Rat snakes (Bogertophis subocularis) are native to North America, and seldom exceed 6 feet in length. They can be a little nippy as hatchlings, but settle down with handling making a good beginner snake. They are similar to corn snakes and their care is very similar as well.
The temperature in a rat snake's enclosure should range in the high 70's Fahrenheit (24-26 degrees Celsius) on the cool end and from 82 to 85 (27.7-29.4 degrees Celsius) on the warm end. A rat snake will need about one mouse a week for feeding. It will appreciate having a hiding spot on each end of the enclosure. Rat snakes sometimes refuse to eat when they do not have hiding areas available.
A cheap, simple hiding spot can be made by placing a small cereal box with the lid torn off in the enclosure on its side. Plastic hiding places can be purchased at the pet store, or can be made from plastic containers with a hole cut in the side. Boxes and lightweight plastic containers are likely to get moved around by a rat snake.
A rat snake's diet consists of a pre-killed mouse about once every week or ten days. It is a good idea to mark the feeding day on the calendar if you have a tendency to forget. Choose a mouse about the same size in diameter as the snake. Snakes can swallow larger prey animals, but they often regurgitate them. For the safety of your rat snake don't feed them live prey. A live mouse can injure a snake. Pre-killed mice can be bought frozen. To feed one to your snake, thaw the mouse by soaking it in warm water. If any food remains in the pen, remove it.
Rat snakes drink often and like to soak in water. They need to have a bowl of clean water available at all times. The water bowl used in a snake enclosure needs to be one that cannot be tipped easily. A pet food dish kept one third full of water makes a nice water source for a snake. Place the water on the cool end of the enclosure. This keeps it from evaporating away quickly.
An enclosure for a baby rat snake can be as simple as a plastic shoe box with ventilation holes punched in the sides. Of course you will need a tight fitting lid that the snake can't push open. The snake will reach adult size of less than five feet long by the age of three or four years. By this time you will need to have provided a larger enclosure. A thirty gallon aquarium is a suitable choice. The important consideration is providing the needed warmth on one end of the cage.
All snakes are "ectotherms" or cold-blooded animals. They must have a certain amount of warmth in their environment in order to move around and to digest their food. When using an aquarium, an easy way to heat one half of the tank is to use an under-tank heat pad. Pet stores sometimes sell electric "hot rocks," but these are generally not recommended by experts. These artificial rocks tend to be too hot and give the snake burns. A heat lamp can be used above one end of the enclosure if an under-tank heat pad is unavailable.
The bottom of the cage needs to have covering, or substrate. In many cases, this can simply be newspaper. Some people cut butcher paper to size for lining the floor of their rat snake enclosure, while others line it with paper towels. Any of the paper substrates are easy to replace as they become soiled.
There are pet beddings available, but many of them are not suitable for rat snakes. For instance, corn cob bedding causes a snake's skin to dry out. Cedar shavings cause the snake to have respiratory problems. A better option to either of these is reptile bark, which is available at pet stores. It is designed to retain humidity better than the other types of loose substrates.
Rat snakes are somewhat arboreal and will appreciate branches for climbing. Sticks from the yard can introduce parasites into the snake cage so it is better to get them from the pet store. You can also make them from PVC pipe. These are easy to disinfect.
A rat snake is one of the best pet snakes for handling. It is important not to handle snakes right after they eat because it can make them vomit. A few minutes a day is sufficient for getting a snake used to being handled. Too much handling is stressful to snakes. Even when the snake has become completely used to you, it is still best to limit handling to 15 minutes at most.
It's important to keep calm while handling a pet rat snake. If you get startled, you run the risk of injuring your snake or letting it go. Let your hands approach the snake from the front so it is not taken by surprise. When you are first getting used to holding a snake, make sure you hold it low and over a soft surface in case you should drop it. Hold it firmly but gently with one hand about a third of the way down its body and the other hand two thirds of the way down.
The rat snake should eventually be comfortable slithering around your hands and arms. It may go up your arm into your shirt if you are not careful. In the beginning stages before the snake is used to being held, be aware that it may poop on you.
In addition to handling your rat snake a few minutes each day, it's a good idea to spend time watching it. You can tell by watching if it is hanging around more on the cool end or on the warm end. This can help you determine more accurately if your temperature inside the cage is correct. Thermometers are useful, but sometimes inaccurate.
By watching the snake, you can also get to know when it's hungry, looking around for food. You can tell if it's not hungry if it isn't interested in food for a number of minutes when fed. Adjust the number of mice and timing of feeding to fit the appetite of your individual rat snake. A rat snake is an acceptable first snake for a pet owner. They require some attention, but will reward you by being hardy and good natured.