You start with… a quarantine terrarium
Usually it is advised that a tested and equipped terrarium is ready for use when you purchase a (garter) snake. So you can put the animal immediately in the terrarium when you arrive at home.
But it is wiser to place your new acquisition in a “naked” terrarium. This does not have to be very big, for it is only a temporary accommodation for the snake.
Suppose that your snake, for example, does have mites, even though this was not visible when you had it in your hands when you were at the seller´s home. At home, you place the animal in this beautifully decorated terrarium on which you worked so hard for many hours. After a few days you see that your snakes moves strangely and keeps rubbing itself against all kinds of things. The snake also lies often and long in the water basin, in which you find numerous little, black dots. Snake mite!!
Well, gone is your beautiful terrarium and the snake still must be placed in quarantine. You have to throw away everything that cannot be cleaned properly, you have to disinfect the terrarium and aits content, etc, etc.
(Look at the Parasites-page how to get rid of the snake mites.)
In short… all this misery could have been avoided. And that is why you place a new snake for at least a few weeks in a quarantine terrarium.
In the quarantine terrarium you place tissue paper (or newspaper) on the bottom. Personally I also use old terry cloth towels that are changed regularly and washed at 60 ° C. I prefer to use white towels, because the possibly present mites can be seen very easy on it.
Place a disposable hiding place (for example an empty role of toilet paper) in it as a hiding place that can be cleaned easily. Thus no cork or halve coconut.
Place a plastic or glazed water bowl in the quarantine terrarium; make sure the snake fits in it completely. An mite-infested snake likes to lie in the water so the mites will drown.
If you like you can add a sprig and that´s al it takes. Your quarantine terrarium is ready.
Of course the quarantine terrarium has to be heated or has to be placed in a sufficiently heated room.
Place your snake in it and make sure it can not escape.
Leave the animal(-s) alone for a few days now! Observe the animal(-s) (respiration, mites, wounds, behaviour, etc). but don´t feed or handle it. It comes down to making the snake feel “at home”.
When you purchased a new animal, then it is advisable to put some faeces of the animal in a small jar and to bring this to a vet.
The veterinarian can examine it and detect if there are any worm eggs or other internal parasites in it. I personally do not do this in young captive bred snakes, because they normally are “clean”. Thereby it is very difficult to treat a snake of less than 10 grams in weight with medicines, so it makes little sense to let the vet examine the faeces. If you observe abnormalities in the juvenile, then you still can have it checked. I mean diarrhoea, blood in the faeces, vomiting, etc. But this hardly occurs in captive bred garter snakes.
Don´t try to feed the snake immediately, but wait a few days. If this succeeds and the food is digested properly, then you’re on the right track. I usually feed three to five times before I place the new animal in its actual terrarium.
In practice, this always works without problems. In the past I often took care of wild caught snakes in the reptile shelter and in this situation a much longer quarantine period is required. At least one to three months, dependent on the condition of the animal. In those days the faeces were always examined. Most of the time it were adult wild caught animals and they were big enough to treat if necessary.
Up to now I never had problems with captive bred garter snakes.
During the quarantine period you have the time for buying or making the actual terrarium for the snake (if you had
not done this already). When you have purchased a small, young snake, don´t place this is a terrarium of, for example, 100 x 50 x 50 cm. A small terrarium like on the picture will do just fine. Take a large size, because then you have some slack. There are such terrariums of 40 x 30 x 30 cm and that is an excellent size for one or a few baby garter snakes.
What kind of terrarium?
Once the snake is placed in its actual terrarium, you have the small terrarium available as a quarantine terrarium! Because usually a second snake follows once you have one. And that one also has to be quarantined.
How big the actual terrarium has to be depends on what species you have. For most species is a terrarium of about 100 x 50 x 50 cm (for a pair) big enough. Of course, for bigger species, like Thamnophis eques subspecies, you need a bigger one. And for smaller species, like, for example, Thamnophis brachystoma or T. butleri, it can be a bit smaller. It is primarily a matter of using common sense.
