California kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula californiae or L. californiae) are incredibly popular pet snakes, and for many good reasons. As their common name suggests, these snakes range throughout California, but also through parts of Oregon, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. They are hardy, easy to care for, and inexpensive to purchase and maintain, not to mention they grow to a very manageable average size of three to five feet, and occasionally up to six feet. Although wild phase California king snakes are already very attractive in their own right with striking bands of black and white or brown and yellow, these animals also come in a vast array of morphs and other colors, from albino to banana to high whites and more!
Baby California kingsnakes can be nippy, flighty, and nervous, and may show defensive behaviors such as striking, tail-shaking, musking (emitting a foul-smelling liquid from the cloaca), or hissing. All of this is normal and almost always disappears after a period of consistent gentle handling, during which the snake learns that you mean no harm and it can trust you. Chances are that, with patience, you will have a wonderfully mellow pet snake for the next 15-20 years, or even longer.
Housing, Temperatures, and Humidity
Right off the bat, one of the things that makes California kingsnakes fantastic for first-time snake owners is that they do not have any elaborate humidity requirements. A humid hide can always be provided (and will be beneficial for shedding, especially during the more arid times of the year), but generally speaking, these snakes do not require any special attention for humidity.
Room temperature (around 70 -75F) is sufficient for ambient temperatures, while a warm spot of around 85F is perfect for aiding in digestion. This can easily be achieved and maintained by attaching an under tank heater to a thermostat. Thermostats are absolutely necessary as an unregulated heat pad can run extraordinarily hot and will burn your snake. It is important that one side be warmer and one side cooler as snakes do need to thermoregulate using external sources since they are unable to do so themselves; a good way to encourage proper thermoregulation is to place an identical, appropriately sized hide (meaning the snake has just enough room to squeeze into and not too much extra space, as they feel most secure in dark, tight spaces) on each side of the tank so that the snake can warm up and cool down as needed, and is not sacrificing warmth for security or vice versa.
An adult California kingsnake will need a minimum size of a 20 gallon enclosure (30x12x12), which will suit a snake up to approximately 42 inches long. Tanks, tubs, PVC cages, and wooden enclosures are all suitable options for this species due to the relatively lax heating and humidity requirements. The most commonly used substrate is aspen shavings, although Reptibark, newspaper, and paper towels are also fine options. Do not use pine or cedar bedding as these are toxic to snakes. I’ve even used brown paper grocery bags as substrate in a pinch; there is really no benefit to using one type of substrate over another with these snakes aside from aesthetics. A water dish large enough to soak in is also a necessity as California kings will soak from time to time, typically before a shed or after a meal.
Another thing that makes California kingsnakes great for beginners is their proclivity for being particularly voracious eaters. In the wild, these little garbage disposals will consume almost anything, ranging from small birds and mammals to other reptiles – including rattlesnakes (they have some resistance to rattlesnake venom but are not 100% immune). In captivity, they will readily accept frozen/thawed mice. Baby king snakes will typically start out taking pinky mice while adults can consume adult mice or even small rats for larger individuals. The best way to figure out when your snake needs to move up a food size is to weigh it on a digital kitchen scale and feed a prey item around 10-15% of your snake’s body weight. Most online prey retailers will list the weight of the mice that they have for offer so you can select your correct sized mouse for your snake. Younger animals may be fed every 5-7 days, while adults can eat every 7-10 days. California kingsnakes are almost always going to want to eat, so it’s important to not overfeed, which can lead to obesity and ultimately shorten lifespan.
Feeding outside the enclosure is never necessary. Cage aggression is a myth, and snakes will feel more comfortable and secure feeding in a familiar, stable environment. This also makes feeding problems such as regurgitation and refusals less likely. It should also be noted that while regurgitation is not a major problem for humans, it is a serious and potentially fatal matter in snakes. If your snake does experience a regurgitation, it is best to keep it in a low-traffic area (to reduce stress) and do not handle or feed for a couple weeks. Make sure temperatures are correct and feed a rodent that is around half the size of the snake’s usual prey. You can also avoid regurgitation by not handling a snake for 48 hours after it has eaten. This is the general window given so they can digest their meal. Too-large food items can also cause regurgitation.
On the rare occasion that your kingsnake won’t eat…
It is important to remember that excessive handling can stress snakes out, and stressed snakes typically will not eat. While many feeding problems can be pinned down to poor and improper husbandry, or an animal being in shed, keep in mind that snakes are solitary creatures and do prefer to be alone, and excessive amounts of handling can contribute to a snake going off feed.
California kingsnakes are fun snakes, even for experienced keepers. There’s really no way around it. They’re curious, fairly bold, and can even be a little feisty at times. While they might put on quite a show as babies and try to scare you off, remember that you are huge to an eight-inch snake. And just like most reptiles, snakes are a long-term commitment, so you can plan on a couple decades with your new snake.