Kingsnake (Lampropeltis sp.)
Kingsnakes are a terrestrial species of snake that can be found all over North America, but mostly in the United States and Mexico. Kingsnakes come in many different varieties (there are around 45 recognized subspecies!), so they can be found in a wide array of habitats, from tropical and subtropical broadleaf forests to deserts and xeric shrublands. Kingsnakes are known to be excellent climbers as well as swimmers, having adapted to conquer all kinds of terrain.
Kingsnakes can vary widely in length. Here is a compilation of average kingsnake lengths by subspecies, sourced from Kingsnakes and Milk Snakes by Ronald G. Markel:
- L. alterna: 42-50″ / 107-127cm
- L. calligaster calligaster: 30-42″ / 76-107cm
- L. c. rhombomaculata: 30-40″ / 76-102cm
- L. c. occipitolineata: 30-42″ / 76-107cm
- L. getulus getulus: 48-60″ / 122-152cm
- L. g. californiae: 42-50″ / 107-127cm
- L. g. floridana: 36-48″ / 91-122cm
- L. g. holbrooki: 36-48″ / 91-122cm
- L. g. niger: 36-45″ / 91-114cm
- L. g. nigritus: 24-36″ / 61-91cm
- L. g. splendida: 36-45″ / 91-114cm
- L. mexicana: 24-36″ / 61-91cm
- L. pyromelana pyromelana: 30-41″ / 76-104cm
- L. p. infralabialis: 30-36″ / 76-91cm
- L. p. knoblochi: 36″ / 91cm
- L. p. woodini: 36-42″ / 91-107cm
- L. ruthveni: 28-32″ / 70-80cm
- L. zonata zonata: 30-36″ / 76-91cm
- L. z. agalma: 24-30″ / 61-76cm
- L. z. herrerae: 24-30″ / 61-76cm
- L. z. multicincta: 30-36″ / 76-91cm
- L. z. multifasciata: 30-36″ / 76-91cm
- L. z. parvirubra: 36-40″ / 91-102cm
- L. z. pulchra: 30-36″ / 76-91cm
There are about as many different colors and patterns of kingsnake as there are subspecies! Some are red and yellow, some are gray and red, some are black, some are black and yellow, and some have more conservative patterns in gray and brown tones.
Kingsnakes are some of the most popular pet snakes in the United States, particularly the California kingsnake and Mexican black kingsnake. They’re manageably-sized, fairly tolerant of being housed in sub-ideal conditions, and generally tolerate human interaction well, which makes them good pets for people who are new to snakes.
With good care, kingsnakes can live 20 years or more.
Kingsnake Shopping List
These are products I personally recommend for setting up a functional generic kingsnake 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.
- 48”L x 24”W x 24”H reptile enclosure, front-opening
- Zoo Med Combo Deep Dome Dual Lamp Fixture
- 50w Arcadia Halogen Heat Lamp, x2
- Lutron Credenza plug-in lamp dimmer, x2
- Flat basking stone
- Etekcity 774 infrared thermometer
- Zoo Med Digital Combo Thermometer Humidity Gauge
- 22″ Arcadia Forest 6% OR Zoo Med T5 HO Reptisun 5.0 UVB bulb
- 24″ Arcadia ProT5 OR Vivarium Electronics T5 HO fixture
- Exo Terra Mister
- Zilla 24/7 Digital Power Center
- Zoo Med Eco Earth, 80 quarts
- Reptile hides/caves, at least 2 (small enough to provide a tight squeeze)
- Environmental enrichment items
- Medium water bowl
- Repashy Calcium Plus
- 12″ feeding tongs
Kingsnake Enclosure Size
Kingsnakes 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 kingsnake is going to be 48”L x 24”W x 24”H. This is based on the formula for calculating a snake’s minimum space needs:
snake length x half snake length x half snake length = length x width x height
At ReptiFiles, using a larger enclosure than the minimum is always strongly recommended. Bigger is always better! In fact, bigger is going to be required for kingsnake species known to grow larger than 4′ long.
Here are some enclosures that ReptiFiles recommends for housing kingsnakes, based on the snake’s expected adult length:
3′ long or less:
- Custom Reptile Habitats 3 Foot Reptile Enclosure
- Exo Terra 36″ x 18″ x 18″ All-Glass Terrarium
- Carolina Custom Cages Large 36″ x 18″ x 18″
- Repti Zoo 36″ x 18″ x 18″ Reptile Terrarium
Over 4′ long:
Can multiple kingsnakes be housed together?
Kingsnakes are not social animals, and there is no significant benefit to the animal that would justify keeping two or more in the same enclosure. In fact, given that kingsnakes are known to be ophiophagus (snake-eaters), it’s safest to house only one kingsnake per enclosure.
Lighting & UVB for Kingsnakes
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.
