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Gray Rat Snake Care Sheet

Scientific Facts

Common Name:Gray Rat Snake or gray ratsnake
Scientific Name:Pantherophis slides
Life Span:13 to 17 years
Size:3.25 to 6 feet total length including tail
Habitat:Forests
Country of Origin:North America, eastern and central United States

Physical Description

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The gray rat snake or the gray rat snake is also commonly known as the chicken snake, central rat snake, midland rat snake, or the pilot black snake. It is also a species of nonvenomous snake in the Pantherophis genus, subfamily Colubrinae. This species is one of the ten species in the American rat snake genus.

The gray rat snake is a medium to a large snake that can reach 3.25 to 6 feet in its adult size from head to tail. Some breeders say that there are captive species that can reach up to 8.10 feet in length.

Unlike other species of snakes in the Pantherophis family, the gray rat snake comes with a unique juvenile design that disappears when it reaches adulthood. The gray rat snake in the southern tip of its range does not have such antogenetic changes; instead, the juvenile mark retains during adulthood.

The juvenile mark is a pattern of dark-colored dorsal markings that are separated by around four or more grayscales. It also has a light-gray crown and dark stripes that create an anterior-facing spear-like point. The gray rat snake also has double black spot markings at the back of the anal plate of the vent.  

Subspecies

The gray rat snake is related to several subspecies; each of these has different markings, size, and geographic range.

The black rat snake or Eastern rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta) is totally black except for a speck of white on its chin. The hatchlings of this species have a pale gray background with black-colored blotches found along its back. As this snake develops to a juvenile and then to an adult, the color turns darker.

The yellow rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta quadrivittata) comes with four longitudinal bands that extend to its back. The base color is dull yellow to bright yellow. The snake’s tongue is black. Its hatchlings have a color that is similar to the black rat snake, but as these mature, the dark spots disappear, and the yellow color and the longitudinal bands start to become more prominent.

Another subspecies is the Everglades rat snake, and this comes with a bright orange color. In some members of this subspecies, the color is orange-yellow. This snake comes with gray longitudinal bands that may not be so defined and sometimes even very hard to see. The Everglades rat snake has a red tongue, and the young snakes have a pinkish hue. 

The Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) has markings that are similar to the gray rat snake, but the blotches are not very defined. The head of this snake is black, while the juveniles come with a darker gray color.

The gray rat snake (Pantherophis spiloides) has the blotched designs all its life. These blotches change from dark gray and brown. Usually, juvenile black and yellow snakes are mistaken as young rat snakes.  

The red rat snake (Elaphe guttatus) is found along the southeastern United States, especially in Florida. Red rat snakes are found in pine flatlands, forests, mangrove swamps, and other urban areas. This is a species recognized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 

Life Span

The life span of gray rat snakes is 13 to 17 years. Gray rat snakes are like other reptiles with three life stages: hatchlings/young, juveniles, and adults/mature snakes. 

1) Hatchlings

Hatchlings are very small and have very dark markings on their slender bodies. In gray rat snakes, these marks may disappear and will be replaced by juvenile markings.   

2) Juveniles

Juvenile snakes are larger than hatchlings with brightly colored markings on their bodies. These marks will carry on until these reach their adult phase. Juveniles can hunt for their food in the wild. Their size has also doubled and will become their parent’s size and weight. 

3) Adults

Adult Gray Rat Snakes have a blotched appearance all their life. These have distinct marks in the dorsal area, as well as the belly, head, and rear parts. These snakes have medium to large bodies.

Eating Habits

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The gray rat snake uses its powerful scent to hunt for prey and constricts its prey to kill it and then swallows it whole, head first. 

Rat snakes are so-called because their diets are primarily rats or rodents. But in reality, rat snakes will eat almost all kinds of small animals, especially rodents. It will eat moles, chipmunks, and mice. During their juvenile stage, rat snakes will eat small lizards, pinkie mice, small frogs, and other small prey. 

