Water Snake Care Sheet

Maria Zayas, DVM
By Maria Zayas, DVM on Feb. 28, 2024
watersnake

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In This Article

Species Overview

Water Snake Species Overview

Water snakes are native to North America, where they live in habitats close to rivers, streams, and swamps.

Water snakes make excellent pets for beginner hobbyists because they are small, active during the day, and do not constrict. They are known for their easygoing personalities. But, like all other snakes, they may strike if they feel ill, stressed, or threatened. Children of all ages must be supervised by an adult while handling a snake. 

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. 

Water Snake Characteristics 

Difficulty of Care 

Beginner 

Average Lifespan 

Up to 10+ years with proper care, depending on species 

Average Adult Size 

2 to 4 feet long, depending on species 

Diet 

Carnivorous 

Minimum Habitat Size 

40-gallon breeder tank for a single adult water snake

 

Water Snake Supply Checklist

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

Water Snake Habitat

Choosing the Right Enclosure 

Water snakes are active reptiles that need plenty of space to explore, hide, and exercise. A single water snake should be housed in at least a 40-gallon breeder tank (36” L x 18” W x 16” H). Because these slender snakes are known to be escape artists, secure their enclosure with a tight-fitting mesh lid to prevent escape and provide proper ventilation. 

Water snakes are solitary and should always be housed alone. 

With proper care, water snakes reach their adult size within two to four years. Pet parents should gradually increase the size of their water snake’s habitat as they grow.  

Temperature 

Water 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 water snake’s habitat is 85 F, while the cooler end should be no lower than 70 F. The warm end of the habitat should have a basking area that’s about 90 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 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. 

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.  

If an under-tank heating pad is used, it must always be connected to a thermostat to prevent the snake from getting 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 around the bulb, causing severe burns. 

White incandescent 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, turn off lights inside 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 UVA/UVB light can improve reptiles’ immune system function and promote normal behavior. Pet parents should provide their water snake with 10 to 12 hours of UV light daily to imitate natural sunlight. 

  • UV lights should be placed about 12–18 inches from where the reptile basks.

  • Replace lights every six months (even if they still emit light), as their potency wanes over time. 

  • A day/night timer can make it easier to maintain a consistent day and night cycle. 

Humidity 

Snakes need humidity in their environment to support their respiratory systems, encourage healthy shed cycles, and stay hydrated. The ideal humidity range for a water snake is 30–60%. A hygrometer (humidity gauge) should be used to measure the enclosure’s humidity. During shedding periods, humidity levels should be slightly higher to help ease the process. 

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. Snakes that are not shedding normally in one piece may be actively soaked in shallow, warm water and/or misted with warm water from a plant mister.  

Substrate 

While water snakes should always have access to water in their enclosure, their habitats should also include a waterless area that's lined with substrate so that the snake can dry out as needed. If left in a habitat without a dry area, these snakes can develop skin infections, sores, and blisters. 

The substrate layer in a water snake’s habitat should be at least 1  to 2 inches deep to allow for burrowing. Pelleted paper-based bedding, coconut fiber bedding, dry leaf litter, and sphagnum moss all make excellent substrates for water snakes.  

When selecting a substrate for their water snake’s tank, pet parents should keep a few things in mind: 

  • Pine and cedar bedding should not be used, as these 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 and becoming moldy.  

  • Wood shavings, reptile bark, mulch, and coconut husk bedding are all indigestible and can lead to life-threatening gastrointestinal obstruction if eaten. If any of these substrates are used, the snake should be fed in a separate enclosure without substrate so they don’t accidentally eat their bedding. 

Decor and Accessories 

Hideout Box

Pet parents should provide their snake 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, giving them spaces 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 light exposure. 

Synthetic or natural wood hiding logs are recommended. 

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

Climbing Branches and Vines

Pet parents should furnish their water snake’s habitat with branches or vines to encourage exercise and help satisfy the snake’s natural desire to climb. 

Ensure any branches installed in the habitat are sturdy and strong enough to support the snake’s weight. Otherwise, the branch could topple over or break and cause injury. 

Moss

Moist sphagnum moss can be added to the inside of a hideout box on the warm side of a 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. 

Water Snake Cleaning and Maintenance

A water 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 must 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 water 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 that the surfaces are properly disinfected. If you use 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. 