UVB lighting has also been proven to be beneficial to snakes’ health. So although kingsnakes 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 kingsnake, 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”
(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.)
Kingsnakes 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.
Kingsnake Temperature Requirements
Humans are warm-blooded, which means that our body temperature is automatically regulated. Kingsnakes, however, are cold-blooded, which means that they have to move between areas of different temperatures in order to regulate their body temperature. Kingsnakes typically warm up by sleeping in warm patches of sunlight or warm burrows. In captivity, using a halogen flood heat bulb is the best way to replicate the type of warmth provided by sunlight.
- Basking surface: 90-95°F (32-35°C)
- Cool side: 75-80°F (23-27°C)
Specific optimal basking temperatures may vary by which subspecies you’re keeping. Heat sources should be turned off at night.
Generally speaking, 50-75w halogen flood bulbs should be plenty to achieve your target basking surface temperature. The basking rock should be placed on top of the black plastic hide box, which will act as your warm hide. If you notice that they’re getting too hot, dial it down with a plug-in lamp dimmer. If your basking surface 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 kingsnake’s coiled body. Two bulbs should be enough for an average kingsnake. Create a warm hiding place for the snake to use by placing a black box hide under the heat lamps, with a flat basking stone on top.
To measure the basking surface temperature, use an infrared thermometer (a.k.a. temperature gun). To measure the temperature of the warm hide, use a digital probe thermometer. The Etekcity 774 is a good infrared thermometer, and most reptile-brand digital probe thermometers function well.
Kingsnake Humidity Requirements
Kingsnakes generally need an average humidity of 40-60%, as measured by a digital probe hygrometer with the probe place in the middle of the enclosure. Humidity levels that are consistently higher or lower than this range can make your pet unwell, although it is normal for humidity to be higher on the cool end and lower on the warm end, as well as higher at night. Specific optimal humidity levels may vary by which subspecies you’re keeping.
To raise humidity in your snake’s enclosure, you can 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. Placing a layer of leaf litter on top of the substrate can also help maintain humidity.
Substrate Options for Kingsnakes
Kingsnakes 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 kingsnakes:
- Zoo Med Reptisoil
- Zoo Med Eco Earth
- Exo Terra Plantation Soil
- Lugarti Natural Reptile Bedding
- Bio Dude Terra Firma Bioactive Kit
Shredded aspen may also be suitable in a pinch, although it molds easily. 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 4x2x2 enclosure, that will take at least 80 quarts of substrate. I also recommend laying down a generous layer of clean leaf litter on top to help retain humidity and give your snake 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 Kingsnake 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 kingsnakes:
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 Kingsnake
Kingsnakes 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 7-10 days
- Adults — every 10-14 days
The size of your snake’s prey should be no more than 1.5x the width of your kingsnake at its widest point, or roughly 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. According to a 2019 study by Wiseman et al., wild kingsnakes are known to eat other snakes, small mammals, lizards, birds, reptile eggs, 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 kingsnakes:
- young rats
- African soft-furred rats
- young quail
- quail eggs
- reptile eggs
- green anoles
- house geckos
- small snakes
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.
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.
Your kingsnake should have always have access to a large bowl 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 Kingsnake
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 kingsnake 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. Kingsnakes usually tolerate handling well.
Applegate, R. (2011, November 30). California Kingsnake Care Sheet. Reptiles Magazine. https://reptilesmagazine.com/california-kingsnake-care-sheet/
Kingsnakes and Milksnakes (Genus Lampropeltis) — Observations . (n.d.). INaturalist. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?taxon_id=29768
Lampropeltis nigritis / Black Mexican kinsnake – Care. (n.d.). Het Terrarium. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from https://www.hetterrarium.com/en_GB/a-46623391/info-snakes/lampropeltis-nigritis-black-mexican-kinsnake-care/
Markel, R. G. (1990). Kingsnakes and Milk Snakes. T.F.H. Publications, Inc.
Sunrise and sunset times in Los Angeles. (n.d.). Timeanddate.Com. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from https://www.timeanddate.com/sun/usa/los-angeles
Spiess, P. (n.d.). Captive Care of Kingsnakes and Milksnakes by Petra Spiess. Http://Www.Kingsnake.Com/Rockymountain/RMHkingsand.Html. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from http://www.kingsnake.com/rockymountain/RMHPages/RMHkingsand.htm
California Mountain Kingsnake Care Sheet. (n.d.). VMS Professional Herpetoculture. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from https://www.vmsherp.com/CarePages/CareZonata.htm
Wiseman, Kevin & Greene, Harry & Koo, Michelle & Long, Douglas. (2019). Feeding ecology of a generalist predator, the California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis californiae): why rare prey matter. Herpetological Conservation and Biology. 14. 1-30.
The ReptiFiles Kingsnake 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.