Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Gopher Snakes

Pituophis melanoleucus

©1994. 2001 Melissa Kaplan


Natural History
Gopher snakes are related to pine and bull snakes. Found throughout North America and Mexico, there are eight known subspecies, of which two may actually be separate species. In the wild, their diet consists of small mammals, birds and eggs. While they are primarily ground dwellers and burrowers, many are semi-arboreal. In cold climates, gopher snakes hibernate during the autumn and winter months. In temperate climes, such as southern California, gophers do not need to be hibernated if they are kept at stable temperatures all during the year. The dorsal scales (those on the back) are keeled. While the markings on the P. melanoleucus subspecies are the same, there is some difference in the background colors, ranging from reddish orange to yellow in the hind portion.



If the snake is going to be handled and allowed out into an exercise/basking area for most of the day, it can be housed in a 10 gallon tank. Otherwise, it must be housed in at least a 20 gallon tank. The tank must have a secured top; a determined snake can push against screen or glass till it finds an opening big enough for its head; where its head goes, so goes its body. A hide box must be provided. In the wild, gophers spend a lot of time in rocky fissures, under fallen trees, or in burrows. A gopher who cannot hide away when he wants to will become stressed and may become ill. If you obtain a tall 20 gal tank, place some clean branches inside for climbing.

With gopher snakes, there are a couple of different substrates that can be used. Fresh potting soil (available at nurseries and many plant stores), pine chips (not cedar chips, which can be toxic), aspen shavings, cypress mulch, indoor/outdoor carpeting and "Astroturf". If you use the carpeting or Astroturf, you must wash it then let it dry thoroughly before it can be used in the tank again; it is easiest to have two pieces which can be rotated. If you use potting soil or chips or mulch, the urine and feces can be scooped out with a cat litter scoop, with fresh soil or chips added as needed. Gopher snakes will often burrow under the chips or soil if it is deep enough; in this case, you will not have to provide a hide box.

Gopher snakes have the same temperature requirements as corn snakes. A heating pad (purchased at the drug store) set at medium or low (depending upon the ambient air temperature) is placed under one-half of the tank; this leaves one side cooler, so that the snake can regulate its body temperature as needed. To maintain health, the snake must be kept at 75-85 F, the higher temperature being necessary to digest its food. Temperatures can fall to the lower range at night. To easily monitor temperature, aquarium self-stick thermometers can be purchased and applied about an inch above the bottom of the tank on the warm side. Hot rocks should never be used. They fluctuate too much, and too many snakes suffer severe ventral burns. An incandescent light bulb in a reflector shield may be set just outside the tank to heat up a basking area during the day as needed. Appliance timers, available at hardware and builders supply stores, can be set to turn the light on and off at set times during the day. You will need to reset the hours of operation to adjust for seasonal fluctuations in ambient air temperature. NOTE: if you are using potting soil or pine chips, you will may need to turn up the heat. You may also need to create a basking place with an outside source of heat, such as a 60 watt light bulb in a reflector. Place the thermometer at the top of the soil/chip line. Since using a white light at night causes stress, if you need to provide additional heat at night, use a nocturnal reptile heat bulb.


An active gopher snake will happily eat every 10 days. They will eat, and should only be fed, killed prey. A snake who is not hungry when the live prey is introduced into the enclosure often finds itself becoming the meal, especially if the prey is a rat. To economize, buy in bulk. Contact your local herpetology society; many members breed mice and rats, and most will pre-kill them for you. Remove the prey item from the freezer and allow to defrost at room temperature. When defrosted, use forceps or tongs to pick up the rodent by the tail, and place it in the tank. Once you get to know your snake, you can hold the prey in front of the snake for the snake to strike at. Make sure you wash your hands after handling prey, or other animals, before putting your hand in the snake's enclosure. Smell overrides all other senses when it comes to food; even if your hand does not look remotely rodent-like, it smells like one, ergo it must be one. For a change of pace, offer a quail egg. If the snake eats it, offer it one every couple of weeks in addition to its regular feeding.


A bowl of fresh water must always be available at all times. It will be used for drinking and sometimes for bathing. If the snake defecates in it, the bowl must be cleaned and disinfected immediately.


Gophers do not wrap around your arm like pythons or kings. They tend to pick a direction and go for it. Though they are relatively small in body mass, they are quite strong. Always support the body and give free rein to the head. If the head starts going somewhere you don't want it to go, gently guide it into another direction. Many snakes are nervous when introduced into a new situation with new people. Give them a couple of days to settle down before letting new people handle them.


Snake Bite
There are generally two types of bites: a strike, and a feeding bite. A strike is a warning that you have exceeded the bounds of what the snake will tolerate. It will shoot out, mouth open, then retract just as quickly, leaving you with a series of teeth marks. A feeding bite is just that: they think they have prey, and are not going to let go; the more you move around, the more they try to "kill" your hand. The easiest and fastest way to disengage a snake's mouth from your body with grain (not rubbing) alcohol; in a school setting, you can use Listerine or, if none is available, isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. The latter can be toxic, so you must make sure that the snake's mouth is not flooded with it. Always tilt the snake's head downwards so that the fluid does not run up into its nose; from there it can get into its respiratory tract, causing infections. Wash bites thoroughly with soap and water. Apply povidone-iodine (Betadine) or hydrogen peroxide, and let dry. Then apply a topical broad spectrum antibiotic ointment. Do not bandage. It should be noted that a snake will always signal when it is going to strike or bite; you just need to learn new body language. Once you see the snake stiffen and slowly retract, head held slightly above the ground or body, be alert and ready to more. Snake bites do not particularly hurt, especially with a snake the size of a gopher. It is the atavistic fear of the bite that makes the experience frightening.


Signs of ill-health
Snakes, like all other animals, do get sick. Listlessness, failure to eat over several weeks or regurgitating meals can be signs of bacterial or endoparasite infection. Take these animals to a reptile vet, with a fecal or vomitus sample enclosed in a ziplock bag. Ectoparasites, such as ticks and mites, must also be dealt with. With proper instruction, this is something you can do yourself if the infestation is mild. Allowed to escalate, ectoparasites can kill their host. If the snake does not shed in one or two large pieces, the snake is dehydrated. Soak in a warm bathtub or sink; they do not care for baths, so you will have to stay and hold them in. If the skin around the neck forms wrinkles and puckers, the snake is severely dehydrated and you must see a vet. The vet will either administer subcutaneous fluids or show you how to force fluids. Animals cannot digest food when dehydrated, so emaciation may set in if the condition is allowed to continue untreated. Then, respiratory, parasites and other problems will occur. Observe your snake every day to be sure to catch any problems early. Treat the problem as soon as it is noticed to prevent other health problems and vet bills.

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