Colubrid Care Sheet

Updated Dec. 22, 2023
Colubrid snake

In This Article

Species Overview

Colubrid Species Overview

With over 2,000 distinct species, colubrid snakes are the largest family of snakes. This care sheet outlines basic care needs for a variety of colubrid species, including: 

  • Rat snakes  

  • Corn snakes

  • African house snakes

  • Kingsnakes

Colubrids are native to temperate and subtropical areas throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Certain species of colubrids are venomous, while others are non-venomous. The species above are all non-venomous. 

Some colubrid species can become tolerant of gentle handling over time. But all snakes may strike if they feel ill, stressed, or threatened.  

On occasion, snakes may mistake human hands as a food source. This sometimes happens during shedding periods, when the clear scales that cover the snake’s eyes (eye caps) become loose and impair their vision. Always approach a snake calmly and quietly, and try to minimize handling when they are shedding.  

Healthy colubrid snakes will shed their skin multiple times a year. When snakes get ready to shed, their eye color turns cloudy blue or green and their skin develops a whitish sheen. 

All reptiles are potential carriers of infectious diseases, including Salmonella bacteria, which is zoonotic (transmittable to people). Pet parents should always wash their hands before and after handling their snake or its habitat’s contents. 

Colubrid Characteristics 

Difficulty of Care 

Intermediate 

Average Lifespan 

Up to 15 years with proper care, depending on species 

Average Adult Size 

1–6 feet long, depending on species 

Diet 

Carnivorous 

Minimum Habitat Size 

At least 20 gallons long for juveniles; 40+ gallons for adults, depending on species 

Colubrid Supply Checklist

To keep a colubrid happy and healthy, pet parents should have these basic supplies on hand: 

Colubrid Habitat

Choosing the Right Enclosure 

At a minimum, an adult colubrid’s enclosure should be large enough for the snake to stretch their full body out comfortably. This means that a 6-foot snake needs a terrarium with at least 6 feet of horizontal floor space. All enclosures should be well-ventilated and have a secure, screened lid to prevent the snake from escaping.  

Young colubrid snakes need a 20-gallon long tank (30” L x 12” W x 12” H) or larger, while adults should be housed in a breeder tank that’s 40 gallons or larger. 

Colubrid snakes will reach adult size within two to three years, depending on their species. As the snake grows, pet parents should also increase the size of the snake’s habitat. Always provide the largest habitat possible.  

Habitat Mates 

Colubrid snake pets are solitary animals that should be housed alone. Keeping more than one snake in the same habitat can result in stress, aggression, and competition. Pet parents should also never keep different species of reptiles or other animals in the same habitat. 

Temperature 

Colubrid snake pets need a temperature gradient with a warm and cool end to regulate their body temperature. Temperature requirements vary due to specific species’ needs. However, most colubrid snakes need the warm end of their habitat kept at 90 F, while the cool end should be no lower than 70 F.  

Pet parents must check the temperatures of their snake’s habitat daily. Two thermometers—one in the warm area and one in the cool area—should be placed in the enclosure so that both zones can be checked at once. A digital point-and-shoot thermometer can also be used to read habitat temperatures instantly. 

Light and Heat Sources 

Pet parents should use an incandescent light or ceramic heat bulb to supply radiant heat in their snake’s habitat. The wattage needed for the bulb depends on the size of the enclosure, the distance of the bulb from the snake, and the ambient temperature of the room in which the enclosure is kept. Adjust the wattage of the bulb to maintain the recommended temperature gradient within the tank.

Note: Some light bulbs provide not only light to the tank but also heat and/or ultraviolet (UV) light. Pet parents should check the light sources they are considering to fully understand their function in the tank. 

Heat sources should be attached to a thermostat to keep temperatures within a safe and comfortable range. 

Hot rocks should not be used because they can get too warm and cause injury.  

In some climates, under-tank heating pads also may be added to a snake’s enclosure to maintain appropriate tank temperatures if necessary. Under-tank heat mats must be attached to a thermostat to help ensure that pets do not get burned. 

Lightbulbs should never be placed inside a snake’s habitat and should instead be suspended above the enclosure with a light fixture. Otherwise, the snake may try to curl itself around the bulb, causing severe burns. 

White lights should not be left on continuously, as they will disrupt the snake’s natural sleep cycle and negatively affect its health. At night, turn off lights in the snake’s enclosure or switch to a nocturnal or infrared light to ensure the snake can rest. 

UV Light 

Studies show that daily exposure to UV light can help improve immune system function and promote normal behavior in all reptiles. As a rule of thumb, pet parents should provide their snake 8–12 hours of UV light daily to imitate natural sunlight.  

UV lights should be placed about 1–2 feet away from where the reptile sits, depending on the manufacturer's recommendation.

Replace lights every six months, as their potency wanes over time. 

Do not block the UV light source with glass or plastic, as this will block and filter out UV rays. 

Humidity 

While exact needs vary by species, most colubrid snakes do well in a habitat with 40–60% humidity. During shedding cycles, pet parents should increase the enclosure’s humidity by misting the snake and the enclosure décor and by providing an open bowl of water large enough to allow the snake to soak. A hygrometer (humidity gauge) should be used to measure the enclosure’s humidity. 

