How to Care for California Kingsnakes

California kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula californiae) are popular pet snakes. They are a subspecies of kingsnakes that can be found across the contiguous US. There are many unique patterns and morphs of California kingsnakes on the market. Their interesting colorations and easy nature make these snakes popular pets.

california kingsnake
A California kingsnake from Sacramento County, California, USA. Photo by Connor Long, 2018

Availability, Size, and Lifespan of California Kingsnakes

Check local regulations regarding what snakes are permissible as pets in your area. Despite the wide distribution of kingsnakes, most local governments regulate collecting wild snakes as pets. Captive-bred snakes are also less likely to carry parasites, making your animal easier to care for. Captive-bred California kingsnakes are available at reptile expos, online reptile shops, pet shops, and from breeders. They hatch at eight inches and can grow to exceed six feet long. The average adult size for these snakes is between three and four feet in length. They are surprisingly slender. With proper care, California kingsnakes can live for more than 20 years. Females remain fertile into their low teens.

california kingsnake caged
Claifornia Kingsnake in a Cage. Photo by wftright

California Kingsnake Caging

Adult California kingsnakes need a 20-gallon terrarium at minimum. Ensure the terrarium closes and latches securely as all snakes like to search for weaknesses in their enclosures so they can attempt escape. House these snakes individually. If housed together, juveniles may try to eat each other. Place hides at either end of the enclosure and maintain a humidity level of 50-60% by hand misting. Keep a hygrometer in the enclosure to regulate humidity levels. Consider including a humid hide box filled with damp moss. The box should be large enough for your snake to crawl into with little room left over. Clean the whole enclosure once a month. ZooMed makes a cleaning solution for reptile enclosures, or you can make your own solution from a gallon of water, a few tablespoons of soap, and a few tablespoons of bleach. Rinse thoroughly.

Lighting and Temperature 

If the room the enclosure is in is well-lit naturally, California kingsnakes do not need special lighting. Do not place the enclosure near a window since sunlight gets focused by the glass, and can cause the snake to overheat fatally. California kingsnakes are cold-blooded and need to live in a temperature gradient so they can thermoregulate. Let the enclosure’s warm end be in the low 80s and the cool end in the 70s. Create a basking spot that is between 88° and 90°F. There are various pads, tapes, and heaters on the market from companies such as Zilla, ZooMed, and Exoterra to warm the vivarium. Keep all the heating elements on one side of the enclosure. Avoid using heat rocks as they heat only very small areas and can cause thermal burns. Nighttime temperatures can drop as low as 70°F as an ambient temperature. Heat pads are the preferred way to heat ground-dwelling snakes and maintain heat during the day and night. If using a heating pad, it should cover less than half the terrarium’s floor space and always be used with a properly fitting cage carpet to prevent burns. Basking lights can be used with heat pads if warmer temperatures are needed. Rheostats, thermostats, and timers can be used to control the heat source automatically and more precisely.


A wide variety of suitable beddings for California kingsnakes are available. Paper towels and newspapers are easy to clean, but they aren’t great for your snake’s burrowing habits and don’t look visually appealing.

Aspen is a basic snake bedding that’s simple to clean and easy for your snake to burrow in. However, it is quite dry, and when used with a heat lamp, it may make shedding difficult. It’s also prone to molding if it’s allowed to remain wet.

ZooMed’s Forest Floor Bedding is excellent for most ground-dwelling snakes. Its rot-resistant moisture retention will help prevent shedding issues and can be lightly misted to rehydrate when needed. 

Avoid oily woods (pine/cedar), chemically treated substrates and sands. If you are using a substrate that can be ingested, feed your snake in a separate container. Spot clean the bedding whenever they defecate. 

brown mouse
Brown Mouse. Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash

Food for a California Kingsnake

In nature, California kingsnakes will eat anything that they can overpower and swallow whole, including other snakes. As pets, they are commonly fed rodents. Mice are a popular choice. The snakes will eat either live prey or thawed frozen rodent. However, live prey can injure your kingsnake, and it isn’t easy to stock live food. Frozen prey is safer for your snake and easier to store. Feed juveniles once a week or twice a week to see faster growth. California kingsnakes can be fed in their main enclosure. However, this only applies if you’re using bedding that cannot be accidentally swallowed. Nonetheless, we always recommend using a separate container for feedings. Kingsnakes have a fast metabolism for snakes of similar sizes and can be fed once or twice a week. Feed your snake a rodent about the size of your snake’s girth or several smaller rodents that add up to this amount of mass. 


Provide clean water in a non-porous bowl that is deep enough for your snake to submerge themselves without flooding the enclosure. If the humidity in the cage goes too high, remove the water dish for a few days. Clean the water dish once a week and change the water daily or as needed. 

how to hold a california kingsnake
California Kingsnake Handling. Photo by Critter Squad.

Handling and Temperament

When kingsnakes feel nervous or threatened, they may take a defensive stance, shake their tail and try to strike. If you try to pick the snake up in this state, they may urinate or defecate on you. These are all signs of fear and stress. When you first adopt your California kingsnake, give them several days to get used to their new environment before you try to handle them. Regular, gentle handling will help your snake become accustomed to you and more trusting of people. Support the weight of your snake, creating a treadmill with your hands as your snake moves freely. Keep your hands away from your snake’s face. Lift your snake from behind so they don’t see you looming over them. Until your snake trusts you, don’t touch its head, as this will cause your snake to jerk away in fear. Most California kingsnakes will get over this shyness as they come to trust you. Don’t handle your snake while they are digesting food or when they are about to shed. If your snake does exhibit a strong feeding response, use a snake hook to aid while handling. California kingsnakes exhibit a strong cannibalistic drive, so house California kingsnakes individually. Other than this, California kingsnakes are generally very docile.

California Kingsnake Health Information

Prior to shedding, your snake’s eyes will turn a blue or milky color. This cloudiness will clear up after a few days as the shedding begins. A healthy shed comes off in one piece. Most snakes tend not to eat when shedding, and this is normal. 

Cold or overly humid environments can result in respiratory problems, characterized by labored breathing or nasal discharge.

Stomatitis, or mouth rot, is heralded by a cheesy substance around your snake’s gums, which can cause debris to become caught in your snake’s mouth. If you observe these symptoms, take your snake to a vet.

Dirty environments allow for high bacteria growth, which can also result in illness. Check your snake’s skin for bumps or white,  red, or black discolorations that may be symptoms of skin mites. If mites are present, you need to clean them off your snake and out of the terrarium.

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