Common garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) are small snakes found throughout North America. These highly active snakes need a substantial habitat relative to their size, though they have relatively low maintenance needs.
Being among the most harmless of the world’s snakes, it’s easy to see why garter snakes have slithered their way to being incredibly popular pets.
Size, Lifespan and Availability
A healthy garter snake is alert and active with regular eating habits, bright, clear eyes and is routinely shedding its skin in one piece. Baby snakes are about six to eight inches long, but they can grow up to 22 to 54 inches in length.
Wild garter snakes usually live only four or five years, but a well-cared-for snake can live for over 10 years. We don’t advise buying a wild-born garter snake, as they are shy of people and may never acclimate to living as pets. Catching wild snakes to keep as pets can also be illegal.
Garter snakes are available at pet stores, online, reptile expos and breeders. Talk with your local pet store or breeder to determine whether a snake you are interested in is wild-born or not.
Garter Snake Caging
To allow for proper exercise and comfort, the total width and length of your snake’s tank should be longer than the snake itself. If the tank is too small, your snake won’t have room to move. If it’s too large, your snake might feel exposed and become stressed.
A five-gallon tank should work for baby garter snakes. Adult males will be happier in a 15-gallon tank while adult females or breeding pairs should have a 25-gallon tank or larger. Two garter snakes can comfortably share a terrarium, although they may accidentally hurt each other if they try to hunt the same piece of food.
Please note that garter snakes are small, and any space that they can squeeze their head through is large enough for them to wriggle through. Keep the tank escape-proof by making sure the lids are securely attached to the tank and that there are no gaps within the walls.
Food and Water
Garter snakes benefit from a varied diet to ensure proper nutrition. Juvenile snakes can eat a combination of feeder guppies, minnows, earthworms and fish fillet pieces; feed the juvenile snakes every other day.
Mature snakes should eat small rodents, such as mice or pinkies, but they only need food once a week. Avoid feeding your snake live mice to prevent any injuries to the snake. When using frozen rodents, let them defrost at room temperature. Avoid direct heating sources, such as microwaves, as they can cause the rodent to burst. You may also place small goldfish in your snake’s water bowl.
Garter snakes are semi-aquatic, meaning they need water for swimming and drinking. Keep a large bowl of clean, chlorine-free water so the snake can soak itself. Change this water daily.
Lighting and Temperature
An important part of your garter snake’s home is the temperature. Set up a temperature gradient in the tank with a cooler end at 75 degrees Fahrenheit and a warmer end at 85 degrees. Give your snake a basking area of 95 degrees. Warm rocks in the tank make excellent places for your garter snake to curl up. A heat gradient and basking area help mimic the temperature changes that a snake would naturally experience and will help them digest their food.
Keep the lights on for eight to 12 hours during the day. A heat lamp is necessary, as it provides a properly warm and comfortable environment for your garter snake. However, keep in mind that heat rocks can burn the snake’s skin and should be avoided. At night, you can use infrared or nocturnal lights.
If you can control the humidity of the terrarium, keep is between 40 to 60% and slightly higher when the snake is shedding.
Garter Snake Substrate
Substrate offers not just a crawling surface but also a place for your snake to burrow when they need the need to hide. Use a deep substrate, such as coconut fiber bedding, sphagnum moss or reptile bark. Keep the substrate dry to prevent sores or skin blisters from forming. Shredded paper goods, such as paper towels, newspapers or readily available recycled paper products, will also suffice to keep your pet snake healthy.
To help your snake feel safer, provide small climbing toys and foliage for exercise and hiding spots.
Soiled bedding should be spot-cleaned daily. Thoroughly disinfect the tank and furnishings once a week by scrubbing with a 3% bleach solution and rinsing with water until the bleach smell is gone. Dry the tank and furnishings and add fresh substrate.
Garter Snake Handling and Temperament
Once you establish a home where your garter snake is sheltered, well-fed, hydrated and kept at a well-regulated temperature, it’s now time to get to know your pet.
Most captive-bred snakes have gentle dispositions and don’t mind being handled. Let your friend slithery on your hand and get used to you before picking it up. Approach your snake from the side rather than grabbing from the top so it doesn’t feel threatened. Garter snakes need support while being held since they don’t have the strength that constrictors possess.
Occasionally, garter snakes may have a snappish disposition and may try to defend themselves with a nip or spraying musk. However, most snakes soon calm down with frequent, gentle handling. Musk is not harmful and is easily washed off.