Garter Snake (Ribbon Snake)

By Snaketracks / June 25, 2019
North American common Garter Snake

Garter Snake Care Sheet

Garter snakes are perfect snakes to start with as they don’t constrict, don’t grow too big and are easy to care for. They can be found from Canada to Central America.

They are also referred to as ribbon snakes because of their colorful nature. There are many different species and subspecies of the garter snake. This results in a wide variety of coloration.

Quick Reference Section

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Scientific Name: Thamnophis sp.
  • Risk Factor: Nonvenomous, colubrid
  • Average Adult Size: 2-3 feet (0.61 – 0.91 m)
  • Lifespan: 5-10 years
  • Litter Size: 10 to 30 eggs
  • Gestation Period: 55 to 85 days
  • Food: Frozen rats, mice, frog, fish, earthworms
  • Average Temperature: 90°H/75°L
  • Humidity: 40 – 60%
  • UVB Lighting: Needed
  • Average Price Range: $10 to $40
  • Conservation Status: Apart from the San Francisco garter snake, the species is of least concern.

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Garter Snake Facts and Information

Bluestripe Garter Snake
(Thamnophis sirtalis similis)

The scientific name of this snake is Thamnophis.  All snakes belonging to the genus Thamnophis are referred to as garter snakes. There are many species under the garter species.

How big do Garter Snakes get?

Garter snakes grow to about 2 to 3 feet long, while the hatchlings are about 6 to 8 inches long. As with most snakes, the females are generally longer than the males. They are slender in appearance.

Popular garter subspecies include the eastern garter snake (T. cyrtopsis ocellatus), western garter snake (T. cyrtopsis cyrtopsis), plains garter snakes (T. radix), wandering garter (T. elegans vagrans), Butler’s garter (T. butleri), ribbon garter (T. sauritus), and the common garter snake (T. sirtalis).

Garter Snake Habitat

Garter snakes are predominant in the wilds of North and Central America. They are usually found close to lakes, streams and other water bodies. In many parts of the United States, it is illegal to capture and keep a wild garter snake as a pet. This isn’t even a good idea since the wild garters are aggressive and may be infested with parasites. It is better to always acquire captive bred garter snakes.

Enclosure

These snakes do well in terrariums designed for reptiles. It is prudent to avoid glass terrariums when housing these snakes since glass terrariums can overheat when placed close to windows can receive sunlight. You can go for acrylic vivariums or even wooden vivariums.

Of course, one side of a wooden vivarium can have a glass/PVC panel that can be opened. Wood, acrylic, and PVC are good insulators and make it easy to regulate the interior temperature of the terrarium/vivarium.

Garter snakes don’t need a lot of space. A vivarium with a capacity of 29 gallons is large enough to house an adult female. Adult males can live comfortably in even smaller enclosures.

You can also keep two or more garter snakes in the same enclosure. If this is the case, it is important to feed them separately to avoid aggressive behaviors and cannibalism. Two garter snakes can be kept in a 55-gallon vivarium. 

This species also like to climb so it is ideal to have some vines and branches in their vivarium. You can decorate the habitat with objects designed to mimic the natural habitat. As with other snakes, the enclosure can have a couple of hiding spots.

Substrate

Snake substrate used has to be right so as to avoid any unneeded complications. For starters, avoid using abrasive materials such as rocks, sand, or stones as substrate. Similarly, don’t use dirt from your backyard. Also, avoid cedar, pine, and aromatic wood substrates.

For babies/juveniles, you can use newspapers and paper towels for adults use aspen shavings such as Zoo Med Aspen Snake Bedding, coco coir substrate such as ReptiChip Premium Coconut Substrate, and Zoo Med Repti Bark.

Aspen bedding is great at regulating humidity levels and is affordable. Coco coir is also affordable, doesn’t mold and absorb bad smells. The Repti Bark is a bark mix and is also great at maintaining high humidity. Additionally, all these substrates make it easier for the snake to shed.

Ensure that the bedding is a few inches deep to allow the snake to burrow.

Temperature

Create a temperature gradient where one end of the enclosure is warm and the other end is cool. The cool part of the vivarium should be about 75 °F while the warm end should be 88 °F to 90 °F. Place thermometers at both ends so you can easily tell the temperatures of both ends.

The warm part of the enclosure can be warmed using ceramic bulbs such as OMAYKEY Ceramic Heat Lamp or mercury vapor bulbs. The temperature right under the bulb should be about 90 °F. This allows the snake to bask.

Humidity

It is important to maintain proper humidity levels for this snake’s enclosure. If the moisture level is too high, it causes the snake’s belly to develop blisters.

Keep the bedding dry to prevent health complications. However, you should provide a large dish of water, large enough for the snake to submerge in. During the winter months when the air is very dry, partially cover the screen top.

To help the snake shed easily, you can provide a humidity box with damp sphagnum moss. The ideal humidity of the enclosure is 40 to 60 percent. Just ensure that the bedding is dry and not damp/moist.

Lighting

Because garters are very active during the day, a UVB light such as MyComfyPets UVB Light is beneficial. As with other snakes, you must main a day-night cycle for the snake. This means 12 hours of light followed by 12 hours of darkness.  If you can’t be trusted to turn the lights on and off on time, you can use an automatic timer.

