Black Rat Snakes

Black rat snakes are easy to care for

Black rat snake
Black rat snake on a fence. Getty Images/Joe McDonald

Rat snakes are colubrid snakes that are among the most popular pet snakes. After the corn snake, the black rat snake is the member of the rat snake family most often kept as a pet.

These diurnal snakes are sometimes mistaken for rattlesnakes in the wild, but are not venomous, and are in fact docile and easy-to-care-for pets. 

  • Name: Black rat snake, Western rat snake, pilot black snake, black snake, Pantherophis obsoletus
  • Size: About 3 to 8 feet in length
  • Lifespan: 10 to 30 years in captivity

Black Rat Snakes Behavior and Temperament

To someone who is not familiar with snakes, the black rat snake may be mistaken for a rattlesnake when it wrinkles its body up before striking his prey. But rat snakes are non-venomous colubrids that are typically pretty calm when handled regularly. They are similar to corn snakes and are not aggressive. If it's feeling threatened, however, a black rat snake will emit a "musk" odor to fend off a predator. 

Black rat snakes are found in the wild in Canada and the United States, are excellent climbers, and can even swim when necessary. Their smaller size and less demanding temperature requirements compared to other snakes make black rat snakes popular pets both among first-time snake owners and experienced snake handlers. 

Housing Black Rat Snakes

Since rat snakes are good climbers (semi-arboreal), maintaining an extra secure enclosure is key to keeping your snake in his home.

A secure latch is necessary to any black rat snake house, as well as some height to the cage, to allow your snake to climb without escaping.

A water bowl large enough for your snake to fit in to allow a good soaking should be provided at all times along with a substrate (bedding) to allow burrowing and hiding.

In the wild, black rat snakes spend most of their time in heavily wooded areas, so a substrate that reflects this natural environment is recommended. 

Rat snakes are hardy snakes and don't require much maintenance once their cage is set up. Cleaning their cage as needed and keeping their water bowl clean will be your main duties besides feeding.

Heat

Rat snakes prefer cooler temperatures than some snakes but to keep them from hibernating you should keep their enclosure between 80 and 85 degrees, with a minimum temperature of 70 degrees at night. Special reptile heat lights should be used to maintain these temperatures.

Don't use hot rocks, as they can be dangerous and cause burns on your snake. Under tank heaters also are not recommended because they make it difficult to regulate the ambient temperature. Ceramic heat emitters and incandescent heat light bulbs are preferred. 

Light

Unlike other snake breeds, ultraviolet (UVB) lighting is not necessary for black rat snakes. If you're using any heat lights that emit a visible white light, these should be placed on a timer or turned on and off every 10 to 12 hours to replicate the natural day and night cycle.

Substrate

The bedding in a black rat snake's enclosure should be clean and dry.

Since this is a snake that likes to burrow, it may spend a good amount of time in the bottom of its cage. Newspapers are an inexpensive and popular substrate material, but they're not the most attractive option. If you have it, a fresh piece of astroturf can be used (don't reuse old Astroturf). Pine bark chips or aspen shavings are other materials that will work well, and can be scooped out when soiled (much like cat litter in a litter box).

Sand is not a good option for this snake's substrate since it's not solid enough and the animal may inhale it, causing respiratory problems. You also should avoid using pine shavings or cedar shavings, because the strong aromas may irritate your snake's sensitive respiratory system.

Be sure to thoroughly wash and dry any substrate material you plan to reuse before putting it back into your snake's enclosure.

Poor husbandry is a major cause of illness among captive snakes. 

Food and Water

Rat snakes are constricting snakes which means they wrap their bodies around their food before eating it to suffocate it. In the wild they catch live rodents and kill them but in captivity they will eat pre-killed prey, which is a much safer option.

Mice and rats are the prey of choice for pet rat snakes as they are readily available from many pet stores and can be ordered frozen in bulk online. Feeding an adult rat snake once a week is a good starting point but this will vary depending on the size of the food and the size of your snake. Rat snakes, like other snakes, also won't eat if they are about to shed or are currently shedding.

Common Health Problems

Like other constricting reptiles, black rat snakes are prone to mouth rot, or infectious stomatitis. This painful bacterial infection of the mouth displays as saliva bubbles as well as inflammation in and around the snake's mouth. It's imperative to treat mouth rot; an advanced infection can cause the snake's teeth to fall out. 

Black rat snakes also are susceptible to fungal and respiratory infections. If your snake is breathing with its mouth open or wheezing, these are signs of a respiratory problem. Discolored skin indicates a possible fungal infection. 

All of the above are conditions that require treatment by a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles. 

Choosing Your Pet Black Rat Snake

To ensure you're getting a healthy snake, you should obtain one from a reputable reptile breeder. It's not advised to take in a wild snake; you have no way of knowing its health history, and the animal is unlikely to thrive for very long. 

A healthy black rat snake won't have excess skin (which may be leftover from an unsuccessful shedding). It should have clear eyes (cloudy eyes are a sign of illness), no signs of mites, ticks, cuts or scrapes (all of which manifest in skin discoloration or marks), and should be alert and flicking its tongue.

A lethargic snake is not a healthy snake, although some black rat snakes may try to hide if they're feeling nervous.

This is normal behavior. 

Similar Species to the Black Rat Snake

If you're interested in other snakes similar to the black rat snake, check out these breeds: