Milk Snake Care Sheet

Maria Zayas, DVM
By Maria Zayas, DVM on Feb. 29, 2024
Milk snake

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In This Article

Species Overview

Milk Snake Species Overview

Milk snakes are a slender, gentle subspecies of the kingsnake. This care sheet outlines basic care needs for a variety of milk snakes, including: 

  • Banana milk snakes 

  • Desert milk snakes 

  • Eastern milk snakes 

  • Pueblan milk snakes 

Milk snakes are not venomous. However, they do closely resemble the venomous coral snake, which can be found in the same geographic region.  

To distinguish milk snakes from coral snakes, look at their scales: in nearly all milk snakes, the red bands of scales touch black bands. 

Milk Snake Characteristics 

Difficulty of Care 


Average Lifespan 

Up to 15+ years with proper care, depending on species 

Average Adult Size 

2 to 4 feet long, depending on species 



Minimum Habitat Size 

10+ gallons for juveniles; 20 to 40+ gallons for adults, depending on the length of the snake’s body 


Milk Snake Handling

Most milk snakes are tolerant of gentle handling. But, like all other snakes, they 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. 

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 their habitat’s contents. 

Milk Snake Supply Checklist

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

  • Appropriately sized habitat (10+ gallons for juveniles; 20 to 40+ gallons for adults, depending on the length of the snake’s body) 

  • Frozen rodents 

  • Substrate 

  • Sphagnum moss 

  • Water dish 

  • Hideaway place 

  • Climbing decor 

  • Plants 

  • Under-tank heater (must be paired with a thermostat) 

  • Thermostat 

  • Thermometers 

  • Humidity gauge 

  • Heat emitter 

  • Heat fixture 

  • UV light emitter 

  • Mister 

Milk Snake Habitat

Choosing the Right Enclosure 

All habitats should be well-ventilated and secured with a screened lid to prevent the snake from escaping. Young milk snakes need a tank that’s at least 10 gallons (20” L x 10” W x 12” H).  As the snake enters adulthood, pet parents must increase their habitat size to accommodate their growth.  

Milk snakes enter adulthood within three years. Medium-sized adult milk snakes should be kept in a 20-gallon (20 L) tank or larger, while larger adults need a breeder tank with at least a 40-gallon capacity. At a minimum, enclosures should be large enough for the snake to stretch out fully. Always provide the largest habitat possible. 

Milk snakes are solitary animals that should always be housed alone. Keeping more than one milk snake in the same habitat can encourage stress, aggression, and competition between tankmates. Pet parents should never keep different species of animals in the same habitat. 


Milk snakes need a thermal gradient in their enclosure so they can warm up and cool down as needed. The recommended temperature for the warm end of a milk snake’s habitat is 85 F, while the cooler end should be kept between 70 and 75 F.  

Pet parents must check the temperatures of their milk 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. 

Lighting and Heat Support 

Pet parents should install an under-tank heater and/or over-the-tank basking lamp with a heat bulb to supply radiant heat in their snake’s habitat. The wattage needed for the heat bulb will vary depending 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 understand their function in the tank. 

Hot rocks should not be used because they can get too warm and cause injury. If an under-tank heating pad is used, it must be connected to a thermostat to prevent the snake from getting burned.  

Light bulbs 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 around the bulb, causing severe burns. 

Studies show that daily exposure to UVA/UVB light can improve snakes’ immune system function and promote normal behavior. As a rule, pet parents should provide their milk snake with 10 to 12 hours of UV light daily to imitate natural sunlight.  

Replace lights every six months; their potency wanes over time. 

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


Milk snakes need humidity in their environment to support their respiratory systems, encourage healthy shed cycles, and stay hydrated. The ideal humidity range for milk snakes is 40% to 60%. During shedding cycles, pet parents should increase the enclosure’s humidity to around 70%. A hygrometer (humidity gauge) should be used to measure the enclosure’s humidity. 

To help maintain proper humidity levels, a snake’s habitat should include a water dish that’s large enough for the snake to soak in. A humid hide (a hideout box packed with moistened sphagnum moss or paper towels) should also be provided to boost humidity and encourage healthy shedding. 


Paper-based bedding, reptile carpet, cypress much, coconut husk, and aspen wood shavings are all suitable choices for substrate. Pine and cedar bedding should not be used, as they have oils that can irritate a snake’s skin and cause illness. 

If aspen is used as a substrate, it must be replaced weekly to prevent the bedding from getting excessively wet or soiled. If wood shavings, mulch, or coconut husk bedding of any kind are used, the snake should be fed in a separate enclosure without loose substrate. Otherwise, the snake may accidentally consume bedding particles that are indigestible and can cause gastrointestinal obstruction. 

Decor and Accessories 

Hideout Box

Pet parents should provide their milk snakes with at least two hideout boxes—one kept on the warmer side of the enclosure and one on the cooler side. Aside from offering the snake some privacy, hideout boxes can help snakes regulate their body temperature, as 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, as they won’t have a chance to 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, so pet parents need to increase the size of their hideout boxes as their milk snake grows.  

Driftwood and Climbing Branches

The milk snake’s natural habitat is full of trees, branches, and other places to hide and explore! Driftwood and climbing branches can be added to a milk snake’s habitat to enrich the snake’s environment and encourage exercise. 

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


Moist sphagnum moss can be added to the inside of a hideout box on the warm side of a milk snake’s enclosure to create a humidity hide. Moss holds moisture well and can aid in healthy shedding. 

Pet parents can create a humid hide by using a commercially available hideout box or by cutting a hole in a plastic container. If choosing to make a DIY hideout, make sure that the hole doesn’t have any rough edges that could injure a snake. 

