Info and Care on the Classic Cali Kingsnake

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The hardiness, easy-going demeanor, and beautiful coloration of the California
kingsnake has made it a popular pet for decades, beloved by both beginner and veteran
hobbyists alike.

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Natural History
As their name suggests, California kingsnakes can be found throughout southern and
Baja California but they are also found in Oregon, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. A habitat
generalist, kingsnakes can be found in woodlands, marshes, grasslands, deserts, and
even around human habitation. They typically grow to be three to just over four feet in
length, although some specimens can exceed five feet. A member of the colubrid family,
there is some debate as to the exact taxonomy of the California kingsnake. Some authors
stating it is a subspecies of the common kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae)
and others designating it a full species (L. californiae). Wild California kingsnakes are
usually patterned with black and white bands, although these can vary in hue to dirty
ivory and dark brown and some snakes exhibit striped or solid markings. Kingsnakes
are diurnal hunters and actively forage for their prey. They will consume any small
mammal, bird, or reptile they can overpower but are well-documented as predators of
other snakes, including their own kind and venomous species such as rattlesnakes; this
is where the “king” in their name comes from. Contrary to popular belief, prey is not
typically killed by asphyxiation. As the kingsnake squeezes tighter, it puts more and
more pressure on the circulatory system. This makes it harder for the heart to beat and
cuts off the blood supply to vital organs. Death is caused by a combination of cardiac/
circulatory arrest and multi-system organ failure. Recent research has shown that
pound-for-pound the kingsnake is capable of generate the strongest squeeze of any
snake, which is believed it be related to its ophiophagous eating habits. If stressed,
kingsnakes will secret a foul-smelling fluid from their cloacas called musk in an attempt
to deter the predator. A properly-kept kingsnake can live well into its 20’s.


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Housing, Temperature, and Lighting
As a mid-sized snake, kingsnakes do not need large enclosures. A 30-gallon terrarium or
the equivalent will work excellently for most specimens. The perimeter of the tank
should be at least one-and-a-half to two times the snake’s total length, Height is not
essential, as kingsnakes are terrestrial (although they climb extremely well). Snakes do
not require UV lighting as lizards do so a basic full-spectrum bulb, such as the Zoo Med
Nature Sun, will work nicely. Aspen shavings are ideal for substrate, as it makes for easy
cleaning and promotes natural burrowing behavior. It is extremely important to set up a
temperature gradient within the terrarium so the snake can thermoregulate properly.
The overall tank temperature should be around 85 degrees, with the cool side around 75
and a basking spot of 90 to 95. Use either basking bulbs or heat tape but make sure to
avoid commercial hot rocks; these generate heat that is much too concentrated and can
potential cause sever burns. Placing a large paving stone under a basking bulb is a great
way to create a hot spot, as the stone will store heat without reaching dangerous
temperatures. The lights should be turned on in 12-hour cycles. Hides are important for
providing a sense of security. Half-logs, cork-rounds, and plastic caves work well for
kingsnakes. Place at least two hides within the enclosure, one on the cool end and the
other on the hot end. A large water dish should be provided for both drinking and
(potentially) soaking. It recommended to put at least one large piece of furnishing, such
as a hunk of driftwood or a large rock, so the snake has something to climb on and rub
against while shedding.

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Like all snakes, boas are hyper-carnivores. Captive kingsnakes can be kept on frozenthawed
mice; this is a safer alternative to live-feeding as it reduces the risk of injury. The
ideal meal should be as thick as thickest part of the snake. Kingsnakes can be rapacious
feeders and will readily consume multiple rodents in a sitting if allowed. To maintain
healthy condition, a kingsnake does not need to be fed more than one appriately-sized
meal every two weeks or so. It is not recommended that you handle your kingsnake for
24 to 48 hours after feeding, as the stress may cause the snake to regurgitate its meal.
Many keepers chose to feed their snakes in a separate enclosure or feeding tub to
prevent accidental injection of substrate or strong feeding-aggression.

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Handling and Taming
Kingsnakes are easy to handle and make particularly good pets for those just getting into
keeping snakes. Upon bringing your snake home, allow the animal a week or so to settle
into its new home before you being handling. Initial handling sessions should be kept
short, slowly building up over time. The best way to pick up a snake is to scoop them up
from below. Grabbing them from above is very invasive and an outstretched hand looks
remarkably similar to a raptor talon and may provoke a defensive strike. If you must
grab your snake, go for the tail. Make sure the bulk of the kingsnake’s body is supported,
either in your arms or coiled around your body like a tree. Being colubrids, they are
more active than most boas or pythons and when warmed up will actively explore their
environment. If stressed, kingsnakes will secret a foul-smelling fluid from their cloacas
called musk in an attempt to deter the predator.


Written By: Grayson Kent

Sponsored By: The Painted Reptile

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