What do Garter Snakes Eat

Unsurprisingly garter snakes are carnivorous. In the wild, they feed on rodents, minnows, frogs, lizards, leeches, red wigglers, earthworms, and slugs. They are not fussy eaters and eat what is available. They are even known to eat poisonous newts and frogs.

What do you feed Garter Snakes?

Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis Cyrtopsis ocellatus)
Eastern Garter Snake
(Thamnophis Cyrtopsis ocellatus)

Feeding them in captivity is not challenging. Most will eat thawed mice and rats. This provides the snake with all the nutrients it needs. Some snake keepers prefer to feed their snakes feeder fish as this is much easier to obtain. However, this isn’t the best since thiaminase found in feeder fish destroys vitamin B1 and can lead to vitamin B1 deficiency.

If you are to feed your snake with fish fillet (which doesn’t contain thiaminase), ensure you supplement the diet with earthworms and thawed rodents. They may also eat frogs and toads.

You cannot feed garter snakes insects such as mealworms and crickets. Never offer live prey as they can injure the snake. This is especially true when the snake decides not to feed.

How often do Garter Snakes eat?

Coast Garter Snake (Thamnophis Elegans Terrestris)
Coast Garter Snake
(Thamnophis Elegans Terrestris)

Maintaining a feeding schedule ensures you notice any change in the snake’s appetite. Feed juveniles, babies, and pregnant garters every 4 or 5 days. Adults must be fed much less. Feed adults every 7 to 10 days.

After the snake eats, you should not touch or handle it. The snake needs time to digest the food. Handling the snake after a meal can cause it to throw up.

The garter snake needs a large bowl of water to soak in. To prevent the snake from tipping over the water dish use a heavy bowl. A ceramic bowl is a fine option.

Although you can provide a water area large enough for the snake to swim in, this is not obligatory. An adult needs at least 16 ounces of water, which needs to be replaced weekly.

Garter Snake’s Temperament

Western Black-Necked Garter Snake (Thamnophis Cyrtopsis)
Western Black-Necked Garter Snake (Thamnophis Cyrtopsis)

Captive adult garters are tame and active during the day. Handle them regularly, so they get used to being held. Juveniles are more defensive and strike when threatened.

They also thrash or musk. The same can be said of wild garters. It is not advisable to ever keep wild garters as pets. Garters are more difficult to hold than constrictors such as boas.

How long do Garter Snakes live?

In the wild, these snakes grow to between 4 and 5 years. However, when properly cared for, they can live to be over 10 years. If you want your snake to live a full comfortable life if it important that you properly care for them. This includes getting the right enclosure, feeding them regularly, ensuring their enclosure is clean and taking them for regular checkups.

Breeding Garter Snakes

Baby Common Garter Snake
(Thamnophis sirtalis)

Since this article is not about breeding, we will only briefly discuss this subject. Garter snakes don’t lay eggs, they birth their young. Typical litter size is between 10 and 30.

In other to stimulate reproduction, the temperature of their enclosure must drop to 55 to 65 F for three months – November to February. Gestation is usually between 55 to 85 days. The warmer the temperature of the enclosure the shorter gestation is.

Popular morphs include anerythristic, albino, red albino, Christmas albino, Iowa albino, and many more.

Health Issues

Diablo Range Garter Snake
(Thamnophis atratus zaxanthus)

The garter snakes hardly have health issues. When you acquire a garter snake, it is advisable to have it tested for gastrointestinal parasites. If parasites are detected, the snakes must be treated.

It’s also important to remember that garter snakes may carry salmonella, which is commonly found on many other reptiles and snakes. Wash your hand before and after handling the snake.

Obesity is a common problem among garters who have little room to exercise. The snake’s enclosure should be large enough to allow for exercise and should contain branches and other decorations that the snake can climb. Similarly, overfeeding can lead to obesity. Feeding the snake only fish can lead to nutrient deficiency.

If the enclosure is too cool, the snake will be unable to properly digest its meal. Ensure there is a basking spot with temperatures of about 90 F. If the enclosure is too dry, the snake will have difficulty shedding. Provide a water bowl in which the snake can submerge or humidity box. Also, ensure the enclosure is not damp or wet as it will cause the snake to develop blisters.

Pricing and Availability

Red Sided Garter Snake
(Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis)

How much does a Garter Snake cost?

Since garters are common to North America, they are not costly. They will cost you between $10 to $45 depending on the species and morph.

Where can I buy a Garter Snake?

You can find this snake is almost all pet shops that sell snakes. Popular sites to acquire specimens of this snake from include Backwater Reptiles, Underground Reptiles, and Rept Mart.

Conservation/Threats

Regardless of the collection of specimen of this species as pets and the pollution of aquatic bodies, garter snakes are still common and prevalent across their natural habitat. The San Francisco garter and the narrow-headed garter snake are facing decline with the former considered an engendered species.

Conclusion

Garter snakes are lively and feed a lot. They are active during the day and unlike other snakes don’t spend most of their time hiding. They are hardy and adapted to North America.

There are many species/subspecies of this snake and as such, they come in different colorations. Similarly, there is an abundance of morphs available. These snakes are an excellent starting snake for families. If you have any comments on this snake, we would love to hear them.

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