Milksnakes (Lampropeltis sp.) are a group of nocturnal, terrestrial snakes native to North America, Central America, and South America as far south as Ecuador. They can be as small as 14” or as large as 72”, depending on species, but most are less than 42” long. They can be found in a wide variety of habitats, from arid habitats to grassland to tropical forest.
Milksnakes have robust, but still slender, bodies with smooth scales and small oval heads. Color and pattern vary between species and subspecies, but the pattern is generally banded in some combination of red/orange + black + yellow/cream. The black milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum) is an exception.
Milksnakes are one of the most common pet snakes in the US due to their hardiness, manageable size, docile nature, and ease of breeding in captivity. With good care, they are capable of living 20 years or more.
Care requirements for different species of milksnake will vary slightly, but they’re similar enough that the basics can be covered in a care sheet. We strongly encourage you, however, to do additional research specific to your particular milksnake.
Do not steal snakes from the wild to keep as pets!
Minimum terrarium size for milksnakes
The minimum acceptable enclosure size for a pet milksnake depends on how large its subspecies is capable of growing:
- 3’ long or less — 36”L x 18”W x 18”H
- 4-5’ long — 48”L x 24”W x 24”H
- 5-6’ long — 72”L x 36”W x 24”H
Of course, larger is always better, and highly recommended.
Cohabitation (keeping multiple milksnakes in one enclosure) is not recommended, as milksnakes are not a social species, and keeping them together causes unnecessary stress. Some milksnakes are also ophiophagus (snake-eating), so there is a risk of cannibalism.
Do milksnakes need UVB?
Technically they can survive without it, but we still recommend providing appropriate UVB lighting for milksnakes . UVB lighting helps provide a clear day/night cycle, provides all of the vitamin D that your pet needs, strengthens the immune system, facilitates better digestion, and other benefits.
The best UVB bulbs for milksnakes housed are:
- Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 5.0
- Arcadia Forest 6%
For best results, house the UVB bulbs in a reflective fixture. Position the lamp on the same side of the terrarium as the heat lamp, about 9-11” above the basking area if over mesh, and 12-14” above the basking area if not.
UVB is blocked by glass and plastic, so placing the terrarium in front of a window doesn’t count as “free UVB” — in fact it can make your terrarium too hot due to the greenhouse effect. Don’t forget to replace your bulb every 12 months!
All lamps should be on for about 12 hours/day.
Best temperature for milksnakes
Like other reptiles, milksnakes are cold-blooded, which means that they rely on external temperatures to manage their own body temperature and metabolism. A reptile’s enclosure should offer a range of temperatures to allow them to thermoregulate effectively.
Specifically speaking, milksnakes should have a basking surface temperature between 85-90°F. On the other side of the enclosure, the temperature should be between 70-80°F. Surface temperatures can be measured with an infrared thermometer, but air temperatures should be measured with a digital probe thermometer.
Provide heat for your snake with at least two halogen flood heat bulbs, placed close together over the basking area (ex: a piece of flagstone or stone paver) to evenly heat the snake’s entire body. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective.
The warm hide should be placed directly below the basking surface. If the heat lamp is not enough to get the warm hide to an appropriate temperature, use a heat mat connected to a thermostat to control the warm hide temperature.
Best humidity levels for milksnakes
Milksnakes need an average humidity of 40-60%. There should also be a humid hide for your snake, lined with moistened sphagnum moss or substrate and placed on the mid to cool end of the enclosure. Humidity should be measured via digital probe hygrometer, with the probe placed in the middle of the terrarium.
Increase humidity by misting your snake’s enclosure 1-2x/day with a spray bottle. Mist first thing in the morning and then again at night if needed. Mixing water directly into the substrate also helps with maintaining humidity.
Best substrate for milksnakes
Providing a thick layer of naturalistic substrate (“bedding”) will help cushion your snake’s body, maintain correct humidity levels, and also helps make your enclosure more attractive! We recommend the following substrates for milksnakes:
- Zoo Med Eco Earth
- Zoo Med ReptiSoil
- Exo Terra Plantation Soil
- Zilla Jungle Mix
Layering clean, chemical-free leaf litter on top of the substrate can also help with humidity and provides a source of environmental enrichment.
Substrate should be at least 4” deep and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.
How to decorate a milksnake terrarium
An empty terrarium makes for a bored milksnake, reducing its quality of life. Keep your pet entertained and engaged with its environment with the strategic use of décor items that encourage it to exercise natural behaviors!
At bare minimum you will need at least two hiding places on the ground and something for it to climb on. However, it’s best to include other items such as:
- cork tubes
- live or artificial plants
The more stuff you add, the more functional your enclosure is likely to become!
What to feed to a milksnake
Milksnakes are carnivorous, which means that they need to eat whole animal prey in order to get the right nutrition. Here is a basic feeding schedule based on snake size:
- Juveniles should be fed once every 5-7 days.
- Adults should be fed once every 14 days.
Prey items should be no more than 1.5x its width at its widest point. Although live prey can be offered, it’s best to use frozen whenever possible. Prey should be thawed in a BPA-free plastic bag in warm water until it reaches ~100°F, then use a pair of soft-tipped feeding tweezers to offer it to your snake.
One of the keys to great nutrition is variety, so aside from offering mice and rats, quail, chicks, quail eggs, green anoles, and small snakes can also be used to add diversity to your milksnake’s diet.
Milksnakes can survive without dietary supplements, but using them every once in a while can help prevent your snake from developing a nutritional deficiency, helping it live healthier. We recommend Repashy Calcium Plus LoD, lightly dusted on the prey item before offering.
Of course, don’t forget a large water bowl for your snake to drink from and soak in! Change the water daily and scrub the bowl with a reptile-safe disinfectant weekly, or whenever it becomes soiled.
How to handle your milksnake
Reptiles generally don’t appreciate petting and handling in the same way that dogs and cats do. That being said, milksnakes generally tolerate human interaction pretty well! When picking up your snake, be gentle and try to pick it up from the side or below rather than from above. Support as much of its body as possible, and NEVER pick it up by its tail, as this can damage its spine!
*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please further your research with high-quality sources. The more you know, the better you will be able to care for your pet!