Black Ratsnake Care Sheet

Black Ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoletus)

Difficulty: Intermediate

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Black ratsnakes (Pantherophis obsoletus) are also known as the western ratsnake and Texas ratsnake. They vary in appearance based on locality — they can be jet black with a bright white belly and lips, or they can have brown to gray base color with a pale underside and darker blotches down the length of their body. In some cases, they may be yellowish or reddish. The underside is likely to have a checkered pattern. Black ratsnakes typically grow to 3.5-6′ / 1.1-1.8m long, but can get as big as 8.5′ / 2.6m. 

Black ratsnakes are diurnal, semiarboreal, and native to the central eastern United States. They can be found in a variety of different habitats, such as bayou, prairie, forested areas, and rock outcrops. This species is highly capable at both climbing and swimming, and often found in trees, particularly oak trees.

Black ratsnakes are not particularly common in captivity, but due to their lively nature and diurnal activity pattern, they can make good pets for the right keeper. With attention to good black ratsnake care practices, they can live 15 years or more.

Black Ratsnake Shopping List

These are products I personally recommend for setting up a functional black ratsnake enclosure. Some of the links in this care sheet are paid links — if you’d like to know why ReptiFiles uses paid links, visit this page.

Black Ratsnake Enclosure Size

Black ratsnakes are active snakes that love to explore, so although they may seem small because of their slender build, they still need plenty of room. As a generalization, the minimum enclosure size for one average black ratsnake is going to be 6’L x 3’W x 4’H.

At ReptiFiles, using a larger enclosure than the minimum is always strongly recommended. Bigger is always better! Here are some enclosures that ReptiFiles recommends for housing black ratsnakes.

Due to their length, it may be more practical to build your own enclosure for your black ratsnake rather than buy one. The DIY Reptile & Amphibian Enclosures group on Facebook is a good place to get tips on how to do this.

Can multiple black ratsnakes be housed together?

Black ratsnakes are not social animals, and there is no significant benefit to the animal that would justify keeping two or more in the same enclosure. 

Lighting & UVB for Black Ratsnakes

As a general rule, lights should be on for 12 hours/day, but it’s best to adjust according to your local sunrise/sunset times if possible in order to match seasonal cycles. The easiest way to do this is by using a smart timer (I’ve been happy with Kasa).

UVB Lighting

UVB lighting has also been proven to be beneficial to snakes’ health. So although black ratsnakes can technically survive without UVB, we strongly recommend providing it in order to promote optimum welfare in captivity.

UVB lighting can be tricky, because in order to get the right strength of UVB (UV Index, or UVI), distance and potential mesh obstruction must be considered. To provide appropriate UVB for a black ratsnake, you will need a Zoo Med T5 HO Reptisun 5.0 or Arcadia T5 HO Forest 6% bulb, long enough to span half of the enclosure and placed on the warm side of the enclosure, preferably not obstructed by mesh.

The basking branch or platform should be placed according to the following, with distance being measured between the UVB lamp and the height of the snake when on the basking surface.

  • With mesh obstruction: 9-12”
  • Without mesh obstruction: 12-14”

Use an Arcadia ProT5 or Vivarium Electronics fixture for best results.

(These recommendations are approximations based on available data. For best results, use a Solarmeter 6.5 to determine the best placement to achieve a UVI of 2.0-3.0 in the basking area.)

General Illumination

Black ratsnakes are known to be active during both day and night, which means that providing bright illumination during the day is likely to be beneficial in stimulating activity and natural behaviors. You will need a nice bright 6500K LED or T5 HO fluorescent grow light, long enough to span most of the enclosure’s length. I prefer the Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Bar and the Bio Dude Glow & Grow LED.

These lamps are also great for supporting any live plants you may have in the setup.

Black Ratsnake Temperature Requirements

Humans are warm-blooded, which means that our body temperature is automatically regulated. Black ratsnakes, however, are cold-blooded, which means that they have to move between areas of different temperatures in order to regulate their body temperature. Black ratsnakes typically warm up by basking in warm patches of sunlight. In captivity, using a halogen flood heat bulb is the best way to replicate the type of warmth provided by sunlight.