Substrate 

Paper-based bedding, reptile carpet, cypress mulch, coconut husk, and aspen wood shavings are all suitable choices for substrate. Depending on the type of substrate used, pet parents should keep a few things in mind: 

  • Paper-based bedding is ideal because it’s digestible in case the snake ingests some. 

  • If aspen shavings are used as a substrate, they must be replaced weekly to prevent the bedding from getting excessively wet or soiled and becoming moldy. 

  • If wood shavings, mulch, or coconut husk bedding of any kind is used, the snake should be fed in a separate enclosure without any substrate. Otherwise, the snake may consume bedding particles that are indigestible and can cause gastrointestinal obstruction. 

  • If reptile carpet is used, it must be cleaned and replaced often to prevent bacteria from accumulating. 

Pine and cedar bedding should not be used, as they have oils that can irritate a snake’s skin and cause illness. Particulate matter substrates (like wood chips, sand, and walnut shells) should also be avoided. These materials can irritate snakes’ sensitive eyes and mouths. They are also indigestible and can lead to life-threatening gastrointestinal tract obstruction if consumed. 

Decor and Accessories 

Hiding Area

Pet parents should provide their colubrid snake pet with at least two hiding areas—one kept on the warmer side of the enclosure and one on the cooler side. In addition to offering the snake some privacy, hideouts can help colubrid snakes regulate their body temperature; they give the snake a space away from their enclosure’s direct basking area. 

Pet parents should monitor their snake's behavior to be sure they are not hiding all the time. If they do, they won’t benefit from UV exposure. 

Synthetic or natural-wood hiding logs are recommended. 

Hiding logs should always be large enough for the snake to fit inside comfortably. Pet parents need to increase the size of their hideout boxes as their colubrid grows. 

Driftwood and Climbing Branches

Pet parents should add driftwood and climbing branches to their colubrid snake’s habitat to enrich the snake’s environment and encourage exercise. 

Climbing branches must be large and sturdy enough to support the snake’s body. Otherwise, the branch could topple over and cause injury. 

Moss

Add moistened sphagnum moss to the inside of a hideout box kept on the warm side of a colubrid snake’s enclosure to create a humid hide. Moss holds moisture well and can aid in healthy shedding. 

Moss should be replaced often to prevent mold from forming. 

Plants and Terrarium Background

Adding plants and a terrarium background to a snake’s enclosure can enrich the snake’s environment and add some aesthetic flair. Make sure that any live plants added to the enclosure are non-toxic for colubrids. 

Colubrid Cleaning and Maintenance

A colubrid’s habitat needs to be cleaned and disinfected at least once a week with either a commercially available habitat cleaner or a 3% bleach solution. Pet parents should always wash their hands before and after handling their snake or their habitat’s contents, as all reptiles are potential carriers of infectious diseases. 

To clean a colubrid’s habitat, take these steps: 

  1. Move the snake to a secure environment. Remove any old substrate, decor, and accessories from the habitat. 

  1. Scrub the empty tank and any furnishings with a reptile habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution. The bleach solution should stay on the habitat for at least 10 minutes to ensure that the surfaces are disinfected properly. If using a commercial habitat cleaner, follow the manufacturer's instructions. 

  1. Rinse the habitat and accessories thoroughly with water, making sure to remove any trace amounts or residual smells left by the cleaning agent or bleach solution.  

  1. Allow the habitat and its contents to dry completely before placing new substrate and clean accessories into the habitat. 

  1. Return the snake to the clean habitat. 

Colubrid Diet and Nutrition

Colubrid pet snakes feed on whole frozen rodents that have been thawed, such as mice and rats. Snakes should always have access to fresh clean water. Use feeding tongs, not fingers, to offer meals. 

A nutritious and well-balanced diet for a colubrid consists of appropriately sized frozen rodents, thawed and warmed (see instructions on warming below). Offer food in a shallow dish or bowl to lessen the chance of the snake ingesting their tank’s substrate. 

A colubrid’s ideal feeding schedule will depend on its age, size, and activity level:  

Juvenile colubrid snakes should be fed once a week. Pet parents should begin juvenile snakes on a diet of “pinkies,” or young and nearly hairless mice. As the snake grows into adulthood, it can be transitioned to a diet of slightly larger immature mice (“fuzzies” and larger “hoppers”). 

Adult colubrid snakes should be fed once every one to two weeks. Adult snakes can be offered full-grown mice and rats. 

Prey should be around the same size as the snake’s width at mid-body. For example, if the snake’s midsection is 1 inch in diameter, its prey should also be no wider than 1 inch. 

Fresh, clean water should always be available and replaced daily. Since reptiles absorb water through their skin to stay hydrated, especially during shedding periods, their water dishes should be large and shallow enough to allow them to soak in them.  

Feeding Guidelines 

Live prey should not be fed. While still alive, rodents can become aggressive and leave severe wounds that lead to life-threatening infections. If the pet parent chooses to feed live rodents, they must supervise the snake closely and not leave them unattended. 