Some prefer a terrarium completely made of glass, others prefer wood and a third will prefer something else. That’s a matter of taste and financial capacity. I prefer a terrarium of which the sides and the back are not transparent. This looks, in my opinion, better and gives your animals a feeling of security. You can process these surfaces in many ways (painting, smear with tile adhesive and than paint them, glue some pieces of rock shaped Styrofoam on them, smear this with tile adhesive and paint it, etc. etc.). Use your fantasy… Only important matter is that it can be cleaned.
Make sure your snakes cannot escape. Especially small garter snakes are masters in escaping. They will find every opening and you will be surprised how small these openings are. The overlapping part of the sliding glass doors is a popular getaway location. You can (temporarily) place a piece of cardboard of the appropriate size in between them.
All the way, from bottom to top, otherwise they can escape anyway.
Another popular place where the snakes like to escape is the place where any cables enter the enclosure. Smear some glue or kit on such places. Keep in mind that young garter snakes stick to moist glass and cán climb that way! And in this way they can reach the strangest places in the terrarium. Everything is possible.
Always close the terrarium when you have to leave the terrarium for a short moment. And of course also when you are ready with your work in the terrarium.
You can lock the glass sliding doors with a special terrarium lock. Not to prevent the snakes from pushing them open, but more a reminder for yourself. If you only have 1 terrarium, then there is no problem. But when you have ten of them or more, you easily overlook if you closed them all.
Personally I use pieces of electrical installation wire which I bend in an S-shape between the sliding doors.
When I leave the snake room on the attic, I can see in a split second whether I closed everything.
Nevertheless, if unfortunately a snake should escape and you find it back and you cannot discover how it escaped, then there is a rather easy solution. At least, this worked for me a number of times.
Make sure you have the time when the animal is placed back in the terrarium. Take a chair and sit down at some distance of the terrarium and observe the snake. Nine times out of ten, he knows exactly where he crawled out and will immediately try this again. Problem solved.
Of course it is important that there is enough ventilation in your terrarium. In a poorly ventilated terrarium it stinks more quickly and there is a high risk of mould. And these are two things that for both the snakes and the carer are unpleasant and unhealthy. In the conventional terrarium books and on various sites is much information available on ventilation. Look at Terraglas or Terrariumopmaat or Blue-Lagoon for terrarium- and ventilation examples.
Is your terrarium ready and closed well, then you can start “furnishing” it. I have used potting soil, sawdust (the stuff that is used for rodents) and beech chips as a substrate. The last mentioned I liked best.
The “sawdust” also works, but it is important that it is relatively dust-free. If the snakes, during the meal, eat a piece of this “sawdust” no harm is done. I never noticed problems. They digest it or poop it out. In the wild the snakes also will accidentally eat something that was not planned and which sticks to the prey.
Swallowing beech chips can be dangerous! When a piece of it enters the snake body, the risk of clogging is rather large. Beech chips are very hard and solid; they do not digest.
Potting soil does not have this problem, but gets very dusty when it is dry. And since the snakes lie the biggest part of their live on the substrate, they are always inhaling dust.
Other substrates that are used by garter snake keepers are sand (the kind for the sandboxes for children), Aspen Bedding, tissue paper, newspaper, bark that is made of all kinds of materials, like coconuts, forest ground, etc.
Since 2010 I use in a number of terrariums BedXcel (this first was Ecobed, but this is no longer available). BedXcel is made of recycled, unprinted, dust free cardboard that is . Strangely enough, it looks pretty natural in larger terrariums, especially when you throw some dry leaves on it. The snakes like to crawl through it and it isolates very well.
I also used cocoa shells for a while, but when this gets moist it moulds very quickly. This can only be used on really dry places in the terrarium and not in the neighbourhood of the water bowl.
Completely changing the substrate is done irregular by me. When I see faeces I remove it. How often I change everything is dependent on how big the terrarium is and how many snakes are living in it. Also the rocks, plastic plants and the branches are cleaned then with hot water. This can be once in 1 – 2 months in some terrariums and 2 times per months in other terrariums. Common sense works best to judge if you have to change things. And if your terrarium stinks, you’re too late.
