Home | General Reptile & Amphibian Articles | Garter Snakes, Part 3 – Unique Temperature and Light Concerns

Garter Snakes, Part 3 – Unique Temperature and Light Concerns

Please see Parts I and II of this article for additional information on garter snake husbandry and natural history.  Today I’ll cover some often over-looked aspects of garter snake care that may help to explain why these relatively hardy snakes, and the related ribbon and water snakes, often fail to live as long as might be expected in captivity.

Thermal Gradient

Garter SnakeA thermal gradient (varying temperatures within the terrarium) is beneficial to nearly all reptiles, but seems particularly important in maintaining the health of captive garter snakes.  This is especially true for Butler’s Garter Snakes (T. butleri), Common Garter Snakes (T. sirtalis) and others that range into the northern half of the USA.

Depending upon the species in question, garter, ribbon and water snakes do best at an ambient temperature of 72-82 F, with a warmer basking site (90-95 F) and a drop to 68 F or so at night.  Northern species should ideally be subjected to a winter cooling-off period, even if breeding is not contemplated.

UVA Light

There is some evidence that garter and related snakes (as well as Rough and Smooth Green Snakes, Opheodrys aestivus and O. vernalis), may benefit from exposure to UVA light.

A ZooMed Repti Halogen Bulb should be provided during their normal daytime cycle.  Even if not strictly necessary for survival, UVA encourages natural behavior, reproduction and, possibly, a strong immune system.

UVB Light

While snakes have not been shown to require UVB light exposure, anecdotal reports from successful garter and water snake keepers lead me to believe that these snakes may differ from most in this regard.

The Zoo Med 2.0 fluorescent lamp is specifically designed for animals needing moderate amounts of UVB light, and may be a prudent addition to the garter snake terrarium.  This bulb also supports vigorous plant growth…in contrast to most snake species, garter and ribbon snakes are very well-suited for terrariums housing sturdy live plants.

Further Reading

Laboratory guidelines concerning the importance of thermal gradients and related aspects of reptile care are posted here.

Next time we’ll cover nutrition and the care of individual garter snake species.



  1. avatar

    thank you very much… my dad said I could not get a garter snake without proof that it doesn’t need a uvb light (to expensive, could die with out it) but it doesn’t need one so thank you very much couldnt of done it with out you…
    but can they eat crickets or fish only?

    • avatar

      Hello Johnathan, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog and the kind words.

      Garter snakes will do fine on a diet of fish and earthworms. Try to use mainly minnows and shiners; occasional goldfish are fine, but a steady goldfish diet may cause health problems.

      Most refuse crickets, but worth trying on occasion; they are not suitable as the main part of the diet.

      Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Hello Frank and Johnathan,

    For those of us without much money(but with enough time) is their anything wrong with supervised outdoor visits? Perhaps the snake could be handled outside for brief periods or a small outdoor enclosure could be made.(snake could also receive some UV thru a screen window if it is not ok to go outside). Providing attention is paid not to cook the critter or allow it to escape it shouldn’t hurt and might help. A few minutes every day or two might be all thats needed?


    • avatar

      Hello Joseph, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your thoughts. Outdoor exposure, assuming the safety precautions you mention are taken, is always the best option. As for Garter Snakes, natural light may be beneficial; certainly many have been raised and bred without UVA/UVB exposure, but providing it is, I believe, a step in the right direction and a good “insurance policy”.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

About Frank Indiviglio

Read other posts by

Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
Scroll To Top