a coiled garter snake

Garter Snake

The most common of snake varieties, the Garter Snake is made up of more than 75 recognized breeds. The Common Garter Snake is the most widely distributed variety. Garter Snakes can be found all over North America and prefer to live near bodies of fresh or standing water. Those that live in colder climates will hibernate over the winder and return in spring. They are totally harmless, and fun to keep as pets, even for the first-time snake owner.

This snake tends to be active during the day, preferring to rest at night. Garter Snakes have an average lifespan of 5 to 10 years in captivity. Note that these snakes are safe with children, yet not good with other pets. They have low grooming needs and prefer consistently moderate temperatures, which make them ideal indoor pets. Fun fact: Garter Snakes get their name from their coloring, as they have stripes that run along their bodies which look similar to women’s garters.

Garter Snake Information

  • Average Length: 2 to 3 feet
  • Average Weight: Up to 1 pound
  • Snake Type: Colubridae Snake
  • Skin Appearance: Scaled with stripes, spots, and speckles
  • Skin Colors: Brown, green, black, red, and yellow
  • Grooming Needs: Low
  • Shedding: Few times a year
  • Sensitive to Touch: No
  • Biting Tendency: No
  • Good tolerance to Heat and Cold: No, they cannot tolerate heat
  • Good Pet: They allow people to handle them, so yes! 
  • Safe with Children: Yes
  • Good with Other Pets: No
  • Suitable to live in an Apartment: Yes
  • Suitable for First-Time Pet Owners: Yes
  • Weight Gain: Normal
  • Health Concerns: They tend to have respiratory diseases; stomatitis; dermatitis; and ticks and mites.
  • Allergies: None
  • Average Life Span: Up to 10 years

Physical Appearance of Garter Snakes

Garter Snakes are small-sized colubrid snakes that have a stout body. Their skin has a scaled texture. They do not get very large which helps them to be great pets. The males can grow up to 2 feet and the females up to 3 feet. 

They can come in several colors and patterns. Some of the skin colors are brown, green, black, red, and yellow.

Most snakes have stripes that run along the length of the body – one on each of the lower sides and one on the center of the back. The stripes are in yellow or green color. Some species may also have spots or speckles on their body. Some breeds of Garter Snakes can also have two colored tongues.

Temperament of Garter Snakes

Some wild Garter Snakes can be aggressive and coil themselves when they sense danger. Captive Garter Snakes are calm and docile. They stay active during the day and like to climb and burrow.

These snakes are not constrictors and need to be handled with more care than what other snakes require. They are also alert and have a good eye sight.

They do not tend to attack but can try to escape. The lid of the tank should be tightly closed at all times to prevent them from escaping.

a garter snake with its tongue out hunting
a yellow garter snake basking

Their Compatibility with Children

Garter Snakes are safe to be handled by children but having an adult to supervise the kids handling the snake is recommended. These snakes are not constrictors and do not tend to bite. Children should be taught how to hold the snakes. Support the entire body of the snake as this will prevent the snake from becoming stressed. 

Anyone handling snakes should always wash their hands after handling them. This is because most snakes are carriers of infectious diseases like Salmonella which can cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain. It will minimize the chances of contracting bacterial and fungal diseases from the snakes.

Living Space for Garter Snakes

The living space of Garter Snakes should be large enough to allow them to move around comfortably. These snakes do better if the owners have the tank replicate the natural habitat of Garter Snakes. A 30 to 50-gallon tank is a good size for these snakes. Males can be kept in slightly smaller tanks as they are smaller in size than females.

The lid of the tank must be tightly secured as Garter Snakes are known to look for an opportunity to escape. Tiny gaps can act as escape points for them. The lid should also allow for proper ventilation inside the tank.

The tank should be divided into two sections – hot and cold with multiple hiding spots in each section. To make their living space more natural wood and vines should be added in both the sections of the tank. This will also allow them to climb inside the tank. 

A water bowl needs to be placed inside the tank so that they can soak in the water. Medium-sized rocks purchased from the pet store can also be added. This will help the snakes to rub their skin when they are shedding.

For the substrate newspapers can be used. You may also use recycled paper, or paper towels as substrate. This will allow the snakes to burrow and hide. These are cheap and easy to replace. 

Two or more Garter Snakes can be housed together in the same tank. The size of the tank should be larger to allow room for all the Garter Snakes. A 55-gallon tank is big enough to house two captive garter snakes. 

If you do have multiple Garter Snakes in the same tank, it is very important that they be separated while feeding them. If they are not fed separately, it can lead to cannibalism.

