The Milk Snake: A Comprehensive Guide to Care, Behavior, and Habitat


Whether you’re considering what type of snake to get as a pet or have come across one in the wild, Milk snakes are eye-catching with their beautiful colors and are known for their non-aggressive personalities. But that’s only the beginning of fascinating reptiles. 

Milk snakes are solitary, nocturnal, non-venomous constructors found in many habitats across North, Central, and South America. These snakes are popular pets; their coloration and pattern will vary significantly across subspecies. 

This guide will cover all you need to know about Milk snakes, including their requirements if you decide to bring one into your home. 

General Info

Milk snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum) can be found almost anywhere in the Americas except the west coast. They can be found as far north as Ontario and Quebec in Canada and as far south as Venezuela. 

Thought to be one of the 25 subspecies of Kingsnakes, these snakes are nonvenomous and fairly docile, making them a good choice for a pet. The snakes are preyed on by larger rodents, foxes, and coyotes, which is why they mimic the more venomous snakes like coral snakes. 

While these snakes can swim and climb, they’re primarily found on the ground hunting for their prey, including rats, mice, lizards, birds, and even other snakes. 

Appearance 

While Milk snakes vary greatly in appearance across subspecies, they follow a general ‘rule’ of three colors: Red-to-orange and black bands over a bright-to-dull yellow or grayish-white body

This coloration allows the snake to mimic the more dangerous coral snakes. But not all Milk snakes have this distinct coloration, so common rhymes used to differentiate between the two are not always useful. 

Milk snakes have smooth scales lined in up to 23 rows, depending on their length. In some, like the Black or Eastern Milk snakes, the red-orange areas will be outlined in black. Many Milk snakes will have a light-colored ‘V’ or ‘Y’ shape on the back of their neck.

The other species of Milk snakes can be mistaken for are Copperheads, another venomous species. You can tell the difference by looking at the patterns or two physical characteristics: the pupils and head shape. Milk snakes have round pupils and heads, while Copperheads have slit pupils and triangular heads.

The wide variety of coloration and patterning among the milk snakes allows them to mimic several venomous snakes, including some Sistrurus and Agkistrodon genus vipers. 

Morphs and Types

Each of the subspecies of Milk snakes has its unique pattern and coloring, though some may look more similar than others. Some subspecies may even have multiple morphs. 

As mentioned above, both the Black or Eastern Milk snakes have black-rimmed yellow-ish bands between red or orange scales, but the Louisiana, Mexican, Peublan, Red, and Jalisco Milk snakes also have those colors and patterns. 

On the other hand, there’s Nelson’s Milk Snake with light-colored ‘splotches’ instead of bands. Some subspecies have thicker red bands; others may have more black outlines or areas. The Eastern Milk Snake has a checker-board pattern on its stomach alongside the colorful bands. Whatever the color and pattern, all Milk snakes have smooth, shiny scales on thin bodies. 

Shedding

Like other snakes, Milk snakes shed their skin as they grow, and young serpents will shed frequently. If you notice your Milk Snake’s scales dulling, that’s a sign that it will shed soon, and you should consider raising the humidity in its tank slightly. Blue-ish eyes are another signal that the snakes are getting ready to shed. 

Size

Like their colors and patterns, a Milk snake’s size will depend on its species. They range from 2-6 ft long (0.6 – 1.8 m). The record for the largest Milk Snake was 7 ft (2.1 m) long. They also present a wide range of weights, from extremely light snakes clocking in at less than 0.0001 oz.(1.1 mg) to 8 oz. (223 mg). 

Natural Habitat

Milk snakes have the broadest range in North America than any other snake species, extending into northern South America. As expected with their range, these snakes can live in multiple environments, such as fields, rocky outcroppings, prairies, streams, marches, and woodlands, though they prefer forests

These reptiles will also venture into human-made areas, such as barns or basements when searching for prey or a dark, safe spot to spend the day. 

Behavior and Temperament

Milk snakes are not aggressive and tend to be rather shy. While they may not be the most ‘friendly’ snakes, as they are solitary and like to have their space, they are docile and can become used to being handled. Like all animals, they may try to bite if they feel cornered, but that’s typically a last resort. 

When threatened, milk snakes may rattle their tails or slither away quickly rather than engage in a fight. Mostly, they’re slow-moving creatures that prefer to be left alone. 

Are Milk Snakes Venomous?

Despite looking like some venomous species, all Milk snakes are non-venomous. They kill their prey by constriction. However, this does not mean you should ignore any bites from a Milk Snake, as minor wounds can still become infected. 

Unfortunately, their color similarities to Copperheads and Coral snakes mean that despite being harmless and even beneficial, Milk snakes are often killed by humans.

Lifespan

This species is relatively long-lived, especially in captivity. The average age range Milk snakes can live is between 10-15 years. Some may even reach the low 20s, with one snake recorded as 22 years old before it died. Snakes in captivity typically live longer lives than snakes in the wild. 

Defensive Behaviors

It’s not a coincidence that many Milk snakes can be confused for venomous species like Coral snakes. This color and pattern mimicry — known as Batesian Mimicry —involves a harmless species looking like a dangerous one. This type of mimicry is one of the primary defense mechanisms of these snakes. 

Milk snakes do not have strong teeth or venom to ward off predators and must rely on looking more frightening than they are to survive. 

