Garter snakes are nonvenomous, relatively small snakes that are easy to handle and seldom bite. These qualities have made them among the most commonly kept snakes in the world. They make excellent first pet snakes for those new to the hobby but also have plenty to offer to hobbyists of all experience levels.
Garter snakes are represented in the pet trade by a wide variety of species and subspecies, both occurring naturally and through a process of selective breeding in captivity. Garter snake species vary greatly in length, color, and pattern and often require different ambient temperatures and humidity levels when kept as pets.
Garter snakes with mutations to their color and/or pattern are known as morphs. Most morphs don’t originate in captivity, but breeders can reproduce morphs through a selective breeding process involving genetic mutations that occur spontaneously in the wild. For example, albino variants (those lacking or deficient in pigmentation) of several garter species have been available as pets for several years now. Breeders can also create new, man-made garter snake morphs by crossbreeding existing morphs in different combinations.
Garter snakes have a docile temperament that makes them ideal pets for novice snake keepers and even children. They grow accustomed to handling fairly quickly and seem to enjoy the stimulation and warmth that gentle handling and interaction with their owners provide.
Garter snakes live throughout virtually all of North America and south to Honduras in Central America, occurring more or less anywhere the environment can support them. They thrive in fields, wooded lowlands, streamside forests, swamps, and other such areas where there is plenty of prey (such as earthworms, slugs, frogs, toads, and fish) for them to hunt. Garters often prowl through flower beds, backyard shrubs, and vegetable gardens.
Most garter snakes have adapted to a climate consisting of short summers and long, cold winters. Unlike other snakes, garters don’t lay eggs; they give live birth rather than incubate eggs because their climate doesn’t accommodate the incubation period. Their adaptation to lengthy cold seasons has also resulted in an ability to hibernate for long periods: some species of garter snake can even freeze solid and emerge in the spring in perfect health. (In captivity, garter snakes tolerate slightly cooler temperatures than other types of snakes but still need proper heat to thrive.)
Is Your Home Right for a Garter Snake?
Before you bring a garter snake into your home, be sure that you can provide the care it requires to live a full, healthy life. A healthy garter snake can live for more than 15 years in captivity, so be prepared for a long-term commitment to your snake before buying one.
Remember that even though you might love snakes, not everyone else does. Before you bring home a garter snake, make sure that no one in your household is afraid of snakes or has objections to living with one. You should also discuss the snake’s diet with the other members of your household. Many people are squeamish about feeding the live prey items that garter snakes eat.