Ideally, feeding sessions should take place in a separate enclosure. That way, the snake will not learn to associate their pet parent’s hand or the opening of their usual habitat with feeding. Instead of their fingers, pet parents should use long feeding tongs to offer food to their colubrid. 

How to Thaw Frozen Food 

To thaw frozen prey, take these steps: 

  1. Remove the needed number of food items from the bag. 

  1. Put the frozen food in a sealed plastic bag and place it in a thawing container filled with cold water. The thawing container should only be used for preparing your reptile’s frozen meals. 

  1. Keep the food in the water until it thaws. Discard the cold water. 

  1. Refill the thawing container with warm water. 

  1. Place the thawed prey, still in the sealed plastic bag, in the warm water. Allow it to soak for 10-15 minutes before discarding the water. 

  1. Just before feeding, run nearly hot water over the thawed food to warm it above room temperature. 

  1. Remove the thawed food from the container and plastic bag.  

  1. Using feeding tongs, offer the food to the pet right away. 

Remember: Never use a microwave to thaw or warm frozen rodents, and never offer food that's still frozen to a pet. Frozen food that is not consumed should never be refrozen for future use, as this encourages bacteria to form in the food. 

Avoid preparing frozen rodents in the same area used to prepare human food. If this is unavoidable, be sure to disinfect the area thoroughly after use. 

Colubrid Grooming and Care

Shedding

Colubrid snakes shed their skin regularly. Healthy snakes usually shed their skin in one complete piece. Younger snakes that are actively growing tend to shed more frequently than adults. 

When snakes get ready to shed, their eye color turns cloudy blue or green, and their skin develops a whitish sheen. 

A snake’s eye caps, also called its spectacles, should come off with the rest of its shed skin. If the eye caps do not fall off, pet parents should consult a veterinarian and not try to remove the caps. 

Snakes may become irritable and lose interest in eating while shedding. Avoid handling snakes during shedding periods. 

Colubrid snakes can soak themselves in a shallow, open water dish to help them shed. Damp paper towels and moistened sphagnum moss should be placed in the snake’s enclosure to encourage healthy shedding. Pet parents can also mist their colubrid snake daily with warm water to support proper hydration. 

If their snake is not soaking on its own, pet parents should soak their snake for 10–15 minutes, two to three times a week. 

All reptiles are potential carriers of infectious diseases, so pet parents should always wash their hands before and after handling their snake or the habitat’s contents. 

Due to their slow metabolisms, colubrid snakes can go weeks and even months without eating. However, they often become ill if they don’t eat for extended periods. If a snake misses more than a couple of feeding sessions or if it regurgitates, the pet parent should consult a veterinarian, especially if the snake isn’t shedding at the time. 

Colubrid Veterinary Care

Annual Care

Colubrid pet snakes should be seen by a veterinarian once annually. They can be transported using a ventilated, plastic lidded bin, with or without a snake bag. It is recommended to take pictures of their enclosure, diet, heaters, and lights (including exact specifications from the packaging) so your veterinarian can assess their husbandry as part of the exam.

Signs of a Healthy Colubrid

  • Clean, clear eyes

  • Intact skin with no ulcerations or stuck shed

  • Clean vent

  • No swellings or bumps

  • Regular flicking of their tongue

  • Relaxed demeanor

When to Call a Vet

  • Cloudy eyes or eyes that appear to have something stuck to the surface

  • Blisters, ulcerations, stuck shed, or other lesions on the skin

  • Discharge around the vent

  • Tumors

  • Lethargy

  • Loss of appetite

  • Sudden inability to move a section of their body

Common Illnesses in Colubrids

  • Dysecdysis (stuck shed, retained eye spectacles)

  • Respiratory infections

  • Oral infections

  • Cloacal prolapse

  • GI obstruction or constipation

  • Dystocia (stuck eggs)

  • Internal or external parasites

  • Trauma—especially bite wounds if feeding live prey

  • Burns

Colubrids FAQs

What is considered a colubrid?

Colubrids are the largest family of snakes. What sets them apart from other snakes is based on anatomical differences such as their lung shape and head scales. They are rarely venomous and often lack teeth that other snakes have. Colubrids are usually small, brightly colored, and docile.

Are there any venomous colubrids?

Technically, there are several species of venomous colubrids. However the list of colubrids that are venomous to humans is very small, and they are not included in the guidelines of this care sheet.

What is the difference between a colubrid and an elapid?

Elapids are a colubrid’s dangerous, scary cousins. Elapids are fanged, venomous snakes like cobras.

Is a corn snake a colubrid?

Yes, corn snakes are part of the colubrid snake family. They’re the poster child for colubrids and a fantastic choice of pet for those just starting out with snakes.

Featured Image: JasonOndreicka/iStock via Getty Images Plus


Maria Zayas, DVM

WRITTEN BY

Maria Zayas, DVM

Veterinarian

Dr. Zayas has practiced small animal and exotic medicine all over the United States and currently lives in Colorado with her 3 dogs, 1 cat,...


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