An old friend of mine recently acquired a snake and found himself in need of a terrarium habitat for it. We decided to find out if we could make a terrarium ourselves. So I did some research and here’s what I found.
Designing a Terrarium
The first thing on your list is to think about the enclosure you’re going to make. There are a few very important things when it comes to snake enclosures.
Firstly, they need to be durable. Snakes are strong and are messy. It is imperative that you consider the size and strength of your snake, and plan accordingly.
Secondly, they need to be able to keep heat inside of them. Your snake will need to be able to keep itself warm inside of its home. You will need to take that into consideration, investing in a heat-retaining material.
Thirdly, snakes are extremely clever and will escape from their habitat if given the chance. You must plan a cage that will not open if pushed anywhere from the inside.
Don’t rush through the thinking process. A rushed-through idea will often lead to a shoddy product. The majority of your snake’s welfare will rely upon its home.
Snake Terrarium Materials
My dad always taught me that if there’s anything worth doing, it’s worth doing right. If you decide to make your own terrarium habitat, it is extremely important that you invest in proper materials.
Usually, wood is a very good candidate for a primary structural material. However, the type of wood you use is extremely important, because some woods might make your snake very sick.
Never use cedar to build your cage. Reptiles who are exposed to cedar will begin to exhibit respiratory symptoms and may develop skin lesions. Never use pine or eucalyptus wood.
Pine trees and eucalyptus trees are similar to cedar trees and produce aromatic phenols. Though there isn’t as much evidence linking pine and eucalyptus to health problems as there is for cedar, their use is discouraged. Products made from the bark of the trees is not as aromatic as the wood is, and is likely safer.
Be extremely careful with chemically treated wood. A variety of different chemicals may be used to treat wood based on its intended use.
Wood destined for construction is often treated with chemicals to increase its resistance to decay; some of these chemicals can leach out of the wood or disperse through the air.
Additionally, some tree branches — particularly those of fruit trees — may have been sprayed with pesticides. Do not use wood in reptile habitats if it has been contaminated by pesticides, herbicides or wood preservatives.
Don’t use wood with thorns. Honey locust and Hawthorne trees are noted for their long, sharp thorns and should not be used in reptile caging. Additionally, it’s important to avoid using branches with sharp edges or holes that may trap your pet. Generally speaking, use common sense and inspect any branches used in a cage for potential dangers.
There are quite a few safe woods you can use for and in your snake habitat. Shredded aspen can be used safely as a long-term substrate, as can cypress mulch and orchid bark.
Any branches or wood collected outside must be sterilized before being used in the habitat. Do this by baking the wood in an oven at 250 degrees for at least 30 minutes.
Provided they haven’t been exposed to chemicals; oak, dogwood, tuliptree, maple, and crepe myrtle are popular and safe choices for providing climbing opportunities and decoration, or structural building.
You must also choose between glass and thermoplastic for the front panel wall. Both glass and thermoplastic will retain the heat inside of the enclosure, keeping your snake warm and happy. Thermoplastic often works better than glass, but both are suitable.
You will also need a small arsenal of tools with which to construct the habitat. You will need a power drill, a router, measuring tape, screws, hinges, and hook and eye latches.
Treating Wood for Substrate
Let’s face it. Snakes are messy creatures. They’re clumsy and will spill their water, and they can’t exactly be trained to go to the bathroom outside. Therefore, you will need to waterproof your wood.
If you don’t, it will rot and warp. It’s far better to invest in the proper materials and do it right the first time than have to build a new enclosure from scratch a few months down the line.
Waterproof your wood. To do so, follow these steps:
- Obtain a wood lacquer. These can be store-bought.
- Prepare your wood by sanding it using a rough sandpaper. Doing this will remove any previous sealants or finishes, and give you a clean slate to work on. Literally.
- Apply an even coat of wood lacquer. Be sure to work in a dry, well-ventilated area.
- Allow the first coat to dry. Be patient with this step. Let it dry completely.
- Clean the first coat of lacquer with very fine-grit sandpaper or steel wool. Only do this when it is completely dry.
- Add additional coats. Your wood may need 2-3 coats, depending on how hard or soft it is.
- Give your wood time to seal. Let it sit for a few days before attempting to work with it.
With the completion of these steps, your wood should last much longer. Be sure to protect yourself. Wear gloves and safety goggles while sealing your wood, and always work in a well-ventilated area.
Measuring the Tank’s Dimensions
The size of the enclosure is dependent on the size of its intended occupant. The habitat must be large enough for your snake to stretch out in full. If your snake is still young and growing, be sure to take that into account. Better a cage that is too large than too small.
Also keep in mind that a climbing snake will do better in a taller tank, and a burrowing snake will thrive in a longer tank. It all depends on the species of snake you have.
