Milk Snake Care And Breeding
Milk snakes, comprising 24 subspecies of Lampropeltis triangulum, are some of the most beautiful snakes in the world. These moderately sized snakes inhabit a vast range, stretching from southeastern Canada to South America. Adult sizes range from 24 inches all the way up to 6 feet, depending on the subspecies. Milk snakes have been widely kept and bred in captivity since the 1970s, and they have remained popular snakes within the colubrid pet trade.
Common among nearly all the milk snakes are the red, yellow (sometimes white) and black bands that contribute to a milk snake‘s stunning appearance. These bands are called triads, and the varying amount of triads is what helps identify the different milk snake subspecies. The color of the triads, too, is a perfect example of mimicry as a defense mechanism. Many milk snakes inhabit the same habitat as the venomous coral snake (Micruroides spp.), which sports triads of the same color. Potential predators, upon seeing such alternating bands, know to stay away. There‘s an old rhyme people use to differentiate harmless milk and kingsnakes from dangerous coral snakes: "Red next to yellow is a deadly fellow, and red next to black is a friend of Jack‘s.” This is because the red triads of the harmless snakes adjoin black triads, whereas in coral snakes, they join yellow bands.
Photo by Dawson/Wikimedia.
The Mexican milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) is popular with milk snake hobbyists.
The one subspecies that bucks the trend is the eastern milk snake (L. t. triagulum), which does not display the bright colors or triads. The eastern milk‘s range is the northeast region of North America, where there are no coral snakes. It more resembles some of the rattlesnake species that occur within its range—another example of successful mimicry.
A Tale of Two Hondurans
My love affair with milk snakes began when I was a young, aspiring reptile breeder. When I saw the first baby Pueblan milk snakes on a vendor‘s table at a reptile show, I had to have them! Back then they were rare, and their prices were certainly a lot higher than they are today.
Ever since I saw that pair of Pueblans, I have been on a journey that has lasted more than 20 years, and it has allowed me to work with and produce most of the 24 milk snake subspecies. I can‘t say I prefer one type of milk snake over the other, but I will say that the Honduran milk snake (L. t. hondurensis) holds a special place in my heart, because the Honduran was the snake that really launched my career as a full-time snake breeder.
In 1994, the reptile trade was just starting to explode with captive breeding and the onset of color mutations. I was fortunate enough to get a call from a good friend in Germany, Stefan Broghammer. Stefan runs M&S Reptilian, and one of his customers was offering a couple of baby albino Hondurans. At the time, color mutations were frowned upon in Germany, and many people thought the animals should be euthanized so they could not reproduce. Lucky for me (and the future of the Honduran color market), Stefan and his customer felt differently. Seeing as the market in his country was not yet ready for snake mutations, he offered the albino Hondurans to me. I was several years into breeding reptiles as a side business, and I knew these snakes could be my big break. At the time, albino L. ruthveni (the Ruthven‘s kingsnake, which is similar in appearance to the Honduran milk snake) were selling for $1,000 per hatchling. I figured the albino Hondurans would demand at least that much, if not more.
Types of Milksnakes
These are the most commonly kept pet milk snakes:
Sinaloan milk snake (L. t. sinaloae)
Honduran milk snake (L. t. hondurensis)
Nelson ‘s milk snake (L. t. nelsoni)
Pueblan milk snake (L. t. campbelli)
Mexican milk snake (L. t. annulata)
Jalisco milk snake (L. t. arcifera)
Less commonly kept milk snake subspecies include:
Eastern milk snake (L. t. triangulum)
Central Plains milk snake (L. t. gentilis)
Red milk snake (L. t. syspila)
New Mexican milk snake (L. t. celaenops)
Pale milk snake (L. t. multistrata)
Utah milk snake (L. t. taylori)
I had never imported snakes before, and this was during the pre-Internet days, meaning I couldn't get photos emailed to me, so I had to take Stefan‘s word on how they looked and decide whether to take the plunge or not. The asking price was more than I had ever spent on a snake, and it was a tough decision. But after some deliberations with my wife, Lori, I decided to go for it. I transferred the money to Stefan and the next few weeks of waiting were tedious, to say the least. When the day finally came for me to travel the six hours to the Chicago airport to pick up my new animals, I was ecstatic!
But things didn‘t go as smoothly as I had hoped—back then, Google wasn‘t available to look up "how to import animals”—and, unfortunately, because this was our first-ever import, we filled out the customs declaration form incorrectly. Several frantic moments and a handful of small mental breakdowns ensued over the next hour, but with some help from a couple of sympathetic Customs agents, the shipment was finally cleared.
Remember, I had not even seen a picture of the animals yet. I opened the wooden crate and untied the bags to see two amazing, well-started albino Hondurans. There were two male albinos, along with a few sibling females that were possibly heterozygous (of normal appearance, but carrying the albino trait).