When necessary you can disinfect everything. In practice I only do this in quarantine terrariums. You can use
Hibicet for this. It is safe for reptiles (when used according to the instructions) Most vets will sell this or can order it for you.
Remember that you dilute before you use it; one cc Hibicet to 100 cc water.
On each substrate you can lay some fallen leaves. Then it already looks quite different. Make sure the leaves are not to damp to prevent mould. Furthermore you can decorate the terrarium to your own taste and to the needs of the snakes. Personally I think that there always has to be a opportunity for the snakes to climb. Not only is this handy for the snakes when they have to shed their skin, but it also enlarges the living space. Next to that I think a terrarium with branches is prettier than one without. Branches, parts of bushes and tree stumps from the wood are perfect for this. Normally it is enough to brush them clean under hot water. Do not use stumps etc that are moulded or mouldered. Branches and parts of bushes you can saw from a living plant. Make sure you only do this where it is allowed and do it wisely. Every tree or bush can miss a piece provided it is done responsibly.
Make sure there are at least two hiding places. One in the warm and one in the colder part of the terrarium. If there is a thick layer of substrate on the bottom, the snakes will crawl under it and you have lots of hiding places automatically. Practical hiding places are pieces of cork (of the cork-oak) or inverted flowerpots. It is important that the hole in the bottom of the flowerpots is big enough for the snake to crawl through. Enlarge the hole when the snake grows and gets thicker. It has happened to many people that their snake wounded itself when it got stuck in the hole that became to small. Hiding places must not be to big. Snakes like to lie a little clamp if they hide.
Furthermore you can place some real or plastic plants in the terrarium. The advantage of plastic plants is that they do not break and are easy to clean. Real plants are beautiful, but most terrariums are not suited for them and in the end the snakes will scrap them. Your own taste determines what you place in the terrarium.
There are people (often with many garter snakes) that use so called “sterile” terrariums. These are facilitated as if they were quarantine terrariums. Thus paper on the bottom, a drinking nap and a hiding place. Also some people keep them in so called “snake racks”. I have no experience with these but I do know that many, inactive snake species do very well in these. For the very active garter snakes I think they are not the best way to keep them. If you have any experience (good or bed) with garter snakes in snake racks, please let me know.
Since a few years I use large Curver Jumbo Boxes for the rearing of young snakes. I mount a lamp-fitting in there and make some holes with a hole saw which I cover with gauze (ventilation). This works just fine. The boxes are transparent enough to see the snakes, they are easy to clean and when you do not use them, they fit into each other so they do not take much room for storage. I paid at the Curverwebshop for a Curver Jumbo Multiboxx with wheels and a content of 90 litre (70x40x45 cm) about 30 Euro each (including postage),but in most DIY stores you can buy them too.
So for a reasonable price you have an unbreakable quarantine terrarium that works fine after you make some adjustments.
Of course there also are all kinds of smaller models.
Temperature and light
A large terrarium for garter snakes can be heated at one side between 25 and 30 °C, whilst the other side stays
On the hotspot, directly under the lamp, the preferable temperature has to be 35 +°C.
These temperatures can be achieved by hanging the heat lamp at one side of the terrarium and/or using a heat mat. By using a dimmer you can adjust the temperatures.
Depending on the size of the terrarium, install one or two lamp holders. In one you can place a heat lamp and in the other a energy saving lamp that provides almost no warmth or a led lamp.
It is very important that one side of the terrarium is cool. In this way the snakes can make a choice where they want to be in the terrarium. My experience is that a 25 Watt spot lamp is enough in a terrarium from about 100 x 50 x50 cm when this terrarium is standing in a room with normal room temperatures. I hang this lamp 10 – 15 cm from a corner on its electric cable. In this way you can determine the temperature under the lamp (35+ °C) by hanging it higher or lower. The temperature on the other side: the cooler the better.
Therefore it is very important that you, somehow, make a temperature gradient in your terrarium. Your snakes must always have a choice in terms of temperature. When you cannot achieve to create a temperature gradient in a terrarium, this means, in my opinion, that the terrarium is too small.
