Caring for snakes
This information is a guide only. You will need specific information to properly care for injured wildlife.
Read more about rescuing and releasing animals in the Northern Territory (NT).
You need a permit to care for injured or rescued wildlife.
Snakes are common in the NT, with about 90 species recorded, including 20 sea snakes.
This includes all of the following:
- Oenpelli python (Morelia oenpelliensis) - a very large snake found only in the escarpments of western Arnhem Land
- water python (Liasis fuscus) - often seen at night at Fogg Dam, 70km east of Darwin
- black-headed python (Aspidites melanocephalus)
- woma (Aspidites ramsayi).
The Territory is also home to venomous snakes, including all of the following:
- king brown (Pseudechis australis)
- western brown (Pseudonaja nuchalis)
- death adder (Acanthophis antarcticus)
- taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus).
The Oenpelli python (Morelia oenpelliensis) is vulnerable in the NT. If you see it, report it to Parks and Wildlife immediately.
Snakes mostly come into care after a domestic animal attack or being run over by a car.
A common issue is inappropriate care by inexperienced carers. This includes incorrect feeding and not providing an environment with the correct temperature.
Venomous snakes are not usually presented for rehabilitation. They need a carer with extensive experience and a venomous snake permit.
Snakes should be kept in a quiet, secure location away from family pets and excessive noise. This includes general household noise, traffic, domestic animals and construction.
Plastic containers or glass aquariums with ventilation are good for most snakes. Wooden enclosures are suitable if they’ve been surface-sealed for easy cleaning and disinfecting.
The size of a snake’s enclosure, when measured diagonally, should be about the size of the snake stretched out straight. It should be at least 45cm wide.
Snakes that live in trees need climbing space.
An outside enclosure is good for snakes at the pre-release stage of rehabilitation.
Woven nylon mesh over a wire or plastic frame makes a good outdoor enclosure. These enclosures are commercially available and are light enough to carry around, allowing them to be put outside in the sun so the snake can get natural light.
You will also need to provide shade so the snake doesn’t overheat.
An advantage of woven mesh cages is that the fabric can usually be removed from the frame and washed.
Outdoor enclosures can also be made of wire. Some snakes can injure themselves by rubbing their noses along the wire trying to find a way out.
This is a sign of stress and, if the behaviour continues, you should remove the snake from this enclosure.
All enclosures must have warm and cool areas. Snakes need a basking spot kept at 30 degrees Celsius to 35 degrees Celsius, and a cooler area.
Be aware that a glass enclosure left in the sun will get very hot quickly.
The floor covering should be a dry material. If the snake is in intensive care, use a floor covering that’s easy to clean and sterilise.
Natural floor surfaces should be used in the pre-release stage of rehabilitation to encourage natural behaviours.
Snakes need somewhere to hide in their enclosure. This can be an upturned cardboard box, a pot, log or rock. Some species like to climb on branches or other objects.
Snakes need UV lighting, both UVA and UVB. UV lighting is needed for vitamin D3, which helps with calcium absorption. Snakes that don't get enough vitamin D3 will get sick.
You can buy UV lights in pet shops. They will increase appetite, activity levels and natural behaviours in snakes.
An important part of feeding snakes is temperature. If the animal is not warm enough, it will not feed. If the temperature drops after the snake eats, it may disrupt digestion.
Reptiles may also stop feeding if they feel insecure, so you need to provide cover or a place to hide.
Snakes can go for long periods without food. Many snakes will not feed for weeks after capture. If you keep trying to get an injured snake to eat, you will add to its stress and may slow its recovery.
Many snakes won't eat in the cooler months. This means that most snakes in good condition probably don’t need to be fed regularly in the short term.
For a snake that is feeding, use the following regime:
- hatchling – feed once a week
- juvenile – feed once a fortnight
- adult – feed once a month.
What to feed snakes
In the wild, snakes feed on whole animals. In rehabilitation, you can feed snakes commercially available mammals and birds.
One issue is diet specialisation, where the snake prefers certain prey. For example, slaty grey snakes prefer to eat frogs and other reptiles.
Wild snakes may initially refuse foods they do not know. They will need to be tricked into accepting food. Scent manipulation can be successful - where a food is made to smell like a common prey for that species.
Indigenous snake species are protected in Australia and should not be used as food.
Snakes need fresh water daily. Water containers should be heavy and wide-based so they can't be tipped over. Snakes like to bathe, so the container should be large enough for this, if injuries allow it.
Place the water bowl away from e heat source as this can raise humidity levels in the enclosure. You should be especially aware of this when caring for a snake from a dry climate.
For snakes from a humid environment, an occasional light spray of water will create enough humidity. Make sure the environment isn't too damp as this can cause disease.
Handling snakes should be done quickly, safely and gently.
All snakes can bite and must be treated with caution.
When handling a snake, support the body as evenly as possible. Never make sudden movements, particularly near the head.
A snake may be held behind the head. Only do this while an experienced carer is supervising. A snake’s jaws can twist sideways or pull backwards to bite.
Handling venomous snakes should only be done by experienced carers.
To transport snakes, you can use either of the following methods:
- a strong calico bag tied securely and placed inside a ventilated box
- or for larger snakes, a lockable plastic bin with ventilation.
Snakes need to be kept at room temperature and out of direct sunlight when you transport them.
Last updated: 22 September 2020
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