Garter snakes make great pet snakes for everyone from the novice to the most experienced keeper. Garter snakes are docile snakes that would rather run from you, your child, or your dog than try to defend itself. Garter snakes are diurnal, so they have great vision, as well as their sense of taste to use for hunting prey.
In a garter snake’s mind, running is the best defense. Because they are diurnal, they also make great display pets, climbing around their enclosure, hanging down from some vines in the enclosure, and just showing themselves off in general. Garter snakes are very colorful, friendly, and easily hand tamed with just a few handlings.
They are so common in North America that you’ve probably walked right by some and never knew they were there, especially if you were near water, like a lake or river or even a marsh or wetland area. Most likely, the garter snake was there hunting.
Garter snakes are everywhere in North America, but don’t run out to a field or marsh land and catch one and bring it home for a pet. There are laws in place in some areas that make it illegal to possess wild caught animals. Always check with the local authorities and the laws in your area.
Breeders are always the best way to go. They will have healthy snakes that are parasite free and eating regularly. They know far more than a pet store knows, they always do, and you will be gaining a new friend in the exotic pet area. Which is a great idea.
These snakes come in a very literal rainbow of colors. They are some of the most beautiful snakes alive, at least in my humble opinion.
There are some online forums, fan sites, and breeders’ rooms you can check out. There is usually a breeder or two online in those forums, and they are very willing to help out anyone who’s seriously considering owning a garter snake.
Before COVID-19 showed up, there were a lot of reptile and exotic pet shows going on around the country. Keep your eyes open for these to come back to an area near you, then go to one when you can. There are plenty of breeders there with their snakes ready to educate you about them. There will be a lot of like-minded reptile lovers there waiting to meet you, as well.
I’ve read online that some garter snakes can reach lengths of 5 feet. I have never seen one in person longer than 3 feet. Usually the females grow to be about 3 feet, so it was probably a female that I saw and tried to grab, just to get a better look at it. I missed. Males don’t usually grow longer than 2½ feet. Both have slim bodies, males more so than females. Baby garter snakes range between 6 and 8 inches.
In the wild, these snakes only live to be around 4 to 5 years old. Many predators like snakes. In captivity with all the proper husbandry practices and proper nutrition, garter snakes can live to be up to 10 years old, which is something to consider when purchasing this or any other reptile. Some reptiles can live a very long time.
Garter snakes are best kept in an aquarium or reptile terrarium. The aquarium or terrarium should be between 30 and 50 gallons in size and have a secure, even latching top to help prevent escape. They are active snakes, so the more space you can provide to garter snakes, the better. Although if it were to get out of its enclosure, you just have to accept the challenge that is finding it, catching it, and putting it back. No problem, right?!
Decorate the enclosure as much as you like. Use reptile safe plastic vine and leaf strings for the garter snake to climb on and hang down from. Place a hide area or two inside so it can have somewhere to go and rest undisturbed. There are water features and small in-tank waterfalls that you can provide as well. Something like one of those will aid in raising the humidity level and give the snake a place to soak.
Spot clean the enclosure as often as needed. Completely change out the entire enclosure, including all the substrate and decorations, and clean the walls of the enclosure every 2 months. Use reptile safe cleaners only.
Lighting and Temperature
Full spectrum UVA/UVB lighting is always recommended with diurnal reptiles. They are used to seeing and feeling the sun on their body, and it also helps with body temperature regulation and food processing/absorption. If UV lighting isn’t an option or isn’t available to you, you will need to occasionally dust your reptile’s food with a supplement that contains calcium and vitamin D3.
Garter snakes need a basking area that stays between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit to properly digest their meals. Daytime temperatures should be around 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures shouldn’t fall below 65 degrees Fahrenheit, which just happens to be the way most people like it as well. So keeping your home at comfortable temperatures for you, and coincidentally your garter snake, shouldn’t be too big of an issue.
Reptile bark, Aspen shavings, newspaper pellets or pulp crumbles, Cypress, and coco husk/fibers are all very good choices for bedding/substrate. Garter snakes like to burrow a bit as well so put in about 2 to 3 inches of substrate for them to get under from time to time.
NEVER USE: Sand, clay cat litter, pine cedar, or any other aromatic woods or any dirt from the outside of your home. All are bad choices for you reptile’s health.
There are 35 species of garter snakes and several subspecies, so it is very important that you know exactly what species of garter snake you have to feed it properly. The information contained here was gathered from reliable sources and is a very good guideline to start out. For a more complete list of what to feed and what not to feed your garter snake, click here.
There are many snake keepers that have their garter snakes on a rodent only diet. That’s great! That diet represents complete nutrition for your garter snake. If there are some variables in their diet when you first get them, remember to wait a few days after you get them home so they can settle in before you start to feed them. Once you start to feed them, start to put them on the rodent only diet. It is what is believed to be the best way to go by many experts in the field. You can read all about it in the above link as well.
Always have a dish of clean water available. Your snake will drink from that dish, it will curl up and soak in it, and it will probably use it for a bathroom. Please make sure the water in the dish is always clean. You may have to clean it 2 or more times a week, which is ok. That’s the way it goes when keeping a snake. Make sure the water dish is large enough for your snake to curl up and soak in it without it tipping over and hurting the snake.
If you have an in-tank waterfall accessory or something similar, it should also be large enough for the snake to comfortably soak in as well. The waterfall will add a little bit of extra humidity to the enclosure, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Again, make sure to keep it all clean. You will see your garter snake soaking a lot just before shedding, so keep an eye out for what’s normal soaking and what seems a bit excessive.
Handling and Temperament
The garter snake is one of the most tamable snakes going. Once they understand you are not going to hurt them, they will become less aggressive and so much fun to hold and show to your friends and family. They make great ambassadors to first-time snake touchers/handlers. It never takes very long for this snake to tame either, just a few 10- to 15-minute trainings per week, and you’ll have a tame garter snake in a very short time.
Up until the early 2000’s, garter snakes were thought to be nonvenomous; however, it turns out through further scientific study that these snakes do produce a neurotoxic venom.
Please understand, just like the Hognose snake, this venom is far too mild and produced in far too small a quantity to be of any concern to humans, adults or children. If you get bitten, don’t freak out and fling the snake around or try to pull it off. You will hurt the snake more than it is hurting you. The bitten area will probably turn red because irritation, which is understandable, and there may be some puffiness. Clean the area well and put some antibiotic cream on it, and it should be just fine in a day or two. If you feel you should seek medical attention, by all means seek it out.
The only real danger garter snakes present to humans at all is salmonella, which is carried by any living reptile. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling any reptile. If you can not wash, use hand sanitizer and wash as soon as you can.
This care information is a brief overview of a subject that has been covered in many books by respected authors and on many breeder forums. For more information, please consult a specialized book, visit one of the breed-specific forums/message boards, or contact an expert in that particular field. Your new animal will thank you for it.