Snakes are elongated, limbless and flexible reptiles. They are found on every continent of the world except Antarctica. There are over 3,000 different known species of snake. Around 375 species are venomous. Python reticulates are the largest species, reaching over 28 feet in length.
Snakes are carnivores (meat eaters). They feed on a variety of prey including rodents, termites, birds, frogs, reptiles and even small deer. They cannot chew, so they must swallow prey whole. Their flexible jaws allow them to eat prey bigger than their heads, and their unique anatomy allows them to digest large prey. Some species of snake use venom to hunt and kill their prey. Some kill their prey by tightly wrapping around it and suffocating it, a process called constriction.
Snakes do not have eyelids. They have only internal ears. They smell with their tongues. Some water snakes can breathe partially through their skin, allowing them to spend long periods underwater. Snakes shed their skin several times a year in a process that usually lasts a few days.
Snakes are cold blooded and must regulate their body temperature externally by sunning themselves or retreating to cool areas. They hibernate during the winter. Most species lay eggs, but some give birth to live young. Some species care for their young.
Depending on the variety, snakes can live for decades and grow to lengths in excess of 28 feet. Captive snakes require at least a 30-gallon tank, frequent checkups, and care by a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles. Fresh water and a spotless environment must be provided at all times. They are susceptible to a variety of parasites as well as blister disease, respiratory and digestive disorders and mouth rot. Strictly controlled daytime and nighttime temperatures and the careful application of pesticides are required in order to guard against mite infestations.
There is a health risk associated with keeping any reptile. Seventy thousand people in the U.S. contract salmonellosis from direct or indirect contact with reptiles and amphibians every year. Children, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems are particularly at risk of serious illness or death. If you or anyone close to you is in one of these categories, rethink bringing a reptile into your home—even healthy looking animals may be carrying the disease. Many reptiles are brought into the country with little or no inspection or quarantine.
Welcoming a reptile into your home means a commitment of time, space and money. You’ll need to provide the right temperature and humidity and specific light/dark cycles that may not coincide with your own or be convenient to you. Backup power is necessary to keep a constant temperature in the event of a power failure. In all, costs for food, an enclosure, lighting, and vet bills can total hundreds of dollars per year.
Purchasing a reptile caught in his or her natural habitat encourages the removal of wildlife from delicate ecosystems. Buying captive-bred animals only encourages breeders to replenish their stock. If you must have a reptile as a companion animal, adopt from a local shelter or rescue group.