Garter snake care can be a tricky.
But it’s worth it. They are a great snake to own, because they don’t take up much space and you can keep several of them in the same enclosure.
Add to that their beautiful appearance, feisty character, and a wide range of morphs, and you have just about the perfect pet.
But you do need to learn as much as you can about their needs and their preferred environment before getting one.
That way you can make sure their enclosure is set up just the way they like it and give them the best possible welcome to your home.
Let’s take a close look at this wonderful snake and find out exactly what caring for a garter snake entails.
Table of Contents
- 1 Garter Snake Care
- 1.1 Garter Snake Defining Characteristics
- 1.2 Garter Snake Reproduction
- 1.3 Caring For Baby Garter Snakes
- 1.4 Are Garter Snakes Venomous?
- 1.5 Garter Snake Bites
- 1.6 Garter Snake Size
- 1.7 Garter Snake Lifespan
- 1.8 Garter Snake Tank Setup
- 1.9 Must-Haves For Your Garter Snake Enclosure
- 2 Checkered Garter Snake Care
- 3 Garter Snake Morhps
- 4 Caring For Garter Snakes: Final Thoughts
Garter Snake Care
There are thirty-five different species of garter snakes. They are found in a vast swathe of America; from Canada and Alaska down to Central America. Even states with few other species have garter snakes. Maine is a good example.
In the colder climates, the garter snakes will hibernate in groups. This is actually how they are commonly caught to be sold as pets. Other garter snakes are bred in captivity specifically to be sold as pets.
Garter Snake Defining Characteristics
The primary defining characteristic of a garter snake is a black or very dark colored stripe down the center of the snake’s back. The checkered garter snake is one of the few exceptions to this rule and will be discussed later in this article.
Garter Snake Reproduction
Garter snakes are one of the few snakes that give live birth and don’t lay eggs. Rather, the female snake protects the sperm inside her body for up to a year after mating, until she is ready to become gravid (pregnant).
A female garter snake can give birth to up to eighty baby garter snakes in one litter. She provides them no care after they have been born and they are left to fend for themselves.
Baby garter snakes bred in captivity are usually sold as pets after their first few feedings. But how exactly do you care for and raise baby garter snakes?
Caring For Baby Garter Snakes
The average size of newborn garter snakes is between 6 and 8 inches. They are usually born from July to September. The babies shed almost immediately and can then be fed.
If they don’t want to eat what you are offering to them, try another food. They can be quite finicky eaters. What do baby garter snakes eat? You can try feeding them earthworms or pinky parts (for example, the tails of pinky mice).
They also like to see their food move, so try not to keep the pinky tail too still when feeding them and they may take it. Remember also to give them fresh, clean water.
Baby Garter Snake Enclosures
Baby garter snakes do not need to be kept in separate enclosures. They actually seem to be less stressed when there are a few of their siblings in the enclosure with them. This is especially handy when your female has had a large litter! They must be fed separately, however, to avoid accidental cannibalism.
For enclosures, you can use the Exo Terra Faunarium. Line it with a thin layer of substrate.
Add a small hide or two for the babies to hide under and there you have it!
These quick-moving garter snake babies are still good at escaping so, whether you’re using the Faunarium or another small enclosure, it must be made escape-proof for very small snakes.
Are Garter Snakes Venomous?
Garter snakes were thought to be non-venomous for a very long time. But now we know that was false. Although all garter snakes are harmless to humans, they do produce a neurotoxic venom in their saliva.
This neurotoxic venom is only venomous to their prey. The garter snake is also not a constrictor, making it a very safe pet to have among the vast range of snake species.
Garter Snake Bites
Do garter snakes have teeth at all? They do, but they are small teeth, not fangs. And garter snakes are too small to even bite humans when they are babies. But they can bite you once they have grown up. They are only likely to bite when they are feeling threatened, however.
Luckily the bite will leave little more than scratches. It’s important, however, to clean the scratches. Even though they may not look like much, bacteria from your snake can still enter the scratches and infect them.
A garter snake’s bite is usually very quick, but there are some who won’t let go once they have bitten you. If that happens, you should very gently push your snake’s head forward in order not to hurt their backward facing teeth or their mouth. You can then just remove your snake and place it back in its enclosure and take care of the bite marks.
Garter Snake Size
Garter snakes range from 6 – 8 inches when newborn. Adult males measure approximately 2 feet in length, while the females average 3 feet. Some garter snakes have been recorded at 5 feet in length, but this is out of the ordinary.
Garter Snake Lifespan
Your garter snake may live longer in captivity than it would in the wild, as long as it gets the proper care and nutrition. Garter snakes may live 4 – 5 years in the wild, can live 10 years in captivity.
They are, therefore, not as long-lived as many other pet snakes. The responsibility of caring for a garter snake and ensuring its good health, however, should not be underestimated. The good health of your snake starts with the right enclosure filled with the right accessories.
Garter Snake Tank Setup
One of the things that makes the garter snake such a sought-after snake (apart from being gorgeous) is that it is quite robust and also doesn’t need too large an enclosure.
The snake enclosure you use for your adult female garter snake or breeding pair can be between 20 and 30 gallons. A male can even be kept in a 15-gallon enclosure.
If you are planning on using a lot of plants and other decorations, though, opt for a 35-gallon enclosure. Some of the Carolina snake enclosures are perfect — just have a look at this one.
If you need to, get extra clips as well — those wily snakes are brilliant escape artists!
Can garter snakes swim and should you have a small pond in the enclosure? Yes, they can swim, but they rarely do so in the wild. There is no need to provide an area to swim, like with some snakes. All they need is water deep enough to soak in.
Remember that your snake can feel exposed and vulnerable if their enclosure is too large and this will cause stress. An enclosure that is too small, however, will keep your snake from getting adequate exercise. If you are not sure which size enclosure to get, it’s best to ask.
