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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

Keeping Garter and Related Snakes – Part 2 – Avoiding Skin Infections

Please see Part I of this article for background information on these snake-keepers’ favorites.  Garter Snakes and the closely related ribbon and water snakes usually make hardy captives, yet there are very few records of individuals surviving over 10 years.  I believe this may have to do with some of their unique environmental and dietary needs (I’ll cover temperature, light and diet in Part III of this article).

Natural vs. Captive Habitats

Nearly all garter and ribbon snakes favor swamps, wet meadows, pond edges and other moist habitats.  Oddly, however, they are very susceptible to skin infections (“blister disease”) when kept on damp substrates – even more so than snakes native to dry environments.  This holds true even for those that spend a great deal of time in the water, such as the Aquatic Garter Snake (Thamnophis couchi), the Ribbon Snake (T. sauritus) and the True Water Snakes (Nerodia sp.).

While all should be given water in which to soak, the substrate must remain dry.  The aforementioned species may be kept in semi-aquatic terrariums that allow for swimming, but they must have access to warm, dry basking sites (branches over water work well).  Shy specimens that will not bask should be moved into terrestrial situations with just a bowl of water available.

Curing Blister Disease

A Northern Water Snake (Nerodia  sipedon) that I kept decades ago developed skin blisters after only 2 weeks of a largely aquatic existence.  I wrote to famed reptile man Wayne King, then curator of reptiles at the Bronx Zoo.  His advice to move the animal to a dry terrarium and provide a warm but sheltered basking site worked like a charm, and the snake’s skin condition cleared within 10 days.

Further Reading

An excellent article on the unique Aquatic Garter Snake, including habitat photos, is posted here.


Meet the Garter Snakes – Beautiful, Interesting and Hardy – Part 1

Garter Snakes (Thamnophis ssp.) have long introduced aspiring herpetologists to snake-keeping and remain popular today.  A number of North America’s 30+ species are regularly available in the pet trade, and they remain the most commonly encountered free-living snakes in most areas.  Although often thought of as “beginner’s snakes”, I maintain that garters possess a unique combination of characteristics that render them fascinating additions to any private or public collection…they certainly have been a source of many of my most interesting observations.


Garter SnakeGarter Snakes of one or another species range from southern Canada to Central America, and reach their greatest diversity in the United States.

Those best suited to captivity are classified in the genus Thamnophis.  Along with ribbon and water snakes, this genus is placed within the subfamily Natricinae and the family Colubridae.


Frogs, tadpoles, earthworms, salamanders, fishes and insects comprise the diets of most species.  Several are immune to the virulent skin toxins of amphibians such as California newts, which have caused human fatalities when ingested, and toxin-protected American toads are the primary food of plains garter snakes (T. radix) and others.  Some, such as the giant garter snake (T. couchi gigs), take rodents on occasion.

Attractive Attributes

A preference for fishes and earthworms, and a willingness to accept nonliving food items (garters sometimes consume road-killed frogs) greatly simplifies garter snake husbandry, and suits them well to those who prefer not to keep rodent-eating snakes.

All bear live young and, when properly maintained, are likely to breed.  Although wild-caught snakes will bite and release musk when handled, they tame down readily…the most frequently kept species, the common garter snake (T. sirtalis), is especially docile.

Eliciting Natural Behavior

What I especially favor about garter snakes is that they can be kept in planted, naturalistic terrariums – a difficult prospect where most other snakes are concerned.

When kept so they reveal a great many of their natural behaviors – far more than is the case for large snakes maintained in bare enclosures.  A pair of garter snakes in a terrarium stocked with plants, branches, hideaways and a pool will provide you with insights into snake behavior that are not easy to come by otherwise.

A Wide Spectrum of Colors

While not subject to the intensive captive breeding efforts applied to other species, garter snakes are being kept by several breeders interested in developing unique color morphs.  Already, some spectacular results have been achieved, and more can be expected.

This is not to say that selective breeding is necessary where garter snake colors are involved.  All are interestingly marked, and a great many species sport bright colors.  In fact, a subspecies of the common garter, known as the San Francisco garter snake (T. sirtalis tetrataenia), is one of the most beautiful snakes to be found anywhere.  Unfortunately, it is highly endangered and may not be kept in the USA, but by all means try to see it in zoo collection if possible.

Individual variation among animals of the same species is the rule when it comes to garter snakes, so all sorts of interesting surprises await those who seek out these most fascinating reptiles.

Further Reading

Please see my article Keeping Snakes in Naturalistic Terrariums for some ideas concerning planted habitats for garter snakes.


Texas Garter Snake image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Dawson

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