Because of the gray rat snake’s impressive ability to hunt for mice and rats, this snake is a welcome guest in barns where food is stored and on farms as well. This snake may be used to control rodent populations.

Sleeping Habits

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Rat snakes are diurnal, which means these sleep during the night and remain active during the daytime. But it becomes nocturnal during the summertime to avoid the scorching heat. It will remain inside its burrow until the climate is cooler before it starts to hunt. 

Gray Rat Snakes need a small enclosure or hide where it can sleep. The best choice is an inverted ceramic pot or a strong cardboard box. Create more than one hide, place one or two near the light source, and more at the back where it can sleep comfortably.  Having more places to rest and recuperate will allow your snake to rest on any environment that it wants, depending on its internal body temperature. 

When it’s summertime, and the rat snake begins its nocturnal habits, don’t forget to feed it in the evenings as well. The tank must be in an area in your home where it’s dark and quiet so your snake can rest even during the morning.  

Water

Gray Rat Snakes need fresh water to drink. Place water in bowls made of ceramic or clay pots. The snake will just lick water from the bowl anytime it wants to drink. You must change the water inside this bowl regularly, especially if you have more snakes in your tank.

Development, Reproduction, and Breeding in Captivity

Similar to most snakes, rat snakes lay eggs. After months of hibernation from March to May, the snake will emerge from its burrow, and just after a few weeks, male rat snakes will look around to find a suitable mate. This happens from April to late May to June.

Males don’t look for and wide for a female because it will wait for one to walk through their territory. He will attract his mate using the power of pheromones. These pheromones will initiate the mating process in females.

The male will come to the female and try to mate. The male will try to wrap its tail around the female with their vents touching. To prevent the female from getting away, the male will grasp the female using its mouth and hold her in place. 

When the female is ready, the male will now insert one of its hemipiene inside the female’s cloaca. Small spines anchor the hemipenes in the cloaca. Mating lasts for a few minutes to a few hours. The female will lay her eggs in a secret area, which may be in hollow logs and leaves. She will lay 12 to 20 eggs. A mother rat snake may also lay her eggs in abandoned burrows of other snakes, rodents, and small mammals.

These eggs will hatch after 70 days. After hatching, rat snakes have huge appetites and will eat anything they can. These double their size quickly. Females can produce two clutches of eggs in a year if breeding conditions are good.   

Common Health Problems 

Pet snakes are very hardy animals. As long as this is fed the right kind of food and their enclosures well maintained, you can guarantee good health. However, there are times that even the cleanest and neatest enclosures can house a sick snake. 

You must first identify what a healthy snake is before identifying common health problems. Take note that healthy snakes have clear eyes, nose, and mouth, are alert and active, have a voracious appetite, and has a rounded and full body. A healthy snake also has healthy skin. 

Snakes affected by health issues have wrinkled skin, lack of energy, and an overall unwell appearance. There is also discharge from the nose or mouth, abnormal feces or urine, and vomiting. Here are the most common health issues of Gray Rat Snakes:

1) Regurgitation

Regurgitation is a condition where the snake vomits or coughs out the food that it has swallowed. There are many reasons why a snake regurgitates. Snakes do this because of stress, improper handling, or due to an undiagnosed or untreated illness. You can prevent this by handling your pet several hours after it has been fed. Also, make sure to have your pet checked by the vet for any overlooked illness. 

2) Internal parasites

A wild snake can pick up parasites from other reptiles as well as from any prey. Some signs of internal parasites are lethargy, poor appetite, regurgitation, and an overall tired appearance. This is why it’s important to quarantine new pets. To treat internal parasites, take your pet to an exotics vet for proper treatment.

3) Respiratory conditions

Respiratory conditions are very common in snakes like the gray rat snake. Symptoms of respiratory conditions include lethargy, runny nose, open-mouth breathing, coughing, wheezing, or unusual clicking noises. The most common treatment for respiratory conditions includes improving the temperature inside the tank to stimulate the immune system of snakes. Take your snake to an exotics vet for treatment.

