Gopher snakes make great captive pets, and with the proper husbandry and equipment, they thrive in captivity. Gopher snakes are for the most part very docile snakes that don’t mind being handled at all. They are a member of the Colubridae snake family, which includes other docile snakes like the corn snake. Their care requirements are not as demanding as other snakes. They make a very sturdy pet that can grow to be up to 8 feet long and live up to 30 years. They are ground-dwelling constrictors that are very active during the day but have occasionally been seen out hunting at night in the warmer months.
Gopher snakes are very commonly found from Northern Mexico up to some parts in southern Canada and from the west coast stretched out east to Mississippi. This does not mean that if you see one you should go grab it and keep it as a pet. There are laws in place that will treat you badly if you’re caught breaking them.
Laws aside, you should always get your reptiles from a reputable captive breeder. Their snakes will be healthy, parasite free, eating, and possibly already hand tame or at least used to human presence. The breeder will be watching over their snakes with love and care that you just won’t find at a big box-style pet shop that has dozens of different animals and very few people that know much about them.
When you purchase from a breeder, you get all those benefits, and you also get to make a new friend in this hobby. That’s always a good thing.
Gopher snakes are a heavy-bodied constrictor with hatchlings being around 12 inches long. Adult sizes vary between the subspecies, but for the most part, gopher snakes can grow on average between 4 and 8 feet in length.
In captivity, gopher snakes live to be 20 to 30 years old, so please be ready for the time commitment. Females reach sexual maturity between 3 and 5 years of age, while males reach sexual maturity at about 2 years old.
All snakes look for a way out of their enclosure. Gopher snakes don’t look for it, they find it, every time. Make sure the enclosure lid is secure and tight fitting or locking. If you use a front-opening enclosure, make sure the doors are completely closed and locked. As this snake grows, so should its enclosure.
A hatchling gopher snake will be fine in something as small as a 5-gallon terrarium for about 3 months, but they grow quickly and will need to be moved into a larger enclosure. When the snake outgrows the 5-gallon terrarium, consider moving it into a 20-gallon terrarium, rather than a 10-gallon terrarium because they will quickly outgrow the 10-gallon terrarium and will need to be moved into a 20+ gallon terrarium eventually anyway.
Once the snake is full grown, about 3 years old and 6 feet long, you will need to house it in an enclosure that is at least 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep but not very tall. Gopher snakes are terrestrial and don’t climb much. Burrowing snakes like this would appreciate a hide that has an entry/exit hole cut out of the top of the hide box rather than the side. It makes them feel like they are descending into an underground area rather than still being on top of the substrate.
Always make sure to use larger hides as the snake grows. While they like tight spaces they still need to fit comfortably inside. If you want to make one rather than buy one, turn a small plastic tote, shoebox size, upside down and cut a hole in the top of it. Place it in the tank and put some substrate along the edges to help the look a bit. You can also use a shoebox or similar item for this if you don’t want to use plastic.
Hides are important. Place two hides in your gopher snake’s terrarium, one on the cooler side of the terrarium, and another one halfway to the warmer side. If the snake needs to get any warmer, they usually head for the basking area.
Place some tubes in the enclosure for the snake to pass through. Make sure they are wider than the snake, so the snake doesn’t get stuck in the tube. There’s also hollow logs and cork bark that make great additions.
Lighting and Temperature
There are quite a few people out there that will tell you that UV lighting is not required for this snake because the gopher snake doesn’t need UVB light to use the calcium in their diet. Well, this is a diurnal reptile the spends most of its day hunting, foraging, and basking in the bright unfiltered sunlight. As responsible reptile keepers, we do our best to imitate the reptile’s natural environment for the betterment of their health, so I say, yes, make sure you use UVB light in your enclosure.
You can use a 5% T8 UVB light, or a more compact 2% to 5% T5 UVB light. T5 bulbs also come in H.O. (high output) and V.H.O. (very high output), so be sure to get the proper light and ballast match if you buy them separately. These lights, along with a proper diet, will be enough to help keep your gopher snake healthy.
