Garter Snake Care Sheet
Garter snakes are small colubrid snakes found throughout most of the United States.
Garter Snake (Thamnophis sp.)
Garter snakes are small colubrid snakes that are not constrictors. They do not pose any dangers to children other than salmonella, which can be carried by any reptile. They are active during the day so they have excellent eye sight which they use along with their keen sense of smell to find and capture prey. They make great display pets because they are very alert and active. In the wild they are often found around water; streams, rivers, lakes and marshes.
Garter snakes are readily available both online and in pet shops. Captive born baby garter snakes are most widely available in the late spring after the birthing season. Many different species and morphs are available in online classifieds thru the summer. Wild caught animals are rarely seen for sale anymore. Captive bred and born babies are preferred because they will have far less issues with feeding and disease.
Females are around 3ft long depending on species and males are usually 2ft or less in length. They are a fairly slim bodied snake, males more so than females. Babies are very small, average size at birth is 6-8 inches.
The average life span in the wild may only be 4-5 years however they can live twice as long in captivity. Captives reaching over 10 years old have been documented.
Garters can be kept in rack systems, but are best suited for aquarium or terrarium style cages. Acrylic or screen style terrariums make ideal cages and can be decorated with wood and vines for the snake to climb around on, which provides beneficial exercise. Minimum size for and adult is a 28 quart plastic tube or a 29 gallon aquarium/terrarium. Males could be kept in slightly smaller cages than females due to their size difference. Multiple garter snakes can be kept together with more space however they should be separated for feeding to avoid incidental cannibalism. A pair of garter snakes can live comfortably in a 55 gallon size. The more space the better as garters are very active and like to climb.
Lighting, Temperature and Humidity
While UV light may not be considered necessary it can be beneficial as garter snakes are active during the day in the wild. If UV light is not provided it is recommended to occasionally dust food items with a calcium/vitamin powder that contains D3. Garter snakes need a basking area between 90-95 degrees for proper digestion. Heat can be provided by either a basking lamp or heat tape under the tank or both. As with any reptile a temperature gradient should occur in the cage with hides on both the hot and cool sides. It is important to maintain moderate humidity for proper shedding however the cage should not be kept damp or wet as this will cause blistering on the belly. A water dish large enough for the snake to submerge in will provide plenty of humidity. In the winter time when indoor house humidity is long it may be important to partially cover screen tops to maintain moderate humidity.
There are many substrates that will work for garter snakes. Popular choices are wood pellets, aspen shavings, newspaper pellets or pulp crumbles (Carefresh or similar products), wood bark chips and coconut coir products. Substrates to avoid are sand, clay cat litter, cedar, pine or other aromatic wood products, or dirt from outside. Newpaper or paper towels can be used for babies but are not good choices for adults. Due to garter’s high metabolism, a deeper more absorbent substrate is preferable. Also, garters like to burrow, so it is good to provide at least an inch or two of substrate. I have used newspaper pellets or pulp, aspen, and wood pellets with good results.
Many keepers feed adults a frozen thawed rodent only diet, which is fine because this provides complete nutrition. However in the wild garters would eat a more varied diet consisting of worms, amphibians, fish, and rodents, so it is a good idea to provide some variety in captivity. I prefer to feed both night crawlers and rodents. Babies are easy to start on small cut up pieces of night crawlers. Most feeder fish contain an enzyme called thiaminase, which breaks down thiamine (vitamin B1). Long term exclusive feeding of these fish should be avoided, because doing so can lead to a potentially fatal vitamin deficiency. Garters DO NOT eat crickets, mealworms or other insects.
A water dish large enough for the snake to completely submerge in is ideal. Garters love water and will often soak, especially before shedding. A water area large enough for swimming is ideal but not necessary. Garters will sometimes defecate in water, so it is important to check and change frequently. I prefer to use 16 ounce disposable deli cups, which are replaced at least once a week. This is the bare minimum size for adults.
Handling and Temperament
Wild caught garters can be defensive. Even some individual captive born babies can have a defensive disposition and will coil and strike. However, most captive animals will be quite tame if raised with regular handling.
Jeff Benfer has kept garter snakes and many other species of reptiles and amphibians for more than 40 years, and he has successfully bred many species and subspecies of garter snakes. He has authored articles about garter snakes both in the U.S. and abroad, and he produced the world’s first snow red-sided garter snake in 2009. He has degrees in fine art, biotechnology and biochemistry and is currently working on completing a master’s degree in epidemiology. For more info visit http://gartersnakemorph.com/.