4) Skin conditions

Snakes may suffer from several skin conditions, and the most common are abscesses. This usually develops after a previous injury that has worsened or has become infected. This may look like a simple lump on the skin, but these can protrude to the internal tissues and organs, causing a variety of health conditions.

Another common skin condition is a blister, which is a fluid-filled skin structure that forms at the underside of the snake. This is due to the snake in a moldy and dirty substrate. Blisters should be immediately removed; otherwise, these could pile up, making these more difficult to do so. An exotics vet can help remove blisters found along the mouth and nose.  

Cuts and blisters are usually due to any accessories or display inside the snake tank. This may be prevented by making sure that all the items inside the tank are safe. 

5) Mites and ticks

The most disheartening skin condition has mites and ticks. Mites are tiny insects that look like dots, which can be red, white, or black. These mites can bite your pet and cause serious irritation on the skin. Meanwhile, ticks are larger and can bury in between the scales. Ticks are very difficult to remove because they lodge to the skin and will not let go. Do not remove the tick using tweezers! The best way to remove pests like mites and ticks is to soak the snake in a warm bath.  

6) Shedding problems

Shedding problems like incomplete shedding can pose a problem to snakes, especially when the tank is not properly hydrated. The skin found along the body and tail may shed, but the skin surrounding the eye or the eye caps and tail may cling, especially if the environment is too dry. Take your pet to the vet if it is having difficulty shedding along the tail and eye cap. 

Preventing Illness

To prevent illness, your snake’s tank should have optimal temperature and hydration. Invest in a digital thermometer and hygrometer to monitor the temperature and humidity inside the tank. You can help by misting the tank with water. You can place a bowl of water inside the tank to help enhance humidity. Be sure to change this water daily. You must also change the bedding often to avoid parasitic and bacterial infections from spreading to your pets and other animals in your home. 

If you have a new snake, quarantine it for a few weeks before you place it inside the room with your other snakes. Remember that some infections are due to snakes and other reptiles that are from the wild. And when it comes to shedding, leave your snake alone to avoid stress. Help when you spot problems with shedding along the tail and eye cap. Prevent these by maintaining correct temperature and humidity inside the tank.

You can also prevent wounds, cuts, and abrasions, which could become fatal if you overlook caring for your pet. Avoid using complicated materials and tank designs that may endanger the life of your snake, 

Behavior

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1) Shy snakes

The Gray Rat Snake is a shy and docile snake and will never display any dangerous behavior towards other snakes, their handlers, and other people. This is why it is more preferred as a pet for novice users.  

But a shy snake can also be a restless snake, especially when it is handled by a beginner. When taking the snake out of its cage, use a snake hook. Some snakes feel threatened when a handler places its hand inside its cage, thinking that it is being cornered. A snake hook will gently remove it from its cage and will protect your hands and arms as well. 

2) Will remain very still

Another defensive mechanism of snakes is that these will freeze when it feels threatened or afraid. No one knows why a gray rat snake does this freezing behavior, but some say that the snake may be disguising itself as a branch or a tree stem to avoid being eaten. So when you find a gray rat snake as stiff as a board, then it’s a sure sign that it feels threatened.

3) Tail vibrations 

Although these snakes are not cobras or rattlesnakes, the grey rat snake will vibrate its tail when threatened. You can listen to it as you hold it, but it won’t be too long when the snake releases a strong musk. 

4) Musking

Musk is a smelly fluid that comes from the cloaca. This is a combination of feces and urine, which is so strong that any threat will let go. Wild snakes that are handled for the first time will musk. Sometimes, well-cared-for snakes may also musk; your pet may just be telling you that it feels uneasy, and you should loosen your grip or hold.                                                                                                       

5) Will hibernate

A gray rat snake will hibernate. Just like any other animal that hibernates, it needs nutrients so it can survive hibernation. In the wild, snakes may eat more before the cold season. They may also prefer to bask longer as if they know that it’s going to be too cold the following weeks. After hibernation, rat snakes will mate. 

