Snakes: Complete Guide to Heating

Why is Controlling Heat Important? 

Snakes are cold-blooded reptiles that can’t regulate body temperature on their own. They rely on their environment to control their body temperature. In the wild they spend time basking in the sun and hiding away in burrows to protect themselves from the heat. 

Creating a warm and hot section inside their tank will allow your snake to regulate their temperature as they need to. This creates two temperature zones inside their tank which is known as a heat gradient. A heating device needs to be installed to maintain the necessary temperature range in the hot section of the tank. It’s very important to control the heating inside their tank. Fluctuations in the temperature can cause your snakes to become sick or feel stressed. 

Controlling Tank Heat: What do I Need to Know?

The most important thing is to find out the temperature range that your snake needs. Different species have different temperature needs. Some like the Milk snakes need a temperature range of 80 to 85 degrees on the hot side of the tank while Garter snakes need up to 90 degrees. Knowing the temperature range of your snake will help you keep your snake’s environment as comfortable for them as possible.

Thermometers are needed to monitor the temperature inside their tank. Ideally, you should have at least two thermometers – one inside the hot and the other inside the warm section of the tank. Having two thermometers will let you check the temperature and make adjustments to the heating source. The thermometers should not be placed very close to the heating source because this can give inaccurate readings. They should be placed near the substrate of the two sections of the tank to measure the average temperature of the environment inside the tank.

Different Heating Options

The type of heating device you use will depend upon the species of snake you have. There are three heating sources that you can use to control the heat inside the tank.

Heat Lamps

One of the most common ways to heat your snake tank is by using an incandescent bulb or heat lamps. Unlike ceramic emitters and heat pads used for heating the tanks, heat lamps emit light along with heat. This allows you to take care of both lighting and heating your snake’s enclosure. The heat lamps use a light spectrum that is very similar to natural sunlight.

Heat lamps are available in many colors and you should ideally purchase two heat lamps. One white lamp to use in the day and another colored one (black, blue or red) for use during the night. Heat bulbs come in different wattages and the one you need will depend upon the size of your tank. For a 10 gallon tank, a 50-watt bulb works well, and for a 40-gallon tank up to a 150-watt bulb can be used to create enough heat for the bigger enclosure. To ensure that the required temperature is maintained, use a thermometer to check the temperature inside the tank. 

We recommend you plug the bulb to a rheostat so that you can control the energy flow to the lamp. The rheostat will allow you to increase or decrease the temperature. If your heat lamp is both your lighting and heating source then you should not plug it to a thermostat. Connecting it to a thermostat will automatically switch off the heat if the temperature gets too high. This will cut off the supply of light to the snake tank as well 

If your heat bulbs are being installed inside the tank, then the bulb should be placed inside a wire cage or a guard. This will prevent your snake from coming in contact with the bulb and burning their skin.

Ceramic Emitters

Ceramic emitters or ceramic heaters are somewhat similar to heat bulbs. They also need to be inserted into a bulb socket. The main difference is that ceramic emitters don’t emit any light and will only heat the enclosure. They are also more efficient at heating the tank than heat bulbs or heat mats. Ceramic emitters are the best option for snakes who are nocturnal and don’t need much light.

Like heat bulbs, ceramic emitters also come in different wattages. The higher the wattage, the more heat it will produce. They can be inserted in regular bulb sockets but it’s recommended to put them in ceramic holders. Ceramic emitters can get very hot and the plastic bulb holders could melt. It’s also very important to prevent your snakes from coming in contact with ceramic emitters to prevent them from burning their skin. Installing a wire barrier or guard is a good way to keep them away from the emitter.

Ceramic emitters can be installed inside the hot section of the tank or can be placed facing downwards, above the lid of the tank. This will allow the ceramic emitter to transfer heat downwards inside the enclosure and maintain the temperature gradient inside the tank. 

It’s always recommended to use the ceramic emitter with a rheostat or thermostat. Because they can get very hot, plugging them to a rheostat or thermostat will ensure the temperature inside the tank doesn’t get too high for your snake. The thermostat should be placed directly beneath the ceramic emitter. If you are using a rheostat you can check the temperature readings inside the tank using a thermometer and adjust the level on the device to increase or decrease the temperature.  

Heat Mats

Heat mats as they are commonly called are one of the best ways to heat your tank. They are also known as heat pads or under tank heaters. Heat mats are cheap and use less energy compared to heat bulbs and emitters. They’re also relatively safe for your snakes. The biggest benefit for your snakes is that heat mats will give them belly heat that other sources of heat like lamp bulbs and ceramic emitters can’t provide. This is a great option for snakes who like to stay on the ground.

Heat mats are available in different sizes. The heat mat should cover one third or up to half the floor area of the tank. This is essential to maintain the temperature gradient.  Because heat mats don’t emit light, you can also use the heat mat during the night. This is really good for nocturnal snakes like African Ball Pythons. 

Heat mats are easy to install and use. The heat mat needs to be placed under your tank and plugged into a power source. They will heat the surface of the tank which will transfer the heat to the substrate and also to the enclosure. It’s recommended to attach a thermostat to your heat pad. The thermostat will switch off the heat pad when it gets too warm and keep your snake from burning their skin. The thermostat should be placed inside the tank near the substrate to get an accurate reading.

An important thing to know about heat mats is that they will only work with glass and plastic tanks. If you have a tank with a wooden base, heat tanks may not warm your tank efficiently. The heat mat may not be efficient at heating the entire enclosure. In this case, you can pair your heat mat with a ceramic emitter to maintain the optimal temperature.

Some Other Things to Consider

You may also consider installing a timer to your heating devices. The timer will help maintain the day and night cycles for the snake. Plugging a timer to your heat bulb or heat mat will allow you to provide the daytime and nighttime heating for your snake even when you are away from home.