Eastern Milk Snake: Care, Temperament & Breeding

“Red on yellow is a deadly fellow. Brown on black is a friend of Jack.”

While not the most colorful of milk snakes, the Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum) is a stunning specimen of Batesian mimicry. This means that a harmless species will mimic the coloration of a venomous species to ward off predators.

Milk snakes are exceptional pets for beginner herp enthusiasts. They are hardy creatures and do not need hyper-specialized enclosures or care.

They live for a long time and can bond with their handler over time. This guide will show you how best to care for your Eastern Milk Snake for the next 20 years!

Common Name:Eastern Milk Snake, Eastern Milksnake, Chin snake, Cow sucker, Milk sucker, House moccasin
Scientific Name:Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum
Natural Habitat:Southeastern Canada to Kentucky and Minnesota in North America
Adult Size:2 – 4 feet
Lifespan:12 – 20 years
Diet:Rodents
Experience Level:Beginner
Enclosure Size:20 – 30 gallon enclosure

Overview

Most people associate the milk snake species with bright red banding and hard black lines. They would be right; most milk snakes have bright red coloration that mimics the coral snakes found in the same area.

The Eastern Milk Snake is unique in its different coloration that mimics the venomous copperhead or Massasauga. Unfortunately, this means that many innocent milk snakes are killed when they are mistaken for the venomous snake they are mimicking.

The Eastern Milk Snake is not endangered just yet; however, there are specific areas like Ontario, Canada where they are ranked as Vulnerable. Threats include urbanization, loss of habitat, agricultural machinery, road kills, snake fungal disease, and the pet trade.

We always suggest purchasing your snake from a reputable captive breeder instead of getting a wild-caught specimen. Captive-bred snakes are less likely to carry parasites and owning one does not affect the wild population.

Appearance

Eastern Milk Snakes get to about 2 – 4 feet in length and they have quite a uniform girth. They differ from most snakes in that the male is often longer than the female and there is no easily discernible sexual dimorphism.

Young Eastern Milk Snakes can be brighter in color, but it will fade or dull down in time.

The Eastern Milk Snake has reddish to tan/brown oval splotches that run down its spine. There are smaller splotches of the same color along the sides of the snake but do not come up high enough to meld with the dorsal splotches.

Adult eastern milk snake

If the snake is viewed from the top, it looks like there are solid rings of color around it.

These splotches of color are ringed in black and lie on a cream/tan/gray/white/yellowish background. Its belly is a grey to cream color with clusters of darker spots that make a checkered-like pattern.

Its snout is generally lighter or even white in color and has smooth scales.

There is a distinctive light spot of color on the back of the head towards the neck. It is either a small circle or looks like a U, V, or Y.

The appearance can seem very similar to the venomous massasauga rattlesnake. However, the massasauga’s splotches are irregular in shape and their bodies are thicker.

The eastern milk snake is also similar in appearance to the venomous copperhead snake. However, the copperhead is generally a lighter tan color and lacks the distinctive black banding.

Temperament

These snakes are generally mild-mannered and warm up to their handlers quickly. However, juveniles are more nervous snakes and will strike out defensively more often than adults.

Eastern milk snake head macro

Your Eastern Milk Snake will enjoy appropriate handling. Be aware that if you get a wildcaught snake then the chances of it being aggressive and striking out are greater than if it was a captive-bred snake.

Behavior

Wild Eastern Milk Snakes are mostly diurnal. This means that they are most active during the day. However, during the hottest parts of the summer months, wild variants will become nocturnal to avoid over-heating.

Your enclosure should never reach these temperatures; therefore, your snake should present diurnal behavior.

If your snake feels threatened it will curl up and “rattle” its tail to mimic the massasauga rattlesnake. This is meant to ward off predators who believe the mimicry and that the bite will be venomous.

Eastern Milk Snakes like to burrow so make sure your substrate can accommodate this. Alternatively, make sure that there are little caves and hollow logs to facilitate the burrowing behavior.

Lifespan

The Eastern Milk Snake lives on average between 12 and 20 years. They only reach sexual maturity at 3 to 4 years old

The better care your snake receives the healthier it will be and the longer it will live.

Enclosure

Your snake’s enclosure must be between 20 and 30 gallons. It must be longer than it is tall so that there is an appropriate temperature gradient and so your snake has room to stretch out.

Exo Terra Glass Terrarium Kit

Exo Terra Glass Terrarium Kit

The enclosure can be made of wood as this snake does not require high humidity levels. However, you should always watch out for mold because it is toxic to your snake and will cause respiratory infections.

Your enclosure should always have suitable ventilation but it must not affect the temperature gradient or completely dry out the humidity.

Whether the enclosure has a lid or the front wall is a door, they both need to be latched appropriately. Your Eastern Milk Snake is a curious snake and will get out if given the opportunity.

Your snake is not an arboreal (tree-dwelling) snake; however, it does like to climb rocks and tree stumps to look out at the world. Provide suitably sized and stable rocks and logs for your snake to climb over.

Eastern milk snake on rock

To sanitize these natural items, boil them in clean water and let them completely dry out and cool down before putting them into the enclosure.

