Home | General Reptile & Amphibian Articles | Garter Snakes in Captivity – Diet and Species Accounts – Part 4

Garter Snakes in Captivity – Diet and Species Accounts – Part 4

Please see Parts I, II and III of this article for more on garter snake care.


In the wild, most garter snakes are opportunistic feeders…even road-killed frogs are taken on occasion (please see Part I).

While most mammal-feeding snakes thrive on rodents alone, in my experience garter snakes do much better when fed a varied diet. This quirk in their husbandry may explain why captives often fail to live as long as might be expected.

Always provide a wide range of foods to your garter snakes.  Earthworms, goldfishes and minnows can form the basis of the diet of most, but individual preferences vary (see species accounts).

Several young common garter snakes under my care relished the grubs of wood-boring beetles, while others refused them.   Smaller species (i.e. Butler’s Garter Snake) often accept insects and slugs.

Garter snakes may be immune to the toxins of amphibians found in their habitats, but not to those of related species.  An aquatic garter snake that can safely feed upon California newts, for example, might be killed upon consuming a Red-spotted Newt.

Garter snakes have fast metabolisms (as snakes go!).  Youngsters and gravid females should be fed every 3-4 days; adults every 5-7 days.

Common Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis

Twelve subspecies of this most frequently kept of the garter snakes range from southern Canada into Mexico.  In the continental USA, it is absent only from New Mexico and Arizona….I know of small populations living in the heart of NYC.

The Eastern Garter Snake (T .s. sirtalis), exhibits the typical yellow-striped, black- spotted garter snake pattern.  Individuals vary widely, however…I’ve come across quite bland and nearly black individuals.  Exceptionally large specimens may approach 4 feet in length, but 24 inches is typical.

Some common garter snake subspecies are considered among the most attractive of all North American snakes.  The Red-sided (T. s. parietalis) Florida or Blue-striped (T. s. simlis) and, especially, the San Francisco (T. s. tetrataenia) Garter Snakes are particularly colorful.

Butler’s Garter Snake, T. buttleri

With an average adult size of 15-18 inches, Butler’s Garter Snake is ideally suited to planted, naturalistic terrariums.  It occupies a range of habitats in the north-central USA and southern Canada, and calms down quickly in captivity.

Aquatic Garter Snake, T. couchi

Aquatic Garter Snakes are always found near water (Oregon to Mexico), where they bask on protruding stumps in the manner of the closely-related water snakes (Nerodia spp).  The Giant Aquatic Garter Snake (T. c. gigas) approaches 5 feet in length.  Aquatic Garter Snakes add fish eggs and leeches to their diets on occasion.

Plains Garter Snake, T. radix

The emergence of thousands of plains garter snakes from hibernation is a tourist attraction in parts of southern Canada.  A toad specialist, captives adapt quickly to a diet of fishes and earthworms.

Western Terrestrial Garter Snake, T. elegans

Coastal Garter SnakeThis species adds a few twists to typical garter snake husbandry – it readily consumes mice and other snakes (including its young), and unreceptive females have been reported to kill over-enthusiastic males.

Eastern and Western Ribbon Snakes, T. sauritus & T. proximus

These thinly built snakes occupy nearly all of the USA, with the Western species reaching Costa Rica.  I have never encountered them far from water, into which they retreat when startled.  Captives fare best on a diet of fish and crayfish.

Further Reading

You can read more about the natural history of the Eastern Garter Snake here.


Garter Snake Eating Frog image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Cjottawa
Coastal Garter Snake image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Steve Jurvetson


  1. avatar

    Hello, I was originally posting on your article on water snakes about the one’s I had ( they’re doing great by the way) But I couldn’t find that article anywhere or find where exactly to post a few of the questions I had. 1st do you know where I could find an “eastern newt” I came across a friend that had one and ever since have been dying to get one of the little guys myself. 2nd I have this turtle I’ve had for about 5 years, I got him from the ozarks in missouri, no one can tell me what kind he is, he’s land dwelling, with black skin, red eyes, and yellow and orange patterns and spots all over his skin, and a dusty brown shell would you be able to tell? and 3rd, do you have any experience with fish? If so, whats the best way to successfully cure ick in bettas? Sorry for such a long comment, I have all these question that not even pet store owners and long time pet owners can answer.

    • avatar

      Hello Kyuki, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Nice to hear from you again; I’m glad the snakes are doing well; here’s a link to the Watersnake article you mentioned.

      Try contacting this supplier for Eastern Newts; they may not be available until early spring. A group in a planted aquarium would be very interesting, and breeding is possible. Please check this article on their care and natural history.

      The only mainly land-dwelling turtles in that region are wood and box turtles, but there’s always a chance of finding a released exotic. Please send a photo or 2 to me at findiviglio@thatpetplace.com and I’ll try to ID it for you.

      Ich usually takes hold when the Betta has been stresses by rapidly changing water temperatures (since they are often kept in small bowls)…any commercial Ick medication should be safe, this Hakari product is for delicate fish, and might be useful in small tanks, but any are fine as long as you adjust the dosage.