  • Basking area: 85-90°F (29-32°C)
  • Cool side: 72-77°F (22-25°C)

Heat sources should be turned off at night so the enclosure can cool down.

Generally speaking, a cluster of 50w PAR30 halogen flood bulbs such as the Arcadia Halogen Heat Lamp should be plenty to achieve your target basking temperature. If you notice that it’s getting too hot, dial it down with a plug-in lamp dimmer or rheostat (although for more precise temperature control, I recommend the Herpstat 4 thermostat). If your basking area is too cool, you need higher wattage bulbs.

You will need multiple heat bulbs to create a large enough basking area to evenly heat your ratsnake’s coiled body. You are likely to need a cluster of four bulbs for an average kingsnake. The easiest way to install this is with two dual dome fixtures such as the Zoo Med Combo Deep Dome lamp.

To measure the temperature of the basking area, use a digital probe thermometer with the probe placed on the basking branch. To measure the temperature of the cool zone, use another thermometer with its probe placed on top of the substrate. Most reptile-brand digital probe thermometers function well.

Black Ratsnake Humidity Requirements

Black ratsnakes need an average humidity of 50-70%, as measured by a digital probe hygrometer with the probe place in the middle of the enclosure. Humidity levels will naturally fluctuate lower during the day and higher at night.

To raise and/or maintain humidity in your snake’s enclosure, use a pressure sprayer to mist the habitat as needed. It’s also a good idea to place moistened sphagnum moss inside the cool hide to create a humid retreat. Check and change this moss regularly to prevent mold growth.

Substrate Options for Black Ratsnakes

Black ratsnakes are healthiest and happiest when they are housed on a substrate (a.k.a. “bedding”) that imitates the conditions of their natural habitat and facilitates moderate humidity levels. Soil is generally best for meeting this need.

Here are some suitable substrate options for black ratsnakes:

Alternatively, you can use a DIY mix of 40% organic, additive-free topsoil + 40% Zoo Med Reptisoil + 20% play sand (this option tends to be the most affordable as well).

Provide a substrate layer that is around 4” deep. For a 6×3 enclosure, that will take at least 180 quarts (6 cubic feet) of substrate. I also recommend laying down a generous layer of clean leaf litter on top to help retain humidity and give your snake an extra something to explore.

Feces and urates should be removed daily, and contaminated substrate should be scooped out and replaced. Substrate should be completely replaced once every 3-4 months.

Décor Ideas for a Black Ratsnake Enclosure

Decorations play an important role in your kingsnake’s enclosure as environmental enrichment. Enrichment items encourage exercise, stimulate your snake’s natural instincts, and help promote overall wellbeing. And, of course, they make the enclosure look nice!

Environmental enrichment ideas for black ratsnakes:

The more hiding places your snake has access to, the more likely it will be comfortable hanging out in the open where you can see it. Hides should be small enough to provide a tight fit for the snake when coiled.

Feeding Your Black Ratsnake

Black ratsnakes are carnivores, which means that they need a diet of whole animal prey in order to get the nutrition that their bodies need. How often they need to eat can be estimated by age:

  • Hatchlings — every 5-7 days
  • Juveniles — every 5-7 days
  • Adults — every 7-14 days

The size of your snake’s prey should be no more than 1.5x the width of the snake at its widest point, or if you’re using multiple feeders, it should add up to no more than 10% of its body weight. If the snake seems to be getting fat, reduce the frequency of feedings or the size of the feeders.

Although mice are the most common feeders, snakes need to eat more than just rats and mice to truly thrive. Wild black ratsnakes are known to eat mice, rats, shrews, voles, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, birds, bird eggs, lizards, and amphibians. In other words, the key to providing a healthy, balanced diet for your pet snake is VARIETY. Provide as varied of a diet as you possibly can, and you will be rewarded with a healthier, less picky pet!

Prey ideas for black ratsnakes:

  • mice
  • rats
  • African soft-furred rats
  • hamsters
  • gerbils
  • young quail
  • quail eggs
  • chicks
  • chicken eggs
  • green anoles
  • house geckos
  • small snakes
  • Reptilinks

These can generally be purchased from high-quality breeders such as Layne LabsRodentPro, and Reptilinks.

