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Garter Snake (Thamnophis sp.) Care sheet and guide

Garter Snake (Thamnophis sp.) Care sheet and guide

Garter Snake (Thamnophis sp.)

Difficulty: Intermediate


Garter snakes are a group of snakes native to North and Central America. There are approximately 35 recognized species of garter snakes, ranging from 18-57” in length and adapted to a variety of different habitats. Garter snakes are usually found near bodies of water, but they can also sometimes be found in fields and forests. They spend most of their time on the ground or in water, but they are still capable climbers when the situation demands.

Garter snakes all look fairly similar and are easily recognizable: oval head, large eyes with round pupils, slender bodies, and keeled scales. They usually have a pattern of longitudinal stripes, but some have speckles in addition to or instead of the stripes. Coloring varies widely from gray-brown to sporting red and/or blue markings. Garter snakes are closely related to and similar in appearance to ribbon snakes (Thamnophis proximus and T. sauritus).

Although often considered “common” and “uninteresting” to the North American reptile hobby, garter snakes make hardy, manageably-sized, interesting pet snakes. Expect your pet to live 10+ years with good care.

Caution: Some garter snakes are illegal to keep as pets in the United States!


What You Need for a Bioactive Garter Snake Enclosure:


Terrarium Size

When it comes to choosing a terrarium for pet reptiles, keep in mind that larger is always better (as long as it’s set up well, of course). Garter snakes are active animals that appreciate having plenty of room to stretch out and explore, and they quickly get bored in small or sparse enclosures. Most garter snakes will be happy in a 48”L x 24”W x 24”H enclosure, but if you have a particularly large or small species, make sure they have an enclosure that is as long as or greater than their adult length.

That said, baby garter snakes are very small, and adept at escaping from their enclosures. If you purchase your garter snake as a baby, it’s a good idea to start them off in a temporary, escape-resistant front-opening glass 36” x 18” x 18” (40 gallon) enclosure to make it easier to keep track of them and reduce the risk of escape. Your pet will be able to comfortably live in this space until they reach approximately 36” long.

Can you house multiple garter snakes together?

Unlike most pet snakes, many garter snakes can be safely kept together in the same enclosure! This can add an extra dimension of fun to your keeping as you watch them interact with each other. However, the practice also presents its own challenges, like having to provide a larger enclosure and basking area, and separate the snakes for feeding.

  1. e. vagrans, T. e. terrestris, T. marcianus, and T. sirtalis should not be housed in groups due to cannibalistic tendencies.



Although garter snakes are capable of surviving without UVB lighting, it’s best practice to include it as part of the snake’s setup so it can still reap the benefits. Our goal as good reptile keepers is not to simply allow our pets to survive — it is to do everything in our power to enable them to thrive. And there is mounting scientific evidence that UVB is, in fact, beneficial to garter snakes and other species.

Therefore we recommend using the T5 HO Arcadia Forest 6% UVB Kit, long enough to cover about 1/2 of the enclosure’s length and placed next to the heat lamps. So for a 48” long enclosure, you will want a bulb about 22” long. Do not use other brands — when it comes to UVB, brand matters!

If your enclosure has a mesh top, it’s best to install the UVB fixture on top of the enclosure. If it does not, it’s best to also install a mesh lamp guard such as the Arcadia LampGuardPro over it so the snake can’t come into direct contact with the bulb. The basking rock/branch should be about 9-12” below the lamp so your snake gets the right amount of UVB.

Because you’re setting up a bioactive vivarium, you will also need high-powered ~6500K LED plant lighting to “feed” your plants and keep them healthy and growing well. As an additional benefit, the lamp will help better simulate the brightness of sunlight during the day, which may help stimulate better activity, appetite, and generally healthier hormonal rhythms. The Bio Dude Glow & Grow LED is a good lamp for this purpose. You should have enough LED lighting to span most of the enclosure’s length.



Because garter snakes are reptiles, they need a range of temperatures within their enclosure so they can regulate their own body temperature as needed. Areas of heat speed up their metabolism and promote activities like digestion and healing. Cool areas slow the metabolism and promote activities like rest and energy conservation.

Garter snakes generally do best with a basking area between 85-90°F, and the cool side between 75-80°F. Create the basking area by placing a platform or sturdy branch below the lamps. At night, turn off the heat and let temperatures drop as low as 64°F.

Many keepers will recommend using heat mats as a snake’s primary source of heat, but heat mats don’t work well in a bioactive enclosure.  Instead, use a couple of heat bulbs like the 50w Arcadia Halogen Heat Lamp in small dome heat lamps. Plug each heat lamp into a lamp dimmer or dimming thermostat so you can control them if they get too hot.

To monitor the temperatures in your snake’s enclosure, place one digital probe thermometer in the basking area, and another on the floor of the cool end.



Garter snakes generally like to live next to water, so a moderately humid environment is important to their health. Daytime humidity levels should average between 35-60%, with higher levels at night. To raise humidity levels inside the enclosure, use a handheld pressure sprayer full of water as needed.

For best results, provide a basin of water on the cool side of the enclosure for the snake to swim in — a clear plastic storage bin or glass aquarium smaller than 20″L x 12″W x 8″H will do fine. This will also serve as its water bowl (and its toilet, most likely). Make sure to change out the water whenever it looks soiled, and scrub out the container with a veterinary disinfectant before refilling.

Don’t forget to water your plants as needed!



To create a garter snake vivarium, you will need a bioactive-compatible substrate. That means materials like aspen shavings or bark chips aren’t going to work. You need a soil-like mix that mimics the conditions of your snake’s natural habitat. You can make your own with 60% plain topsoil and 40% play sand, or you can let The Bio Dude do the work for you with the Terra Firma Bioactive Kit.

Because you’re setting up a bioactive habitat, you will need to mix and layer the substrate with sphagnum moss, leaf litter, and pieces of bark. For best results, combine with an appropriate amount of Bio Dude Bio Shot.

Finally, in order to make the substrate functional, make sure to add temperate CUC organisms like dwarf white isopods, powder blue/orange isopods, and tropical springtails. You can also add other species like superworms, earthworms, and even a small millipede or two.

Bioactive is a big commitment, so it’s best to set up your pet’s adult enclosure as a bioactive vivarium rather than going bioactive with the grow-out enclosure and getting tempted not to upgrade when the time comes. The good news is that this gives you plenty of time to make sure your bio is well established before introducing your pet! Bioactive enclosures should be given at least 1 month (preferably more) to grow in before you add your reptile.


Decorating the Enclosure

Enclosure décor is more than just making your setup look nice. It’s also an important part of providing environmental enrichment to your garter snake, which enhances your pet’s quality of life by providing opportunities to express natural behaviors, explore, and exercise.

Here are some ideas for ways that you can decorate and enrich your garter snake’s bioactive enclosure:

  • ledges
  • hollow logs
  • thick, sturdy branches
  • hides/caves
  • live plants
  • décor

Live plants are an essential part of a functional, long-lasting vivarium. Some good options for garter snakes include pothos, philodendron, bird’s nest ferns, calathea, creeping fig, croton, dieffenbachia, and dracaena.


Feeding Your Garter Snake

Garter snakes are obligate carnivores, which means that they must eat whole animals in order to get the nutrition they need. There is no replacement. Here is a rough sketch of how much and how often you should be feeding your snake, based on age: 

  • Newborns should be fed every other day.
  • Juveniles should be fed every 3-5 days.
  • Adults should be fed every 4-7 days.

*Due to differences in nutritional density, worm eaters need to be fed more often than fish eaters, and mouse eaters less often. Multiple worms and fish should be offered in one feeding.

Always feed your snake inside its enclosure, not outside. Contrary to the myth, feeding inside does not make snakes more aggressive. However, use feeding tweezers to offer the prey, not your hand, in order to prevent getting bitten by accident.

Variety is essential to complete nutrition. Appropriate feeders for garter snakes include earthworms (chopped as needed), guppies, platies, mice, button quail, quail eggs, and Reptilinks. Avoid red wigglers and nightcrawlers. Frozen feeders should be completely thawed to 75-100°F before offering.


Handling Tips

After bringing your new pet home, do not handle it until it is eating regularly. This can take anywhere from two weeks to two months, so be patient and use this time to make sure your husbandry is on point. Once your snake is ready for handling, handle it at least 1-2x weekly to keep it accustomed to you, but no more than once daily. Handling is also a good way to encourage your snake to exercise and provide additional enrichment!

Wash Your Hands First

Before you pick up your snake, first wash your hands with soap or hand sanitizer. This removes potentially harmful bacteria, viruses, or parasites from your hands, as well as makes your hands smell distinctly inedible.

How to Pick Up a Snake

Next, use a paper towel roll to tap its head (gently). This sets expectations by letting the snake know that it’s time for handling, not food. Pick it up with two hands, one behind the head and one supporting the rest of the body. NEVER pick up a snake by its tail — this can really hurt their spine!

Garter snakes are wiggly and move very quickly, so don’t panic and squeeze it in an effort to keep it in place — snake rib bones are very delicate and break more easily than you think! The best thing to do is to “treadmill” the snake though your hands and arms by moving them to continuously provide platforms to support its movement.

Safety with Snakes

Always supervise children closely when they are handling a pet snake (or any kind of pet, really). This is as much for the snake’s safety as it is for the child’s. Keep the snake’s head away from your face, and always wash your hands and arms with soap or hand sanitizer after handling.

DO NOT Handle If…

Don’t handle your snake within 48 hours of a meal, as this can stress them out and lead to regurgitation, which is a traumatic experience that can actually lead to death. Also do not handle if your pet’s eyes have turned opaque or cloudy. This means that the snake is preparing to shed and can’t see well, making them more jumpy than usual and more likely to bite out of self-defense.


Care information courtesy of ReptiFiles.



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  • Josh Halter


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