Taking its name from the corn granaries, which attracted mice and then these mouse predators, the corn snake makes an excellent pet snake. It is generally docile, relatively easy to care for, and does not get very large; it's a great choice especially for beginner snake owners. However, these reptiles are also favorites of even experienced keepers due to the array of beautiful colors and patterns selective, captive breeding has produced. Closely related to the rat snakes (as cousins in the genus Elaphe), corn snakes are sometimes called red rat snakes. They are native to the southeastern United States, are mostly land-dwelling, and are active mainly at dusk and dawn.
Common Names: Corn snake, red rat snake
Scientific Name: Elaphe guttata
Adult Size: 2.5 to 4 feet long on average; occasionally up to 6 feet long
Life Expectancy: 15 to 20 years
Click Play to Learn More About the Low-Key Corn Snake
Corn Snake Behavior and Temperament
These low-key snakes allow people to handle them and are generally docile. But when they feel threatened, especially in the wild, they may vibrate their tails as a defense mechanism, similarly to rattlesnakes.
Like most snakes, corn and rat snakes are unrivaled escape artists. They will push at the lid with their noses looking for weaknesses and tiny openings, so the fit of the lid is very important. If a snake gets out of its cage it can get lost or hurt. An escaped snake is also likely to give your household visitors a good scare.
Housing the Corn Snake
A 20-gallon long glass tank (a longer and shallower version of the 20-gallon tank) makes a good-sized enclosure for a corn snake. It is important to use a secure-fitting lid that can be clamped down from the top.
In order to feel safe, corn snakes need places to hide. Provide a hide box (any closed-in container like an upside-down cardboard box) that is just large enough for the snake to curl up in; if it is too large the snake will not feel as secure. Pieces of bark can also provide hiding spots for your snake if they are atop a substrate that allows burrowing under the bark. Ideally, there should be an available hiding place in both the cooler and warmer ends of the enclosure. Also, provide a forked branch for climbing.
Maintaining your corn snake's home at the correct temperature is vital. An overhead incandescent heat lamp is the preferred method of heating, but corn snakes are from temperate climates, so they do not need tropical temperatures. Keep an ambient temperature of 80 to 85 F. A basking site should be 85 to 88 F. At night, the temperature should drop only as low as 75 F. Under tank heating pads or heat tape can be used, but they can make it difficult to monitor how hot the enclosure is, so use thermometers inside.
Luckily, corn snakes prefer the humidity found in a typical household. Between 35 and 60 percent is a good range for the ambient air in the enclosure: the higher end of this range will promote healthy shedding. Monitor your corn snake enclosure with a hygrometer, especially in the dryer winter months; you may need to mist the tank or refill an evaporating water bowl more frequently.
These snakes like to burrow and hide, so using a layer of loose substrate (floor lining) on the bottom of the enclosure is key. A variety of materials can be used as a bottom layer for the enclosure. Inkless newspaper is the utilitarian choice since it is very easy to clean up, but its appearance in the cage leaves a little to be desired. Indoor/outdoor carpeting ("Astroturf") can be used, and if you cut two pieces, you can rotate them by swapping the clean one out for the dirty one at cleaning time; wash and thoroughly dry the soiled piece before using it.
For the top layer, aspen shavings can be used. The chips that are soiled with feces can simply be scooped out; clean and refresh shavings as needed. Move the snake to a separate container for feeding so that the shavings are not inadvertently ingested. Do not use pine or cedar shavings because the aromatic oils can cause irritation and respiratory issues in your reptile pet. Sand, soil, and corncob are also not good choices as substrates for corn snakes.
Food and Water
Corn snakes are carnivores. In the wild, they stalk their prey primarily via smell rather than sight. Captive corn snakes should be fed pre-killed frozen mice that are properly thawed. Hatchlings are started out on pinkie mice for feedings, and the size of the prey should be increased as the snake grows. The prey item can be as wide or a little wider than the snake's head.
Feed growing snakes twice per week; adults need only be fed one appropriately sized prey item every week or two. Your snake's appetite might decline around the time of a shed, so reduce feeding frequency if your snake is about to start shedding, evidenced by cloudy eyes and dulling of the skin color.
As corn snakes do drink water by absorbing it through their mouths, a water dish is also necessary; it's important to keep the water meticulously clean. Snakes often use their water to aid them in defecation; when this happens, dump the dish, and clean and refill immediately. A heavy shallow dish several inches in diameter makes a good water source. You may even find your snake soaking in the dish, particularly before a shed. Use non-chlorinated water whenever possible.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
Mouth rot, or infectious stomatitis, is a bacterial infection of the mouth that often causes saliva bubbles as well as inflammation in and around the mouth. If left untreated, this ailment can cause infection in the bone, and the snake's teeth may be lost. A toothless snake will not be able to eat correctly.
As with most snake breeds, corn snakes are susceptible to fungal disease and respiratory infections. Fungal infection is marked by discoloration of the skin. A sign of respiratory infection is open-mouth breathing or wheezing. All of these health issues require treatment by an exotic animal veterinarian who has expertise in reptiles.
Choosing Your Corn Snake
When choosing a snake, a captive-bred specimen is the best choice. One shouldn't be difficult to find since corn snakes breed fairly readily in captivity. Look for a snake that doesn't have any retained skin from a shed. Choose a snake with clear eyes, no cuts or scrapes, and no mites or ticks. Also, a clean cloacal vent, an alert head, and mouth with a pink tongue and small amount of clear saliva are all good signs of health.
Similar Species to the Corn Snake
Due to its brownish-orange coloring, the corn snake is often mistaken for the venomous copperhead snake (Agkistrodon contortrix), but the two species share few attributes other than color. Copperheads have sideways hourglass markings on the back; from the side, they look like a line of Hershey Kisses chocolates.
If you're interested in other snakes similar to the corn snake, check out:
Otherwise, check out other types of reptiles and amphibians that can be your pet!
Common Problems in Pet Snakes. VCA Animal Hospitals.
Is Your Snake Sick? University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Snake Fungal Disease. National Wildlife Health Center, United States Geological Survey.