Moss should be replaced often to prevent mold from forming. 

Food and Water Dishes

Since reptiles absorb water through their skin to stay hydrated, water dishes should be large and shallow enough for the snake to soak in if needed. 

Place water dishes on the cooler end of the habitat to prevent the water from evaporating too quickly. 

If they aren’t soaking on their own, pet parents should soak their snake for 10–15 minutes, two to three times a week. 

Milk Snake Cleaning and Maintenance

A milk snake'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 the habitat’s contents, as all reptiles are potential carriers of infectious diseases. 

To clean a milk snake’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 the surfaces are properly disinfected. 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. 

Milk Snake Diet and Nutrition

Milk snakes feed on whole, thawed frozen rodents, such as mice and rats. Milk snakes should always have access to fresh, clean water. Because milk snakes are primarily nocturnal, meals should be offered during the evening. Use feeding tongs, not fingers, to offer meals. 

A nutritious and well-balanced diet for a milk snake includes appropriately sized frozen rodents, thawed and warmed. Offer food in a shallow dish or bowl to lessen the chance of the snake ingesting their tank’s substrate on accident. 

An “appropriately sized rodent” will leave a small bulge in a snake’s midsection after a feeding. 

A milk snake’s ideal feeding schedule will depend on their age, size, and activity level. Juvenile milk snakes should be fed twice a week, while adults should be fed once a week. Baby snakes can be fed every other day. 

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”). Eventually, 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. Water dishes should be placed on the cool end of the habitat and must be large and shallow enough for the snake to soak in if needed. 

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, empty enclosure. Instead of their fingers, pet parents should always use long feeding tongs to offer food to their snake. That way, the snake will not learn to associate their pet parent’s hand or the opening of their usual habitat with feeding. 

Food should always be offered in a bowl, rather than being placed directly on the floor of a snake’s habitat. Otherwise, the snake may accidentally ingest some of its bedding while eating. 

If a snake misses more than a couple of feeding sessions, the pet parent should consult a veterinarian, especially if the snake isn’t shedding at the time. Snakes can become ill if they don’t eat food for extended periods. 

How to Thaw Frozen Prey 

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 thawing 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 warm water over the thawed food to bring 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. 

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 that you use to prepare food for human consumption. If this is unavoidable, be sure to disinfect the area thoroughly after use. 

Milk Snake Grooming and Care


Milk snakes shed their skin regularly. Healthy snakes will usually shed their skin in one, complete piece. 

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

During shedding periods, pet parents should keep their milk snake’s tank at a suitable humidity level (70%) to encourage a proper shed.  

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 not try to remove them but instead consult a veterinarian.  

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

Milk snakes will soak themselves in shallow, open dishes of water to help shed their skin. Damp paper towels and moistened sphagnum moss can also be placed in the snake’s enclosure to encourage healthy shedding. 

If they aren’t soaking on their own, pet parents should soak their snake for 10–15 minutes, two to three times a week. 

Pet parents should mist their milk snake daily to support proper hydration. 

If a snake misses more than a couple of feeding sessions, consult a veterinarian, especially if the snake isn’t shedding at the time. 

Milk Snake Veterinary Care

Annual Care

Milk snakes should be seen by a veterinarian once annually. They can be transported using a ventilated plastic lidded bin, with a snake bag or a towel for traction and comfort. Take pictures of their enclosure, diet, heaters, and lights, so your veterinarian can assess their husbandry as part of the exam.

Signs of a Healthy Milk Snake

  • Clean, clear eyes

  • Intact skin with no ulcerations or stuck shed

  • Clean vent

  • No swellings or bumps

  • Intact mouth with no swellings, bleeding, discharge, or odor

  • Regular flicking of their tongue

  • Relaxed demeanor

  • Bright coloring

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

  • Oral lesions such as abscesses

  • Trauma to the skin at their nose

  • Discharge around the vent

  • Tumors

  • Lethargy

  • Loss of appetite

  • Sudden inability to move a section of their body

Common Illnesses in Milk Snakes

  • Dysecdysis (stuck shed, retained eye spectacles)

  • Skin lesions such as abscesses, blisters, missing scales

  • Respiratory infections

  • Oral infections (stomatitis)

  • Internal or external parasites, especially mites

  • GI obstruction or constipation

  • Trauma—especially bite wounds if feeding live prey

  • Burns

Milk Snake FAQs

Are milk snakes venomous?

Milk snakes are NOT venomous. Their coloring mimics a venomous snake—the coral snake—as a defense mechanism. Remember, “red on yellow, kills a fellow, red on black, venom lack!”

Will a milk snake bite you?

A milk snake may be willing to bite you, though this may only happen if escape wasn’t an option. Their bites are no danger to humans; they often don’t even break through skin. Regular handling helps a pet milk snake adjust rather than panic, which is what would lead to a bite.

Do milk snakes like to be petted?

Milk snakes that are used to regular handling from their pet parents may enjoy being petted, especially if they’re a bit itchy or dry. Generally speaking, however, snakes do not require or crave petting as an interaction the way a dog or cat might.

Why is a milk snake called a milk snake?

Milk snakes primarily eat small rodents like mice, and they got their name from being found around barns and suspected of drinking cows’ milk and causing lowered milk production. This is only a myth, and milk snakes are actually great helpers around a barn rather than a nuisance. They do not drink milk at all.

Do milk snake bites hurt?

Milk snake bites shouldn’t hurt; it often feels more like pressure, a push, or a pinch. They generally don’t break skin, especially when they’re babies or juveniles, which are also the most likely to attempt to bite. The bites are not venomous, so you have nothing to worry about from a milk snake bite.

Maria Zayas, DVM


Maria Zayas, DVM


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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