a coiled milk snake

Milk Snake

Milk Snakes make very good pets mostly for what they don’t do — they don’t get very large, they don’t carry venom and they don’t tend to bite. What they do, however, is come in 24 recognized variations and are found in the wild from Southeastern Canada to South America. This is a calm, passive, secretive type of snake that is active at night and will otherwise hide in the dark.

This snake is known to be a slow mover. They will climb, swim, and hide. Their first line of defense is to try to get away. Their coloring that blends in with their surroundings occasionally makes them hard to spot. The Milk Snake’s diet is protein rich, with the adults preferring to eat rodents. As with most snakes, they are safe for children, but do not get along with other household pets.

Milk Snakes Information

  • Average Length: 3 to 5 feet
  • Average Weight: 2.8 pounds
  • Snake Type: King Snake
  • Skin Appearance: Multi-color that can be tricolor, saddled, or patched
  • Skin Colors: Black; red; yellow
  • Grooming Needs: Low
  • Shedding: 2 to 3 times a year
  • Sensitive to Touch: No
  • Biting Tendency: No
  • Good tolerance to Heat and Cold: No, they need an environment that provides adequate heat.
  • Good Pet: They are calm and generally do not strike, so yes! 
  • Safe with Children: They are harmless for kids, so 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 infections like cold and pneumonia, mouth rot, or mites  
  • Allergies: None
  • Average Life Span: 20 to 30 years in captivity

Physical Appearance of Milk Snakes

Milk Snakes can come in many patterns, colors, and sizes. Some like the Black Milk Snake can grow up to 6 feet while others like Central Plains Milksnake are just under 2 feet long. The difference is mostly in the color and pattern of the skin. 

Their shiny and smooth skin has bright colors with visible and contrasting patterns or patches of different shades. The most common pattern of skin is tricolor while some can also have patched or saddled pattern skin. 

Tricolor snakes usually have a red color with alternating rings of white and black. Other popular colors include red and orange; yellow and white; and black. There are several other color combinations that these snakes come in.

Temperament of Milk Snakes

Milk Snakes are docile and friendly pets. They rarely attack and if they do it is usually only because they have confused your finger for food. When adult snakes feel threatened they will try to get away from you. In rare cases they may bite as well. They are non-poisonous and their bites are harmless. 

These snakes look for opportunities to escape. It is also important to keep the lid of the tank tightly closed at all times. 

a milk snake looking for food
a milk snake coiled and ready to eat

These snakes are nocturnal creatures and should not be handled at night. 

When you first get them home they should be left alone for 5 to 7 days. After that, you can start handling them for a few minutes every day. Be careful while handling young hatchings as young snakes do sometimes bite.

The Milk Snakes are constrictors and may occasionally wrap themselves around your arms or wrist. This is harmless and you can easily unwrap them with your hands.

Their Compatibility with Children

Milk Snakes are safe to be handled by children but kids need to be taught how they should interact with them. Teach them to have one hand near the head and the other to support the body. The entire body of the snakes need to be supported or they can feel stressed or become injured. 

Gently supporting their whole body will help the Milk Snake to feel comfortable with kids. Children should handle the snakes only a few times a day and when there is an adult with them. 

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 Milk Snakes

The living space of Milk Snakes should be large enough to allow them to live comfortably. They are quite active and need a lot of room to stretch. Young hatchlings can be kept in a 10-gallon tank. Adult snakes who measure around 4 feet will need a 50 to 60-gallon tank. 

The size of the tank will also depend upon the subspecies of Milk Snake you get as a pet. The smaller New Mexico snakes can comfortably live in a 10-gallon tank.

The lid of the tank should be tightly secured. There should not be any tiny gaps or holes on the top. Milk Snakes can escape from the smallest openings. The lid should also provide proper ventilation or the snakes may develop respiratory problems. 

The enclosure should be divided into two areas – one hot and the other cold. As Milk Snakes love to hide there must be lots of hiding spots inside the tank. The hiding spots should be present on both the cold and hot sides of the tank. 

You can get rock hides, branches, flower pots, or a number of other similar things. To give a more natural feel you can also keep dry leaves and branches inside the tank. These should be sterilized before being placed inside the tank.

The substrate or the lining of the tank should allow for the snake to burrow. Paper towels or newspapers can be used for this but it should only be a temporary arrangement. A popular choice for many tanks is Astroturf. Astroturf is an artificial layer of grass as the flooring. They can be washed and reused quickly. They are inexpensive if they need to be replaced.

Best Climate for Milk Snakes

Snakes are cold-blooded and need to regulate their body temperature. They do this by moving between cold and hot areas. The day temperature on the hot side should be between 80 to 85 degrees. On the cold side, it should be in the range of 70 to 75 degrees.