6) Mating behaviors

A gray rat snake will mate with females that he will see after hibernation. It begins the mating process by wrapping itself to the female’s body and try to align her opening with his hemipenes. This embrace can last for a few minutes to a few hours, possibly depending on when the female surrenders to the male’s charms. 

Shedding

Regular shedding means that you have a healthy Gray Rat Snake. Snakes usually shed once a month, and during the shedding process, old skin is replaced with a new one to accommodate the growing size of the snake. Shedding is more frequent young or juvenile snakes than in adults. But if you notice that your snake is not shedding, then this could indicate malnutrition or other medical problems. In healthy snakes, shedding can happen fast, and even without the knowledge of the handler. He will simply find old snakeskin inside the tank, signaling that the snake has shed. 

In some snakes, shedding can be painful, especially when the environment is too hot and dry. This is why most owners increase the humidity inside the tank by spraying with water. Check for signs of shedding like the snake changing colors (from its natural color to a whitish hue – this signals that the new skin is ready underneath the old one!), changing eye color and restlessness.

Habitat

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n the wild, the Gray Rat Snake, may prefer to stay in the forest floor to hide from predators and to hunt for prey. It uses the color and texture of the forest floor effectively. And aside from the forest, rat snakes may also live in a variety of habitats. Some of these habitats tend to overlap each other.

Some snakes may prefer to live in trees and thus makes them good climbers. Gray rat snakes can also be found in rocky hillsides to farmlands. Meanwhile, yellow rat snakes are highly-adaptable living in cut-over woods, in barns, fields, and oak hammocks. Texas rat snake can live in swampy areas and the bayou as well as in streams and woodlands. Finally, the Everglades rat snake is found in the Kissimmee Prairie and the lush region of the Florida Everglades.  

In captivity, these snakes may be housed in specially-built cages or terrariums. One terrarium is to one snake to prevent any possible aggression. The tank must be deep enough and wide enough to accommodate a medium-sized snake. It must have a strong and stable lid which should be secured with a lock to prevent the snake from escaping. 

The tank should be placed on a stable surface or table and must be placed in a room that’s quiet and conducive for resting. Some rat snakes are nocturnal, so you must keep it in a room that will remain quiet in the mornings.

Lighting and Humidity

Use a good lamp that’s designed for reptile enclosures. The Ideal temperature should be maintained from 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and five degrees lower at night. Use a digital hygrometer and thermometer to monitor temperature and humidity carefully. You may also use a heat gun to measure the different areas of the tank accurately. 

Place a pan of water inside the tank or use a spray bottle or mister to spray water inside the tank to enhance humidity.

Place a heating pad under the tank to efficiently maintain tank temperatures. A basking area with a higher temperature is important. The rest of the tank may have an ambient temperature. A household fluorescent lamp may be installed if you want to view your snake. It would be better if you place your tank where your snake can get natural light from a window or door.  

Tank Bedding and Accessories

There are many kinds of substrates that you can use, like Aspen bedding or aspen bark. Provide safe bedding and accessories. If you want to use rocks, use smooth rocks and sand, which are the same color as the snake, to help it hide when it feels threatened. The substrate must be spot-checked to maintain tank cleanliness. Use natural or artificial plants and ledges because these can be easily cleaned as you maintain your tank or enclosure. 

Sanitation

Maintain the snake tank by using natural cleaning products such as lemon, baking soda, or vinegar. These will remove smell and dirt and are safe. These won’t have toxic ingredients that can affect the health of your snake. 

If you want to use chemical products, follow directions on the product label. Rinse the tank well and always dry with paper towels before replacing accessories, substrate, and the snake. If your tank uses humidifiers, fans, and filters, replace the filters or clean it at least every two months.  

Hydration

Leave a dish of clean water inside the snake tank. The rat snake will drink from it, plus this may also help improve humidity inside the tank. Use a dish made of ceramic or clay and not plastic to avoid spilling or moving.

