Milksnakes are a subspecies of the Kingsnake. Legend has it that the snakes would slither into barns at night, curl around the legs of milk cows, and sup on their milk straight from the udder. And so they were named. Of course this isn’t true, it’s barely believable, but the name stuck.
Today there are more than two-dozen different subspecies of Milksnake; only about ten to fifteen different subspecies are readily available from breeders and dealers as captive-bred specimens.
Here are several of the most easily found and popular varieties of Milksnake. This is a nonvenomous, typically docile species that is perfect for beginners.
The Black Milksnake is a large variety, growing to about 4 to 6 feet in length. As a hatchling, it is either red, black, and white, or yellow in color. Its color gradually changes, becoming covered with dark pigments until it has turned a blackish brown or entirely black. Adults of this variety can be nervous, so take care when first picking one up.
Central Plains Milksnake
A smaller species of Milksnake, the Central Plains Milksnake grows to be just 2 feet long at most. The coloring is usually red, black, and yellowish white with very narrow banding. Even adults of this variety may only be able to eat pinky mice when full grown.
This snake is quite common in the United States and can grow from 2 to 4 feet in length. It takes on a gray and reddish brown coloring with a spotted pattern. Most snakes of this species have a brown arrowhead or spearpoint pattern on top of their head, similar to a cornsnake. The Eastern milk is easy to care for and is great for beginners.
The Honduran Milksnake is one of the most popular Milksnake subspecies. It grows to be 4 to 5 feet in length with a stout, thick body. It’s a brightly colored snake with wide bandings in red, black, and orange-yellow. Another good subspecies for beginners, the Honduran Milk is hardy, but can be nervous, so watch out for bites.
The Louisiana Milk is on the small side, growing to reach 2 feet in length at most. It is a slender snake, with the red bands being about twice as wide as the black and white bands. The Louisiana Milk rarely has yellow banding, and its snout can vary from solid black to white with reddish blotches.
Adults seldom grow to be longer than 30 inches and are brightly banded. Their yellow bands have black banding on either side against a background of red.
Nelson’s Milksnake is one of the most colorful and popular of the subspecies. It has pale bands of yellowish white that are flanked by wide and short black bands and broad red bands. It also comes in many different color morphs. Nelson’s Milksnakes can grow to be longer than 3 feet, with a slender body.
New Mexico Milksnake
One of the smallest varieties of Milksnake, the New Mexico Milk grows to between just 14 and 18 inches long. It’s a slender Milksnake and has a clean, bright color pattern that makes it extremely sought after. The red areas are broad and bright, with narrow black rings. The white rings tend to be a clean white color, not muddy at all.
Adults of this subspecies grow to just between 18 and 24 inches, making it one of the smaller subspecies of Milksnake. The Pale Milksnake hails from the northernmost regions of the Milksnake’s range and was given its name because its coloring is slightly lighter than other tricolors. Its background is never yellow, usually a dusty white, and the black rings around the red areas are small or entirely absent. The red areas are usually developed as saddles—meaning they don’t encircle the snake’s belly—and can be more orange than red.
Once a rarity, the Pueblan Milksnake is now bred in a variety of colors and is quite popular with herpetoculturists. The Pueblan Milk grows to 3 feet in length and is bred in shades of apricot, albino, and tangerine.
These are one of the most widely-distributed Milksnakes. Unlike other Milks, its red is restricted to wide saddles on the center of its back, outlined by narrow black lines. The head is mostly red, with a black and white snout, making this one of the most distinctive of the Milksnakes. It grows in excess of 3 feet in length and is a hearty eater, oftentimes feeding on full sized mice as soon as it hatches.
The Sinaloan Milk is widely bred and affordable. It grows to at least 4 feet in length and is a hearty eater from the time it hatches. Sinaloan milks can vary greatly in color but are mostly red. They can also have wide orange-red bands separated by short black bands, and some specimens can be found in solid red.
Stuart’s Milks are stout and brightly colored, growing to between 3 and 4 feet in length. The red rings on this snake are typically wide, with the black and white rings remaining narrow.
Since there are so many different subspecies of Milksnake (50+), the size can very greatly. On average, and species depending, Milksnakes can grow to between 20 and 60 inches (51 to 152 cm) in length, though some have grown up to seven feet in length.
Milksnakes that are born and raised in captivity can live for at least twelve years, so get ready to make a moderate-to-long-term commitment. The exact lifespan of your pet Milksnake will depend on its species, genetics, and quality of care.
Milksnakes are members of a large group of snakes commonly called “tricolors” by herpetoculturists and hobbyists. The term refers to the ringed three-color pattern that nearly all Milksnakes have. Variations in the Milksnakes’ coloring can be described as ringed, saddled, or blotched, and the colors are usually red and black on a whitish to yellow background.
