Wild king snakes are loved by many country dwellers because of their ability to keep other potentially dangerous snakes away from the homestead. King snakes are good pets for beginning snake owners, being good natured and gentle. There are a number of different varieties that can be found raised in captivity. Often, the different varieties are available in different "morphs" or color patterns, as well. In captivity they can have a life span of over 18 years.
One popular variety is the gray-banded king snake. These are small, rarely growing over four feet long. Their color pattern sometimes includes bands of red with black borders, on a gray background. These snakes are sometimes difficult to feed. If you get a baby, you should get one that has already successfully fed on pinky mice. Pinkies are tiny mice that have not started getting much fur. Check with the breeder to make sure the baby snake is eating pinky mice well.
The California king snake is hardy, small, and calm, making it a good choice for a beginner. They come in different colors, including striking black and white bands. A suitable enclosure for an adult California king snake is a 20 gallon long aquarium. It will need a secured screen lid. The temperature of the enclosure should range from 70 to 75 degrees on the cool end and 82 to 86 degrees on the warm end. Like most snakes, they appreciate a hiding spot on each end of the enclosure, and need a bowl of clean water available at all times.
The San Luis Potos king snake, sometimes called the "Mex-mex", is beautifully colored in black, white, and red. Like the other king snakes, they are good natured and easy to raise.
One thing to remember about keeping any king snake as a pet is that each one needs to have its own separate enclosure. King snakes are "kings" because they naturally eat other snakes. They should not be housed with another snake unless you want to lose one. While it may seem more economical to start with an enclosure large enough to house an adult king snake, this is not always a good idea. Young king snakes can have trouble finding their food and become stressed by being kept in an enclosure that is too big.
Heating the snake enclosure can be done in several ways. One of the easiest if you are using an aquarium, is to get an under tank heating mat. This should be used under only one half of the aquarium so that the snake can choose to be in a warmer or cooler area. A heat lamp can be used, but the hot bulb should be screened off so the snake can't touch it and be burned. There are heat bulbs that produce only heat and not light. If you're using a light bulb, you'll have to turn it off at night.
Most snakes are kept successfully on a diet of mice. The size of the mouse should correspond to the size of the snake. If the mouse is too large, it can make the snake sick. It is recommended that you feed snakes mice that are already killed. Frozen pre-killed feeder mice can be purchased in quantity by mail order. Make sure the mouse is thawed completely before feeding the snake. In fact, if it is warmed slightly, it will seem more like a fresh mouse to the snake. The mouse can be warmed by thawing it in a bowl of warm water.
It may seem more economical to raise your own feeder mice. Mice multiply rapidly and are easy to raise. If you feed live animals to your snakes, the snakes will eat them, but they can be injured by the prey. Live mice fight back, after all. Never just drop in a live mouse and leave. Pre-killing the mice may seem brutal, but it is easier for you to do it than for the snake. There are boxes available that can be filled with carbon dioxide gas for easy humane killing.
Young king snakes need a small mouse about every six days. Adult snakes can eat a large mouse (or sometimes two) about every seven to ten days. If you hand feed a snake, it might go for your hand instead of the mouse, since it can sense the heat in your hand.
King snakes sometimes stop eating, particularly during the cooler part of the year. They have a natural instinct to hibernate. If the snake is not pregnant or shedding, and its enclosure is properly equipped, a loss of appetite probably signals a beginning of hibernation. Hibernation is natural, and a necessity for snakes that are going to be bred.
To let your king snake hibernate, you should keep food away from it for two weeks. Make sure it has a warm spot in the cage for evacuating remaining food from its digestive system. (The digestive system needs warmth to operate properly.) Provide fresh drinking water, but let the temperature gradually fall to 60 to 65 degrees. Leave it in this condition for 4 to 6 weeks, but check on it from time to time. To end hibernation, warm it slowly back up to its normal temperature and feed it.
Another thing that can cause a king snake to stop eating is shedding. All snakes shed their skins as they grow larger. For shedding to progress without problems, the snake enclosure needs to be kept at a certain level of humidity. Normal humidity for a snake cage should be around 40 to 60 percent. It's a good idea to keep a gauge on hand for checking humidity. When the snake sheds, it will need more humidity. You can mist the inside of the enclosure while the snake is shedding. Another option is to make or buy a special humidity box for the snake.
A humidity box is a small plastic container that the snake can coil in. The difference between it and a normal hiding box is that you line the inside with damp paper towels or moist sphagnum moss. The box needs a hole for access, and the material inside needs to be kept damp. Snakes sometimes don't shed completely when the humidity is too low.
You can tell when your king snake is about to shed, because its eyes will get milky looking. Its body will be dull looking, too. In a few days the snake will begin to shed its skin.
King snakes tolerate being handled. Usually they are relaxed snakes, but some can be aggressive. They have been known to bite when they smell food (like rodents or other reptiles) on your hands. Don't handle them right after eating or they are likely to throw up on you. Other things that can make a king snake throw up are feeding them too large a mouse or keeping the enclosure too cool. If the snake regurgitates several times, it should be taken to a vet who treats reptiles.