Garter snakes are some of the most common reptiles in the United States. You’re likely to spot one in your yard or garden in the summer, lounging in the sun or slithering along.
They’re cute animals in the wild, but are garter snakes good pets? Many people think so. There’s a growing group of snake enthusiasts saying that a garter snake is a good starter pet.
Let’s take a look at the details of keeping a garter snake in your home, where they come from, and what the risks are.
Are Garter Snakes Good Pets?
Garter snakes can be good or bad pets, as with any other animal. Whether they’re right for you depends on your experience and environment.
Garter snakes are small and relatively easy to care for, making them excellent starter snakes. They don’t need live prey, which can be a problem for new owners, and they’re pretty gentle animals.
They don’t require particularly large enclosures. You can keep them in a ten-gallon aquarium tank though 30 gallons is recommended. They’re also very affordable, starting around $10.
Unfortunately, garter snakes produce a lot of waste. They can smell bad if their enclosure isn’t cleaned regularly. Also, many “pets” are wild-caught and may bite or be challenging to handle.
Garter snakes can also be problematic if they escape. They’re very active when handled and, again, very small. This means they’ll be hard to find if they get out of their housing.
As long as you do your research ahead of time and know what to expect in terms of housing, feeding, cleaning, and where your animal is coming from, garters are great pets.
Pet Garter Snakes and Kids
If bought from a reputable breeder, garter snakes are docile and unlikely to bite.
They’re also active during the day. They don’t like being petted, but they do like moving around and climbing.
This makes them suitable for families with school-age kids. That being said, make sure your child knows it’s a big responsibility. This is still a living creature to care for.
It’s good to know that garter snakes in the wild usually only live about five years, but they can live up to ten years in captivity. This makes them a long-term commitment if your child asks for one.
Their ability to feed on pre-killed prey is also a bonus. Live prey-feeding in captivity may disturb young children. Keeping a garter can introduce the idea slowly over time.
Though they are still technically venomous, their bites don’t cause severe reactions outside of redness and itching. Even so, it’s probably best to teach kids proper handling early.
As with any other reptile, families with pregnant women, children under the age of five, and senior citizens should talk to a doctor before deciding to keep a garter snake.
Pet Garter Snakes and Other Pets
Because they’re so small, garter snakes are fragile. It’s not recommended to keep them with other snakes or animals. These snakes are shy and fairly easily injured.
It’s especially dangerous to keep a garter snake in the same house as a cat. Cats are natural snake hunters. They’re likely to stress, injure, or even kill your garter snake.
Garter snakes bred and raised in captivity are most often fed on a diet that is mostly fish—because of this, keeping a garter snake and fish at the same time isn’t a good idea.
If possible, keep your garter snake isolated from any other pets you decide to keep. If you do decide to introduce them, do so slowly with plenty of supervision. Never leave them alone.
What Makes Garter Snakes a Great Choice for Pet Snakes?
Garter snakes have many desirable attributes.
We will start with one positive trait of garter snakes that makes them a good choice for beginners.
Garter Snakes Are Easy to Handle
Some garter snakes are only 18 inches (45 cm) long when they are fully mature.
The largest garter snake, T. couchii gigas, the giant garter snake, found in the wild in California and Nevada, only reaches about 4 feet (122 cm) long.
An adult garter snake typically weighs a little over 5 ounces, about 150 grams, and garter snakes aren’t constrictors—they don’t wrap themselves around their prey.
As garter snake owners discover their pets are easy to handle, they approach them more confidently.
The garter snake quickly learns what to expect from its owner, and becomes more docile and predictable. This results in more easy handling when it comes to garter snakes.
Garter Snakes Seldom Bite (if Handled Properly)
The fact that garter snakes seldom bite doesn’t mean they never bite.
Garter snakes have to get used to being handled.
At first, it is a good idea to put on a leather glove and to wear long sleeves to gently stroke your garter snake inside its enclosure.
As your garter snake becomes accustomed to being touched, then you can take off the glove and even pet it outside its cage.
Even during this stage of socializing your garter snake, a gentle touch is necessary.
You will need to be patient enough to let your snake pass through your hands, rather than holding it with a tight grip it will want to escape.
Your garter snake needs several weeks, and several feedings, to get to know and trust you.
Garter Snakes Don’t Have to Be Fed Rodents
Many potential snake owners are turned off by the thought of having to feed their pets dead mice to keep them alive.
While garter snakes can be trained to feed on pinky mice, they are more naturally suited to eating fish, tadpoles and frogs, and water insects.