When we returned from the 20-hour round trip at 3 a.m., we were exhausted, and all I could think about was that I had to be up for my "real” job in three hours. Instead of immediately putting the new snakes in their cages, we decided that Lori would set them up as soon as she awoke the following morning, and I would get a couple of hours of sleep before heading to work. I don‘t think I slept much, seeing as how excited I was about these new snakes and the incredible potential the project had. But soon enough I was off to work, and I spent my shift daydreaming about albino Hondurans. I couldn‘t wait to get home and see them again!
When I came home that afternoon, I saw the house had been torn apart, and Lori was in a panic. I asked her what was going on and she told me that one of the albinos was not in the bag. Somehow, the bag was not tied tightly enough, and it had escaped. One of these only two animals in the world was now on the loose! We didn‘t know if it had escaped in the car on the trip home, or if it was in the house.
After several frantic hours searching, we came across the loose snake, curled up between the Styrofoam liner and the bottom of the box. Seems it had not even made the journey out of the box! I remember immediately taking it into my snake room, and putting it into a cage and locking it up. After his escape act, we promptly named the little guy Houdini.
Over the next couple of years, while I was raising the group of Hondurans for breeding, a very interesting thing happened. It appeared that the two albinos I possessed were not the only two in existence. The original seller in Germany had been producing others and keeping his successes to himself. I remember getting a phone call from Louis Porras while I was at a reptile show in Houston, telling me he had just imported a group of albino Hondurans from Germany. At first my heart dropped, since I thought I had the exclusive on albino Hondurans. I wondered what this would mean to the future of my Honduran project.
Photo by Mike Pingleton/Wikimedia.
The red milk snake (L. t. syspila) is not commonly kept.
As it turned out, Louis had even bigger expectations than I did. I thought the baby albino Hondurans would match the pricing of the albino ruthenvi at $1,000, but he felt the price should be $3,000 per baby! Herpetoculture was really starting to grow, and the demand for these new color mutations had exploded. While I originally thought having competition would be a disaster, it actually turned out to be a blessing. In 1997, we produced our first albino Honduran milk snakes. That year, I had more people willing to purchase them at the higher price than we had babies to sell. The success we were able to enjoy with the albino Hondurans finally allowed me to take the plunge and begin my full-time career as a reptile breeder. I‘ve never looked back.
Simple Milk Snake Care
Baby milk snakes can be a little squirmy and hyperactive, so keep this in mind if you‘re trying to decide if they are right for you. With that said, the vast majority calm down when they reach adulthood, and make fantastic handling snakes.
One reason why Honduran milk snakes remain one of the most popular sellers is the variety of "paintjobs,” or color phases, in which they are available. Since the original albinos were produced, there have been dozens of color and pattern mutations that have been inherently bred. Anerythristic, ghost, snows, hypomelanistic, striped and vanishing pattern animals, to name a few—there‘s a Honduran for everyone! With the plethora of colors, and the fact that it is one of the largest of the milk snake subspecies, the Honduran milk snake will remain in demand.
While the different types of Honduran milk snakes may be the top of the heap when it comes to the variety of color mutations, by no means are they the only milk snake that I would consider a winner. Let‘s face it, a 6-foot milk snake is just too big for some people, but there are still plenty of options for people who want something smaller. The majority of the subspecies never exceed 36 inches, with a few of the North American varieties, such as the Central Plains milk snake (L. t. gentiles) and red milk snake (L. t. syspila), rarely exceeding 24 inches. And if you still want a stunning albino milk snake, but one that stays in the 36-inch range, an albino Nelson‘s milk snake (L. t. nelsoni) is a great option.
Why "Milk" Snake
When I think of snakes, the last thing I imagine is a reptilian creature squirming up to a cow, latching onto an udder and stealing its milk. But belief in this is exactly where the term "milk snake” comes from. To this day, there are farmers in countries, such as Spain, who believe that snakes will sneak into their barns, wrap themselves around a cow or goat ‘s rear legs and drink all its milk—hence the name, "milk snake.” Of course, we know there are no snakes that actually steal milk. I would have to imagine that even the sneakiest of milk snakes would have some issues with attaching itself to the teat of a half-ton cow. But the fact remains—some people do still believe this myth.
It‘s not only their colors that make milk snakes such popular pets, but their ease of care. Keeping in mind that milk snakes can be escape artists, there are many commercially available enclosures with locking tops that work perfectly for milk snakes. The majority of the subspecies can be kept in something as small as a 10-gallon aquarium for their entire lives. The larger subspecies, such as the Honduran, should be kept in an enclosure equivalent in size to a 29-gallon aquarium.
