Can Water Snakes be Kept as Pets?

Snake catches a fish in the water

I have often wondered if water snakes could be kept as pets. I grew up in the country where you throw rocks at anything that comes out of the water, especially snakes. But after spending time at the local zoo, I became curious; are snakes, even water snakes, really okay to bring into your house? Can water snakes be kept as pets?

So, can water snakes be kept as pets? Water snakes make great pets. In fact, water snakes are commonly thought to be the best kind of snake to keep as a pet. There are many benefits to owning a Water Snake like relatively few feeding times, a docile attitude, and a relatively small enclosure.

Water snakes are pretty easy to take care of. As pets, they don’t require too much effort, and they are relatively safe. They are even safe around little children, which is a huge plus.

Why You Would Choose a Water Snake as a Pet

Water snakes carry no venom in their bite, and that takes a huge load of stress and worry off your shoulders. This allows children to be able to handle the snakes without danger. Water snakes, in particular, are also extremely docile in captivity.

That being said, water snakes, like any other snake, do not enjoy being handled often or for long periods of time. If they feel particularly stressed or agitated, they will resort to biting. Although it is non-venomous, it’s no fun to have two fangs sunk into your hand.

Water snakes carry no venom in their bite, and that takes a huge load of stress and worry off your shoulders. 

Aim to hold your snake for a few minutes a couple days a week. This will keep your snake familiar with you and unafraid. You have to keep reminding them as their brains are very small. As you continue to spend time with your snake, they will become acclimated to your presence and the presence of other humans.

This is best for them as well and will keep them healthy because they won’t be stressed all the time. This also reduces the likelihood of them biting you or any other person.

Their feeding habits are triggered by smell, not by motion. This means that you can be comfortable and confident in putting your hand into their cage to feed them. Because they could care less about the motion, they are highly unlikely to rear up and snap at your fingers.

Water snakes also live and thrive at a relatively low temperature compared to their other slithering cousins. This means cheaper heating bills and less money spent on warming lamps and fancy tanks or cages.

However, if you want to keep your snake that happiest it can be, I suggest placing a heating pad underneath whatever water source you have in your cage. Water snakes are used to warmer water, as they are often found in the South.

Brown Watersnake

How to Care for Water Snakes

Because water snakes can grow up to 5 feet, they require a larger tank. Generally, you can keep one or two water snakes in a 30-gallon aquarium. Place a Rubber-Maid container of water at one end.

Although they are water snakes, they need somewhere dry to go. Water snakes actually spend most of their time outside of the water. If you do not provide them with a dry spot, they can get scale rot and other diseases that can kill them.

Make sure to have a hideaway for the snake, preferably at the other end of the enclosure from the water source. A plastic box or stacks of rocks will work well for this.

Although light is not required with water snakes, a 60 watt light bulb will heat up rocks quite nicely, and the snakes will love to bask. A water heater is also suggested, though avoid “heat rocks.” We don’t want the snakes getting too toasty.

The easiest thing to use at the bottom of the tank is newspapers. Snakes poop a lot, especially after eating, and it’s often watery. Newspapers are simple, cheap, and fast to clean up.

There is a lot of clean up involved with snakes, as the fish in the water will gum up the sides, and, as previously mentioned, snakes poop. A lot. It is paramount to keep your snake’s tank clean.

Water snakes maintain a diet of fish, frogs, salamanders, other small amphibians, and occasionally even small mammals like shrews and mice. For feeding a pet snake, stick to minnows or feeder goldfish. Pet and bait stores will likely have these in stock.

Try to only feed your snake live fish. You can feed it frozen fish in a pinch, but if a snake only eats frozen fish, they can develop thiamine deficiency and ultimately die.

When feeding time comes (about once a week for adults), simply place a fish in the water tub and let the snake catch and eat it. Females close to breeding season need to eat more often, and babies typically eat twice as often as adults.

It is wise to include a rodent such as a pinky mouse. This gives the snake extra nutrients they are unable to get from fish alone. Water Snakes may refuse to eat the mouse. If this is the case, rub a fish on the mouse.

This transfers the fish scent onto the mouse and the snake should gobble it right down without batting an eye (although admittedly, snakes are physically unable to bat their eyes, given they have no eyelids).