Garter snakes are a great choice for someone who likes the idea of having a pet snake but hates the idea of handling dead rodents.
You Can Build a Complex, Beautiful Terrarium for Your Garter Snake.
A garter snake isn’t an animal you have to keep in a shoebox or plastic tub.
In fact, it is a lot healthier for your snake if you give it interesting and even colorful surroundings.
The substrate lining the bottom of your garter snake’s enclosure can be beautiful fallen oak or maple leaves.
The hiding place can be a moss-covered section of a fallen tree, and your garter snake’s climbing furniture can be made from real or plastic driftwood.
Garter snakes can be hard on real plants in their cages, but silk plants can add a durable, natural touch to their display case.
Garter Snakes Come In a Variety of Interesting Colors
The garter snake you met in the woods may resemble the garter snake you keep as a pet only in weight and length.
Here are some of the possibilities:
- The common garter snake is found in the wild from the subarctic plains of Canada south to Costa Rica. These black, olive, tan, or gray snakes have one or more cream-colored”racing stripes” extending the length of their bodies.
- Albino garter snakes aren’t pure white. They have lighter color patterns than other garter snakes in cream, white, orange, yellow, and peach. They usually have pink eyes. Albino garter snakes occasionally occur in the wild, but they are very popular with collectors.
- Anerythristic garter snakes lack red pigments in their scales. They have a black to dark brown base color with flashes of silver and gray. They have a single gray, cream, or white dorsal stripe running the length of their body, but they don’t have the red dots characteristic of other garter snakes.
- Blue morph garter snakes have a base color of light to very dark blue on the top side of their bodies, with underbellies or either light or dark blue. Some will also have yellow or green colors on their top side. Blue morphs are very popular with collectors.
- The beautiful red morph of the garter snake known as “flame” occurs in the wild in southwestern Canada. They have red, yellow, and orange colors on the top side of their bodies, with a white, red, or orange dorsal stripe. This highly sought-after morph can be hard to find.
- The orange morph of the garter snake has the same patterns of color as the common garter snake, only with an orange base color that blends with browns and tans. Its dorsal stripe is usually orange. It may have red flecks or spots all over its body.
- Red morphs aren’t unusual in the wild in the northern United States up into Canada. They have a dark brown or dark green base color, punctuated by red spots on the sides of their bodies. They have a yellow or cream-colored dorsal stripe.
- The Iowa snow morph of the garter snake is born pink but gets lighter as it matures. In adulthood, it can range from pearly white to yellow, with bright red eyes. There is also a Nebraska snow morph that has more of a lavender tone and dark red eyes when it reaches adulthood.
- Melanistic garter snakes are jet black except for a small patch of white on their chin and their dorsal stripe. Most species of garter snakes carry the genes for this morph.
- Breeding to unrelated red morph garter snakes can result in the speckled flame morph, which displays a solid orange belly, an orange and/or red dorsal stripe, and varying degrees of orange, red, yellow, and black speckles on top. Its colors are the same as the flame morph except for the black spots blended into its color pattern.
Showing a child photos of these morphs is a good way to elicit a reaction that tells you whether they would really be enthusiastic about keeping a garter snake.
No matter what your age, if you have a little money to spare, check out these beautiful morphs before you make your final decision about your first pet garter snake.
Some Downsides of Pet Garter Snakes You Should Know
There are a few potential downsides to owning a garter snake.
You should go through this list before you acquire a pet garter snake just in case one of these negative traits would be a deal-breaker.
Garter Snakes Produce Small Amounts of a Very Mild Venom
For a long time, everyone assumed that garter snakes are non-venomous.
In the early 2000s, scientists discovered that garter snakes produce tiny amounts of nerve-paralyzing venom that they release when they are swallowing tadpoles and insects.
A garter snake’s prey is still alive when it is swallowing it. The venom keeps it from getting away.
There have been a few reports of people who had mild allergic reactions to garter snake venom after they were bitten.
There are no reports of serious injury or death after a garter snake bite.
Eat More Often, Poop More Often
This means you will have to do cleanup about twice as often as with other snakes.
When garter snakes get intestinal parasites from wild-caught earthworms or frogs, they tend to produce smelly, watery feces that are difficult to remove from their enclosure.
Garter Snake Release a Smelly Musk When Frightened
This substance is intended to drive a predator away. It usually works.
You will want to make sure your garter snake is comfortable with being handled before you pet it, to avoid the release of musk.
Garter snakes can pick up E. coli/Salmonella from their own waste
The bacteria are inside the animals they eat whole, and pass out of the snake with feces.