You can use synthetic greenery to add some visual appeal to the enclosure and safe spots for your snake.

To sanitize enclosure you can use disinfectants made special for reptiles.

Unless you are breeding, always house your milk snakes separately as they are cannibalistic.

Make sure you set up your enclosure before your snake arrives to reduce the stress it will be experiencing.

Substrate

Newspaper and paper towels are the cheapest and easiest substrates to use. Put down a couple of layers of newspaper on the floor of the enclosure and scrunch some paper towels on top to provide your snake with places to burrow.

For a more visually appealing substrate, you can use wood chips or shavings that are not small enough to be swallowed. Safe woods to use are beech, aspen, and cypress.

Galapagos Aspen Digs Shavings Bedding

Galapagos Aspen Digs Shavings Bedding

When you are putting the wood chips or shavings into the enclosure, make sure you do not dump in the fine dust at the bottom of the bag. This dust will cause health problems for your snake.

Never use cedar or pine as they contain oils that are harmful to your snake and will cause skin irritation and respiratory issues.

Spot clean the substrate daily. This is a very easy task as the Eastern Milk Snake defecates seldomly.

Replace all of the substrate once a month and do a full cleanout of the enclosure.

Temperature

Your snake needs a temperature gradient in the enclosure so that it can move between hot and cool to regulate its bodily functions.

We advise using a heating pad underneath the enclosure on the warm side. This will help provide heat throughout the day and night without the use of light.

VIVOSUN Reptile Heating Pad with Digital Thermostat

VIVOSUN Reptile Heating Pad with Digital Thermostat

Place a thermometer on the warm and cool side of the enclosure to maintain an accurate and healthy temperature gradient. We suggest also using a thermostat to control the heating pad to prevent an accident.

Zoo Med Labs Digital Hygrometer and Thermometer

Zoo Med Labs Digital Hygrometer and Thermometer

  • Cool Side: 75°F
  • Warm Side: 85°F
  • Basking Area: 89°F

We recommend a heating lamp placed in the hottest corner of the enclosure to facilitate the basking spot’s temperature. The heating lamp must be in a protective casing to prevent your snake from getting burned.

Place a hide-away on the cool and warm sides of the enclosure. They are there for your snake to feel secure and are essential to its health.

Do not let direct sunlight hit the enclosure as this will raise the temperature and prove fatal to your snake.

Lighting

The Eastern Milk Snake does not require special UVA and UVB lighting. However, using the lighting can have added health benefits such as improved immunity.

Zoo Med ReptiSun 5.0 UVB Mini Compact Fluorescent

Zoo Med ReptiSun 5.0 UVB

Your snake needs a 12/12 light/dark cycle to be healthy. During the dark portion of the cycle, your snake should not have excess light coming into the enclosure.

Humidity

Your snake does not require high humidity levels. Misting the enclosure once a week should be sufficient.

However, increased humidity will help your snake have a successful shed. We suggest lining the hide on the warm side of the enclosure with sphagnum moss and misting it only during shedding time.

If the enclosure is too dry, your snake will battle to shed or have an incomplete shed. If this happens, adjust your misting schedule and increase the humidity SLIGHTLY.

To help your snake with bits of the stuck shed:

  • put it into a tub of water that is at room temperature,
  • soak it for 30 minutes,
  • then try gently remove the stuck skin,
  • if the shed does not come away easily then soak the snake for an additional 30 minutes and try again.

Keep a careful eye on your snake and do not make the water too deep as it can drown.

Diet

Milk snakes definitely do not drink milk as their names suggest! They used to be caught in barns where the farmers believed they would come in and drink the cow’s milk.

They were probably in the barn to catch the mice and rats that were stealing the cow’s grain!

Your Eastern Milk Snake will drink a healthy amount of water every day.

  • Make sure to refresh the water daily
  • Make sure the water bowl is leak proof so that it does not affect the humidity
  • Make sure it is big enough for the snake to go for a dip and not splash water onto the substrate because this will increase the humidity
  • Put the water bowl on the cool side of the enclosure so that the water does not evaporate too quickly and cause the humidity level to increase
Eastern milk snake climbing on branch

Scrub out the water dish once a week to prevent bacterial and algal growth. If your snake is soaking in and drinking the same dirty water for days on end it will lead to health issues.

Food:

  • Juveniles should get 1 prey item every 5 days
  • Adults should get 1 prey item every 10 days.

Our formula for prey item size is as follows:

Prey item at its largest point of girth does not exceed the largest point of girth (excluding the head) of the snake.

We suggest feeding your snake inside its enclosure. This will not promote aggressive behavior.

Eastern Milk Snakes are best kept on frozen/thawed mice or rats. We always recommend frozen/thawed prey.

If you give your snake live prey you run the risk of introducing parasites and disease and there is also the chance that the prey item will scratch or chew on your snake.

Take the prey item out of the freezer and place it in a bowl of hot water. Once the prey item has thawed completely and is slightly above room temperature, it is safe to offer it to your snake.

