How long a pet snake can go without supplemental heat depends on the surrounding temperature and the species of snake.
Every snake kept in captivity outside the tropics sometimes needs a supplemental heat source.
Some tropical snakes like boa constrictors may begin to suffer irreversible kidney damage after as little as six hours of exposure to temperatures below 75° F (24° C), while some temperate zone snakes can brumate for weeks at temperatures around 60° F (16° C) or lower.
There are even snakes that can withstand brief exposure to temperatures well below freezing (if they are prepared for them).
In this article, we will tell you everything you need to know to keep your pet snake safe during cold weather should the power go out.
But first, we will review some basic facts about snakes and the temperatures they need to survive.
Basic Facts About Snakes and Air Temperature
Everyone who takes care of a pet snake needs to know some basic facts about the conditions snakes need to survive
Snakes, like other reptiles, are ectothermic. Their body temperature is determined by the temperature of the air around them rather than by heat generated by the metabolism.
In the wild, snakes simply move to locations that provide them with the temperatures they need.
They stay in the sun on rocks to warm up, or they burrow in the ground to cool off.
They spend the winter in dens with dozens or hundreds of other snakes that insulate them. In captivity, you must regulate your snake’s temperature.
Pet snakes of jungle origins (anacondas, many species of boas, and pythons, for example) or originating in hot deserts (like rosy boas) require higher temperatures.
They can get sick and die in as little as 24 hours if they are in low temperatures.
Pet snakes of temperate-zone origins, such as corn snakes, garter snakes, and Western hognose snakes, can survive for months at lower temperatures if they are properly prepared.
Temperate-Zone Snakes Have the Option of Brumation
Brumation is a process through which certain kinds of pet snakes shut down in cool weather to enable them to survive the winter.
Brumation has a lot of similarities with hibernation in mammals.
Both brumation and hibernation start in the fall, when days are getting shorter and temperatures are beginning to fall.
Both snakes preparing for brumation and mammals preparing for hibernation store body fat by eating more as days get shorter.
Both males and females will go into brumation or hibernation, although sometimes protective males go into their winter rest after the females and wake up before them.
There are also some major differences between brumation and hibernation. Hibernating mammals lower their body temperature before they go into hibernation.
Snakes can’t control their body temperature, so they don’t do this. They have to spend the winter in locations where their body temperatures won’t fall too much.
Hibernating mammals cannot survive low oxygen levels. Brumating snakes can.
Hibernating mammals don’t need food or water. Brumating snakes wake up occasionally to take a drink.
Hibernating mammals won’t wake up to take advantage of an unusually warm and sunny winter day. Brumating snakes will.
All snakes that are native to places that have cold winters can brumate.
Both Western and Eastern hognose snakes will brumate for most of the winter with very little encouragement, as long as you provide a cool place where they are not disturbed.
Under your veterinarian’s guidance, at least while you are learning about snakes, you can provide conditions that encourage any temperate-zone snake to brumate.
Keeping your snake in a resting snake extends survival should a winter storm knock out your heat.
How to Winterize Your Temperate-Zone Pet Snake
We’ll have more to say about how to keep big snakes from the tropics safe in the winter in the next section.
In this section, we are giving you advice about how to encourage smaller pet snakes to go into brumation.
The very basics of taking care of your pet snake only require giving it a place in its enclosure where it will be cool, quiet, and undisturbed.
If you turn down the thermostat for your own comfort and your snake’s cage gets less light every day, it may just figure out brumation on its own without any help from you.
Just make sure it has fresh water to drink when it wakes up.
You shouldn’t encourage brumation in snakes that aren’t yet a year old or in snakes that have been sick.
Give these snakes warmth, food, water, and attention as usual. But for other healthy snakes, follow these steps:
- Make sure your snake gets all it wants to eat in early autumn, September and October in the Northern Hemisphere, March and April in the Southern Hemisphere. It needs to build up its reserves of body fat for the winter.
- Withhold food from your snake beginning in November (or May, in the Southern Hemisphere). This gives your pet a chance to clear out its intestines. Undigested food and trapped fecal matter can be deadly to a brumating snake.
- Keep central heat running for your home, but turn off your snake’s heat lamp in the middle of November (the middle of May south of the equator). Let the air in your snake’s enclosure cool down to a temperature that is comfortable for most people, 68° to 72° F (20° to 22° C). Use heatless light sources fewer and fewer minutes every day and keep overhead lights turned off to imitate shorter days outside. Give your snake more than 12 hours of total darkness every night.
- At the beginning of December (or June in the Southern Hemisphere), place your snake in a Tupperware container with breathing holes in it or in a snake box you buy at a pet supply store.
- Place the snake’s container in a cool, ventilated place you keep at a temperature of 50° to 60° F (11° to 15° C). Don’t place your snake in a refrigerator that doesn’t have a thermostat. Even cold-winter snakes can suffer irreversible heart or kidney damage if they are exposed to temperatures approaching freezing.
- Weigh your snake’s container every 7 to 10 days. Wake it up and take it to the vet if it loses more than 10 percent of its body weight at the beginning of brumation.
- About two weeks before it’s time for your snake to return to spring activity, take its container back to its enclosure with the lid off. Keep heat lamp turned off but give it 12 hours of light every day.
- After two weeks, turn the heater back on. Once your snake starts drinking water again, offer it a small meal. Don’t feed your snake before you have the heater running again. It needs heat to digest its food.
Protecting Tropical Snakes During Winter Power Outages
Some female tropical snakes brumate, but this is to prepare them to lay a clutch of eggs or give birth to babies.
Pet snakes of tropical origin need supplemental heat year-round and are especially vulnerable when the power goes out in the winter.
Even when the power goes, however, there are things you can do to keep your snake alive and healthy.
- Your best option is to have a backup generator for your entire home. Backup generators are pricey to buy and expensive to operate. However, a much less expensive 1440W storage battery, used sparingly, may be enough to prevent cold injury to your snake. A battery-operated electric blanket, placed under your snake’s enclosure, can also help to keep your pet alive.
- Buy chemical heating packs at your local sporting goods store. These peel-off heating pads are activated when you open them. They keep for several years. However, they may be out of stock if you wait until just before the storm hits to buy them. Place the activated warming pad beneath your snake’s enclosure.
- Save clean used plastic milk containers. Fill them with warm water (not hot, it will melt the plastic) and place the container unopened into your snake’s enclosure for warmth.
- Place your snake in an open pillowcase. This will slow down its loss of body heat. Then place the pillowcase in a small container with air holes that you can keep warm. You can place chemical hand warmers and hot water bottles in the container with your snake, replacing them as they cool down. Be very sure you have adequate ventilation holes if you place chemical hand warmers in the container; they use oxygen from the atmosphere to make heat.
- Don’t lift the lid unless absolutely necessary. A digital thermometer probe placed in your snake’s enclosure or container with a readout where it’s easy to see can give you the information you need about when to add more heat.
- If friends have power, ask if they can take care of your snake. Be sure your snake’s enclosure or container has a secure lid so it will not escape.
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