All snakes are ectothermic, or “cold-blooded.” This just means that they depend on the environment around them to regulate their body temperature.
In nature, a snake might retreat into its burrow to escape the summer heat, or find a rock where it can bask in the sun to get warm enough to digest its last meal.
When ectotherms, like snakes, get too hot or too cold, the enzymes on which their lives depend cannot operate.
Finding locations at suitable temperatures keeps snakes on the move.
But even though snakes don’t have an interior, metabolic way of regulating their body temperature, they have many ways of adapting their behaviors to find just the right spot to stay at a healthy temperature.
What Every Snake Owner Needs to Know About Regulating Temperature
If you keep a pet snake in an enclosure (and every pet snake should be kept in a secure enclosure), chances are that you already know about providing your snake with a temperature gradient across its home.
Every snake needs an enclosure with a warmer, basking zone for activities like digesting its food.
And it also needs a cooler resting zone where it will spend most of its time.
To give your snake a thermal gradient, there are just two things you need to do.
The first is making sure that you place your snake’s heat source, which could be a heat lamp, a basking light, a ceramic heating element, a heating pad under the floor of the enclosure, or some combination of them at one end of the cage.
Never place a heating element over or under the middle of the cage.
The second is to provide your snake with a hide, or some kind of fibrous substrate it can use for tunneling, like aspen wood shavings, at the other end of the cage.
You also need a thermometer or an infrared heat gun to measure the temperature inside your snake’s enclosure to make sure it does not get too hot or too cold.
Most snakes need a basking area at the warm end of their cage with a temperature of about 85° to 95° F (30° to 35° C).
The cool end of their cage can be 75° to 80° F (23° to 26° C). Some species will prefer their cages to be more on the warm side, while others may like their temperatures a little cooler.
You may have to do some research to find out the temperature requirements of your snake, and then experiment with where you put the heating elements to get the best results.
But it is important to understand that different kinds of heating elements can give you very different results.
Which Heat Sources to Use for Pet Snakes
Pet stores and online reptile supply stores offer a tremendous variety of heat sources you can use to keep your pet snake comfortable.
We’ll consider the major types of heat sources and when one kind of heating may be better than others.
There are two things to keep in mind about using light bulbs to heat your snake’s terrarium. One is that the wattage of the bulb tells you how much heat it will produce.
The other is that you can’t use full-spectrum or white light to heat your snake’s cage at night, because the light will disturb its normal nighttime activities.
- Basking lamps. If you can imagine your snake basking on a rock in a hot, sunny desert, then a basking lamp could be a good daytime heat source for your pet. Basking lamps are helpful for many desert and tropical species. But just as snakes don’t stay on their rocks all night, you should not operate a basking lamp at night.
- Nocturnal infrared heat lamps. Infrared lamps come with reflectors that focus warmth on the warm end of your snake’s enclosure. Because they do not emit visible light, they do not interfere with your snake’s normal nighttime activities. They can be used for heating 24 hours a day.
- Regular incandescent light bulbs. These bulbs are placed in special reflector hoods to focus light and warmth on the warm end of your snake’s cage. They are a lot less expensive than other heat sources, and they are usually enough to keep most kinds of snakes comfortable. However, they are for daytime use only.
Any kind of lighting you add to your snake’s home to make it easier for you to observe your snake should be used during daytime hours only.
Under-the-Tank Heat Mats
Heating mats are a good way to keep your snake warm at night. Low-wattage heat mats fit under or on the side of the tank to keep your snake warm.
There are some important safety considerations for the use of heat mats:
- Rubber feet. Any time you use a heat mat under your snake’s enclosure, your tank must rest on rubber feet to prevent direct contact with the heat source beneath it. Elevating the tank element allows air to flow under it and keeps it from overheating. However, once these rubber feet are stuck on your tank, they cannot be removed and reused. This means you need to buy new rubber feet every time you clean beneath your snake’s tank.
- Thermostat or rheostat. When you are buying a heat mat for your snake tank, make sure there is some way to keep it from overheating. Most heat mats come with a thermostat you can set to make sure they tum themselves off when they reach a certain temperature. A rheostat keeps the mat from ever reaching high temperatures.
If you keep a tropical snake, you can run the heat mat 24 hours a day for basic warmth and operate the heat lamp during the day for basking.
Ceramic Heat Emitters
Ceramic heat emitters look like a coiled-up version of an incandescent light bulb.
They are actually very efficient heat producers that don’t produce any light, so they don’t interfere with your snake’s normal day and night cycles of activities.
Ceramic heat emitters give off intense heat. They can melt plastic receptacles, so you will need to mount them in porcelain holders.
Some models come with clamps so you can mount them at a safe distance above your snake, so they won’t stretch up and burn themselves.
You will want to be careful not to touch a hot ceramic heat emitter so you won’t burn yourself.
The downside of using ceramic heat emitters is that, despite the fact that they are very hot, they don’t always eat large spaces. Ceramic heat emitters don’t work well for heating very large display tanks.
Other Tools for Heating Your Snake’s Enclosure
There are several other ways of heating your snake’s enclosure, each of which has some serious drawbacks.
- Heat rocks. Heat rocks are a great way to bring up the air temperature inside your snake’s cage, but they can burn your snake.
- Mercury vapor lights. Mercury vapor lights produce heat along with UV-A, UV-B, and visible light. Your snake doesn’t really need UV light. They don’t make vitamin D in their skin. They get it from the animals they eat whole. These lights do last longer than fluorescent lights, but they need to be plugged into a ceramic socket.
- Heating cables. Snakes can burn themselves when they come in direct contact with heating cables. They are OK for use on the outside of a glass cage as a backup heating source when your central heating system goes out.
Safety Tips for Heating Your Snake’s Enclosure
Don’t let your snake’s heat source become a fire hazard. Here are some essential safety tips for heating your snake’s enclosure:
- Keep all flammable materials inside the enclosure, for example, silk plants and wood hiding places, at a safe distance from heat sources. Keep your snake’s cage away from external fire hazards, such as carpets and drapes.
- Make sure your heat source is appropriate for your snake’s enclosure. For instance, don’t use a ceramic heat emitter to heat a plastic tub.
- Use appropriate receptacles for plugging in heat sources. High-heat heating elements require ceramic plugs.
- Do not overload power bars or extension cords.
- Raise your snake’s terrarium off the stand if you use a heat mat.
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