Kingsnakes and Milk Snakes: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

King Snake by the curb

Don DeBold / Creative Commons / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Milk and king snakes are native in southern parts of Canada, throughout the U.S., and Central and South America. These snakes are beautiful, docile, and nonvenomous. Milk snakes are a subspecies of 45 kinds of kingsnake; there are 24 subspecies of milk snakes alone. These snakes are easy to keep and are a good beginner snake. They vary significantly in size, color, and patterns. Many subspecies have striking, beautiful patterns, including some that have a natural defense of mimicking the red, black, and yellow color banding of venomous coral snakes. A key difference is nonvenomous king and milk have black bands that touch red bands, while coral snakes have yellow bands that touch red.

Species Overview

Common Name: Kingsnake, milk snake

Scientific Name: Lamproletis genus

Adult Size: 14 to 60 inches long

Life Expectancy: 20 to 30 years

Kingsnake and Milk Snake Behavior and Temperament

All varieties of kingsnakes are easy to handle after they get used to you. They are low maintenance, requiring minimal care throughout the week.

This snake rarely strikes; usually, if it does, it confused a finger with a prey item. A king or milk snake bite does not hurt. When it feels threatened, it will try to get away from you. It will also excrete a musky scent from its anal glands (smelly but not harmful) or rattle the tip of its tail, much like a rattlesnake would as a warning.

After letting a new snake settle for a few days after bringing it home, you can start handling your snake. Be gentle and persistent, with daily short sessions at first to build trust. It shouldn't take too long for the snake to get comfortable with handling. Do not handle snakes immediately after eating; it can cause them to regurgitate their meal.

These snakes are constrictors. They may try to wrap themselves around your arm, but they cannot harm you. To unwrap them, start from the tail end as their head tends to be stronger.

Housing Your Kingsnake or Milk Snake

A secure cage is vitally important. Kingsnakes are notorious for testing their enclosures and escaping from the smallest of spaces. The enclosure will require a securely latched top. These snakes can sneak through tiny gaps that seem too small. Leave no possible gaps, holes, or thin breaks in the cage top.

King and milk snakes should be kept solitary. Kingsnakes might eat other cage mates.

Hatchlings or the smaller New Mexico milk snake can live in a 10-gallon aquarium tank. However, medium-sized (36 inches) adult snakes need a 20-gallon tank, and larger, full-grown snakes (60 inches) would thrive in a larger enclosure, such as a 60-gallon tank. King and milk snakes are quite active and need the room. Snakes that have the room to stretch may also have a reduced incidence of respiratory infections.

Several hiding spots should be provided: Half rounds of bark, commercial rock hides, overturned flower pots, half coconut shells, and even cardboard boxes can be used. To give the cage a naturalistic feel, you can include rocks and branches in the cage.

You will need to clean the cage entirely at least every 6 months. In between these overhauls, spot clean or scoop out feces, and clean the water bowl every day.

Heat

Reptiles are cold-blooded creatures that need to self-regulate their body temperature by moving between warmer and cooler spots in their habitat. Provide a thermal gradient or range of temperatures in their enclosure from 76 to 86 F (24 to 30 C) during the day and a drop to about 70 to 74 F (21 to 23 C) at night. There should be hiding spots provided at each end of the gradient.

Most owners prefer under-tank heaters (placed under half the tank) to provide the heat. Never use electric hot rocks; they can cause burns. If using overhead heating, radiant heat sources like ceramic heat emitters are better than incandescent bulbs for nocturnal animals.

Light

Primarily nocturnal, they do not need lighting as long as your room gets enough light to indicate the switch between night and day. Most nocturnal animals do not need ultraviolet light, although a UVB (5.0) fluorescent light can be beneficial to aid in calcium absorption from their food items.

Humidity

King and milk snakes do not need high humidity levels—40 to 60 percent is sufficient. A hygrometer or humidity gauge will help you check moisture levels. In most cases, a shallow dish of water in the cage should be adequate. During shedding, they may benefit from added humidity. If you notice your snake is entering a shed phase (skin appears filmy, eyes turn a milky blue color), mist the cage lightly or provide a humidity box. You can make a simple humidity box out of a covered plastic container, cut a hole in the lid large enough for the snake to climb in, and line it with moistened sphagnum moss.

Substrate

Substrate is the bedding or lining for the bottom of your pet's cage. For new snakes, paper towels or butcher paper are ideal for facilitating cleaning and allowing you to monitor feces.

Various substrates that can be used include reptile carpeting, Astroturf, reptile bark, mulch, or aspen shavings (never use cedar, redwood, or pine). If shavings are used, make sure they are not ingested with the snake's food.

Reptile carpeting or Astroturf is the easiest, safest, and most economical option. It is washable and reusable. You can feed the snake on this surface without worrying about the snake eating the substrate, and you can have multiple pieces ready-cut for the cage when it gets soiled.

Food and Water

King and milk snakes are fed mice or baby rats. As a general rule, feed the snake the size of a mouse that is roughly equal to the width of the snake at its widest part (excluding the head). Feed hatchlings and juveniles (subadult) twice a week. Adults can be fed adult mice (or weanling rats) once a week. If the snake is too lean (body not rounded, can see ribs or backbone) feed twice a week. Many king and milk snakes tend to eat less in the fall and winter.

As with other pet snakes, feed pre-killed mice (usually frozen from a pet supply source) to ensure that the prey cannot injure the snake. Thaw frozen mice to room temperature and feed in a separate feeding cage (with no substrate) or their cage if it has a safe flooring.

Since snakes often defecate in the water, clean out the dish daily, and refresh with fresh, filtered water.

Common Health Problems

The biggest threat to a pet kingsnake or milk snake is a respiratory infection. These snakes can get colds or pneumonia, which is often caused by a problem with the temperature in the cage. Symptoms can include bubbling or gurgling at the mouth, gasping, or mucus around the nose.

If you notice regurgitated food items in the cage, it can be caused by handling the snake too soon after feeding. It is not necessarily a sign of illness, although it can be. Other reasons for regurgitated food: The food offered was too large, or the enclosure is too cool. If regurgitation recurs, take the snake to an exotics veterinarian.

Choosing Your Kingsnake or Milk Snake

Milk and kingsnakes breed quite readily in captivity, so it should be relatively easy to find a captive-bred specimen. You can find reputable local breeders at a reptile expo or through a referral from another snake owner or an exotics vet. Make sure your snake is already a good eater of pre-killed mice. If you have doubts, ask for a demonstration of your snake feeding.

You can expect to pay $30 to $200, depending on the morph (color), the rareness of the variety, and age. Hatchlings usually cost less, since adults are proven eaters and thriving.

Signs of a healthy snake include a firm, rounded body; no discharge from the nose; no dusty specks on the body of the snake (mites); no open-mouth breathing or gasping; inside of mouth looks pink (not red or cheesy); shiny, smooth skin (no sores or scabs), clean fecal opening (vent), and movement without tremors.

A new snake may not be tame but should settle down reasonably well with gentle handling. A distressed snake will wave its body in the air, trying to escape. Most king and milk snakes will settle down after a bit and wrap gently around your hands.

Similar Species to Kingsnakes and Milk Snakes

If king or milk snakes interest you, you may want to look into related species:

Otherwise, check out other types of reptiles and amphibians that can be your new pet.