On average, smaller snakes can be kept in tanks that size up to 24 inches by 12 inches by 16 inches. Medium snakes can be kept in tanks that are about 48 inches by 13 inches by 20 inches.
The glass or plastic panel for the front should be a few tenths of an inch smaller than the back wooden panel. This will allow for more precise grooves that you will dig out.
The opening is arguably one of the most important parts of the whole tank. There are basically two options: the top, and the side.
You may want a side opening if you have more than one habitat, as this will allow you to stack the two tanks on top of each other.
A top opening is good if you want to put the heating element directly on it.
Wherever you put the opening, remember to design it to be escape-proof. Snakes are crafty and persistent. They will find every weak point of their habitat and take advantage of it. If you’re not careful, you may come home to find your pet snake enjoying a snooze on or in your bed.
Cutting the Terrarium Pieces to Size
Once you have carefully measured the length of your snake, it’s time to get down to business.
Cut each piece as a solid rectangle. Remember that you will only need to cut the back, the sides, the bottom, and the top. The front panel will be the glass or plastic. Make sure to not leave any room for gaps, as that will make it even easier for your snake to curl up on your softest blankie.
Be sure to wear safety material at all times. You’ll need safety glasses, gloves, earplugs, a respirator, and a padded kickback apron. Without these, you may suffer a serious injury. It’s significantly more difficult to construct a terrarium habitat for your pet snake if you’re missing an eye and/or a few fingers.
You will need to carve out grooves in your wood that will hold the plastic or glass front panel in place.
Do this with a router. Dig the groove 0.5 inches from the face of what will be the outside wall of the enclosure. You will need to do this to the top piece, the bottom piece, and the side pieces.
To make sure that the glass or plastic panel will fit snuggly, slide it into each groove. Make sure that the grooves line up easily on each piece.
Assembling the Tank
This is it. This is literally the part where all the pieces finally lock into place.
Carefully take the power drill, and drill holes into the back, bottom, and sides of the enclosure. Then screw the sides and bottom into place. If your habitat opens from the side, then leave that side unattached.
Before you screw the top on, be sure to slide the glass or plastic front panel into place. Make sure that there are no gaps between the glass or plastic and the wood. Remember that snakes don’t make the best cuddle partners. If there are any gaps where the front panel fits, fill it with a pet-safe adhesive. These can be found at home improvement stores or can be found online. You can find a very highly rated one here.
Attaching the Tank Opening
It’s now time to attach the opening to the tank.
If you’re building an enclosure that opens from the top, then you’ll be attaching the top panel with hinges. If your enclosure opens from the side, then your chosen side’s panel will be the opening that you affix with hinges.
Measure where you will need to attach the hinges onto the opening panel (either the top or one side). Then measure where the hinges will attach to the back panel. Use a power drill to bore holes for the hinges, then screw the hinges into place. Attach hook-and-eye latches to each corner of the opening panel.
It’s typically a good idea to use multiple latches instead of just one since some snakes are strong enough to break through weak doors. Drill several small holes for ventilation in the opening panel (either the top or the side of your enclosure).
Laying Substrate in the Tank
Substrate is the bedding for your snake. Its what it will cuddle with in the absence of an escape route from the tank. The material is specific to the kind of snake you have.
For a snake that naturally lives in the desert, the best type of substrate is a fine-grained sand. For some snakes, the best substrate is unprinted paper, shredded, and laid down thickly. Some snakes will do so best with leaf litter as a substrate. Talk to a veterinarian or a snake expert about what is best to fill your tank with.
Remember that you must change the substrate often. A clean tank is very important for keeping a healthy snake. Mold can grow in the substrate if you leave it too long, making your snake very, and sometimes fatally, sick. Change it often.
Adding Vegetation to the Tank
Most snakes like some sort of vegetative cover, as their natural homes often provide it. Different snakes are used to different types of habitats, so it is important to determine what kind of plants to get for decoration.
Chinese evergreen, ferns, small palms, philodendron, bromeliads, and begonias are all plants that are commonly used in snake enclosures.
You have to make a choice between live plants and artificial plants. The problem with live plants is that they are difficult to maintain, and they often carry diseases and pests.
Because of the potential health risk to the snake, most professionals advocate artificial plants instead. The snake won’t be able to tell it’s plastic, so it will curl up as happily in plastic leaves as it would in live ones.
Depending on the type of snake, a heat source might be necessary. This is best done with a lamp. You can purchase one in a pet store, or you can find one here. For example, the ball python needs a basking spot kept at about 88 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit and an ambient temperature of around 78 to 80 degrees.
The temperature of the tank should never drop below 75 degrees. Talk with your veterinarian about the temperature your snake will be comfortable in.
Adding Food and Water
It is imperative that your snake has clean water at all times. It has to drink, just like any other animal. The snake will also immerse itself in the water frequently. Therefore, it is best to invest in a larger, heavier dish to keep the water in. The heavier the dish, the harder it is for the snake to tip.
