Milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum)
Milksnakes can be identified by smooth scales, no differentiation between the head and neck, a small rounded head, and moderately slender body. Exact color and pattern varies by subspecies: many are banded with some combination of red/orange, black, and white/yellow; but some have a red/orange/brown saddle pattern with dark edges on a gray to cream base. Sometimes they are mistaken for venomous coral snakes. Other colors and patterns are available in captivity due to selective breeding (“morphs”).
Milksnakes can vary widely in length. Here is a compilation of average milksnake lengths by subspecies, sourced from Kingsnakes and Milk Snakes by Ronald G. Markel:
- L. t. abnormal: 48-60” / 122-152cm
- L. t. amaura: 16-31” / 41-79cm
- L. t. adesiana: 45-54” / 114-137cm
- L. t. annulata: 24-30” / 61-76cm
- L. t. arciferal: 36-42” / 91-107cm
- L. t. blanchardi: 36-42” / 91-107cm
- L. t. campbelli: 28-36” / 71-91cm
- L. t. celaenops: 14-24” / 36-61cm
- L. t. conanti: 40-46” / 102-117cm
- L. t. dixoni: 36-42” / 91-107cm
- L. t. elapsoides: 14-20” / 36-51cm
- L. t. gaigeae: 54-60” / 137-157cm
- L. t. gentilis: 30-36” / 72-91cm
- L. t. hondurensis: 40-48” / 102-122cm
- L. t. micropholis: 60-72” / 152-183cm
- L. t. multistrata: 24-30” / 61-72cm
- L. t. nelsoni: 36-42” / 91-107cm
- L. t. oligozona: 36-42” / 91-107cm
- L. t. polyzona: 54-60” / 137-152cm
- L. t. sinaloae: 40-48” / 102-122cm
- L. t. smithi: 36-42” / 91-107cm
- L. t. stuarti: 40-46” / 102-117cm
- L. t. syspila: 21-28” / 53-71cm
- L. t. taylori: 24-30” / 61-72cm
- L. t. triangulum: 36-45” / 91-114cm
This species is primarily native to the United States, although they are present in some parts of southern Canada. Due to their extremely wide range, they have adapted to a wide variety of habitats, including forests/woodland, rocky hillsides, swamps, prairie, farmland, and sand dunes.
Due to their vivid coloring, milksnakes are among the most popular pet snakes in the United States. They’re manageably-sized, fairly hardy, and generally tolerate human interaction well, which makes them good pets for people who are new to snakes.
With good care, milksnakes can live 20 years or more.
Milksnake Shopping List
- 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
- 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
- Black box hide (small enough to provide a tight squeeze)
- Flat basking stone
- Environmental enrichment items (pick at least 3)
- Medium water bowl
- Repashy Calcium Plus
- 12″ feeding tongs
Milksnake Enclosure Size
The majority of milksnakes are 48″ / 122cm long or smaller, which means that the minimum enclosure size for one average milksnake 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 milksnake species known to grow larger than 48″ / 122cm long.
Here are some enclosures that ReptiFiles recommends for housing milksnakes, based on the snake’s expected adult length:
36″ 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
Can multiple milksnakes be housed together?
Milksnakes 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, like kingsnakes, milksnakes are known to be ophiophagus (snake-eaters). So it’s safest to house only one milksnake per enclosure.
Lighting & UVB for Milksnakes
Based on data from milksnakes’ native range, lights should be on for 15 hours/day during summer and 9 hours/day during winter, with gradual adjustments in-between. I’ve found that the easiest way to accomplish this is with a smart power strip like the Kasa Smart Plug Power Strip, but you can also do this with something simpler like a programmable digital power strip.
Milksnakes are primarily active at night, so they don’t need much in the way of bright lighting.
UVB lighting has been proven to be beneficial to snakes’ health. So although milksnakes 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 milksnake, 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.)
Milksnake Temperature Requirements
Humans are warm-blooded, which means that our body temperature is automatically regulated. Milksnakes, however, are cold-blooded, which means that they have to move between areas of different temperatures in order to regulate their body temperature. Milksnakes typically warm up by sleeping under objects that have been warmed by the sun, but they are also known to bask openly on occasion. In captivity, using a halogen flood heat bulb is the best way to replicate the type of warmth provided by sunlight.
- Basking surface: 85-90°F (29-32°C)
- Cool side: 75-80°F (23-27°C)
- Nighttime: 70-75°F (21-23°C)
Specific optimal basking temperatures may vary by which subspecies you’re keeping. Heat sources should be turned off at night. If nighttime heat is needed to maintain appropriate temps, use a ceramic heat emitter or radiant heat panel on a thermostat.
Generally speaking, 50w 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 milksnake’s coiled body. Two bulbs should be enough for an average milksnake, but particularly large snakes over 48″ long may need up to 4 bulbs for an appropriate basking area. 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.
Milksnake Humidity Requirements
Milksnakes 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. However, you will absolutely need to provide a humid retreat for your snake to use as needed. The easiest way to do this is by placing moistened sphagnum moss or substrate 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 and acts as a source a enrichment.
Substrate Options for Milksnakes
Milksnakes 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. Milksnakes can be found in all kinds of habitats, so fortunately, they’re not too picky.
Here are some suitable substrate options for milksnakes:
- 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.
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 Milksnake Enclosure
Decorations play an important role in your milksnake’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 milksnakes:
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 Milksnake
Milksnakes 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 milksnake’s prey should be no more than 1.5x the width of the snake 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. Wild milksnakes are known to eat other snakes, small mammals, lizards, birds, and eggs. 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 milksnakes:
- 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 milksnake 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 Milksnake
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 milksnake 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. Milksnakes usually tolerate handling well.
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The ReptiFiles Milksnake 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.