Another way to give water to your snake is to apply water with a mister. The snake may also lick vapor from the side of the tank if it wants a drink. Monitor humidity to find out if you need to correct this. And for easy humidity correction, apply a mist of water using a spray bottle or mister. 

Availability – Where to Get One?

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You can get a Gray Rat Snake from a local or online pet or reptile store. Remember to buy only from a reputable dealer or pet store to make sure that your pet is in perfect health.

Gray Rat Snakes can cost anywhere from $60 to $100 depending on size, color, and gender. When you buy online, you also need to consider shipment costs and delivery fees, so it’s sometimes better to purchase from a local pet store.

Buy only snakes that are bred in captivity and not snakes caught in the wild.  The gray rat snake is known as a common snake, but it is included in the species of “special concern” in the state of Michigan. This snake is also rare in Wisconsin. In other countries, this snake is known as nearing extinction, possibly due to an increase in the pet trade of snakes in the area.

Gray rat snakes are considered endangered and threatened in Canada. In Georgia state, all nonvenomous, indigenous snakes are illegal to capture, kill, and trade. These animals are properties of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.  

How to Care for a Gray Rat Snake?

Remember the following tips when caring for a Gray Rat Snake

  • Always feed your snake size-appropriate meals such as insects, mice, rats, frogs, and lizards. Gray Rat Snakes will swallow its food whole, and this is the best way to sneak in supplements or multivitamins in your snake’s diet. Gut load its food with pet food or vegetables and place a multivitamin pill in. Dust its food with calcium supplements before feeding. 
  • Handle your pet early to help it adjust to your handling and to reduce stress. Also, handle well to reduce the snake’s shyness.  Use a firm but gentle hold.
  • Keep the tank clean and in order. Spot clean the tank regularly, change bedding more often to prevent medical conditions. Never reuse bedding because this can lead to parasites and infections. 
  • Monitor tank temperature and humidity using a reliable digital thermometer and hygrometer. You may also check the temperature of different areas in the tank using a thermometer gun. 
  • Keep a dish of water inside the tank to improve humidity. The dish should be large and stable enough to hold without topping over.
  • During shedding, provide good food afterward and hydrate its tank by misting to promote complete shedding. Monitor shedding and make sure that all old skin is removed to prevent any complications.
  • Take your pet Gray Rat Snake to an exotics vet for any medical issue. Never delay respiratory problems, severe cuts, and wounds and the attack of ticks or mites. 
  • Place several areas where your snake can hide. Place on near the basking light and some at the back as well. Doing so will help your snake maintain its body temperature.
  • Consider placing your snake in one tank or one snake per tank. Although gray rat snakes are non-aggressive, there is still a chance that cage mates might want to settle the territory.
  • To transport snakes, place these in small food containers with a few amounts of substrate. Let the snake adjust a bit before packing it or taking it with you in the car or as you commute

FAQ Section

How do you feed gray rat snakes?

Feed your snake with age and size-appropriate food. Most food is simply placed inside the tank, and the snake finds it and eats it. You may also place food in a heavy dish, and the snake can easily reach in to eat.

Will gray rat snakes eat insects?

Yes, gray rat snakes will eat small insects like crickets and small grasshoppers. Although its name says that it is a rat snake, it can still eat all kinds of food as long as these are appropriate for its size.

How long will a gray rat snake survive without water or food?

It may survive for a week, but it will be very stressed and famished by then. Some breeders wait for a week to feed their snakes, but still, water should be offered inside the tank.

Can a rat snake be fed with just any type of food?

No, food has to be organically-raised food like rats and mice. Do not let it eat mice or rats from nearby farms and fields because these rodents may have toxins from fertilizers. These can harm your snake.

Do rat snakes eat a lot?

If a rat snake’s appetite is not controlled, it will eat and eat without hesitation. As a handler, it’s your job to make sure that your pet is in its best shape, and one of the ways to do that is to monitor its diet well. Create a feeding schedule and follow it.

How often do you feed a gray rat snake?

