Snakes and orchids

Many people who want to get a pet snake find the idea of snake keeping a bit intimidating. This feeling isn’t helped when, as they surf the Web and read the pet manuals, they learn all the things that can go wrong with a pet snake. The health problems alone are enough to scare anyone stiff: mites and ticks, internal parasites, mouth rot. They may panic at the idea of shedding problems or wonder whether a cage is escape-proof. They worry about getting things just right: how much and how often the snake needs to be fed, the exact temperature of the cage.

If this sounds a bit neurotic, you’re probably right. The people who worry to death are the people who ask questions — so they’re the people I hear from. The people who don’t worry, the people who buy a snake without doing their homework — I don’t hear from them at all, and I don’t think very much of them either. Given a choice, I’d rather that they worry too much than not enough.

So I sometimes have to talk beginners off the ledge. The pet manuals that go into graphic detail about all the health problems a snake may face do not necessarily explain how common an occurrence these problems are. Their message is: “This may occur. If it does, here’s how to deal with it.” They do not say: “If you’re doing everything right — if you bought a healthy snake from a reliable source, and your snake is kept in a clean cage at the right temperature and you’re feeding it properly — you will almost never see this. But if it does happen, here’s how to deal with it.” A more worried or paranoid beginner may end up being deathly afraid that something extremely uncommon will happen to their snake.

Let me provide some perspective, and some idea of how rare some of this stuff is. Of the 30 snakes currently in our care, only two have ever made a trip to the vet. (Granted, some snakes I have taken to the vet have since died, and some are now in other people’s hands.) In my 14 years of snake keeping — which at one point involved more than a hundred snakes at once — I’ve never encountered mouth rot. I’ve seen the symptoms of a vitamin B deficiency only once, as a child. I’ve had to deal with roundworms on a few occasions, but they were in garter snakes that ate live fish. Twice my vet has had to deal with microbial infections: a bout of Giardia that affected a trio of corn snakes (one died, two survive), and a Strongyloides infection in a newly acquired rat snake (died). One snake (still with us) had to be taken to the vet to treat an injured nose. One snake (now in other hands) had to be taken to the vet to deal with egg binding (now that was an emergency).

We’ve had to deal with mites at least half a dozen times, and shedding problems on a regular basis — both of these, though, can be handled by any snake keeper. Helping a snake shed its skin is far easier than trimming a cat’s claws — unlike the cat, the snake is not actively fighting your efforts (if anything, a snake having shedding problems is very cooperative). Dealing with mites isn’t difficult, it’s just labour-intensive — and it’s easier if you’re sane and only keep one or two snakes; mites are only a serious pain if you have a ridiculously large snake collection (you have to wipe out all mites in all cages at the same time, or it’s no good).

Snake keeping is easy — it’s just unfamiliar. In many ways, dogs and cats are much more difficult, but people are much more familiar with their care requirements.

The problem for beginning snake keepers is that they think that keeping snakes is like cultivating orchids — as in, difficult and exacting — when in fact, with a few exceptions, it’s like cultivating cactuses. If you can’t keep an Aloe vera alive, you probably should reconsider the idea of indoor plants; if you can’t keep a corn snake alive, you’re probably not cut out for pets in general.

Fortunately, the stressed-out beginning snake keeper usually gets the hang of things after a few months. Trust me: I’ve been there too.