The snake will also have to be fed. Most snakes eat frozen or recently-killed feed mice. Talk to your veterinarian or a snake expert to find out what the best diet for your snake is.
Introducing the Snake to its Tank
It is now time to introduce your snake to its new home. It is important to let your snake be in its cage for a few days before you handle it. Premature handling will make the snake nervous, frighten it, or confuse it. Let it get used to its new surroundings. Once it’s comfortable, handle away!
Other Terrarium Supplies
Once your snake has its basic needs met in its brand new terrarium, you can feel free to add new things and mix it up from time to time, just to keep your snake on his toes (or lack thereof). These are some other things people add to their snakes’ enclosures.
Snakes like to hide from time to time, just like humans. Anything can be used as a hiding house for your pet
Decorative Branches and Vines
Some snakes are the types that like to climb trees and vines. Unless you want to plant an actual tree in your snake’s enclosure, like a little bonsai or something, here are some awesome options to give your snake something to curl around and play on:
Feel free to look around at some other branch options or look for some yourself, but just remember that your little snake will need a clean enclosure and you don’t want to introduce hostile bugs or mites into his or her tank, which means grabbing a random tree branch from outside is only okay if you bake it or sterilize it in some other way.
Yes, kind of like the ones you put on the backs of vehicles. While this is mostly used in fish tanks or other reptiles’ enclosures, I don’t think snakes should be left out of the loop of having a cute background. You can mix them up, or just leave them be as they are.
In the end, you want your snake to be well-taken care of and the terrarium they are living in should be clean, well-maintained, and regulated to make sure the temperatures and humidity levels are perfect for your pet snake friend.
If you take care of your snake, it’ll last a very long time compared to a lot of other pets–somewhere up to thirty years, depending on the breed.
Proper Terrarium Sizes for Your Snake
Some snakes are bigger than others, and some need more space than other due to their activity. Whether you own a monstrous reticulated python or a little garter snake, I have included some measurements and guesstimations below to help you figure out the proper enclosure size for your slithering pet friend.
For Big Snakes
Some pet snakes can grow around twelve feet long, and you don’t really want to squish that guy into a tiny terrarium meant for a baby corn snake. If your snake is anywhere near the length of an adult reticulated python, which is somewhere around fifteen feet long, then you’ll want an environment he or she can stretch out in, somewhere around eight feet long.
Snakes don’t ever really stretch their full length out in a straight line and mostly need to be able to stretch around 3/4 of their length out. If you want to spoil your huge pet with a lot of room to move around in, you could get or build an enclosure that is about its length.
In the end, if your snake is big, think around 6-8 feet long and at least 2-3 feet wide for the terrarium size.
For Medium Snakes
Again, snakes don’t usually stretch themselves out all the way. That’s not natural for them. Instead, if your snake is a medium length of about ten feet long, they’ll want an enclosure 3-6 feet long and not so wide.
Remember that the bigger the snakes, the less they’ll want to climb, so for the bigger ones listed above you don’t need to worry about adding branches or little plants for them to climb on, but all snakes need little hiding houses. They need privacy too.
For Little Snakes
From hatchlings to ball pythons, tanks should be about a 10-20 gallon enclosure, which is about 20-50 inches long and half that much in width.
When it comes to height in these terrariums, they’ll need a little over the length of the tank if you’re going to add branches and things for them to play on.
If you want to look at terrariums and other tanks to get an idea of measurements and what these snakes need, a link to Amazon’s best snake tanks can be found here.
In the end, you want your snake to be comfortable and clean, with interesting things in his or her home and a comfortable temperature and humidity level so that your reptilian pet can be as happy as a clam.
Do all snakes need humidity? No. However, it is important to make sure whether or not your snake does. Consult a veterinarian about whether or not you should worry about humidity for your snake.
If you do, purchase a humidity gauge to constantly monitor the moisture inside the tank, and the proper misting and fogging equipment.
How often should I clean my snake’s tank? You should clean your snake’s tank fairly often. To make the task easier, there are things you can do to keep the tank generally clean. For example, clean the water and food dishes, discard uneaten food and waste, and wipe up any spills on a daily basis.
Once a week, you should replace the substrate, and wipe down and disinfect the bowls, rocks, plants, and inside of your tank. Once a month, you should clean the tank and fixtures very deeply. This includes getting in the tough corners with a toothbrush.
Let the tank dry completely before replacing your snake. Never use a strong disinfecting agent, as the fumes may hurt your snake. A 5-percent bleach solution is perfectly safe and efficient, as long as the tank has dried before you put the snake back in its home.
Do all snakes need a special lighting lamp? No. In fact, some snakes will do very well if you just place it near a window. Never leave the window open, however, as it can mess with the controlled temperature of the tank, especially in the winter.
Consult a veterinarian about the individual lighting needs of your snake.