Types of Water Snakes

There are more than 200 different species of water snakes. Only 11 of these species are found in the United States and Canada. These are not to be confused with sea snakes, which are very poisonous.

Sea snakes are obviously only found in the sea, and no self-respecting pet store would supply them, so you only need to worry about sea snakes if you are catching a wild snake and live on the coast.

Many species are found in the South of the United States of America, namely Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

The most common species, however, is the N. Sipedon, or the Northern Water Snake. They live in the east of the United States as well as Southern Ontario, Southern Quebec, and Eastern Mexico.

Below are the species of water snakes with the biggest populations as listed on livescience.com.

  • Nerodia clarkii – salt marsh water snake, saltmarsh snake (with 3 subspecies)
  • Nerodia cyclopion – green water snake, Mississippi green water snake
  • Nerodia erythrogaster – plain-bellied water snake (with 4 subspecies)
  • Nerodia fasciata – Southern water snake, banded water snake (with 3 subspecies)
  • Nerodia floridana – Florida green water snake
  • Nerodia harteri – Harter’s water snake, Brazos River water snake
  • Nerodia paucimaculata – Concho water snake
  • Nerodia rhombifer – diamondback water snake
  • Nerodia sipedon – Northern water snake (with 4 subspecies)
  • Nerodia taxispilota – brown water snake

In general, water snakes have a narrow head and are brown, green, gray, olive, or red with blotches. When wet, they will often appear straight black or gray, just like when you get a stone wet.

They have a raised ridge of scales down the center of their body, making them rough to the touch, instead of smooth like most snakes. Their pupils are round, which is uncommon in snakes.

They have no heat sensor pits on their face, but to see this clearly, you have to get really close to their fangs, which is not the best idea. Northern water snakes typically grow up to 5 feet long (1.5 meters), while water snakes from the South will only reach about 3 feet long (1 meter).

Water Snake Behavior

As mentioned before, Water snakes can be aggressive, especially in the wild. They will hiss, curl up, and even bite when threatened. They may even do this when they are merely approached. However, in captivity, Water snakes will not feel as threatened, especially if you take the time to become familiar with them.

Water snakes will actually climb trees in the wild. They will typically choose a tree that is close to the water so they can drop from the tree to safety should the time call for it.

When catching wild snakes for your home, be cautious of the musk and feces that they can excrete as a defense mechanism. This is just instinct, but once they accept defeat, they are generally calm for the rest of their lives.

They eat their food whole, and often, they will just sit and wait with their mouth wide open, waiting for something to swim by.

Snakes become much less active around the winter, though increasingly more social leading up to winter and just after winter. In captivity, this is less obvious, but if your snake suddenly seems a lot more lethargic than usual, look outside and see if it’s snowing before you start to panic.

Snakes as Pets, A History

Keeping snakes as pets actually goes all the way back to Greek and Roman times. Tame snakes were kept primarily because of their connection to divinities; several gods of those cultures claimed snakes as their sacred animal.

Later on, snakes were more used for maintaining the rodent population and were often encouraged to stay in barns and other buildings with mice problems.

The study of snakes, amphibians, and other reptiles are called Herpetoculture, and the people who keep or study snakes are called “herpetoculturists.” 

Of course, land snakes are known to be a little testy, and their poisonous bite renders them generally unqualified as a house pet. Water snakes, however, are completely non-venomous, so they seem to be the ideal species to keep around.

Related Questions

What do baby water snakes eat? Baby water snakes eat the same thing that adult water snakes do: small fishes, frogs, and salamanders. They occasionally eat smaller animals like worms, leeches, and crayfish. However, if you have a pet baby water snake, just feed it like you would an adult.

Are water snakes dangerous? Water snakes are not poisonous, although they might bite if stressed. Northern water snakes are often mistaken for water moccasin snakes, also referred to as cottonmouths, another water-based snake that is extremely dangerous. The easiest distinction between the two is cottonmouths have bands while water snakes have blotches. Cottonmouths are also generally more blocky while water snakes are more slender.

How do I buy a water snake? Not all pet stores carry water snakes, and the ones that do may not take good care of them. Be sure to check to make sure the snake is healthy and alert, and that it has been kept in proper living conditions. Look for skin legions or protruding backbones. However, snakes are often relatively cheap.

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