Garter Snake Care Sheet

Garter Snake care isn’t too difficult, and they’re certainly much easier to look after than many other snake species. They’re widely available, inexpensive and very popular as pets – after all, Garter Snakes are a good choice for owners with no previous experience of caring for a snake.

This Garter Snake care sheet covers all the basics of looking after a Garter Snake, but all owners should still have at least one of the excellent dedicated books available. Our favorites is undoubtedly Garter Snakes and Water Snakes. A larger and more general book on snake care e.g. Good Snakekeeping: A Comprehensive Guide to All Things Serpentine is a great idea as well.

Garter Snake Size
Few adult Garter Snakes will ever exceed a length of around 3′, making this quite a small snake and easy to find space for in almost any home.

Garter Snake Lifespan
Garter Snakes may live for up to a decade in captivity. That’s not as long as many other snakes in the pet trade, but will still require a reasonably long commitment.

Garter Snake Tank
The recommended enclosure for a Garter Snake will preferably be around 3′ long. You should get an even longer tank if you can afford it and have enough space – a bigger the tank means a happier and more active snake. However the height of the tank does not seem to be important.

Many owners choose to house their Garter Snakes in aquariums – if the tank is watertight, then it should certainly be snakeproof. This is the Universal Rocks tank that we would recommend. It’s an excellent size, simple, strong and really great value.

A smaller tank (2′ long or a little under) is required for young snakes and hatchlings as they will be stressed and nervous in a larger tank. Something like the Exo Terra All Glass Terrarium would be perfect – just make sure those doors are closed perfectly.

Regardless of the vivarium you choose, make absolutely sure that it is as secure as possible: these are small, thin snakes and can fit through gaps that you would never consider to be a risk. If you leave an escape route open, your Garter Snake will find it and exploit it, no matter how improbable it seems. The tank should be spot cleaned as necessary and all waste should be removed as soon as you notice it. The whole tank needs to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected periodically as well.

Garter Snake Substrate
Many owners use newspaper or paper towels as a substrate because they’re so cheap. But this is impossible to spot clean, paper doesn’t look very nice and it’s obviously nothing like your Garter Snake’s natural habitat. Good alternatives are newspaper pellets (like for cat litter), Carefresh and wood bark chips

Most popular of all – and usually the best choice – is a specially made reptile/snake substrate e.g. Zoo Med Aspen Snake Bedding, Zoo Med Repti Bark or Zoo Med Eco Earth.

Be careful that your snake doesn’t accidentally ingest the substrate, especially with something like aspen shavings which will readily stick to food items. If you get bark from a garden center rather than a pet shop, be sure to check it has not been covered with chemicals. Any substrate involving pine or cedar must be avoided at all costs as they can cause severe respiratory issues in your snake. Other substrates to avoid are gravel, sand, corn cob, clay cat litter and soil from the garden that is almost certainly tainted by pesticides and other chemicals.

Garter Snake Tank Accessories
A hide is an essential addition to your snake enclosure. It should have a small opening only slightly wider than your snake, and can be anything from a simple homemade affair constructed from toilet paper tubes through to more expensive, but longer lasting and more attractive, commercially available hides. Ideally you would have a few hides of a variety of shapes and sizes so your Garter Snake has some choice.

Other good furnishings are live plants, logs and rocks for your snake to climb over and around. Garter Snakes enjoy exploring any new items you give them, and they generally seem happier with more furniture than with a minimalist tank.

Garter Snake Temperature and Lighting
Your Garter Snake will need a daytime temperature maintained at around 72F-86F, with a drop overnight to about 70F, give or take a little depending if your snake originally comes from a cooler northern climate or a warmer southern one. This temperature regulation is normally achieved using a reptile heat mat, which should always be plugged into a reliable thermostat to avoid an overheating disaster that could potentially kill your snake.

The heat mat should only cover about a third of the base of the tank (to provide a good temperature gradient along the tank) and you must make sure that there is substrate over the heat mat or else it is likely to burn your snake. The other heating option is to use a heat lamp or ceramic heat emitter inside the cage, again with a thermostat. If you choose this option, it’s essential that the bulb is surrounded by a cage so that your snake doesn’t get burned.

Garter Snakes don’t have any special lighting requirements, but it’s good for them to get plenty of natural light to help maintain their internal body clocks. For this reason you should always turn off any artificial lighting at night, and also make sure that it doesn’t make the cage too hot. A straightforward 12 hours on, 12 hours off light cycle is normally effective if you use artificial light.

Garter Snake Diet
Wild Garter Snakes will eat more or less anything they can get their jaws around, but the standard foods in captivity are pinky mice and fuzzy mice, thawed out frozen fish, earthworms and nightcrawlers.

The risk with fish is a dangerous enzyme called thiaminase, which will harm your snake. Fish to avoid for this reason include carp, goldfish and catfish, while good options are salmon, perch, hake, pike, tilapia, haddock, pollock, trout, silversides (not silverside beef!) etc. Always check if a fish contains thiaminase before feeding it to your Garter Snake.

All these foods should be chopped up small for young snakes, as you shouldn’t feed them anything wider than they are, and your snake should only be fed once a week.

A light dusting of calcium supplement on its food will often be necessary for Garter Snakes, but should only be given once a fortnight, as in this case you can definitely have too much of a good thing. The calcium supplement should contain vitamin D or else your snake won’t be able to do anything with the calcium you give it. Sometimes calcium supplementation won’t be necessary if your snake is regularly fed small whole fish and rodents as it will get enough from the bones, but if the staple diet is strips of fish e.g. salmon, then supplementation will definitely be required.

Garter Snake Water
Garter Snakes need large water bowls as they are naturally semi-aquatic. The bowl should always be big enough for your snake to fully submerge in, but it’s good to give your snake a water bowl that it can actually swim in if your tank is large enough. You should provide fresh, clean water every day, and clean the water bowl out thoroughly once a week or whenever it is soiled, whichever comes sooner.

Garter Snake Shedding
Snakes must regularly shed their skin as they grow too large for it. The whole process takes between 7-10 days, and they are unlikely to eat during this time. Before the skin is shed, it will appear duller than normal and lose its sheen. Your snake’s eyes will also appear milky, which results in temporarily poor eyesight. Many snakes will soak in their water before shedding, and you can lightly mist the enclosure to increase humidity if you want, but make sure the substrate never gets wet.

Garter Snake Care Sheet

Image by Eric Begin on Flickr

If the humidity is high enough, the skin should come off in a single piece. However it’s not always a perfect process, and any leftover bits should be removed using warm, damp cotton wool. More caution is required for any old skin still attached to the eyelids – this should only be removed by a qualified vet.

Remove the old skin from your tank as soon as possible, as it is the perfect home for bacterial growth. And finally you can feed your snake again – it’ll be hungry!

Handling Garter Snakes
You have to be careful with Garter Snakes because they’re so fast and active – they’re certainly not the most relaxed snakes. However, they can be safely handled and will usually calm down a little bit as they grow more accustomed to being handled.

Handling a pet Garter Snake

Image by Jeremy McBride on Flickr

For years it was thought that Garter Snakes were not venomous, but it has relatively recently been discovered that they do in fact produce a mild venom. This venom does not pose a threat to humans, and your snake is unlikely to strike if handled carefully anyway. You should leave your new pet alone for a few days after being relocated as an unsettled snake is far more likely to strike you and it will only stress them out. It’s also recommended to wash and dry your hands before and after handling a Garter Snake to prevent the spread of bacteria from you to it or vice versa.

If you’ve got any questions about anything in this Garter Snake care sheet, please contact us and we’ll do our best to help. 🙂