bright orange or rust coloured with faint stripes or saddles down the back. They are a large snake, often over 5 feet. They are threatened in the wild because of destruction of their Florida Everglades habitat and competition from the Yellow Ratsnake. Interestingly, Everglade ratsnakes can be told apart from other NorthAmerican ratsnakes by their red tongues.  

Baird’s Ratsnake:Pantherophis bairdi:

These are slender, nocturnal desert dwellers from Mexico and Texas. They are usually brown-tan when young and then as they mature some will become gun metal grey with red and orange striping or some will remain orangey brown with contrasting silver heads. Bairds ratsnakes are a medium sized snake raging from 3.5-5 feet. They are slender in build and often prefer multiple small prey items to one large meal.

Trans Pecos Ratsnake:Bogertophis subocularis sp:

These are a rare animal in captivity but some specialist breeders are working with them and so they should become more available.  They have large “googly” eyes and are a beautiful sandy brown colour, sometimes bordering on golden.  They are nocturnal desert dwellers and are a fairly small species, usually around 3 feet in length. 

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