It’s best to offer frozen-thawed prey rather than live to your pet snake. This is safer for the snake and generally considered to be more humane as well. Use soft-tipped feeding tweezers to reduce the risk of getting accidentally bitten when the snake strikes.

Supplements

Snakes can survive without vitamin or mineral supplements, but using them occasionally is a good way to help prevent nutritional deficiencies. Every once in a while, lightly dust the prey item with a 50/50 mix of calcium and multivitamin before thawing.

Arcadia Revitalise D3 and Repashy CalciumPlus are both good supplements to use that come pre-mixed.

Drinking Water

Your ratsnake should have always have access to a large bowl or tub of fresh, clean water. It should be large enough for the snake to curl up inside if it’s in the mood for a soak. Scrub the water dish with veterinary disinfectant such as Rescue or F10SC weekly for good hygiene.

Handling Your Black Ratsnake

You will need to wait a little while after bringing your new pet home to let it settle in. This usually takes about 2 weeks, but you shouldn’t start handling until it’s eating regularly.

Once your black ratsnake is ready for handling, take it slow at first — just like any relationship. Start with brief handling sessions (no longer than 5 minutes), and don’t return the snake until it is calm. This teaches your pet how to behave during handling by using rudimentary positive reinforcement. Once this has been accomplished, you can work up to longer sessions. Handling should occur at least weekly, but no more than once daily.

While handling your snake, be gentle. Rather than grabbing it, let it crawl onto your hand. Lift it from below rather than above, and support as much of its body as possible. Use slow movements and don’t walk around too much, and pay attention to your snake’s body language.

For more tips on snake taming, handling, and training, check out professional snake trainer Lori Torrini’s videos.

References

Climate & Weather Averages in Austin, Texas, USA. (n.d.). Timeanddate.com. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.timeanddate.com/weather/usa/austin/climate

Climate & Weather Averages in Dallas, Texas, USA. (n.d.). Timeanddate.com. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.timeanddate.com/weather/usa/dallas/climate

Climate & Weather Averages in Houston, Texas, USA. (n.d.). Timeanddate.com. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.timeanddate.com/weather/usa/houston/climate

Climate & Weather Averages in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. (n.d.). Timeanddate.com. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.timeanddate.com/weather/usa/st-louis/climate

Hibbitts, T. (n.d.). The Ratsnakes of North America. Kingsnake.com. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from http://www.kingsnake.com/ratsnake/

Low UV Species . (n.d.). Arcadia Reptile. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.arcadiareptile.com/lighting/low-uv-species/

Mann, Adam M., “A Taxonomic Investigation of the Black Ratsnake, Elaphe o. obsoleta (Say) [Reptilia, Squamata, Colubridae], in
West Virginia using Morphometric Analyses” (2007). Theses, Dissertations and Capstones. Paper 358.

Pantherophis obsoletus (SAY, 1823). (n.d.). The Reptile Database. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/species?genus=Pantherophis&species=obsoletus

Pantherophis obsoletus : Western Ratsnake. (n.d.). Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/rsg/profile.html?action=elementDetail&selectedElement=ARADB13030

Pierce, J. B., Fleet, R. R., McBrayer, L., & Rudolph, D. C. (2008). Use of Trees by the Texas Ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta) in Eastern Texas. Southeastern Naturalist, 2, 359–366. https://doi.org/10.1656/1528-7092(2008)7[359:uotbtt]2.0.co;2

Re, A. (2014, September 26). Texas Rat Snake Care Sheet. Reptiles Magazine. https://reptilesmagazine.com/texas-rat-snake-care-sheet/

Trepanowski, P. (n.d.). Pantherophis obsoletus. Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Pantherophis_obsoletus/

Western Ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoletus). (n.d.). INaturalist. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/73888-Pantherophis-obsoletus

The ReptiFiles Black Ratsnake Care Sheet is a simplified care summary, not a full ReptiFiles care guide. While I have done my best to ensure that the information contained is accurate, due to time constraints, the research behind ReptiFiles care sheets is not as thorough as the research involved with my full-length care guides. I strongly encourage readers to do their own research from high-quality, reputable sources outside of just this care sheet as part of preparing for your new pet reptile.