Gray Rat Snake Care Sheet
Grat Rt Snake (Elaphe obsoleta spiloides)
The gray rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta spiloides) is a medium/large constricting snake ranging from southern Indiana south to the Florida Panhandle, and west to Mississippi. It is a blotched snake, with a dark gray or brown pattern over a lighter ground color. They tend to be darker in color at the northern end of their range, becoming lighter as they move south. They are a very hearty snake and usually adapt well to captivity and regular handling.
The gray rat snake is very common throughout its range, preferring wooded or field habitats. Abandoned barns and buildings with lots of cover and hiding places are always good places to find them. They are also common on dealer price lists, with the beautiful white oak phase (light gray blotches on a silvery-white background) being the most frequently encountered. Since they are so common, they are a good snake to actually go out and “pound the brush” for. Most of the adult gray rat snakes on price lists tend to be wild-caught, with the exception of the aforementioned color phase. Caution-wild rat snakes can be parasite infested, so health and stool monitoring may be necessary. Watch for runny stools, listless behavior, refusal to feed etc. If any problems are realized, a trip to the vet might be in order and a dose of the appropriate wormer or microbial can be administered. In general however, I have had very few problems with the gray rat snakes that I have collected and kept. They are usually “bullet-proof.”
As always, check local regulations before hitting the field, and be aware of the possibility of running into venomous species on your hunt, as their ranges can overlap.
Hatchlings range in size from 10-15 inches long and reach a size of 4-6 feet as adults. Males grow faster and reach larger sizes than females.
Gray rat snakes can live for 10-15 years, with a record of 25 years for a captive specimen.
Baby gray rat snakes can be housed in shoe box sized enclosures, increasing the size of the enclosure as the snake grows. I prefer to keep large adults in 55 gallon tanks. With gray rat snakes, bigger is better. They tend to be active, and I feel the more room they have to move about, the less stressed they become in captivity. This results in a happier snake and less problems. They should be housed separately, unless breeding is going to be attempted or the cage is really large. I have kept groups together in 4’ by 4’ by 3’ high cages with no problems. The enclosure should be large enough for each snake to find their own place without bothering their cage mates. I kept a colony together to observe their interaction and this requires more monitoring, as males can fight and any individual that gets stressed can be moved. Generally speaking, they will do better when housed individually. Now throw a hide box in there, and a sturdy branch to climb on and you are set!
One more thing, since gray rat snakes can be so active, keep eyes out for rostral (nose) rubbing. It is a good idea to make sure all surfaces are smooth enough to prevent them from injuring themselves Again, having a large enough enclosure will help prevent this.
Lighting, Temperature, and Humidity
No special lighting is required. Make sure to establish a light cycle, with a day/night difference to avoid stress. Natural light works well for this, just make sure the cage is not in direct sunlight. Gray rat snakes are very tolerant of temperature. A gradient from 72 degrees C to 82 degrees C will allow them to find a comfortable spot for their needs. This can be obtained with the use of an under-tank heater or light at one end. Follow all manufacture guidelines of whatever product you use and make sure to monitor the temperature frequently. Humidity can be kept at the middle of the range (30-70%). A large water bowl will allow the snake to soak and regulate their own moisture requirements. If necessary, they can be misted to raise the humidity. Just make sure there is a dry spot for the snake, and make sure the cage doesn’t get wet enough to allow the growth of mold.
I prefer newspaper for the ease of cleaning. Non-toxic shavings can also be used, as well as one of the tank liners that are available on the market. As stated earlier, make sure there is a hide box in the cage. This will help prevent the snake from burrowing under the newspaper/liner. With substrate, gray rat snakes are not picky and whatever the keeper prefers will do just fine.
Usually, feeding is not a problem. Gray rat snakes are powerful constrictors that feed readily on appropriate-sized mice and rats. They will also take birds, chicks, and even eggs. To witness the snake feed can, in it self, be a treat. Watching a gray rat snake tackle an egg is something to witness if you have never observed it. If using a store-bought egg, make sure to heat it up a little in a bowl of warm water. This will make it appear more natural to the snake. In the wild, gray rat snakes on the prowl will wipe out nests, eating the eggs or hatchlings that they find.
The only problem you might encounter with respects to feeding is hatchlings. Most snakes will start on pink mice, but some require small lizards or tree frogs. I find this is more common with the gray rat snakes from the southern part of the range. If that is the case, keep some lizards or frogs frozen to rub on and scent the pink. Usually after a few feedings they will take the rodents, and once they start there is no looking back. Feed an appropriate item every 5-10 days, with the younger snakes being fed more often to compensate for their increased metabolism.
Always keep fresh water available. I prefer a large non-tip plastic dog bowl for ease of disinfecting. I use a bowl large enough that the snake can soak in it without the water overflowing all over the cage. Any sturdy, heavy container will do fine.
Handling and Temperament
Gray rat snakes have a reputation for being aggressive. I think they are just confidant snakes that don’t take any flack. Wild-caught snakes can be a little rowdy at first, but in my experience, calm down quickly. Use a snake hook to pick them up out of the cage, and handle them off of the hook. This approach puts the snake at ease and prevents any fight or feeding responses. Handle them confidently and let them crawl through your hands without any hard restraint. Even the most belligerent gray rat snake will usually adapt to these procedures and become a well mannered captive. When taming a snake, if a problem arises, simply place the snake back in the cage and give it a day or two before trying again. Patience, calmness, and consistency are the keys.
Gray rat snakes breed in April to June after emerging from hibernation, with the specimens in the south breeding earliest. Eggs are laid in late May to July, with the young hatching usually in August to September.