Must-Haves For Your Garter Snake Enclosure
In addition to the enclosure, you must also keep the substrate, temperature, light, and humidity in mind. We will start with the different types of substrate which can be used for garter snakes.
Do not use cedar chips or shavings! You can, however, use aspen shavings that are specifically meant for snakes. Other substrates you can use are cypress mulch and bark nuggets.
You should also not use pine shavings. You can keep your snakes on paper towels or butcher paper, too and this is especially a good idea if they are still young. That said, garter snakes burrow, so it is better to give them enough substrate so that they can dig a bit.
If you’re using shavings or mulch, be sure to clean the areas where your snakes have urinated or have soiled them thoroughly. Add more substrate as needed (you don’t need to change the substrate completely every time). If you do this properly, you only need to change all the substrate about every two months.
Light And Temperature
Garter snakes, like other snakes, need heat sources to regulate their body temperatures. For your garter snake to be able to do this in its enclosure, you have to ensure that it is the correct temperature.
The ideal temperature is between 75° F and 85° F (24° to 30° C). But you only need to heat one side of the enclosure, because one side should be cooler than the other side. This allows your snake to also cool down when it gets too hot.
To heat the one side of the enclosure, you can use a heating pad which you place only underneath one third to one half of the enclosure’s base.
Temperatures above 86° F (30° C) can be very dangerous for your snake and should be avoided. Make sure your heating pad comes with a thermometer (or you get one separately) to make sure that it doesn’t get too hot.
Hides And Humidity
The hides you choose for your garter snake should be just big enough for them to curl up inside. Try hollow logs, half logs or the hides that can be bought online or in pet stores. You can find our list of the best snake hides here.
You also need to give your garter snake ample water, as they are found near water in the wild. But, it is very important that the enclosure not be semi-aquatic as this could cause blister disease.
For humidity just a bit of damp sphagnum moss is fine.
Whatever you use for your garter snake enclosure, make sure that it is still easy enough to keep clean. The last thing you want is for your snakes to get ill because you were not able to clean their enclosure thoroughly.
Checkered Garter Snake Care
The checkered garter snake, or Thamnophis marcianus, is a colubrid snake endemic to the southwestern United States, Mexico, and South America.
It is found in various habitats, including semiarid regions of California and the moist forests of Costa Rica. The range also includes elevations from almost sea level to some 7 200 foot above sea level.
The checkered garter snake has three recognized subspecies, Thamnophis marcianus marcianus (Northern Checkered Garter Snake), Thamnophis marcianus praeocularis (Yucatan Checkered Garter Snake), and Thamnophis marcianus bovalli (Nicaraguan Checkered Garter Snake). The albino morph of the Northern Checkered Garter Snake is very popular in the exotic pet trade.
Checkered Garter Snake Appearance And Diet
The checkered garter snake typically has a greenish coloring and in addition to having a stripe down its back, it has a black checkerboard pattern. This pattern is very distinct, even in albino checkered garter snakes.
Although they can grow to be some 42 inches long, the average length of a checkered garter snake is 28 inches.
Like many of the other garter snakes, the checkered garter snake’s diet includes small amphibians (frogs and toads), small fish, small mammals, salamanders, some insects, and earthworms. The checkered garter snake actively forages for prey.
Most of the checkered garter snakes that are kept as pets are trained to eat thawed mice from the time that they are born. This is predominantly because the other foods the snake would eat in the wild are either difficult to come by, or prohibitively expensive.
As can be deduced from its diet, the checkered garter snake is never found too far away from water. Some checkered garter snakes are even good swimmers.
In northern areas, these snakes are most active during the day, but they may be more nocturnal to the south. The reason for this change is the change in temperature and the amount of sunlight.
Checkered Garter Snake Reproduction
Female checkered garter snakes also give live birth. Their litter ranges from 6 to 35 snakes, with a gestation period of 80 to 105 days. Baby snakes, that measure some 9 inches, are born in the spring or summer.
The checkered garter snake will strike out and bite if it is provoked or feels threatened, like any other snake. Their bite is not serious and the snake is not venomous to humans.
It is more likely to release a foul-smelling musk, though. Almost all garter snake pets do this, until they are used to their keepers. Be prepared. It is not pleasant.
The checkered garter snake — like other garter snakes — can be kept as a pet very successfully. You have a wide option of habitats for their enclosures, since they live in very varied areas in the wild. The one constant is that water must always be available to your snake.
Garter Snake Morhps
Many garter snake morphs besides albinos are available to the enthusiast and more morphs have appeared over the years through breeding. A favorite is the “flame” morph, that occurs southwestern Quebec, Canada.
It is very important to make sure that the snake that you get from a breeder hasn’t been inbred, as this is a possibility when someone tries to create new and unique morphs.
Other Garter Snake Color Morphs
- Thamnophis elegans terrestris (red morph) — a red morph of the Coast Garter Snake
- Thamnophis melanogaster canescens (melanistic and red morph) — a morph of the Mexican Black-bellied Garter Snake
- Thamnophis sirtalis pickeringii (blue morph) — a beautiful blue morph of the Puget Sound Garter Snake
- Thamnophis sirtalis similis (bluestripe morph) — blue morph found in Florida
- Normal and Melanistic morphs of Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis (the Eastern Garter Snake)
Caring For Garter Snakes: Final Thoughts
Garter snakes are popular, because they are relatively easy to care for. They do not need large enclosures or large and unusual food that is difficult to find. They are also not dangerous to humans.
As with any snake, the important thing is to provide them everything they need to be comfortable. Try to mimic their natural habitat as much as possible within their terrarium. This is easier with garter snakes, because they occupy so many different types of habitat in the wild.