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Garter Snakes - General Care

Welcome to the world of Garter snakes (genus Thamnophis) an active, semi-aquatic diurnal snake from the Americas where it ranges from the tropics to as far North as Canada.

By Greg M from Perthshire on Tuesday 28th July 2009

With 31 species and 64 subspecies there is a vast range of vibrantly coloured animals to choose from.  


Garter and Ribbon snakes are considered to be relatively small snakes averaging around 3-3.5 feet for females and 2-2.5 feet for males in length. This is species dependant however and females exceeding 4 feet are not unheard of. They are also ‘escape artists' and it is important to make sure that the chosen habitat is secure. They will not hesitate to grab the smallest opportunity given.

The general rule when it comes to choosing the size of enclosure is - that the snake should be allowed to be able to fully stretch out its body in the space provided therefore the length of the enclosure should match the length of the snake. My personal recommendation is that the enclosure can never be large enough (I currently keep sexed groups of 3-4 snakes in vivaria that measure 144x30x40cm). Garter snakes are very active and will spend hours exploring their enclosure. Providing plenty of climbing opportunities will help to maximise the space provided. Giving your garter places to hide will help it to feel more secure. Ground cover can also be provided by means of plastic plants.

A large water bowl is essential for shedding. As semi-aquatic snakes they will bathe often but this doesn't mean that they favour damp conditions. The enclosure should be kept dry and free of waste to avoid possible health problems. The water should be changed every 1-2 days or immediately if soiled.

Substrates should also be chosen carefully. Garters love to burrow, defecate frequently and are ferocious feeders. You should therefore choose a substrate that is not sharp, easy to clean and not small enough to be ingested.

My bedding of choice is 'Supreme Carefresh' which allows for all eventualities and can safely be digested by reptiles should it accidentally be swallowed.


As a general rule an ambient temperature of 20 degrees Celsius with a basking spot of 30 degrees Celsius is desired. The temperature gradient can be supplied by a number of heat sources - heat mats, heat bulbs, etc. These should ALWAYS be controlled by a thermostat. Ceramics and bulbs should also be guarded to prevent any burns.

My personal recommendation would be for heat mats and heat cable as it has been proven that garter snakes benefit more from ‘bottom heat' than high air temperatures. Wooden vivaria are also a good idea as they will keep the heat better than an old converted fish tank.

Foods and feeding

Garters in the wild thrive as aquatic generalists. Their prey includes worms, slugs, newts, salamanders, frogs and fish. In captivity this diet may seem hard to match but garters will readily take salmon and trout fillets cut to size and can also be convinced to accept rodents into their diets by the means of scenting and pinkie mice are readily available at your local reptile store. If feeding a purely fish diet it is important to supplement vitamin and calcium intake. A purely rodent diet, on the other hand, can lead to abnormal fat deposits. My feedings consists of 40% rodent and 60% fish with regular water soluble vitamin and calcium supplements added to the drinking water (Reptasol and Calcimise).

Garters have a much higher metabolism than most other snake species. Adults should be fed every four days (approx twice a week) and snakes in their first few months should be fed every second day.


Brumation is a word used to describe the process of hibernation in snakes. Most garters with the exception of some southern species will experience a period of winter rest in the wild. Unless you plan to breed this is not essential but sometimes the natural body clock kicks in and your snake can go off it's food in late autumn/early winter. If this continues over a period of over a month you should definitely consider brumation. This can be achieved by placing the snake in a secure dark box and placing it in a quiet part of your house at between 5-10 degrees Celsius for 1-2 months (again this is species dependant and further reading is advised on the process).

Further reading

For all enthusiasts there's never enough information but there are great forums on the internet where keepers and breeders alike share their experiences and knowledge. For garter snakes there's only one place you ever need to go for any help and advice: www.thamnophis.com

Caresheet provided by Greg Mckenzie-Milne, breeder and member of EGSA (European Garter Snake Association).