The Suitability of Gopher Snakes as Pets



wild gopher snake - picture by Rex Trulove

wild gopher snake – picture by Rex Trulove

Not everyone wants a snake as a pet. In fact, many people fear snakes whether they are venomous or not. However, if you do want to have a pet snake, gopher snakes are among the best to keep.

Gopher snakes are quite interesting animals. They have beautiful coloration, at times looking similar to a diamond-backed rattlesnake, though gopher snakes are non-venomous. They are also one of the largest native snakes in North America, not including imports that have escaped containment such as with burmese pythons and anacondas. Full grown specimens grow to around four or five feet in length. This is also similar to the size of some rattlesnakes, but again, gopher snakes aren’t venomous.

It is natural that some people would wonder if this kind of snake would make a good pet. The answer is that they can be quite suitable, in the right circumstances.

Gopher snake size consideration

The first consideration to be made is the size they grow to when they achieve maturity. A snake that can become five-feet-long or longer needs to have plenty of room to move about. Even a 55-gallon aquarium is a bit small for an adult, though some gopher snakes are kept in 20-gallon aquariums. There are cages that are specifically designed for large snakes, which are large enough to house this kind of snake comfortably, though.

This type of snake is mostly ground-dwelling, but they occasionally do like to climb, so a branch should be provided for that purpose. They also should have a supply of fresh water, and since they are native to hotter areas of the United States, should also be kept warm. Supplying gopher snakes with a basking light is a great idea. All of this is important in determining how suitable they are as pets.

The one that I’m holding in the picture above was a rescue and she is only four feet long. Make no mistake, this snake hasn’t yet been tamed, but as you see, she is particularly non-aggressive.

Diet of gopher snakes

As with most animals, some thought should go into the diet of these reptiles. In the wild, they eat primarily rodents like mice, rats, or their namesake, gophers. They will also consume small birds and bird eggs. Since the potential pet owner might not be keen on raising mice or rats in order to feed their pet gopher snake, it might seem that the diet would make them unsuitable as a pet. However, these snakes will eat dead rodents, too.

In fact, for a pet gopher snake, it is recommended that they be fed only dead meat. Otherwise the snake might be injured when it tries to eat its prey. This reptile also only needs to be fed once every week to 10 days. Rodents can thus be procured dead, they can be frozen, and they can be thawed out one at a time for feeding purposes.

It is possible to teach them to eat other meat, too, since they have a good sense of smell. An occasional small egg can be fed to the animal as a treat. A caution is in order, though. The hands should be washed after handling the food for this creature, because they might smell the meat and strike at the hands, thinking that they represent something to eat. Though they aren’t venomous, the bite can be painful.

Gopher snake temperament

Gopher snakes, even those in the wild, are incredibly docile animals. As long as they are handled properly, they aren’t likely to bite unless they smell food on a person’s hands. Proper handling means holding the reptile gently, with the hands under the animal in a non-threatening manner so the body and the neck is supported, but also so the creature doesn’t feel constricted.

Gopher snakes tame readily if they perceive no threat and often appear to enjoy being held. They are also curious and strong, so they will often wave their heads around to check their surroundings, while they are being held. This normally isn’t a sign of aggression.

There are very few wild snakes in North America that have a milder temperament than gopher snakes, with the possible exception of corn snakes.

In large part because of their docile nature and the fact that their needs aren’t greatly different than many other snakes that are kept as pets, gopher snakes are considered by many to be one of the most suitable snakes to keep as a pet. They don’t have demands and requirements that make them difficult to keep, provided that they have the room to move around. Gopher snakes tame so easily that they make excellent pets, if their simple needs are met.




Posted in pets and animals by with 14 comments.

Comments

  • Andria Perry says:

    No way! I will stick to dogs and cats. no no no no! I am no scared of them I just do not like them, any snake. I used to find there skins in my old house all the time and would be scared it would get in my bed at night. NO!

    • rextrulove says:

      I’ve rehabilitated many snakes. The one in the picture was brought to me by my daughter after she saw it get clipped by a car. She and my wife are both terrified of snakes, but when she saw that happen, she didn’t think about it. She had her backpack and used a stick to coax it inside (it was probably wanting to get someplace dark), then she brought it home. It wasn’t badly hurt. I only had it three days…long enough for it to have a meal…then took it back out by the river and turned it loose near where she found it. There are lots of fields out there, so lots of mice and other rodents for it to eat.

  • Chris says:

    My science class in high school had three of them, all wild caught I believe. And all three of them had the nicest temperament, didn’t mind being held by random teenagers at all.

    • rextrulove says:

      That is quite true. As long as they aren’t being hurt or threatened, it is extremely hard to get them to bite, even if a person was unwise enough to try. In the wild, I’ve had no problems with simply picking them up, then turning them loose after admiring them. More often than not, when I’ve done this, the snake hasn’t tried to escape when they were put down, either.

  • J Patterson says:

    Thank you for the tips. I have an 18” gopher snake that was found in my friend’s yard that I am taking home. It is in an area where it is surly to meet the sharp end of a shovel if left here.
    Do they need a heat lamp or heated rock? Should I put sand in the bottom of its cage? Should I feed before transporting?

    • rextrulove says:

      It is a good idea to have sand or other loose material on the bottom of its cage, preferably deep enough that it can burrow in if it wants to. Gopher snakes do love heat and having a heat lamp is a great idea, though not an absolute necessity. If you use a heat lamp, though, make sure that the snake can also get somewhere in the cage that is cooler. That way, it won’t get overheated.