Most of the 25 recognized subspecies of Milksnakes are quite similar, with their markings following the theme of bands around the body that vary in number and width. The basic color combinations are red/orange, yellow/white, and black. Some subspecies of Milksnake look blotched, not banded. With so many Milksnakes being bred in captivity, there are a lot of color morphs that exist, as well, with more to come.
A small but important note on the color combinations of Milksnakes: Milksnakes are not venomous, but they have evolved to use Batesian mimicry as a defense mechanism, mimicking the colors of local venomous snakes so that their shared predators will steer clear. The folksy mnemonic “red on yellow kills a fellow; red on black, venom lack” refers to the color combinations of the dangerously venomous Coral Snake that the harmless Milksnake resembles. Rhymes aside, never approach a snake in the wild, no matter how sure you think you are that it isn’t venomous!
Milksnake Care Level
Milksnakes are a perfect type of snake for beginners as well as advanced herpetoculturists and hobbyists. They are calm, gentle, and peaceful—unless provoked. With their simple cage requirements, generally small size, adaptability to life in captivity, easily supplied diet (for most species), and striking beauty, it’s no surprise that Milksnakes are among the most popular breed of pet snake in America.
Milksnakes are strict carnivores, but typically aren’t picky eaters—with the exceptions being fussy hatchlings and wild-caught specimens. Young Milksnakes eat small prey, like crickets and earthworms. Adults prefer to feast on small rodents, lizards, frogs, and even other snakes.
Mice are the preferred small rodent of choice when it comes to securing a readily available food source for your pet Milksnake. Feeder mice can be purchased at any pet shop, through a rodent breeder, or on the internet.
Depending on the size of your Milksnake, you’ll need to feed it an appropriately sized rodent. Pinkies and fuzzies (newborn mice) are best for young or small Milksnakes. As the snake grows you’ll want to increase the size and amount of food offered. An “appropriately sized” rodent is one that leaves a small bulge in the snake after it’s eaten.
Milksnakes do not require complicated feeding schedules—regularity is all they need—so choose whatever day of the week is most convenient for you and make that the feeding day. Milksnakes are usually fed once every week, with young Milksnakes being fed more often than adults.
Newborn Milksnakes can be given one or two pinky mice per feeding, full-sized adults can handle one or two adult mice or small rat pups. If you’ve got one of the larger specimens of Milksnake, an adult will usually eat two adult mice or rat pups.
Whether you’re offering your pet Milksnake live food or pre-killed and thawed food, don’t let an uneaten meal linger in the snake cage. Live prey, if left uneaten, can lash out and hurt your snake, and in some cases even kill it.
On the other end of the spectrum, a mouse that has been frozen and thawed, if left uneaten, can become contaminated by bacteria and make your snake sick. If you correctly thaw a frozen or freshly killed prey, that is the safest way to go.
Milksnakes are generally hearty eaters. If you’re dealing with a stubborn or sick Milksnake that just won’t eat, take it to a veterinarian.
Common Health Issues in Milksnakes
Milksnakes are hardy snakes that do very well in terrariums as pets. However, like any pet, they occasionally have problems. Below are several health problems common to Milksnakes and their symptoms.
Infectious Diseases and Parasites
Mites in Milksnakes are like fleas in dogs and cats, except a lot more dangerous. Milksnakes can pick up mites from other infested snakes, or from the pet shop or breeder they came from.
Mite infestations on snakes can look like lots of white, red, or black dots that, upon closer inspection, move around. Mites come out at night to feed on the blood of snakes and can cause serious stress in snakes, and in some cases death. Many commercial pet stores sell miticides to clean your snake and its cage with, but take care when using miticides around small subspecies and hatchlings. A safer alternative to commercial miticides is to give your Milksnake a quick bath in olive oil, and then carefully rubbing the snake down with a paper towel to remove excess oil. Exotic-pet veterinarians also have special medicine to kill mites.
Mouth rot, also called infectious stomatitis, is a bacterial disease that occurs in snakes when their mouths become injured or food or debris gets lodged inside, causing a yellow cheesy substance to coat the snake’s mouth and teeth, eventually eating away at its tissue.
Milksnakes can have trouble when it comes time to shed their skin if their habitat isn’t humid enough. If your Milksnake suffers from persistently patchy sheds, or if its eyecaps don’t come off along with the rest of the shed, it’s time to visit your veterinarian.
Upper respiratory infections (URIs) are usually caused by fluctuating cage temperatures and/or humidity levels, chronically cold habitats, and over-crowding. URIs are also common in snakes that are stressed out and can reoccur if they aren’t taken care of the first time. Milksnakes suffering from pneumonia or another URI will often wheeze, hold their heads upright, breathe with their mouths open, and have fluid or crusty secretions around their nostrils. Most URIs can be treated with antibiotics, so if you suspect your Milksnake has a respiratory infection take it to the vet at once.