A milk snake will require a heating mat at one end of its enclosure. Keep the temperature in this warmer end in the mid- to upper-80 degrees Fahrenheit. The other, cooler end should be 78 to 82 degrees, and a nighttime drop into the lower-70s is fine.
All milk snakes are rodent feeders, but the babies of some of the smaller subspecies, such as the eastern and Central Plains milks, may require that their meals be scented with a lizard. Unless you have lizards available for scenting, I recommend you stick with the more commonly kept subspecies that will readily accept thawed rodents, such as the Honduran, Pueblan and Sinaloan milks to name a few. The majority of adult milk snakes will eat frozen/thawed mice, with the larger subspecies taking small-to-medium thawed rats. We feed our adult females twice a week during the breeding season to help ensure good body weight for egg production, but our males and babies, as well as off season feedings, are one good meal per week.
For substrate, we prefer Aspen Sani Chips, though coconut fiber seems to work just as well. We spot clean each cage as needed and break down the cages once a month, completely replace the bedding and disinfect them with bleach and water.
Milk snakes, like many snakes, require a hide box. Or better yet, two hide boxes; we place one on the cooler side and one on the hot side, as well, so the milks can choose between the two for thermoregulation.
Milk snakes are nocturnal and don‘t require UVB lighting; that said, it can provide for a nicer look to their enclosure. What is important is incandescent lighting, to help keep the temperature up.
Always provide fresh water to your milk snakes. Most milk snakes do fine with a relative humidity of 40 to 60 percent. You want your snake to shed in one piece, so if it sheds in patches, you need to increase your humidity. This can be achieved by increasing the size of your snake‘s water bowl or adding a moist hide box (a plastic box filled with moist sphagnum moss, with a hole cut in the lid for the snake to enter and exit).
How to Breed Milk Snakes
Breeding milk snakes is similar to that of most any other colubrid. Many breeders feel there‘s a need for a "cool down,” or hibernation, to spark follicle growth in females and for males to produce fertile sperm, but there are others who have breeding success with no cooling period.
We stop feeding our adult milk snakes in the beginning of October, in order to clear out their digestive tracts of all food. It‘s very important, when hibernating any snake, to make sure its digestive tract is completely clean because it will all but shut down during the cool-down, and any remaining waste can rot inside your snake and cause major problems, even death.
In early November, after a month of fasting the milk snakes at their normal temperatures, we start to cool them off. Over a two-week period, we slowly drop the temperature from 78 to 82 degrees all the way down to 52 to 55 degrees. We check them daily and always keep fresh water in the cage.
They stay cooled down until the first week in February, when we start to warm them up over two weeks, slowly bringing them back to their normal 78 to 82 degrees. Once they are warmed up, we begin feeding the snakes with only small meals once a week, and then slowly increase food size and frequency to twice a week.
The first shed out of hibernation typically occurs three to four weeks after warm-up. This is what is referred to as the "breeding shed.” Once it‘s finished, we begin introducing the male by placing him in a female‘s cage overnight and removing him the next morning. We try to breed each female a few times a week for three to five weeks, while continuing to feed her aggressively.
Within a month after breeding, the female starts to gain weight and her scales begin to spread due to egg development. She will normally refuse food prior to beginning a pre-lay shed. Once she is through with that shed, we place an egg-laying box containing damp sphagnum moss in with her. This is a plastic shoebox with a 2-inch hole cut in the top of its lid, allowing the female to crawl inside to nest. Seven to 10 days after the pre-lay shed, she will deposit anywhere from three to 15 eggs, depending on the size of the female and the subspecies you are breeding.
We remove the eggs from the laying box and transfer them to an egg box to begin incubation. There are several types of incubation media that you can use, including vermiculite, perlite and HatchRite. Whichever you choose, the humidity should be above 90 percent inside the egg box. The general rule of thumb is to make sure the eggs get plenty of moisture, but you never want them to be on a wet surface. So if choosing a medium such as vermiculite and water, remember that it should be wet enough to clump but not so wet that you can squeeze water out of it. This is why HatchRite, a commercially available incubation substrate, is the easiest to use. It‘s formulated for reptile incubation and has a water isomer mixed in, so you just open it and use it. There‘s no messing around with mixing with water and hoping for the best.
For best results, incubation temperatures should never drop below 80 degrees and never exceed 84 degrees. The baby milk snakes will normally hatch within 58 to 65 days. Most subspecies will readily feed on thawed pink mice after their first shed, about 10 to 14 days after hatching, with a few of the subspecies needing lizard-scenting the first several months before being switched over to a rodent-only diet.
I‘ve been so lucky to work with so many incredible reptiles over the past 25 years, but I will always remember that it was a milk snake that really launched my career. So whether you want to start breeding milk snakes for yourself, or just keep an incredible pet that will impress everyone, milk snakes are snakes that I know you‘ll love to keep!