Feeding a rat snake depends on its age. Young snakes should be fed at least once a day with size-appropriate food, while older snakes or adults can do well with every other two days feeding.

Will a gray rat snake drink water?

Yes, all animals, including snakes, need water. You must provide a large bowl of water where your snake can drink from, or you can spray water on the sides of the tank or the plants. The snake will simply lick the moisture to drink water.

Do gray rat snakes make good pets?

Yes, gray rat snakes make good pets because these are easy to tame, easy to feed, and care for and can be easy to breed. This snake won’t bite too unless it’s provoked.

Can a gray rat snake recognize its owner?

Some gray rat snake owners say that their pets can recognize them and can distinguish from handlers. This is why rat snakes should be handled early on.

Can a gray rat snake become aggressive?

Although the gray rat snake is known for its relaxed nature, it can still show signs of aggression, especially when it’s provoked. It can bite when threatened, so don’t provoke or threaten a rat snake.

Can you put two male gray rat snakes in one tank?

No, it’s best to let each male have its tank or enclosure to avoid any aggression. A small 10-gallon tank would do or use a large Rubbermaid covered storage box or container. 

Can a female gray rat snake remain with other female gray rat snakes?

Yes, females can remain together, and during mating season, one male to one female is a good set up. Use a small 10-gallon tank to house the pair.

How do you stimulate breeding in a gray rat snake tank?

In a natural setting, gray rat snakes breed after hibernation. Mimicking hibernation conditions is one way to stimulate these snakes. Usually, right after hibernation, males will start to mate with a female until it has successfully done it. 

How large should a gray rat snake tank be?

A large 20-gallon terrarium or aquarium is best for medium snakes. You can also use cages, but it’s difficult to control humidity inside pet cages. Inside an aquarium, just spray the interiors to correct humidity.

Can a child handle a gray rat snake?

A child that’s handling snakes for the first time might do well with smaller snakes like a garter snake. Rat snakes are bulkier and heavier and maybe too much to handle for a child. Only when a child can successfully handle smaller snakes will he be allowed to hold a gray rat snake.

Will a gray rat snake bite?

Yes, it will bite when provoked. All snakes, tame or wild, will bite if it is provoked. So don’t threaten or provoke a rat snake because even if you are the handler, you can get a nasty bite.

What do you do when you get bitten?

If you get bitten by a gray rat snake, don’t panic. This is non-venomous, so the only concern is the wound. Clean the wound with disinfectant soap and water and visit a doctor for treatment. 

Is the bite of a gray rat snake painful?

Yes, a bite of a gray rat snake could be painful because it has sharp fangs that are used to ambush prey and to grab hold on food tightly.

Do gray rat snakes have long fangs?

Yes, gray rat snakes have fangs but are not as long as a python’s. These fangs will bite and hold, but some may bite and let go. 

How do you approach a wild gray rat snake?

Never make a threatening action when approaching a gray rat snake in the wild. Simply wait till it slithers away because most of the time, rat snakes will simply run away from a threat and won’t put up a fight.  

Can a wild gray rat snake musk anytime it wants to?

A gray rat snake musks when it feels threatened. Therefore expect musking in wild snakes and those new to being handled by humans. A snake will gradually lose its musk when it is handled regularly. 

What is the awful smell that a gray rat snake make?   

This is a musk, a combination of pee and poop, which comes out of the cloaca. The smell is said to be very strong and enough for a predator to leave the gray rat snake alone.

Is musk hard to remove on skin or clothes?

Yes, it may be hard to remove skin and clothes. You must wash your clothes with warm water, bleach, and soap. Sometimes the musk can also discolor clothes if this is not removed right away.

Can you prevent musking in snakes?

Only expert handling can prevent musking. This is a natural response of gray rat snakes to threats, and only when it feels relaxed will musking stops.

How do you avoid cage aggression?

Handle your pet regularly and use a snake hook to remove it from its cage. Do this daily and handle your pet with a firm yet comfortable grip.

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