      Good luck with the fish, I look forward to seeing your turtle photo.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Hi frank.

    I was wondirng if you knew what temp i can freez fish felits such as sea bass to destory internal parasites (the sea bass i have now is quite large fleits and has been frozen for along time)and afew other market avabile species that do not contain thiamianse.

    I entend to get it switched over to a frozen pinkie diet and am going to make a ordor on a online website that has a good deal of pinkies for 16 cents each just shipping cost alot more then the ordor but thats fine as your ordoring a years worth of food or so for realivily cheap.

    ps the speices of gater snake i have is the red sided gater snake (i belive) theres alot of similar ones… but it was found near the swamp after i made a quater water 3 quater land setup.

    • avatar

      Hi Cody,

      Parasites would not be a problem with frozen sea bass; however, fillets etc are not a good diet; better to use small whole fishes…minnows, shiners, occasional goldfish.

      Many species refuse pinkies, and mammals are not a common food for any in the wild. Long term use could be a problem, as with similar animals, but Ive not seen anything on point. Fish and earthworms work very well for all.

      In terrarium, be sure that water is not in contact with land…despite their habitat, they develop skin fungal diseases (blister disease) quickly when kept in damp enclosures.

      Enjoy, Frank

  3. avatar

    Should minnows, the rest above be frozen? and if so how long does it take to kill the parasites from a coupple webiste i heair that gater snake are semi prone to parasites from live fish. and gater snakes and alot of minnows contain thiaminase which destorys b1 and leads to vitimian b1 defcientcey but a great varity can combat this but theres still the problem of alot of parasites harboring the only thing i can find that people don’t get the parasite problems from is freezing food but they don’t say howlong… offering mice only diets and slugs and worms may cary parasites but most people dont ruin into problems with slugs or worms.

    • avatar

      HI Cody,

      I’ve never run into any problems at home or the zoo, where thousands of fish and earthworms are used weekly; always a possibility but seems not to occur often, if at all (all dead herps at zoo are autopsied, and routine fecal exams done). Some zoo keep minnows in methylene blue (at tropical fish dosage) for 2-3 days prior to use. B1 deficiencies have never been observed in any snakes fed standard diets as far as I know. Some problem with Vitamin E loss in frozen foods, but not a concern for garter snakes, esp if some live are used. Best, Frank

  4. avatar

    Thanks frank

    thanks frank.. bye the way what would the methylene blue do for your herps? for wiki says it has use in many drifrent areas

    • avatar

      Hi Cody,

      Your welcome…it’s a safe med for most amphibs, used at 1/2 to full strength, depending on species; also skin ailments of some reptiles, but there are stronger meds available for them. Best, Frank

  5. avatar

    Frank, I have a question for you. I have 3 eastern garter snake Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis they live all together in the same cage one, happens to be at Lake Erie melanistic, they appear to be normal,except one. This one has these hard small scaly spots about 1/8″ across max, scab like, deposits. They are in multiple areas in the ventral and subcaudal scales, probably a half dozen spots. At first I thought it was the substrate getting under the scales but I changed the bedding (it is now soil) and the snake has shed many times so that’s not it. It’s hard spots still don’t come off. This this past shedding I soak it because all the skin didn’t come off so I after the soaking I was taking the skin off I noticed that one of the hard spots it was loose in so I pulled it off with tweezers and it came off all the way down to the meat, the underlying cells still look good healthy. So I still don’t know what to think. Do you have any ideas, your help would be greatly appreciated.

    • avatar

      Hi Stephen, unfortunately there are many conditions that can cause these symptoms. The only way to diagnose would be by vet exam/culture etc. Let me know if you need help finding a good local vet. Best regards, Frank

  6. avatar

    Hello Mr. Indiviglio,

    Today I ended up rescuing a tiny eastern garter snake that’s a smidge over 6″ long from some people that don’t really share our hobby at a local botanical garden. I set it up in a nice enclosure and got some minnows for it to eat but when I offered some it didn’t eat it, had some tongue flicking though so I assume that’s a good sign. I’ll give it a couple days to settle in but since it’s so small I don’t want to risk waiting too long in offering it food again. Do you have any other tips or tricks in getting them to eat? And do you have any additional input regarding their husbandry that you haven’t already included in the articles? Thanks!

    Cheers, Alex

  7. avatar

    Hi Frank. I hope you can help me. My RES turtle managed to somehow escape her enclosure during the night and I found her at the bottom of our swimming pool. I don’t know how long she had been there but it was quite possible several hours. She appears to be ok, and I washed her down in tepid water and placed her back in her enclosure, making sure to block up any possible escape routes. We do not have any medical experts that can advise me as to what to do with her and what effect the chlorine will have on her. I am really concerned. Please can you advise me. Thank you.

    • avatar

      Hi Carolann,
      I wouldn’t be too worried about your turtle. Turtles in general, especially red eared sliders are very hardy animals. You might want to add some water conditioner such as Turtle Clean (Item #267991) to his tank just to be on the safe side. Let me know if you have any other concerns.


About Frank Indiviglio

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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.
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