Every pet snake needs an external source of heat.
Pet snakes don’t necessarily need heat lamps, but they need a dependable source of heat that keeps the entire room around their enclosure warm all year round.
It could be a heating pad underneath their cage, or a heat lamp—if you don’t live in an always-hot area in the tropics.
Why Do Snakes Need External Sources of Heat?
Snakes are generally described as ectothermic.
This means that pet snakes aren’t capable of producing their own body heat, so they depend on external sources of heat to keep them warm enough to function.
One of the situations in which snakes are very obviously ectothermic animals is digestion.
Snakes eat prey animals whole.
This means that their stomach has to digest the prey animal hair, skin, muscles, bones, guts, and all from the outside in.
The enzymes that break down prey inside the snake only operate with sufficient heat.
Since a pet snake does not generate enough heat of its own, it has to have external heat to digest its food, or the food will rot inside the snake.
This can have serious negative consequences for the snake’s health.
It’s not true, that snakes don’t make any heat of their own. You would otherwise have to wonder how snakes survive the winter or even make it through the summer of some of the cooler climates where they are found.
After making careful studies of snakes in the wild, a team of scientists at Arizona State University and the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris came to three conclusions about whether snakes are as dependent on external heat sources as generally believed:
- Big snakes that lie in wait to ambush their prey make less of their own body heat than small snakes that travel through brush, leaves, and grass to track down their prey. An anaconda is more dependent on external heat sources than a garter snake, for example.
- Snakes that naturally live in cold climates make more body heat than snakes that naturally live in warm climates. Snakes that live in Canada, for example, are better able to tolerate cool temperatures than snakes that live in the Amazon rain forest in Brazil.
- A snake’s metabolism, surprisingly, “revs up” when it is resting. When a snake is moving outdoors in warm temperatures, its internal metabolism slows down.
Being ectothermic doesn’t mean that a snake’s body doesn’t make any heat at all. It means that a snake’s body does not make enough heat to survive without an external heat source.
Also read: How Long Can A Pet Snake Go Without Heat?
What Does All This Mean for Owners of Pet Snakes?
For one thing, it means that not all snakes are equally dependent on emergency heat sources when your power goes out during the winter.
If you have a big tropical snake, you will need a backup heating source if your power goes out when it is cold outside.
If you have certain kinds of smaller snakes from places that get winter, like a California king snake, a milk snake, or a corn snake, you can even create conditions so it brumates (the snake’s equivalent of hibernating) at cooler temperatures for up to three months every winter.
Snakes in brumation don’t need emergency heating unless your home gets really cold.
This also means that your pet snake may not need the same temperature everywhere in its enclosure. Some snakes need a cage that has a warm side and a cool side.
Ball pythons, for example, need a warm side of their enclosure kept at 88° to 92° F (32° to 34° C) and a cool side of their enclosure kept at 78° to 82° F (22° to 24° C).
Depending on how warm you keep your house, a ball python might need a 50-watt heat lamp on the cool side of its enclosure and a 70-watt heat lamp on the warm side of its enclosure.
Different pet snakes have different heat requirements and need different heat lamps and heating pads, or maybe, sometimes, no additional heat at all.
You need to learn about your pet snake’s particular heat requirements before you ever bring them home.
Buying a Heat Lamp for Your Pet Snake
In choosing the right heat source for your snake, you will be asking questions like these:
- Where is my pet snake from (that is, where did it originate in the wild)?
- Does my pet snake need shade to hide in?
- What kind of heat does my pet snake need?
Heat “lamps” don’t necessarily have an incandescent bulb like a table lamp.
Your pet snake’s heat source may be a heat light, but it may also be a heat bulb or a ceramic heat emitter.
What all of these devices have in common is that they can be clamped to the top of your snake’s enclosure and they all radiate heat downward.
They have two parts.
- The bulb. This is the part of the heat lamp that actually generates heat. Not all heat bulbs emit light. There are heat bulbs that emit only-red or red-and-blue light to help your snake maintain its daytime or nighttime sleep schedule.
- The lamp. This is the part of the heat lamp that holds the bulb. Sometimes the lamp holds the bulb and doesn’t do anything else. Sometimes the lamp reflects or focuses light to give your snake’s enclosure a warm side and a cooler side.
If your pet snake would ordinarily find a nice, warm rock to bask in the sun, an overhead heat lamp is probably a good choice
Diurnal snakes, snakes that are more active during the day than at night, benefit from a basking light.
Snakes that are naturally more active at night than in the day, like boa constrictors and ball pythons, benefit from a heat mat that provides belly heat.
If you keep your home cooler than your pet snake’s natural habitat, you will want to provide a heat lamp, a heating pad, or maybe both.
What Are the Best Heating Bulbs for Pet Snakes?
There are several choices of heat bulbs to go with your heat lamp.
- Ceramic heat emitters don’t give off light. They just emit heat. You can use them 24 hours a day without disturbing your pet snake’s sleep cycle.
- Incandescent bulbs, like old-style light bulbs, give off pure, white light. It is easy to find a wattage that heats your snake’s enclosure to just the right temperature. Incandescent bulbs double as heat and light sources, but using them 24 hours a day will disrupt your snake’s sleep cycle.
- Infrared heating bulbs generate heat and light in the infrared spectrum. Just because you can’t see infrared light, however, doesn’t mean your snake can’t see infrared light. They may disrupt the sleep cycles of some species.
- Mercury vapor bulbs emit both UV-A and UV-B light, like some of the UV light in sunlight. They are necessary for some lizards and reptiles to make vitamin D, but snakes get their vitamin D from the animals they eat and don’t usually need UV-A or UV-B light.
Also read: Do Ball Pythons Need UVB Light?
What to Look for when Buying a Heat Lamp for Pet Snakes?
Excellent brands of heat lamps for pet snakes include Fluker, Hoke, Zoo Med, and Zilla.
Every model of a heat lamp, however, has some pros and cons.
When buying a heat lamp for your pet snake, look for:
- An off and on switch, so you don’t have to unplug your lamp to turn it off.
- A fully adjustable, bendable arm that lets you mount the lamp wherever you would like, inside or outside your pet snake’s enclosure.
- The ability to use your heat lamp with all kinds of heat bulbs, including ceramic heat emitters and incandescent bulbs.
- A socket made of ceramic, not plastic. Plastic will melt.
- A built-in dimmer switch. This enables to regulate the heat in your snake’s enclosure without a separate dimmer switch.
- A metallic coating inside the lamp. Metal reflects light better than white paint or enamel.
- A large enough dome to accommodate ceramic heat emitters.
And here are some things you should avoid in the heat lamp:
- Spring clips to attach the lamp to the enclosure. They only work if your snake’s vivarium has a wire top. Try to find a lamp with a clamp or a hanger.
- Plastic sockets. They will melt.
- A dome that is very wide but not very deep. This won’t work with larger bulbs or ceramic heating elements.
- Short power cords. You don’t want to have to use an extension cord that can come disconnected or spark.
Keeping Your Snake with a Heat Source
There is always a risk of a burn if you place a heat source where your pet snake can reach it.
Position your heat source outside the terrarium or at least in a place your snake won’t climb to.
Don’t let your snake’s terrarium overheat. Connect your heat source to a thermostat. Connect your heat lamp to a dimmer.
There are dimmers for heat lamps that work even if the bulb itself is not dimmable.
And remember, if a heat lamp does not keep your pet snake’s home warm enough, you can always add a heat mat.
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