The bull snake is one of the largest snakes native to North America, reaching an adult length of six to eight feet. Its Latin name is Pituophis sayi, and it lives in the central part of the United States. Two related species are also kept as pets. These are the pine snake and the gopher snake. All are patterned with dark splotches on a lighter background. They can also be purchased in an albino version. Being large and often temperamental, bull snakes are not beginner snakes.
There are plenty of these snakes available from breeders, so there is no need to think of capturing one from the wild. Wild captured snakes tend to make poor pets anyway. They are often plagued with parasites both inside and out. Not only that, it is illegal in many areas to collect these snakes from the wild.
To check out a bull snake's health, look to see if it appears alert. Does it flick its tongue out often? This is a good sign. It is how the snake tells what's going on. It should not be too skinny looking with its ribs showing. It also should not appear kinked. The vent should be dry and closed. It should not have mucous around its mouth or have any problems breathing. Sometimes pet store snakes have mites or ticks. Ticks are easy to see but mites are quite small. Look for them when choosing a bull snake because you will have to get rid of them if they are present.
Bull snakes and their related species can have a moody temperament, which, when combined with their size makes them a snake for an experienced snake owner. They have a habit of hissing loudly and vibrating their tails while opening their mouths. They vary, however, with some being more docile than others. A few never get tame.
If you decide to get an adult bull snake, it's a good idea to watch how each one responds to handling. If it seems docile it may be a good snake for you. Of course, many people prefer to start with a hatchling. Most bull snake hatchlings exhibit some bad habits but can be tamed down eventually if you handle them often. Hopefully you won't get one of the cranky ones.
An adult bull snake needs an enclosure at least as big as a 30 gallon aquarium. The bottom needs a substrate, or lining that will absorb moisture. Newspaper or paper towels are an easy to replace option. Aspen or pine shavings can also be used. Never use cedar shavings, gravel, or sand. These snakes sometimes enjoy burrowing, so some owners use potting soil as a substrate. A piece of Astroturf is another option. It can be taken out and washed when needed.
The enclosure needs to be equipped with a method for keeping it at a proper temperature. The cage should range from 75 degrees Fahrenheit (23.8 degrees Celsius) on one end to 85 degrees (29.4 degrees Celsius) on the other. There are undertank heating pads designed for warming snake enclosures. They should only be applied to one-third of the bottom of the tank, and you need to keep track of the temperature. If you have a thermostat attached to the heating pad you can keep it under 85 degrees.
A clean bowl of water needs to be provided at all times. The bowl should be heavy enough to not tip easily, and it should be kept on the cool side of the cage. This helps keep the humidity level down. In addition to the water bowl, the bull snake needs places to hide. This can be as simple as an upside-down plastic butter dish that has an entry hole cut in the side. If you provide one on each end of the enclosure, the snake can choose which side feels better.
A branch or two for climbing is another welcome addition to the bull snake's enclosure. But above all, make sure it is escape-proof. Snakes are all escape artists so they must have very secure doors and lids on their cages.
In the wild bull snakes feed on burrowing rodents. They will often stay in the burrow while their food digests. In captivity this need can be met by providing hiding places that offer the snake a hole to descend into. For instance, you can use a plastic tub with a lid. Cut an entry hole in the lid so the snake can go down into the bowl to hide.
As long as the hiding place is large enough for the snake to curl up inside, it is large enough. In fact, they like hides that are small and secure. Claustrophobia is never a problem for snakes. If you place a hide on each end of the enclosure the snake will be able to choose the temperature that feels better to it while it is hiding. Choosing the spot with the right temperature is an important part of how cold blooded animals regulate the heat in their bodies.
Bull snakes are carnivores feeding on mice and rats. The size of the mouse or rat should not exceed one and one-half times the girth of the snake. Any larger than this and the snake is likely to regurgitate it. It is advised that the rodent be pre-killed so it won't fight back when being eaten. Many snakes resist eating pre-killed food at first, but it is much safer for the snake. The best answer is to choose a snake that is already eating pre-killed food. Mice and rats can be purchased frozen. They should be thawed before feeding.
Leave a bull snake alone for a couple of days after feeding so it can digest its food. Young bull snakes can have a meal once or even twice a week, but an older snake only needs it once every week or two. If it seems like that is not very often to eat, remember that cold blooded animals expend no energy maintaining their body heat. Warm blooded animals must eat much more frequently because the food goes mostly to maintaining that 98.6 degree (or more) temperature.
The bull snake and its cousins, the pine snake and the gopher snake, are common pet store snakes, but they are not for beginners. If you've had some experience with larger, temperamental snakes, however, it might be a pet you'd like to try.