Black Rat Snake: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

Black rat snake
Getty Images/Joe McDonald

Rat snakes are among the most popular pet snakes. And after the corn snake, the black rat snake is the member of this snake family that you'll most often find as a pet. Black rat snakes are found in the central portion of North America, and in the wild they're sometimes mistaken for rattlesnakes. However, they are not venomous and in fact are rather shy and docile. Their smaller size and less demanding temperature requirements compared to many other snakes make black rat snakes popular pets both among first-time snake owners and experienced handlers. 

Species Overview

Common Names: Black rat snake, western rat snake, pilot black snake, black snake

Scientific Name: Pantherophis obsoletus

Adult Size: 3 to 6 feet long

Lifespan: 10 to 30 years in captivity

Black Rat Snake Behavior and Temperament

The black rat snake might be mistaken for a rattlesnake because it wrinkles up its body and freezes before striking its prey or when it feels threatened. This snake also might vibrate its tail like a rattlesnake when threatened. And it can emit a musky odor that's intended to deter a predator. Moreover, black rat snakes will use their strong, agile bodies to stand their ground and strike when provoked, such as when they’re under attack from a predator in the wild. However, they more commonly flee from confrontation. Around people, black rat snakes are typically pretty calm and not aggressive if they are handled regularly. 

Housing the Black Rat Snake

Because rat snakes are good climbers, maintaining an extra secure enclosure is key to keeping your snake in its home. A solid latch is necessary to any black rat snake house, as well as some height to the cage to allow your snake climbing room. A 30- to 40-gallon tank is suitable, though the larger (and taller) the better.

Furthermore, 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 fresh will be your main duties besides feeding.

Heat

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

Don't use hot rocks, as they can be dangerous and burn 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 many other snake species, 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-night cycle.

Humidity

Black rat snakes prefer a moderate humidity level of around 35% to 60%. The humidity should be on the higher end during shedding. Monitor humidity with a hygrometer, and increase it with misting or a bowl of water if necessary.

Substrate

The bedding in a black rat snake's enclosure should be clean and dry. Because this is a snake that likes to burrow, it might spend a good amount of time at the bottom of its cage. Newspapers are an inexpensive and popular substrate material. A piece of reptile carpet also can be used. Plus, pine bark chips or aspen shavings are other materials that work well, and they can be scooped out when soiled (much like cat litter in a litter box).

Sand is not a good substate option because the snake can inhale it, causing respiratory problems. You also should avoid using pine shavings or cedar shavings, as the strong aromas can 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 the prey. In the wild they catch and kill live rodents. 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. Like other snakes, rat snakes generally won't eat if they are about to shed or are currently shedding.

Common Health and Behavior Problems

Black rat snakes are generally docile and easy to manage behaviorally if you handle them often. But in terms of their health, these 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 is 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 Black Rat Snake

To ensure you're getting a healthy snake, you should obtain one from a reputable reptile breeder, which often charge around $50 to $100 for this species. It's not advised to take in a wild snake. This might not be legal in your area, 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 can denote an unsuccessful shedding). It should have clear eyes (cloudy eyes are a sign of illness) and no skin discoloration or cuts (which are potential signs of mites, ticks, or injuries). Also, it should be alert and flicking its tongue.

A lethargic snake is not a healthy snake, though some black rat snakes might try to hide if they're feeling nervous. This is normal behavior. 

Similar Species to the Black Rat Snake

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