North American Garter Snakes
The Fish- Eating Alternative to Corn Snakes
By Timothy Zedi
One of the biggest reasons parents of potential young snake keepers do not allow snakes in the home is because most common pet snake species need to be fed on a diet of rodents. Many reptile enthusiasts don’t have the space for larger snake species and most available snake species are over 1m in length. North American Garter snakes solve both these problems. These snakes will feed on a varied diet of fish, fish fillets, earthworms and even tinned cat food. Female Garter Snakes will reach an adult size of between 60cm-90cm and adult males will reach between 45cm-60cm and can be kept in much smaller cages than most other pet snakes. Garter Snakes tolerate handling fairly well and are great display snakes due to their active nature. Garter Snakes make perfect pets for beginners and more experienced snake keepers alike.
Garter Snake Species
North American Garter Snakes belong to the genus Thamnophis and comprise of 14 separate species and several subspecies. Garter Snakes of one species or another can be found all over North America from Canada to Mexico. These snakes are nearly always found near water sources although they are not aquatic. Garter Snakes are found in many climate types from the arctic circle to the deserts of the Southern USA and Mexico. Commonly kept as pets in the USA, Garter snakes are very rare in South Africa with only one or two species available ( Type in Garter Snakes for Sale in South Africa into a search engine and if your lucky you may get one or two hits and I have only seen them a handful of times at pet shops and expos). The most commonly seen species in South Africa is the Chequered Garter Snake ( Thamnophis marcianus marcianus) which grows to 50cm-90cm in length and has an attractive black chequered pattern on an olive green background with a pale yellow stripe running down the back. Albino Chequered Garter Snakes are available for sale in South Africa and are pink and pale yellow in colour. If you are lucky you may pick another Garter Snake species. I own a red sided Garter Snake which I purchased at a local pet shop, it was the only one I have ever seen for sale and it most likely set the pet shop record for the snake that sold the fastest.
I keep all my Garter Snakes in plastic terrariums. I keep babies up to a 6 months in terrariums measuring 20cm x 20cmx 15cm, my yearlings are kept in terrariums measuring 30cm x 20cm x 15cm and my large adult female is kept in a terrarium measuring 45cm x 30cm x 20cm. Adult Garter Snakes would do equally well in wooden cages with glass fronts or glass terrariums. Babies would easily escape from these types of cages and should be kept in the plastic terrariums until about a year old. I do not recommend rack systems unless clear tubs are used as Garter Snakes are very visual and enjoy watching what is going on outside their cages. I use a substrate of coconut husk as it looks natural and stays dry. It is very important that the substrate remains dry as damp substrate will cause blister disease. A hide box is essential and drift wood or fake plants can be added to provide visual barriers and extra hiding spots. Although found near water in the wild Garter Snakes only need a medium sized water bowl in captivity. Garter Snakes do well at temperatures of 25-30 degrees Celsius, mine are kept at room temperature in summer. I heat my garter snake in winter using low wattage heat pads placed under half the terrarium.
Garter Snakes are generalist feeders and eat a wide variety of food including earthworms, fish, frogs and nestling rodents. In captivity they will eat live guppies, frozen fish fillets, earthworms, tinned fish, tinned cat food and small mice. I feed mine on a diet of frozen/thawed lance fish ( sold in the aquarium section of pet shops) tinned salmon, tinned cat food, earthworms and suitably sized frozen thawed mice. Feeding frogs should be avoided as they are a parasite risk. Do not feed your Garter Snake red wriggler earthworms as these are the type used to make compost, they secrete toxins which can harm your snake. Feed your garter snake using feeding tongs or offer food in a shallow bowl. Earthworms and live fish can be placed in the water bowl for the snakes to hunt. Garter Snakes are not constrictors but simply grab their prey and swallow it. They are back fanged, but have a extremely mild venom which has no effect on humans. One of my Garter Snakes regurgitated a live earthworm, if their venom doesn’t kill earthworms it not going to effect a human trillions of times bigger than a worm. Garter Snakes have a high metabolism and require feeding two-three times per week as adults or juveniles. Babies can be fed as often as every second day to ensure proper growth. Certain fish both live and frozen contain an enzyme called thiaminase which destroys vitamin B1 and overfeeding of these types of fish can result in a fatal vitamin B1 deficiency. Fish to avoid include: White Bait and oily fish such as Mackerel. Live Goldfish also contain this enzyme so feed these sparingly. Safe fish include: Lance Fish, Salmon, Trout, live Guppies and frozen or live Tilapia. It is a good idea to occasionally supplement your Garter Snakes diet with a calcium and vitamin supplement. To ensure a good diet more than one food item should be fed to give your Garter Snake as varied a diet as possible.
Garter Snakes are fast moving, active diurnal hunters. Garter Snakes are always on the go and are often seen crawling around their cages during the day, unlike Corn Snakes or Ball Pythons which remain in their hide boxes most of the time. My Chequered Garter Snakes have a habit of sticking their heads out of their hide boxes all day, either because they want to see whats going on in the snake room or more likely waiting to be fed. Baby Garter Snakes are very highly strung and bounce around the cage like a spring when you try to pick them up, if you’re not careful they will shoot out the cage in an attempt to escape. As they get older these snakes get easier to handle and with regular patient handling they will calm down. Garter Snakes will not wrap round your wrist or hand like a Ball Python so support their body and allow them crawl through your hands.
Garter Snakes reach sexual maturity at between 1 year-2 years of age. Female Garter Snakes are much bigger and chunkier than males and adult females can be up to 20cm longer than males. Garter Snakes will mate after a winter cool down period of up to 3 months. In the wild male Garter Snakes emerge from hibernation before the females, once the females emerge the males form mating balls with up to 30 males trying to mate with a single female. Garter Snakes give birth to live young and have litters of between 10-20 babies, sometimes more. The gestation period for a Garter Snake is between 2-3 months depending on temperature. Baby Garter Snakes measure 15cm-18cm long and are very slender. The babies can be kept in small groups in plastic terrariums. The babies shed almost immediately after being born, unlike most snakes which shed a week after being born. Baby Garter Snakes will eat earthworms, live guppies or fish pieces every two days.
If you want a small snake with lots of personality and don’t like the idea of feeding rodents or are tired of keeping the more common pet shop snakes then go grab a Garter Snake the next time you see one for sale.
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