Best Climate for Garter Snakes

Garter Snakes are active during the day and need 10 to 12 hours of light. The tank lights should be switched off during the night. Using a timer to automate the light is the easiest way to make sure they get the right amount of light each day.

On the warm side of the tank, the temperature should range between 80 to 90 degrees. In the cold section, the temperature should be set to 70 to 75 degrees. There should be one thermometer in each section to be able to monitor the temperature inside the tank. 

To provide the necessary heat, ceramic heat bulbs or mercury-vapor bulbs can be used. UV-light should also be provided to them as it will help the snakes to make vitamin-D.

These snakes need a humidity range of 30 to 50%. This needs to be increased to 60% when it looks like they might be shedding. It will prevent the snake from having any problems while shedding their skin.

a close up of a garter snakes head

The Attention a Garter Snake Needs

Snakes do not require a lot of attention and you can handle them once a day or many times each week. Young hatchlings should be handled even less frequently. In the beginning, some Garter Snakes may not allow themselves to be handled. They may curl themselves or get away but with time, and regular handling, they will calm down.

Avoid handling them when they are shedding or for a few hours immediately after feeding them.

Garter Snakes are not constrictors so they may slide through your fingers instead of curling around. The body of Garter Snakes should be carefully supported to prevent them from hanging or stressing out. 

Grooming and Care

The snake’s tank should be thoroughly cleaned once every month. Take the snake out and place them inside a box that they cannot escape from. Remove all the materials from the tank and use a 3% bleach solution to clean the tank. 

Clean the walls and the floors of the tank and rinse it with water. Let the tank dry completely. Carefully place the materials and the snake inside the tank.

a garter snake slithering across the ground

The substrate of the tank must be cleaned or replaced every week. The water in the bowl should be replaced daily. Replace the water even sooner if the snake has left feces in the water. Even the hiding boxes should be spot-cleaned often. This is necessary to ensure a hygienic living environment for the snakes. 

Keep a close watch on the temperature and humidity levels when the snake is shedding their skin. A hygrometer should be installed inside the tank to measure the humidity levels. If the snake faces problems shedding their skin, try adjusting the temperature or humidity level. Contact your reptile vet if they still experience problems. 

Health Issues

Stomatitis is a common health condition that most snakes can get. A visible sign for this is a cheesy substance in the mouth of your Garter Snake, loss of teeth or appetite. Stomatitis requires urgent attention and if left untreated the infection can spread to lungs and digestive tracts. 

Antibiotics are generally used to treat this disease but in some cases surgery may be required.

Another health condition that some Garter Snakes can get is Dermatitis. This can result in rapid shedding or blisters on their skin. It could be a result of an unhygienic living environment or lower temperatures. Increasing the temperature or humidity may help to deal with this. For complete treatment consult your vet.

Some snakes can have respiratory diseases that can cause difficulty in breathing or mucus in nostrils and mouth. This is also caused by a living space that is too cold or damp.

Garter Snakes can also have mites that they could have picked up from the pet shop. Snakes with mites will have dots in white, black, or red color that upon closer look will seem to be moving. 

These colored dots are actually mites that will feed on the blood of snakes. This will cause stress in snakes. To deal with mites you can buy miticides from the pet store to clean the snake and its enclosure.

Feeding A Garter Snake

Young hatchlings can be fed small cut pieces of night crawlers or pinky mice. The adult snakes should be given pre-killed frozen mice that can be purchased from the pet store. The mice need to be thawed before serving them. 

Garter Snakes eat worms, amphibians, fish, and rodents in the wild. So you can also feed them earthworms and live rodents in captivity. If you give them live mice, do not leave the snakes alone until they have eaten the mice. This is because live mice can injure or kill them.

Adult snakes should be fed every 7 to 10 days and young hatchlings should be fed every 4 to 5 days. When the snakes shed their skin the frequency of the feeding should be reduced as the snakes tend to eat less when they shed. 

snake food

Related Questions:

Are Garter Snakes venomous?

Some of the species of Garter Snakes do produce a mild neurotoxic venom. This is used to kill prey in the wild but is harmless for humans. Even if a Garter Snake bites you it will not be dangerous. Sometimes, it will only produce a swelling or bruising sensation in the region of the bite.

Why are they called Garter Snakes?

The longitudinal stripes that run along their bodies look similar to garters that women wore to hold their stockings up. This is why they are called Garter Snakes.

Are Garter Snakes Endangered?

The popularity of Garter Snakes as a pet has led to a decline in their wild population. The Giant Garter Snake and the San Francisco Garter Snake are the only subspecies that are considered endangered.

C&R Family Pets logo
Quick Links