Anyone who handles a snake needs to wash their hands with a bacterial soap afterward, and clothing that has been in contact with a snake needs to be taken off and washed in hot water.
Is It Safe to Keep a Garter Snake as a Pet?
In terms of personality, garter snakes are some of the safest and easiest to handle. While they might nip if frightened, they generally settle down quickly.
Garter snakes do still pose the risks commonly associated with all reptiles. They carry many of the risks that wild snakes do, save for temperament and environmental health factors.
Generally, though, it is safe to keep a garter snake as a pet. They’re unlikely to do any serious harm to you or your children if appropriately handled.
There are a couple of big things to consider when thinking about the safety of keeping garter snakes. These are keeping the snake clean and preventing infections.
Keeping Garter Snakes Clean
As mentioned, because they’re so small, garter snakes tend to get dirty very quickly. It’s reported that garter snake waste smells the worst of any reptile.
Because of this, you’ll want to thoroughly clean your snake’s enclosure frequently. You’ll have to have a temporary enclosure for them while you’re doing this to prevent escapes.
Garter snakes also have an interesting defense mechanism. If frightened, they’ll spray a foul-smelling musk. This means handling them too roughly can cause extra cleaning days.
Risk of Infection from Garter Snakes
Garter snakes are capable of transmitting certain bacterial infections and diseases to each other and people. Always wash your hands and any surfaces the snake touches after handling.
They are also prone to external parasites. This is common with many breeds of snakes. These pests are usually small insects like mites.
This can be an issue if you don’t have a snake specialist near you. Most regular vets won’t treat snakes because they’re considered “exotic.” A snake is anatomically different from other pets.
Because of this, you’ll need to find a specialist to provide regular care and treatment for your garter snake. Lists can be found online or through your local vet office or animal control.
Preparing food for your garter snake can also pose a risk of infection. Always prepare their food in a contained space away from where you prepare food for yourself to prevent contamination.
Is It Legal to Keep a Garter Snake as a Pet?
In most places, it is illegal to capture a wild garter snake to keep as a pet. This is because removing them can harm native populations and individual animals.
Wild snakes are also a complete unknown. They may be hostile and aggressive because they’re afraid, meaning more bites and escapes. They may even be sick and pass on the disease.
This is why it’s so important to buy your garter snake from a licensed, reputable breeder. Those snakes have been vetted for health and temperament and are legal to own.
Some states also have specific laws to do with when and where any reptile can be kept as a pet. This mainly applies to larger species and constrictors rather than garter snakes.
Changing Opinions on Snakes as Pets
Recent surveys of reptile owners have found that they consider their pets just as much a part of the family as a dog or a cat would be. This isn’t surprising, but it is promising for the industry.
Snakes are becoming more and more popular as pets. They’re easy to keep in small homes. They also cost less than a “regular” pet. More and more people are turning to snakes as friends.
Especially during the pandemic, people are opting for easy-to-care-for pets that are still interesting. This means reptiles, and in particular, snakes.
On top of this, snakes are incredibly genetically diverse. This means people can opt for “designer snakes” without many of the usual risks associated with aesthetic breeding.
Some animal advocacy groups still protest the keeping of snakes as pets at all. They argue that it’s unnatural and distressing to the animal. They also believe it’s unsafe for human owners.
Still, there’s no real evidence to suggest that it’s bad for the animals if they’re kept responsibly. Most experts agree that keeping a pet snake is just as reasonable as any “normal” pet.
Regulations on Garter Snake Keeping
There are two federally recognized endangered or threatened species of garter snake: the Giant Garter Snake (nationwide) and the Common Garter Snake (threatened only in California).
Some states are seeking to cut down on poaching and illegal breeding by adding restrictions to reptile ownership. This means limiting the number of pets allowed per person per house.
Currently, you can keep some form of a garter snake in most states, depending on the breed. Check your local laws for specifics and breeder recommendations.
Garter Snakes Do Make Good Pets
In general, garter snakes are relatively simple reptiles to keep. They’re native to most states, and they’re quite gentle. They may smell, but they’re not going to hurt you.
They don’t need much more room than your average fish, making them suitable for apartments. They don’t need live prey, and they’re active in the day, so they’re good for kids.
Garter snakes often require specialist care. This care can be found relatively easily at the local level, though, and is cheaper than many other pets’ vet visits.
As long as you’re following state and local laws and buying from a reputable breeder instead of catching wild snakes, garter snakes can make excellent pets for even inexperienced owners.
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