Water Snake Diet and Nutrition

Water snakes should be fed frozen/thawed rodents and earthworms, plus frozen/thawed feeder fish (such as comet goldfish) as an occasional treat.

Snakes always need access to fresh, clean water. Use feeding tongs, not fingers, to offer meals, so that snakes do not associate fingers with feeding and snap at your hand. 

A nutritious and well-balanced diet for a water 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 by accident. 

The snake’s ideal feeding schedule will depend on their age, size, and activity level.

Pet parents should begin juvenile snakes on a diet of “pinkies,” or young and nearly hairless mice. As the snake grows into adulthood, they 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. 

Frozen rodents should never be microwaved, as this can leave “hot spots” that can burn a reptile. 

Frozen/thawed feeder fish can also be fed, including:

  • Comet goldfish

  • Rosy reds

  • Minnows

  • Guppies

Feeder fish should only be fed as an occasional treat. Many fish species contain an enzyme called thiaminase, which breaks down thiamine (vitamin B1) in snake’s bodies and can lead to a vitamin deficiency. Feeder fish can also contain parasites that can be passed on to snakes when eaten. 

Fresh, clean water should always be available and replaced daily. Water dishes must be large and shallow enough for the snake to soak in if needed. Reptiles absorb water through their skin to stay hydrated, especially during shedding periods.  

Water Snake Feeding Guidelines 

  • Baby snakes and juveniles should be fed every other day. 

  • Adult snakes that primarily eat frozen/thawed rodents should be fed once a week.

  • When feeding fish, place the fish in the snake’s water bowl. 

  • Water snakes can develop nutritional imbalances when they are fed defrosted fish and immature rodent prey (such as “fuzzies” and “pinkies”) in excess. 

How to Thaw Frozen Prey 

Live rodents should not be given to water snakes. While still alive, rodents can become aggressive and leave severe wounds that lead to life-threatening infections.

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. Pet parents should use long feeding tongs, instead of their fingers, to offer food to their snake. 

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 nearly hot water over the thawed food, still in its plastic bag, to warm it above room temperature. 

  1. Remove the thawed food from the container.  

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

Remember: Pet parents should 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. Microwaving frozen rodents can also leave “hot spots” that can burn a reptile. 

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

Water Snake Grooming and Care

Shedding

Adult snakes shed their skin multiple times a year. Younger snakes that are actively growing tend to shed more frequently than adults. Healthy snakes should shed their skin in one complete piece. 

During shedding periods, pet parents should keep their snake’s tank at a suitable humidity level 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 and instead consult a veterinarian.  

Snakes may become irritable and lose interest in eating while shedding. They should not be handled when shedding.  

Snakes can 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. Pet parents can also mist their snake daily to support proper hydration. 

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

Due to their slow metabolisms, 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 regurgitates food, the pet parent should consult a veterinarian, especially if the snake isn’t shedding at the time. 

Water Snake Veterinary Care

Annual Care

Water snakes should be seen by a veterinarian once annually. They can be transported using a ventilated, latched, plastic-lidded bin, contained within a snake bag such as a pillowcase. Take photos of their enclosure, diet, heaters, and lights so your veterinarian can assess your snake’s husbandry as part of the exam. For short trips to a veterinary clinic, a water snake does not need to be kept wet or provided with water.

Signs of a Healthy Water Snake

  • Clean, clear eyes

  • Intact skin with no ulcerations or stuck shed

  • Clean vent (outside of opening for excreting waste and laying eggs)

  • No swellings or bumps

  • Regular flicking of their tongue

  • Relaxed demeanor

  • Regular appetite

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 Water Snakes

  • Dysecdysis (stuck shed, retained eye spectacles)

  • Oral infections (stomatitis)

  • Respiratory infections

  • Cloacal prolapse

  • GI obstruction or constipation

  • Internal or external parasites

  • Trauma (especially bite wounds if feeding live prey)

  • Burns

  • Inclusion body disease

  • Skin infections including the newly emerging snake fungal disease

Water Snake FAQs

Is a water snake venomous?

Water snakes are not venomous. They can look similar to other aquatic, venomous snake species such as cottonmouths and defend themselves more aggressively than most other non-venomous snakes.

What happens if a water snake bites you?

Water snakes are not venomous but their bites can be painful. They have longer teeth and a stronger bite force than many other snake species, which can help them catch fish, but can also cause a lot of damage when they bite a human. Despite their lack of venom, always seek medical assistance if you have been bit by a water snake.


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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