Milksnakes are generally extremely docile and easy to handle, however, some of the subspecies’ adults can be quite nervous and may bite. Many hatchlings tend to be nippy, too, but will settle down after a few minutes of gentle handling. Keep in mind that Milksnakes are nocturnal creatures and handle them accordingly.
Supplies for the Milksnake’s Environment
Aquarium Tank or Terrarium Setup
Milksnakes are a small enough species that you can house yours in a glass aquarium with a sturdy, breathable lid and security clamps. Locking mechanisms for the aquarium aren’t necessary, though they may give your roommates a better sense of security. A good rule of thumb is to have your Milksnake’s enclosure be one and a half times larger than the length of the snake. You want to give your Milksnake plenty of room to explore and uncurl.
A proper substrate (bedding) for your pet Milksnake’s habitat can include newspaper, wood shavings, a mixture of vermiculite rocks and soil, or even sand. Whatever you do, do not use cedar as a substrate. Its natural oils can cause liver and respiratory problems in captive snakes.
Otherwise, you can get as creative as you like when it comes to choosing a substrate, just keep in mind that you’ll have to clean and replace whatever you choose. The typical terrarium will have a two-inch layer of substrate that, between spot cleanings, should be removed and replaced weekly or monthly, depending on conditions.
Water dishes in your Milksnake habitat are great for maintaining levels of humidity, as well as giving your snake a place to bathe from time to time. To maintain the proper levels of humidity, you can either place a sponge in the water dish and rewet as necessary, or you can mist your snake’s cage once to twice per day. In either case, use your hygrometer as a guide and make sure that the enclosure is properly ventilated.
Branches and Shelters
Milksnakes require hiding places where they can be by themselves from time to time (don’t we all?). Without a place for them to hide they can become stressed out and develop health issues and even aggression.
The good news is that it’s simple to provide a hiding place. It can be something as easy as a shoebox or plastic plant saucer with a hole cut out. All you need is four walls and a roof. Just keep in mind that the hiding box will need to be cleaned just like the rest of the enclosure, so choose accordingly.
The natural habitat of the Milksnake is full of nooks, crannies, trees and branches, thus branches should always be included in a Milksnake’s artificial habitat. The only considerations are that you choose branches sturdy enough to support the weight of your Milksnake, and that you soak any wild-collected branch in one part bleach-three parts water for an hour and then rinse well until you can’t smell the chlorine; let it dry overnight before placing it in your snake enclosure. This will kill any parasites and bacteria that may be living on the branch.
Heat and Light
Milksnakes do well with a 25- to 50-watt incandescent bulb with conical reflector aimed at a nearby rock or branch for basking. However, since Milksnakes are nocturnal, they don’t require the full-spectrum lighting that other reptiles like lizards and turtles do, though some herpetoculturists swear that full-spectrum lighting can add years to a Milksnake’s lifespan.
No matter what type of lighting you choose for your Milksnake terrarium, make sure it is suspended outside of the cage, over the enclosure. Light bulbs should NEVER be placed inside a terrarium, even if it is shielded. The same is true for any heat source, whether hot rocks or heating pads. Snakes tend to curl around light bulbs and other heat sources and will burn themselves if given the opportunity.
Humidity (Air Moisture)
Milksnakes require special considerations for their heat and humidity. Ideal daytime temperatures in a Milksnake enclosure are anywhere between 75 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, dropping a maximum of 4 degrees at night. As far as a heating apparatus goes, anything except hot rocks will work for Milksnakes. Just be sure to build your heating system so it provides a heating gradient within the enclosure. Snakes like to regulate their own body temperatures, so having one end of the enclosure warmer than the other will provide them wiggle room to thermoregulate.
As far as humidity requirements go, you’ll need to know where your particular species of Milksnake originates. Milksnakes from the southern end of the range will require more humidity than those from the more arid north. Most Milksnakes do well at 40 to 70 percent relative humidity. Always be sure to have a thermometer and hygrometer set up in your Milksnake enclosure to ensure appropriate air temperature and moisture.
Milksnake Habitat and History
The Milksnake is a subspecies of Kingsnake exclusive to the New World. The Milksnake’s range is expansive, stretching from southern Ontario west across the Rocky Mountains, then east all the way to the Atlantic coast, and extending as far south as northern Venezuela. In fact, the Milksnake has the longest range of any American snake and perhaps the largest of any snake in the world!
The Kingsnake, of which the Milksnake is a subspecies, was first described and classified in 1766. Many Milksnakes are still collected from the wild, but we always recommend obtaining your pet Milksnake from a reputable pet store or breeder.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Adam Denish, VMD.