On hibernating and transporting snakes

Phyllis Friederich writes with two questions about her four pet garter snakes, but they’re applicable to pet snakes in general.

Her first question: “Do we use the same process for hibernation for the babies as we do for the adults?”

To be honest, I’ve hardly ever hibernated — or to be fussy and use the correct term, brumated — baby snakes. Generally speaking, I only do so under certain circumstances:

  1. They’ve stopped eating for the season and would lose an unhealthy amount of weight if they were kept warm during the winter.
  2. I’m planning on breeding them in the spring and hibernating them would increase the chances of success.

The baby snakes I’ve kept — and truth be told, it’s been a while: every snake in this house is at least five years old — haven’t fallen into either category so far. For one thing, when they’re that age, I want them to keep eating. For another, snake breeders usually want their snakes out of the house as soon as they’re eating properly — they want them sold already by the time winter comes around. Indeed, John and Roxanne Rossi note that many breeders don’t hibernate baby snakes during their first winter — but some snakes will still want to do so, and should still be put into brumation.

It can be very frightening to a novice snake keeper when a highly priced snake stops eating about 2 months after purchase. Arizona mountain kingsnakes frequently demonstrate this kind of behavior. The answer to this problem is to work with nature and not against it: Cool down the snake and let it brumate. Admittedly, the thought of these small hatchlings not feeding for 2-4 months is somewhat disconcerting. However, it has been our experience that even a 5-gram blackhead snake can fast 5 months without ill effect if it is brumated properly. Therefore, a 15-20-gram neonate kingsnake should have no problem at all. (Rossi and Rossi, Snakes of the United States and Canada: Natural History and Care in Captivity, p. 41)

The same should go for baby garter snakes. If they need to be hibernated, hibernate them. Otherwise, it really is up to you.

Her second question stems from the fact that she’s moving from one state to another: “Do you think we will have problems in transport and maybe stress the snakes. The drive is 12 hours with drastic temp and climate change and motion. What do you recommend?”

Moving snakes can be a little nerve-wracking the first time, but it’s not nearly as complicated as it seems. In fact, there’s a standard method of transporting snakes. Believe it or not, snakes are usually transported inside a pillowcase or some other cloth bag: it keeps them secure without cutting off their air supply. (A certain amount of caution is required if the snake is venomous, but they’re moved in pillowcases or cloth bags too.) You tie a knot to make sure the snake can’t get out (be sure you don’t catch the snake’s tail — or head! — when you do so). When I thought a snake was too small and delicate to transport in that manner, I’ve used a deli cup. (Snakes have popped out of deli cups on me during transport, so only the smallest snakes should be transported in one.)

The next step is to put those snake-filled pillowcases, cloth bags or deli cups into a cooler. The idea here is to prevent snakes from overheating in the car: a snake is far more likely to die from being too hot than from being too cold. A cheap styrofoam cooler is sufficient unless you’re driving across Nevada in a heat wave in a car with no air conditioning (which Phyllis isn’t, unless she’s taking the long way around), but there’s no harm in using a plastic cooler. The snakes aren’t at risk of suffocation. If you’re transporting them in the dead of winter, you can keep them warm in the cooler by using heat packs or a hot water bottle. Again, it’s important not to heat them directly, or to heat them up too much: all you want to do is to keep them from freezing.

The stress of moving and the bouncing around they’re going to get in a day-long car ride is unavoidable, but in my experience, snakes are able to handle that sort of thing. People who do reptile shows carry snakes by car all the time, after all, and they’re expected to interact with small children after that, and I’ve carried snakes like that to and from reptile shows in Toronto in a single day — 10 hours round trip — with no apparent ill effects. So I would not anticipate any serious problems to occur from a day-long trip along paved highways. Set them up in their cages upon arrival, make sure they’ve got water, and give them a few days to settle down before trying to handle them or feed them.

Bottom line: as I’ve said before, snakes are not orchids, and can put up with a fair bit.

Snakes of the United States and Canada by John and Roxanne Rossi