NEVER offer your snake partially-thawed prey. The temperature drop that your snake will experience is FATAL.

Handling

Always wash your hands before handling your snake or between handling different animals. Snakes are very susceptible to bacteria and parasites so do everything you can to avoid contamination.

Never handle your snake:

  • 24 hours before feeding,
  • during feeding, or
  • for 48 hours after feeding.

Handling during this time will stress your snake and cause it to regurgitate its food.

Avoid handling your snake during shedding and when/if it is gravid.

The sweet spot for handling your Eastern Milk Snake is for no more than one hour, once a week. This allows the snake to destress enough after you have handled it and will prevent massive temperature changes occurring from being out of its enclosure for too long.

Your milk snake will generally be quite docile. You should reach into the enclosure slowly but with purpose and stroke the snake to let it know it is time for handling, then gently lift it out of the enclosure.

If you feel more confident with a hook then hook train your snake from a juvenile and only hook it when you are going to handle it, never to feed it. Gently nudge your snake with the hook so that it is alert and then hook it out of the enclosure, make sure to support its body appropriately.

DocSeward Snake Hook

DocSeward Snake Hook

You should avoid touching your snake’s head as most snakes are head shy and will rear back and shy away. Handle your snake gently and do not squeeze its body. Avoid handling hatchlings and young juveniles as they are incredibly delicate

Eastern Milk Snakes are curious creatures and might rove around your body to explore. Make sure your clothing is clean and free of pet hair so that the snake is protected as far as possible from bacterial and parasite transmission.

Potential Health Issues

Eastern Milk Snakes are generally quite healthy. However, there are some common health issues that they face.

Eastern milk snake in garden

Parasites:

  • All snakes are susceptible to mites. They are small external parasites that burrow under the scales to get at the blood.
  • They carry their own parasites so dealing with them is a top priority. If your snake has a mite infestation it means that the enclosure is not being kept clean enough.
  • Mites are visible as red and black dots on the snake and the substrate. A good sign of a mite infestation is if your snake is soaking excessively.
  • Get your snake to the vet and do a full decontamination of the enclosure and replace the substrate.

Obesity:

  • Eastern Milk Snakes will readily take food if it is offered. It is therefore easy to overfeed your snake especially if you are a beginner.
  • Please remember that a fat snake is not a funny snake. Obesity puts a strain on the heart and liver and is fatal.
  • Stick to a regular feeding schedule.

Snake Fungal Disease:

  • Eastern Milk Snakes are susceptible to the new Snake Fungal Disease that is present in North America. If your snake shows signs of distress or other illness take it to the vet.

Respiratory Issues:

  • If the humidity levels are too high your snake will develop a respiratory infection.
  • You will notice your snake bubbling and gurgling and it will have mucus around its mouth.
  • Take it to the vet and adjust your humidity levels.

Breeding

Males and females only become sexually active at 3 to 4 years old and the females will only produce eggs every 2 years. Never try to breed a younger pairing as there are health issues to consider.

Before attempting breeding, your Eastern Milk Snakes need to go through a period of brumation to maximize the chances of success.

Brumation:

  • Involves a period of cooling that indicates to the snake that the mating season is coming up.
  • During the 3 winter months that precede spring, cool your snake’s enclosure so that the coolest spot is at 66°F. To do this, slowly reduce the temperature over 3 weeks and reduce the amount of time the basking light is on to 8 hours a day.
  • During the brumation period, your snake may refuse food, which is perfectly normal. Offer food every 14 days in case your snake is feeling up to it.
  • In the last 3 weeks of your 90-day brumation period, SLOWLY raise the temperature back to normal and adjust the lighting schedule back to the normal 12/12 light/dark cycle.

Once brumation is finished and both the male and female have had their first meal you can introduce the male to the female’s enclosure. Watch them carefully for compatibility.

As previously stated, Eastern Milk Snakes do cannibalize so be aware. Never feed them in the same enclosure.

Adult lampropeltis triangulum triangulum

The male will scent the ovulating female’s pheromone trail and mate with her. This will happen for several hours. Leave the male with the female for a couple of days at a time until you are sure she is gravid (pregnant).

She will have a bump develop on her lower belly indicating that she is gravid. Remove the male when you see this is happening.

In about 30 days the female will lay a clutch of 2 to 17 eggs. As it comes closer to this time provide the female with a nesting box.

The nesting box needs to be big enough for her to fit in and turn around. Line the nesting box with sphagnum moss that is misted daily.

The female has no involvement with the care of the hatchlings so we would advise that you remove the eggs to be incubated away from the female. Remove the eggs soon after laying as they will stick together if left to dry out.

Incubate the eggs in a warm plastic box with a moist substrate such as sphagnum moss for 30 to 60 days. When the first egg starts hatching, it will encourage the rest.

Conclusion

The Eastern Milk Snake is a great snake to own as a beginner herp enthusiast. They are hardy snakes that will live a long time if you care for them properly.

We believe that a healthy snake is a happy snake, the information in this guide will help you keep your new pet as happy as can be which means you will be a happy owner.

We “herp” you have fun with your new best friend and we wish you every success!

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