The milk snake is a pet store snake that is good for beginners. The Latin name is Lampropeltis triangulum. Some individual varieties of milk snake include campbelli, sinaloae, and hondurensis. The campbelli, or Pueblan, grows to only 32 inches, and is banded in beautiful red, black and white bands. The Honduran (hondurensis) grows to four feet long, and sometimes can be found in all orange with black bands. The Sinaloan also grows four feet long and comes in the same colors. In addition to these patterns, breeders have developed other color variations. The name milk snake comes from an (untrue) old wives' tale that the snakes drink milk from cows.
While it may seem more economical to start with an enclosure large enough to house an adult milk snake, this is not always a good idea. Young milk snakes can have trouble finding their food and become stressed by being kept in an enclosure that is too big. A plastic shoe box will work for a young snake. It's a good idea for each snake to have its own cage because milk snakes have been known to eat each other.
A 20 gallon aquarium makes a good enclosure for an adult milk snake. Some owners use plastic totes such as those made by Rubbermaid. These need air holes poked in the lid and around the sides. The most important aspect of the enclosure is that it must be escape proof. The lid needs to fit tightly, or even lock in place so that it cannot be pushed open.
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 third 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.
Keep a thermometer handy for monitoring the inside temperature of the enclosure. The warm side should be kept at 81 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (27-30 degrees Celsius), while the cooler side can be left at room temperature. A thermostat attached to the heat source can help you keep the warm side from getting too warm. Humidity in the enclosure should be kept at 40 to 60 percent. You can use a hygrometer to monitor humidity. An occasional misting helps.
The enclosure should contain a water dish with clean water at all times. The snake will also appreciate having several places to hide. Hides can be as simple as a plastic butter tub that has had an entry hole cut out of the side. Placing one on each end of the cage gives the snake a chance to choose which temperature it wants to hide in. Milk snakes feel safer if they have a place to hide.
The substrate of the cage can be as simple as newspaper. This is easy to keep clean because it can simply be replaced. Aspen shavings work well. Never use cedar shavings because the oil is toxic to snakes. Also don't use gravel or sand because the snake might accidentally swallow some while feeding. Some reptile keepers use special carpeting available in the pet store. It is similar to Astroturf, which can also be used. A handy method is to have two pieces of carpeting. One can be in use while the other is being washed.
Milk 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. 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 milk 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. The best size of mouse or rat to feed your milk snake is one about the same diameter as the widest part of the snake. Don't handle a snake for a day or two after feeding.
The enclosure should be kept clean. Wastes and uneaten food should be promptly removed. The entire enclosure should be washed and disinfected with a bleach solution about once a month. Rinse the cage and dry it. Add new substrate before putting your snake back in.
You can tell when your snake is about to shed because its eyes will start to look cloudy. The skin will begin to look a bit dull. Extra humidity can be added with an extra misting or two which will help the skin come off in one complete piece.
Milk snake breeders enjoy developing new and beautiful color combinations for these docile snakes. The temperament of these snakes is such that they make some of the best beginner snakes. Some can grow to over six feet long, but most stay smaller than the similar corn snakes. For people interested in getting into reptiles, milk snakes are a good start.