Do Pet Snakes Need Sunlight?

Time in the sun isn’t an absolute requirement for any pet snakes.

Some kinds of pet snakes, however, need exposure to a UV lamp if they don’t get regular time outdoors during the day.

In this article, we’ll tell you about the lighting needs of pet snakes in general and your snake in particular.

Not All Snakes Need Lighting

Until a few years ago, the standard recommendation for setting up a terrarium for a pet snake was to give it the same lighting provided for other reptiles.

It’s now known that most pet snakes don’t need any special lighting for good health.

If you have invested hundreds or thousands of dollars buying a morph with exotic colors or nacreous scales, of course, you will want lighting that enables you to enjoy watching your snake.

Snakes kept in colder climates may need heat lamps. But if you are keeping a snake that originates in a temperate climate, with cold winters, chances are you don’t need additional light or heat to keep your snake happy.

Giving your snake an enclosure with a warm side and a cool side and maybe a heat lamp for basking is enough, that is, unless you have a large, tropical snake.

Some Snakes May Benefit from UV Light

Human beings use exposure to the UV-B rays of the sun to the skin to make vitamin D, although we can get all the vitamin D we need from food and supplements.

Some pets, like cats, don’t have the ability to make vitamin D through the exposure of their skin to sunlight, but they get all of their vitamin D from the livers of other animals they eat.

Snakes seem to be a lot like other animals and humans in their responses to sunlight.

When two British scientists studied differences in vitamin D levels and the use of calcium in Ball Pythons that had never been exposed to sunlight and Ball Pythons that had UV-B exposure on a regular basis, they found only tiny differences.

Seventy days under a UV lamp positioned just 10 cm (4 inches) away from Ball Pythons’ skin for eight hours a day only increased vitamin D levels and active concentrations by about 3 percent.

Because the researchers only had seven snakes in their study, these differences weren’t considered statistically significant.

It is possible that an experiment involving a larger number of Ball Pythons for more days of UV exposure would have yielded more reliable results, but the bottom line seems to be that UV light exposure can be helpful for Ball Pythons, but isn’t absolutely necessary.

On the other hand, exposure to too much sunlight and too much UV radiation can cause serious health problems in pet snakes.

Health Problems in Pet Snakes Caused by Too Much Sun

Greater dangers for pet snakes come from exposure to too much sunlight or spending too much time in the sun or under a UV lamp, rather than not getting enough sun or UV lamp time.

The most common preventable problem is leaving a snake’s cage near a window for too long, especially in the summer months.

Direct sunlight on a glass enclosure generates and traps heat.

The best cages for tropical snakes, like Anacondas, Boas, and Pythons, don’t have much air flow, because airflow depletes humidity.

Leaving this kind of cage in a sunny window creates an oven that can stress or kill your snake, much like leaving a pet in a locked car with the windows rolled up on a sunny summer day.

Another common preventable problem is eye and skin injury caused by exposure to the wrong kind of UV lamp.

Many snakes, especially Boas, are very sensitive to UV light of wavelengths shorter than 300 nm. 

Veterinarians report that high-energy UV rays can cause a kind of damage to the corneas of the snake’s eyes called photokeratoconjunctivitis.

They can also trigger a condition called photodermatitis, which is like sunburn, only more inflammatory, in exposed skin.

Damaged corneas and skin can become infected by bacteria in the substrate of your snake’s cage.

This kind of injury, however, only happens under a strong UV lamp, not with sun exposure, even for a full day at a time outdoors.

The Right Lighting and the Right Amount of Light for Your Snake

The thing to understand about providing lighting for your snake is that lighting is primarily for increasing your enjoyment of your snake, not for your snake’s stimulation or health.

Snakes do just fine under low-light conditions.

However, they aren’t as pretty, and they may not be as active.

Here is what you need to take into consideration when choosing the lighting for your snake’s terrarium:

  • If you choose UV-B lighting for your snake’s terrarium, make sure that it is not possible for your snake to get closer than 12 inches (30 cm) from the light. Chances are that your snake would not be injured even at a distance of 4 inches (10 cm), but extra distance provides extra safety.
  • Put the light on a timer so it is not on more than 12 hours a day. This minimizes the risk of your snake’s developing eye or skin problems caused by excessive exposure to UV light, and it keeps the light from drying out the air in the enclosure. It also gives your snake the experience of day and night, allowing it to use all of its night-hunting senses at least 12 out of every 24 hours. You need also to turn out any overhead lights in the room outside your snake’s enclosure.
  • Make sure your light fixture is not blocked by glass or clear plastic. They can heat up. Protect your light fixture from your snake with wire mesh or wooden screens instead.

Lights can also be used to provide heat for your snake’s tank.

Sometimes heating pads provide sufficient warmth for pet snakes, but heating lamps make it easier to provide additional warmth when needed.

They can be connected to a backup power supply to provide warmth in winter when the power is out.

In addition to providing warmth, heat lamps give your snake a more natural experience of the cycle of day and night, provided you use 12-hour day and night heating lamps.

During the day, heat your snake’s enclosure with white light from a daylight heat lamp. At night, turn on the nocturnal red or purple “night-glow” lamp.

This provides your snake with the spectrum of light that it would need in nature for nighttime hunting.

Incandescent light bulbs come in different wattages. Lower wattage incandescent light bulbs put out less heat.

The smaller your snake’s enclosure, the lower the wattage you need.

You wouldn’t want, for example, to place your pet snake in a 10-gallon terrarium with a 150-watt heat lamp. The tank would get too warm.

Get a thermometer that you can move inside the tank and take temperature readings at the end of the enclosure nearer the heat lamp, the end of the enclosure farther away from the heat lamp, and at any place in the tank where your snake likes to hang out.

Be sure you get an incandescent bulb with just enough wattage to create a warm end and a cool end of your snake’s enclosure.

You don’t want your snake’s terrarium to be uniformly hot. Then let your snake decide where it prefers to spend its time.

Don’t use a work lamp from your garage in your snake’s enclosure. Your snake’s lighting and heating lamps need to be plugged into a ceramic socket.

Heat lamps plugged into ceramic sockets are safer for your snake. They can be found in any pet supply store.

Work lamps for mechanical repair work often have plastic sockets that can heat up and melt if the lamp is left on for 12 hours or more at a time.

Don’t forget to consider lighting outside your snake’s enclosure.

Some species, like Western Hognose Snakes, take a keen interest in the world outside their enclosures, and they will be more interactive when the rest of the room is well-lit.

Frequently Asked Questions About Lighting for Snakes

Q. Do I need to turn out the lights so my snake can sleep?

A. Snakes sleep even though they don’t have eyelids and can’t shut their eyes.

Your snake may nap during the day and will eventually go to sleep even if the lights are left on 24 hours a day (not that you should leave the lights on 24 hours a day).

However, using day and night heating lamps or putting cage lighting on a timer gives your snake light and dark cues that imitate the day-night cycle in nature.

Q. Are there any snakes that need a night light?

A. Snakes don’t have night lights in nature. They use their other senses to find their way around and to locate their prey.

They are capable of doing those things inside and outside their cages at night without artificial light.

Q. Are LED lights OK for snakes?

A. LED lights are dimmable, so they can be used to imitate natural conditions.

As with any lights, you should give your snake a period of darkness every night.

Q. Are there any snakes that require regular periods of darkness?

A. Many owners notice their Corn Snakes are healthier and happier if they get uninterrupted darkness every night, with more time in the dark in the winter.

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