Properly Caring for Pet Corn Snakes

Corn Snake from the Lower Florida Keys
Nathan Shepard / Getty Images

Corn snakes (Elaphe guttata) make excellent choices as pet snakes. Pet corn snakes are generally docile, relatively easy to care for and do not get very large therefore they make a great choice for beginner snake owners. However, they are also favorites with experienced keepers due to the vast array of beautiful colors and patterns selective breeding has produced. Corn snakes are closely related to rat snakes (rat snakes also belong to the genus Elaphe) and are also sometimes called red rat snakes (especially the amelanistic color variations).

They are native to the southeastern United States and are mainly land dwelling and are active mainly at night or at dusk and dawn.

Pet Corn Snake Basics

  • Size: Corn snakes reach a mature size of 3-5 feet but may occasionally be up to 6 feet long.
  • Life span: Corn snakes can live to be around 15-20 years old and sometimes even longer.
  • Cost: The snakes themselves are relatively inexpensive but there is a significant cost to invest in the proper equipment.
  • Feeding: Snakes are carnivores which means owners must be prepared to feed prey (usually mice) to their pets.
  • Cages: Corn snakes do not have elaborate housing needs but they must be kept in an escape-proof enclosure so they don't get lost or hurt themselves (most snakes are excellent escape artists).
  • Legal issues: Every city, state, and country has different laws regarding exotic pets so be sure to check the legality of corn snakes in your area prior to getting one as a pet.

    Choosing a Pet Corn Snake

    When choosing a snake, a captive bred specimen is the best choice and shouldn't be too difficult to find since corn snakes breed fairly readily in captivity. Look for a snake that is doesn't have any retained skin from a shed, has clear eyes, no cuts or scrapes, no signs of mites or ticks, a clean vent, and is alert and flicking their tongue.

    Cages for Corn Snakes

    Picking a solid cage is a necessity for proper corn snake care. A 20 gallon long (a longer and more shallow version of a 20 gallon tank) makes a good sized cage for a corn snake. It is important to get a secure fitting lid that can be clamped down for this tank as well. Corn snakes will push at the lid with their noses looking for weaknesses and tiny openings so the fit of the lid is very important.

    Bedding for Corn Snakes

    A variety of materials can be used as substrate for your pet corn snake. Newspaper is the utilitarian choice since it is very easy to clean up but the appearance in the cage leaves a little to be desired. Indoor/outdoor carpeting ("Astroturf") can be used, and if you cut two pieces you can rotate them by swapping the clean one out for the dirty one at cleaning time and thoroughly wash and dry the soiled piece. Pine bark chips are another good choice. The chips that are soiled with feces can simply be scooped out and a thorough cleaning done as needed. Aspen shavings can be used in a similar manner, although it is probably a good idea to move the snake to a separate container for feeding so that the shavings are not inadvertently ingested. Sand, soil, corncob, pine shavings and cedar shavings are not good choices for corn snakes for various reasons.

    Hide Boxes for Corn Snakes

    Hiding spots should be provided to your corn snake.

     A hide box (any closed-in container like a cardboard box will do) should be provided that is just large enough for the snake to curl up in (if it is too large the snake will not feel as secure). Pieces of bark can also provide hiding spots for your snake if they are on a substrate that allows them to burrow under the bark.

    Ideally, a hiding place should be available in both the cooler and warmer ends of the enclosure. A branch should also be provided for climbing.

    Water for Corn Snakes

    A water dish will also be necessary and the water should be kept meticulously clean. Snakes often defecate in their water and when this happens it should be cleaned immediately. A heavy dish several inches in diameter makes a good water source. You may find you snake soaking in the dish, particularly before a shed.

    Heating for Corn Snakes

    Maintaining your corn snake's cage at the correct temperature is vital. A temperature gradient of about 70-85 degrees Fahrenheit (21-29 degrees Celsius) should be maintained in the cage. Under tank heat pads or heat tape can be used but it is difficult to monitor how hot it is getting in the enclosure. An overhead incandescent heat light is preferred to be used but corn snakes are from a temperate climate so they do not need tropical temperatures therefore make sure it does not get too hot. 

    Feeding Corn Snakes

    Corn snakes should be fed pre-killed mice or small rats (small rats are only suitable for larger corn snakes). Hatchlings are started out on pinkie mice for feedings and the size of the prey is increased as the snake grows.

    The prey item can be as wide or a little wider than the snakes head. Young growing snakes should be fed a couple of times a week while adults need only be fed one appropriately sized prey item every week or 10 days. It is not unusual for your snake's appetite to decline around the time of a shed so feeding frequency can be reduced if your snake is about to start shedding.


    Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT