Gopher Snake Care Sheet
Gopher snakes are medium-large, terrestrial, diurnal snakes native to a large swatch of North America from southwestern Canada, through the midwestern and western USA, to northern Mexico. They can be found in a variety of habitats, including woodland, desert, grassland, and shrubland. Within these habitats, they generally prefer to occupy wetter areas. Although they spend most of their time in their burrows, gopher snakes are capable swimmers and climbers.
Nonvenomous gopher snakes are often mistaken for venomous rattlesnakes because of their distinct neck, keeled scales, and similar patterning. However, they have an oval head shape rather than triangular, round pupils, and of course, lack the rattle at the tip of the tail. Other distinguishing characteristics include the prominent “brow” ridges above their large eyes. Size varies greatly by subspecies; adult gopher snakes can be as small as 3.5’ long and potentially as large as 7’.
Gopher snakes aren’t the best pet for everyone, but they still make active and engaging pets for people who aren’t put off by their loud hissing. The average lifespan for these snakes is 15 years, but they can live as long as 33 years with good care.
What You Need for a Bioactive Gopher Snake Enclosure:
- 72” L x 24” W x 24” H front-opening enclosure, or larger
- Exo Terra Reptile Deep Dome Fixture, large, x4
- 75w Arcadia Halogen Heat Lamp, x4
- Rheostat, x2
- 34” Arcadia Forest 6% UVB bulb
- 36” Bio Dude Solar Grow fixture
- 22” Bio Dude Glow & Grow LED lamp, x3
- 4’x 2’ x 2’ Terra Sahara Bioactive Kit, x2
- Bearded Dragon Clean Up Crew Pack, x2
- 40 Breeder Terra Sahara Premium Plant Kit, x2
- Exo Terra 2qt Pressure Sprayer Mister
- Exo Terra Corner Water Dish Large
- Thick climbing branches
- Cork logs
- 2+ hides/caves
- Bio Dude Digital Thermometer / Hygrometer, x2
- Zoo Med Stainless Steel 10" Curved Feeding Tongs
Choose a terrarium size for your gopher snake based on its expected adult size: for example, if you’re housing a P. catenifer bimaris (Mid Baja California Gopher Snake), then the snake should have no less than 4’L x 2’W of space. However, if you’re housing a P. catenifer catenifer (Pacific Gopher Snake), you’ll need a minimum of 7’L x 3’W.
The trick is to provide an enclosure at least as long as the snake itself, with at least half that in width. The enclosure should be no shorter than 24”, although note that extra height will allow you to plant larger plants that are more likely to withstand your snake’s activities. One way to get a fairly reliable estimate of your juvenile gopher snake’s adult length is to ask the breeder about the size of the parents, and then use the larger parent as your reference.
Larger is strongly recommended if you have the space for it! Gopher snakes are active snakes that appreciate having plenty of room to stretch out and explore — wild male gopher snakes have been tracked spending most of their time within an area of 11,000-31,000 square feet.
Gopher snakes are strictly solitary animals and should not share an enclosure with others.
Gopher snakes are diurnal, so it’s particularly beneficial to provide plenty of light during the daytime to help support their mental health.
Although they 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 gopher snakes and other species.
Therefore, we recommend installing an Arcadia Forest 6% or Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 5.0 UVB bulb in a reflective fluorescent fixture, long enough to cover about 1/2 of the enclosure’s length and placed so it overlaps with the heat lamps on the warm side. So, for a 48” long enclosure, you would need 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, you will need to install a mesh lamp guard such as the Arcadia LampGuardPro over it so the snake can’t come in direct contact with the bulb. The basking surface should be placed 14-20” below the lamp.
Because gopher snakes are diurnal and you’re setting up a bioactive enclosure, you’ll need lots of bright ~6500K white light to nourish your plants and encourage healthy appetite and activity in your pet. We recommend the Bio Dude Glow & Grow LED Bar for the best results, as many lamps as you need to span the majority of the enclosure’s length.
Lights should be on for about 12 hours/day. However, for maximum benefit, use a smart outlet timer to sync your lights’ on/off times with your local sunrise/sunset times.
Because gopher 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.
Your gopher snake’s basking area should be around 85°F, and the cool side should be around 70-72°F. Create the basking area by placing a large piece of flagstone or log below the lamps. Heat lamps should be turned off at night to allow the enclosure to cool down.
Many gopher snake keepers will recommend using heat pads as the snake’s primary source of heat, but heat pads don’t work well in a bioactive setup (and they’re an inefficient form of basking heat anyway). Instead, use a cluster of 2-4 halogen flood heat bulbs like the 75w Arcadia Halogen Basking Spot in dome heat lamps. Plug each heat lamp into a lamp dimmer or dimming thermostat so you can control them if they get too hot. If your basking temperature is too cool, you need higher-wattage bulbs. Using an enclosure with a mesh top rather than just side vents will help you maintain an appropriate cool zone.
To monitor the temperatures in your snake’s enclosure, place on digital probe thermometer in the basking area, and another on the floor of the cool end.
Gopher snakes are adaptable and capable of handling relatively dry conditions, but at the very least, they still need access to humid microclimates in order to stay hydrated, keep their lungs healthy, and shed their skin properly. To be specific, they should have access to a humid hideout at all times. This hide should be placed on the cool half of the enclosure and lined with moistened sphagnum moss or substrate at all times.
Don’t forget to water your plants as needed!
To create a gopher snake vivarium, you will need a bioactive-compatible substrate. That means things 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 our Terra Firma Bioactive Kits!
Because you’re setting up a bioactive habitat, you will need to mix and layer the substrate with sphagnum moss and leaf litter. For best results, combine with an appropriate amount of Bio Dude Bio Shot. Gopher snakes like to burrow, so make sure to layer at least an inch of extra leaf litter on top of the substrate.
Finally, in order to make the substrate functional, make sure to add drought-tolerant CUC organisms like powder blue/orange isopods, dwarf white isopods, and springtails. You can also add other species like mealworms and death-feigning blue beetles!
NOTE: Just because you’re setting up a bioactive enclosure doesn’t mean you won’t need to clean it! Gopher snakes are well known for being messy, and if you don’t stay on top of it, the waste will overwhelm your CUC. Make sure to clean up your snake’s waste immediately. This may require keeping extra substrate on hand to “top up” the removed substrate every once in a while.
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 gopher snake, which enhances your pet’s quality of life by providing opportunities to explore, exercise, and generally express natural behaviors.
Here are some ideas for ways that you can decorate and enrich your gopher snake’s bioactive enclosure:
- hollow logs
- thick, sturdy branches
- live, drought-resistant plants
- resin terrarium ornaments
Live plants which are likely to work well with gopher snakes include Festuca grass, aloe, agave, sansevieria, echeveria, and gasteria.
Feeding Your Gopher Snake
Gopher 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:
- Hatchlings should be fed once every 5-10 days.
- Juveniles should be fed once every 7-10 days.
- Adults should be fed once every 2 weeks
Meals should be roughly the same size as the snake at its widest point. 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 accidental strikes.
Variety is essential to complete nutrition. Aside from the usual mice and rats, you can add variety to your snake’s diet with hamsters, gerbils, young guinea pigs, chicks, quail, eggs, anoles, house geckos, Reptilinks, and even smaller pre-killed snakes if you can get them. Do not offer live prey if it can be avoided. Frozen feeders should be completely thawed to 75-100°F before offering.
Gopher snakes are generally tolerant of handling, although some individuals will prefer to be left alone, and will do their best to ward you off with loud hissing, charging, and even musking. Bites are rare. Most juvenile gopher snakes are more defensive and nervous about handling than adults.
Here are some general tips for handling snakes:
- Do not handle your new pet until it’s eating regularly.
- Wash your hands before and after handling with soap or hand sanitizer.
- Gently tap the snake with a paper towel roll to get it out of “food mode.”
- Pick up the snake’s body with both hands.
- Handle it at least 1-2x weekly to keep it accustomed to you, but no more than once daily.
- Do not handle it within 48 hours of a meal or if it’s preparing to shed.
Care information courtesy of ReptiFiles.
- Rebekah Walenta