To heat the tank you can use under-tank heaters. When you are setting this up it is a good idea to check it before you put a snake in with it.  If the temperature is too high it could burn the snake. 

Another option is to install a ceramic heat emitter inside the tank. As these snakes are nocturnal you will not have to install a lighting source inside the tank. The light in your room would be enough.

There should be a thermometer on both sides of the tank so that you know the temperatures are correct. 

The humidity level inside the tank should be between 30 to 50 percent. This should be slightly increased during the shedding season. You can maintain the humidity by misting the tank or providing a humidity box. 

A simple humidity box can be created by using a plastic container and lining it with moistened sphagnum moss.

a coiled milk snake

The Attention a Milk Snake Needs

Most captive snakes, including Milk Snakes, do not require a lot of attention. Handling them for a few minutes once every day would be enough. 

The snake should not be handled when it is going to shed or the first few hours after it has been fed. When it is about to shed it cannot see clearly and could mistake you for an attacking animal.  After they have just eaten it can be uncomfortable for them to be handled.

When taking them out of the tank, do not handle them if they are acting defensively. Leave them alone for a few hours and try handling them later.

The only major attention that they require would be for you to keep their living enclosure or tank in a clean and hygienic condition. The temperature and humidity levels of the enclosure should be maintained at all times. This can be done by installing a thermometer and hygrometer inside the tank.

Grooming and Care

You can clean up minor messes within the tank as you see them.  The tank should be completely cleaned once every month. Take out the snake and place them inside a secure and comfortable container while you clean the tank. 

a milk snake ready to strike

The water bowl needs to be cleaned every day and replaced with fresh water. The poop of the snake should also be removed from the tank as soon as you notice it. 

When the snakes are shedding their skin the humidity level inside the tank should be increased. A bowl of water that the snakes can have a bath in should also be placed inside the tank. When they are shedding their skin a few branches should be placed inside the tank. This will help them to rub against the branch and shed their skin.

Health Issues

The major health concern for Milk Snakes is respiratory infections. Difficulty breathing could be a possible sign of the respiratory condition. If you see any symptoms, get them checked with a vet.

Some snakes may also get cold or pneumonia. This can be caused by low temperatures inside the tank. For this reason, it is important to regularly check the temperature of the tank. Visible signs for pneumonia could be mucus around the nose, bubbling at the mouth, or gasping for breath.

You can use a bleaching solution to clean the walls and floors of the tank. Clean or replace the materials inside the tank and replace the substrate. Thoroughly dry the tank before placing back your snake inside the tank.

They can also have mites that they could have picked up from the pet shop or breeder they came from. 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. 

The mites will feed on the blood of snakes and cause stress in them. You can buy miticides from the pet store to clean the snake and its enclosure.

Mouth rot or Stomatitis, a bacterial disease is another health condition that some snakes can get. This can cause a cheesy yellow substance to come out of the mouth. It can be treated by antibiotics prescribed by your reptile vet.

Feeding A Milk Snake

Milk Snakes need to be fed rodents like rats or mice. Many snake owners feed them pre-killed mice which can be bought from the pet store. The mice should be defrosted before giving them to eat. If you give them live mice, do not leave the snake alone until they have eaten the mice. Live mice can injure or even kill your pet. 

Adult snakes should be fed once 10 to 14 days and hatchlings should be fed twice a week. They may eat less during the fall and winter seasons or when they are shedding their skin. Young snakes can be fed pinky mice or newborn mice. Once they grow, you can feed them larger mice. Do not overfeed them as they can get obese which can result in health problems.

Snakes have a slow digestive system and it can take several days for them to digest the food. Baby snakes or hatchlings can digest the food faster because they have smaller bodies, so they require to be fed more often than adult snakes. 

snake food

Related Questions

Why are they called Milk Snakes?

There was an ancient myth in areas that Milk Snakes inhabited. According to this people believed that these snakes used to drink milk out of cow udders. They were also frequently found in barns at many farms which actually magnified the myth. This resulted in these snakes being called “Milk Snakes.” Though some may confuse that they produce or drink milk this obviously is not true. 

Are Milk Snakes venomous?

No, the Milk Snakes are not venomous. They are often confused with copperheads and coral snakes, both of which are poisonous snakes. All three of them have similar looking skin and coloration. Many people sometimes kill Milk Snakes confusing them to be copperheads or coral snakes.

Can I keep two Milk Snakes in the same tank?

The short answer is that you can.  The longer answer is that it is highly recommended that you do not. There can be issues with them fighting, or simply not eating while in the same tank.  Milk Snakes are not social creatures and the only time they should ever share a tank is for breeding.

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