A Milk snake’s mimicry can extend to more than surface-level appearance. To ward off predators, they may vibrate their tails to mimic the sound of a Rattlesnake’s rattle. In addition, they can release a nasty-smell musk or strike out.

Care

Milk snakes have been kept as pets and captive-bred since the 1970s. Not all subspecies have been kept as pets, but between 10-15 of the 25 can be found relatively easily in pet stores or online breeders. Spending on the species, pattern, colors, and morph, Milk snakes usually cost between $129-$299

Housing and Enclosure

Wood is a good material choice for a Milk Snake’s home, though a regular reptile enclosure is an option. The most important thing is to ensure the snake has plenty of space, at least a 40-gallon (151 L) tank for an adult, and you can go up to 70 gallons (265 L). As they are solitary in the wild, you should not keep multiple Milk snakes in a single tank. 

In addition, Milk snakes can be very curious and will escape from their enclosures to explore if the lid is not secure enough

These shy snakes need at least one hiding spot on both ends of their tank to feel comfortable. You can create this hiding spot by making a cave or den — just someplace safe and dark to spend the day. They also like to climb, so fake plants or branches can be a good addition. 

For the tank substrate, you can use types of bark shaving, such as cypress or ReptiChip’s Coconut Husk Chip Bedding (available on Amazon.com), or dirt, like ReptiEarth’s Fine Coconut Fiber Substrate (available on Amazon.com). Both are 12-quart (11.4 L) substrates.   

Heating, Lighting, and Humidity

Milk snakes, like other reptiles, like it warm but not overly hot. 

The tank should be around 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25.6 degrees Celsius) on cooler days and 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) on warmer days. While these snakes usually hunt and therefore are more active at night, they should have access to a basking area during the day. 

An under-the-tank heating pad, like this iPower Reptile Heat Pad (available on Amazon.com), is useful for keeping the enclosure’s nighttime temperature around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.7 degrees Celsius). The mat is available in different sizes and wattages. 

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As these reptiles are nocturnal, you don’t necessarily have to worry about having a UV light for a Milk snake, though having a source of UV doesn’t hurt and can have positive effects on their health. 

In terms of humidity, Milk snakes don’t need high amounts and should have a well-ventilated tank. Between 40-60% humidity is good, although you may want to stick to the higher end of the range when they are shedding. 

You can find care guides online or in books, like this Milksnakes From Advanced Vivarium Systems by Bryan Engler (available on Amazon.com). This book discusses choosing a species of Milksnake to be your pet and other information. 

Milksnakes (CompanionHouse Books) From Advanced Vivarium Systems; Choosing a Snake, Diet, Housing, Health, Proper Care, Handling, Hybrids, Recognizing Disease, and More

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Do Milk Snakes Hibernate? 

In the wild, brumation – the reptilian version of hibernation – is one of the few times Milk snakes will gather together in communal dens. However, Milksnakes don’t need to hibernate in captivity as long as you keep the tank temperatures in the normal range. They may eat a bit less during this time but overall remain active. 

Diet

Milk snakes are carnivores. In the wild, they hunt small rodents, like mice and voles, birds, and other reptiles – including the venomous Coral Snake. They will also swallow down eggs. 

In captivity, Milk snakes should be given thawed, frozen rodents no larger than the thickest part of the snake’s body. How often your snake needs to be fed depends on their age, with adults generally being fed once every one to two weeks. You may be tempted to give your pet live food, but that can be dangerous for the snake – the prey might fight back, and the reptile will have nowhere to retreat. 

Do Milk Snakes Need a Water Source?

Milk snakes need water like any other living creature and should have access to a water bowl that is large enough for them to fit in and that they can easily slither back out from. The serpents will use the water source for drinking and soaking. The water will also help keep the humidity in the tank. 

Can You Handle a Milk Snake? 

While you should avoid picking up wild Milk snakes, pet ones can become used to being handled with time and patience. Focus on getting your snake used to humans first via feedings and keeping the enclosure in a room people will spend time in. Once you feel your snake is comfortable around you, you can slowly start to handle it. 

How To Pick Up a Milk Snake

When holding a snake, support its body with your hands and let it slither up your arms. Watch for any signs of stress and return the snake to its home if you see the reptile becoming upset. Another thing to remember is not to pick up a snake shortly after it has eaten, as that can cause it to regurgitate its food. 

Can You Train Them?

Milk snakes can’t be trained in the same sense as cats or dogs. You can’t train them to roll over, sit, or stay. You can teach them when to expect feeding time and to be handled, and research has shown they can learn mazes. 

Part of the reason snakes are hard to train is that not only do they see and understand the world differently than mammals, but food-based positive reinforcement techniques also don’t work due to their infrequent meals. 

Do Milk Snakes Have Any Health Issues?

Milk snakes are not more or less unhealthy than other pet snakes, but there are a few diseases that you should watch for, such as:

  • Mites. Mites are like the fleas mammals can get and will suck the blood of your snake at night. They will look like tiny, moving dots on the snake’s scales. 
  • Skin and shedding issues.
  • Mouth rot (infectious stomatitis). This can look like cheese-like pus or blood in the snake’s mouth around its teeth and gums. There can be multiple causes, including incorrect enclosures or injuries to the mouth. 
  • Respiratory issues, such as pneumonia. These include symptoms such as wheezing or other problems breathing and secretions – dry or wet – from the nostrils. 

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