Make sure there is a basking area that stays around 90 degrees Fahrenheit and that the temperature on the other side of the enclosure stays around 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Make sure the basking light is out of the reach of the snake. Snakes do try to touch the light, and you don’t want them getting hurt. At night, the basking light and all other lights should be turned off, and the temperatures should fall between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If it gets too cold, you can use a ceramic heat emitter, which will not disturb the snake’s circadian rhythm because there is no light.
Gopher snakes do not care for a very humid environment, which makes shedding for them a real joy. Keep the humidity level between 40 and 60 percent, and watch your hygrometer to see how long your particular terrarium holds its humidity and when to make the necessary adjustments. When the time comes, and you notice your gopher snake is about to shed, try turning up the humidity level to 70 percent to help them get through the process easier. Then, once the shed is done completely, turn the humidity level back to where it was set before the shed.
Do not use pine, cedar, or other aromatic woods because their oils are toxic to reptiles. Do not use sand because it holds moisture and urates and could possibly get caught up in some scales and may create an infection.
Because gopher snakes are burrowers, the substrate must allow for digging. Beech wood chips are super easy to clean, inexpensive, and dust free. For a more natural-looking terrarium, use a clay/soil mix. Aspen bedding is another easy-to-use substrate that can be found readily online and inexpensively too.
Make sure the substrate is spot cleaned daily. Change out the substrate and completely clean the entire enclosure and the decorations with a reptile-safe cleaner (available online) every 4 to 6 weeks. Make sure the substrate is between 3 and 5 inches deep to allow for tunneling and digging in general.
Gopher snakes, like all other snakes, are carnivores and need to be fed meat to maintain their health. Whether you use live feeder animals or frozen/thawed animals, hatchlings should be fed one pinkie mouse once a week. As the snake grows, so will the size of its food, until it is eating large mice as an adult.
Appropriately sized prey simply means that the prey items you are feeding your snake is the same size or just a little bit larger than the widest part of the snake’s body.
Adult gopher snakes should be fed a large mouse or maybe even a jumbo mouse every 2 weeks. These snakes are opportunistic feeders that will get fat if you overfeed them.
Every snake has the potential to have a health issue. Some health issues are worse than others, so knowing where an exotics vet is and what their procedures are can be very important. One thing you should do is take your reptile to the vet while it is healthy.
It will be easier on the vet when/if an emergency happens. The vet wants to see your healthy animal to try and catch some issues before they get worse and to get your animal familiar, at least a little bit, with the sights and smells of the vet’s office.
Gopher snakes’ health issues can include anorexia and parasites, both internal and external. For a bit more information about possible health issues, click here.
Always make sure there is good clean water in a large, heavy dish for your gopher snake to drink. They will use it to drink from, as well as soak in, loosen their shed, and as a restroom. The water dish must be big enough for the snake to soak its entire body, heavy enough so it won’t be knocked over while the snake climbs in and out, and cleaned as often as needed. No animal will drink from a dish filled with poop water.
Handling and Temperament
For the most part, gopher snakes are very tractable and super curious snakes that have no issue with being handled. They will stay active while you are holding them, so make sure you support them well. They really aren’t the greatest climbers and love the feeling of support. Gopher snakes typically learn to trust people in a short time, but be patient with them nonetheless. Every snake is different.
With that said, gopher snakes have a mouth and teeth, and those makes them capable of biting. They rarely bite in self-defense, preferring to try and bluff their way into making you think they are a more dangerous snake than they really are.
They will hiss very loudly, puff up their body, flatten out their head, and beat their tails on the ground or in or on something close by, like leaf litter for example, to make a noise that makes them sound like a rattlesnake. Similar displays can be seen by the hognose snake, as well.
Unfortunately, this hoax has cost many gopher snakes their lives because people didn’t know the difference between rattlesnakes and gopher snakes and ended up killing the gopher snake out of protection for themselves and their family.
If you do decide to go ahead and pick up your snake, depending on exactly how mad it is, the snake could bite you (yes, it hurts), or it could release a very foul-smelling musk all over you and try to make a run for freedom when you let go of it.
All of that can easily be avoided if you just leave the snake alone when the snake wants to be left alone. Try handling the snake again later that day/evening or even the next day.
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 gopher snake will thank you for it.