It is of a great importance that there is a place/area in the terrarium that is bone-dry and quite warm. On this place the temperature can be + 35 °C. In a small terrarium this is difficult because the general temperature quickly gets too high which causes problems because the snakes have no cool place. At night, let the terrarium cool down to room temperature. Normally you never have to extra heat the the terrarium during the night. In the coldest part of the winter your snakes normally are in brumation. Are you, for some reason, afraid to brumate your garter snakes and are you afraid that it gets too cold during the nights (for example when your terrarium stands in a unheated room), put a heating mat underneath a part of the terrarium. Adjust the maximum temperature with a dimmer to 18-20 °C.
As a lamp you can use the ordinary spots of the DIY shop. If you want to spend more money, take a look in a reptile-shop. They have lamps of all sorts. Look, for example, on the website of Reptilia in the Hague (Dutch reptile-shop). You’ll be amazed at what is (even on-line) for sale. Halogen bulbs are also a possibility, just like pressed-glass lamps, fluorescent lamps and energy saving lamps.
Because incandescent lamps (spots also belong to this) in the future no longer are sold, I buy (when I see them somewhere in a store) all 25 watt spots that I can get. In this way I have a stock for a few years. On average I use 1 25 watt spot per terrarium per year.
My experience is that garter snakes do just fine with only spotlights. Special daylight-lamps will make their colours look better, but I do not know if it also effects their well-being positively or negatively. When I want more I place a energy saving lamp in it. They produce a lot of light, use not that much power (so it is cheaper) and they last long. The snakes seemingly are not bothered by them.
Of course you can also use the daylight that comes in the room through the window to increase the light in the terrarium.
But be careful! Never let the sun shine in the terrarium, because the temperature gets so high that it is rapidly fatal for the snakes.
When you use living plants in the terrarium, you probably need a special plants-lamp. As far as I know they have no influence on the snakes.
Some people say garter snakes need UV-light. I do not know if that is true. I also do not know if it is not true. I have no experience with it.
Water in the terrarium
Every terrarium for garter snakes needs a spacious water tank. With spacious I mean that all the snakes that live in the terrarium have to be able to lie in it together. For specimen that live in and near water in the wild ( for example T. hammondii, T. proximus, T. melanogaster canescens and T. eques ssp.) make sure the water tank is somewhat larger so they can swim in it. But, in general, most garter snake species are not fanatic swimmers in the terrarium.
Look at the species description how the habitat of various species looks like. Or try to find this on the Internet…
I usually place the water tanks on the cool part of the terrarium. In this way the water does not evaporate that fast and is the temperature for the snakes comfortable. Snakes use the water often too cool their body temperature. Because the snakes crawl in and out the water tank, the surroundings of the tank will be somewhat more humid. That is no problem, but make sure the other parts of the terrarium stays dry! In a terrarium that has a moist soil the snakes will get ill. They often develop a skin problem.
The idea that snakes who live, in the wild, in the neighbourhood of water have to be kept in a humid terrarium is the most often made (rookie-) mistake!
I clean the water tanks and (of course) refresh the water when I see there are faeces in it. And when this is not the case I clean them 2 or 3 times per week.
Since some years I lay in all the water tanks some plastic plants. Since I do this I have the impression that the snakes go more often in the water than before. My guess is that they feel safer this way. In the wild they probably also feel safer between water plants than in open water.
Some garter snake species are also suitable to keep in an outdoor enclosure. Of course this depends on where you live and on which place in your garden you can create an outdoor enclosure.
When the outdoor enclosure is suitable (!) you can keep, for example, T. elegans, T. butleri and T. ordinoides outside the whole year.
For other (sub-) species that have a large distribution area in the wild (for example t. sirtalis sirtalis and T. s. parietalis) it is important to know where your specimen came from. It’s likely that only the specimen that originate from the most northern part of their distribution area can be kept outside the whole year.
Personally I have no experiences with keeping garter snakes in an outside enclosure and can therefore not tell you much about it.
In the future I hope to make a beautiful outdoor enclosure for some of my garter snakes.
For more information I refer to the book of Martin Hallmen – Freilandterrarien für Schlangen.