What would you tell a complete beginner? I want to get a snake, but I don't know that much. What should I keep in mind?
Hello anon, good luck with all your snake research! Finding out as much as you can before getting the animal is probably the most important thing. I can give you a few tips others may want to add if i’ve missed obvious stuff!
1) First consider if you accommodate a snake in your life? How much space can you dedicate to the adult enclosure? Are you on a tight budget when it comes to equipment costs? Is there an exotics vet near you? Are you prepared to cover these costs? Are you prepared for their long life expectancy?
2) What do you want out of a snake? I would really recommend looking into species that are easy to feed and care for or species that are slightly more tolerant of the “beginners errors”. But ultimatley you will be caring for your pet a long time as snakes are long lived. So assess want you want from a snake and get a species that should fit in to this…eg) Is it important you can handle the snake? Do you mind if they may be bitey as hatchlings? Do you mind if they are known for defensive behaviours? Do you mind if you never see them in the enclosure because they burrow or are nocturnal ? Do you want to be able to observe your snake during the day?
Once you have an idea of your wants and importantly your limitations when it comes to space and money,
3) look into species that fits your wants and will thrive on your budget in the space you can provide. For a first snake I would probably advise to stay away from species that have reputations for being very hard to feed or fragile in captivity (or any very big/giant snakes). But as said above snakes live a long time! Find a species you are excited about keeping.
4) When you decide on your species, find a good reputable breeder with healthy animals.
**- don’t bring it home until you have the equipment and set up all ready for it-**
Ask people that own the species you are interested in about good breeders, look for reviews on breeders, join species specific face book groups, ask questions about husbandry. If the species you want is very common in the pet trade you might also consider adopting from a reputable reptile rescue center. Just speak to them and make sure you are getting a healthy animal thats an established feeder as your first snake. Many reptiles do just find their way into rescue by circumstance they are not always problem animals in poor health. Consider if you want a hatchling or an adult. Adults will generally be less fragile to care for and should have an established temperament which is an advantage.
5) Enclosure design! Gosh you will so much conflicting things on enclosure design. “ Too much space is scary for snakes (myth)” “Tubs are fine forever for x species (they are usually not)” “ All you need is kitchen roll and a water dish and just plug in a heat mat! (no. It’s not that simple and you will always need a thermostat too despite what some keepers may say!)”
It can be a bit of a mine field of misinformation, especially for people new to snake keeping. Assuming you want your pet to have the best quality of life possible that you can provide - look for tips, advice and inspiration from keepers who’s priority is the same! (That is often not the large scale for profit breeders that advocate bare minimum husbandry.)
Look at the natural history and behavioural ecology of the snake you decide on. Does it climb? burrow? bask in the sun? Spend lots of time in water? Is it a very secretive species? How does it hunt: activley or with sit and wait ambush tactics? Does it come for dry habitat or humid habitats? What kind of micro-climates would it make use of ? Make sure your enclosure provides a comfortable and stimulating environment which allows your animal to express it’s natural behaviours and offers it a variety of choices. Good enclousure design promotes both mental and physical well-being. You can read more about why that is so important in this post here:
or other bits and pieces in my “ animal welfare” tag
Don’t get caught up with just meeting the minimum, go for the best practice!
Also, worth noting that good enclosure deisgn makes snake keeping soooo much easier. You don’t need to be battling to keep temps and humidity right in a fish tank with a screen lid and a red heat bulb (avoid the hell out of those red bulbs btw).. It adds an unnecessary complication to deal with as a beginner and won’t facilitate good conditions for the snake. (Not to say tanks are always bad for everything of course, they aren’t and can be modified to make good enclosures). Generally if its your first time setting up an enclosure you will be better off with either a big tub (with the understanding that depending on the tub size and the snake it will outgrow this), plastic caging or a properly sealed wood enclosure. Some pro’s and con’s in this post here
@teleos post below is also a good starting point for basic enclosure equipment and costs;
Learn the difference bettween ambient heat and surface basking temperatures , (shown nicely in this guide by @wheremyscalesslither )
Look to understand how this relates to different kinds of heat sources such as using conductive heat sources (heat mats) for basking temps or radiant heat sources ( ceramic heaters, bulbs, radiant heat panels) which can create both basking surfaces and raise ambient temperatures. The way you heat an enclosure will affect the choices for thermoregulation avalible to the animal and thus how they utilise the space avalible. Shown really nicely by @skies-of-salt pics here.
Learn the basics of how relative humidity (RH) works. (ie warmer air holds more water vapour than cooler air). An enclosure with an RH of 70% at a cooler temp is not the same as an enclosure with a RH 70% at a warmer temp…Thus a snake that needs humid conditions may shed well and remain hydrated in the warmer one and yet shed poorly and become dehydrated in the other despite the owners reporting their humidity is the same.
look at the different types of thermostats availble and which one is most appropriate for your set up and heat source ( on/ off stats, pulse proportional stats or dimming thermostats).
You can look into lighting, which is an often overlooked component of enclosure design when it comes to snake care in particular.
This might all sound like i’m overcomplicating things but honestly it will make choosing equipment for your species and personal circumstances easier, and you might be able to stop and question misinformation like “lights suck moisture out the air” if you understand those basics. For me, enclosure design is one of the most rewarding and interesting parts of snake keeping!
6) As a final note : When you have one snake you might well want more!
If I could go back and tell my past self anything about snake keeping it would be not get carried away with getting the animals I want to own too soon… Set yourself a maximum number of animals you can house according to “best practice” with the space you have and stick to it.
In all honesty I got slightly swept up in the metric tonne of myths about small enclosures being “ just fine” myself when I first got in to snake keeping. My snakes current housing is ok but its not as good as I would like it to be…I have plans for big enclosures for all my snakes but maybe if I was to start over I’d have done things differently and have fewer snakes but get them in their final big enclosures sooner…ya live and learn.
Good luck with your research.