      If it is only 18 inches long, it is still basically a baby. Remember that at the end of the year, the snake will probably be three to four feet long. It is a good idea to plan for that in advance. A cage that is big enough for an 18-inch gopher snake may not be big enough for one that is four feet long. That is really the hardest part of keeping this kind of snake; making sure it has enough room.

      As for feeding, I’d suggest not feeding it until after it is transported. Gopher snakes have a slow metabolism and once it eats, it shouldn’t be disturbed for a day or two. Initially, it might be difficult to get it to eat, too. That is to be expected and usually, it doesn’t take long for them to get over this.

      Good luck with your new pet!

  • J Patterson says:

    Thank you for the tips. I have an 18” gopher snake that was found in my friend’s yard that I am taking home. It is in an area where it is surly to meet the sharp end of a shovel if left here.
    Do they need a heat lamp or heated rock? Should I put sand in the bottom of its cage? Should I feed before transporting?

  • Selena Juarez says:

    I just wanted to say thank you very much for your article. It has helped me out a lot. My boyfriend recently brought home a baby gopher snake and we are reading all we can to make sure we have everything as right as can be for him/her. Is there anyway you can tell if the snake is male or female or would I have to make a veterinarian appointment for that? For the first couple weeks we had him in a smaller tank but we wanted him to have room to grow and to be comfortable so we got a 55 gallon tank, like u mentioned. He has a lot more places to hide and a perfect spot that he seems to love for basking. I was wondering what temperature would u consider to be too cold for him? And since we do have this big tank for him, which is right next to our window in our bedroom, is it okay that we have lights set up on both sides. But we have 3 thermometers in the tank. One under each light and one in the middle. So basically one side is always the warmest compared to the other side and the middle is usually the coolest. Is this okay?

    • rextrulove says:

      It sounds like you are giving a good deal of consideration and care for your snake. The minimum these snakes can survive is about 40 F. If the tank is kept at room temperature, it should be fine. Here in Montana, it isn’t unusual for the air temperatures to reach 40 below zero, which would kill a gopher snake. But when the temperatures drop, the snakes will use gopher or squirrel holes and go into semi-hibernation. The temperature in those burrows is surprisingly warm, often 40-50, even if the outside temperature is -40.

      Too much of a good thing can be harmful, too. If you have a light on one side of the tank only, the snake should be able to bask when it wants to and get into the shade when it wants to. These snakes are really good at adjusting their body temperature by going from warmer places in the tank, into cooler places in the tank. One gopher snake I rehabbed loved to periodically curl up under a small pile of dried leaves I put in one corner of her tank, too. (That’s the one in the picture.) From observation of the snakes in the wild, they rarely venture out of cover unless they are hunting or basking.

      It is possible to tell the gender of the snake, but it isn’t easy. Vets might not be able to tell you, though a wildlife biologist might be able to.

      One thing I didn’t mention in the article that I should have has to do with how to hold them. I’ve seen a number of people who’ve done it incorrectly, though it is simple, and gopher snakes tend to love being held. The idea is to use one hand under the body to support it and the other hand, loosely, under the neck. This gives support while not squeezing the snake, and it allows them to look around as they wish, without the snake feeling any danger that might make it want to escape or possibly bite. (It is honestly difficult to get a gopher snake to bite, though.)

      Enjoy your new pet!

      • Selena Juarez says:

        I have one more question for you. Oh first off let me start by saying that our snake has grown so big and is thriving. She has such a personality on her. Well at least we think she is a her lol. About the question now, all the places around our areas that we buy feeder mice, the adults are so small. They are like the size of hoppers or big fuzzies. So we were thinking of raising our own feeder mice, so we would always have them on hand. We are just not sure on what kind of diet the feeder mice should have to be healthy, So our snake won’t get sick and die. That’s the last thing we would want to do. Any suggestions would help majorly. Thank you very much.

        • rextrulove says:

          It sounds like the snake is nice and healthy. That is great!

          If you raise feeder mice, just feed the mice regular hamster or mouse food (the seed type). Gopher snakes have also been taught to take pieces of beef as food. If you teach it to eat beef (lean beef), just be careful not to handle the snake after feeding until you’ve washed thoroughly. They actually do have a good sense of smell and if they smell food on your hands, they might bite, thinking that you had something for them to eat. That is one of the few instances when they will bite, and it isn’t from maliciousness.

          Anyway, you can raise feeder mice or even hamsters for the snake and just feed them (the rodents) the same regular food you’d feed if the mice/hamsters were pets. It shouldn’t be medicated food, but food that contains seeds and sunflower seeds is good. You could probably even get away with using regular wild bird seeds.

          I hope that helps.

        • rextrulove says:

          It sounds like the snake is nice and healthy. That is great!

          If you raise feeder mice, just feed the mice regular hamster or mouse food (the seed type). Gopher snakes have also been taught to take pieces of beef as food. If you teach it to eat beef (lean beef), just be careful not to handle the snake after feeding until you’ve washed thoroughly. They actually do have a good sense of smell and if they smell food on your hands, they might bite, thinking that you had something for them to eat. That is one of the few instances when they will bite, and it isn’t from maliciousness.

          Anyway, you can raise feeder mice or even hamsters for the snake and just feed them (the rodents) the same regular food you’d feed if the mice/hamsters were pets. It shouldn’t be medicated food, but food that contains seeds and sunflower seeds is good. You could probably even get away with using regular wild bird seeds.

          I hope that helps.

          • Selena Juarez says:

            Thank you so much for all your advice. We really appreciate it very much. Now I know you say that gopher snake can grow up too 4 ft long. Ours is a lil more than half that right now. What size tank do would you recommend for her for the long run? Something she will be most comfortable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Skip to toolbar