I know it doesn’t have the most appealing name.
But the black rat snake is actually very appealing. It makes a great pet, especially for people in North America and Europe.
That’s because its natural habitat is North America, so you won’t have to alter the environment much in the enclosure to keep it comfortable.
It is also a docile snake with a mild temperament. And it happily eats thawed mice and rats, so feeding is a breeze, too.
Overall, it is one of the easier snakes to care for. That said, it is a bit bigger than the smallest common pet snakes. It will need a larger terrarium and will take up more space. But not that much more.
Keep reading to learn basic black rat snake facts and how to care for this gentle serpent.
Table of Contents
Black Rat Snake Facts
The black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) is also referred to as the Western Rat Snake, the Pilot Snake or just Black Snake.
An interesting fact is that one of its alternate names – ‘Pilot Snake’ – resulted from the belief that in the colder months, this snake leads other snakes to shelter.
That has proven false, but it does share a den with other snakes for brumation and that is likely where the belief came from. Shockingly, these snakes even share a den with the timber rattlesnake, which is probably not most animals choice of bedfellow.
The black rat snake is medium-sized, reaching between 40 and 72 inches in length. It has been known to grow at long as 7 or 8 feet. The snake is attractive, with a sleek, but powerful body.
On the ground, the reptile slithers along horizontally and it can easily go climb up a tree. These snakes are excellent climbers and when necessary, they enter rivers as well and are adept swimmers.
You’ll find the Black Rat Snake in the eastern and midwest parts of the United States, but they have also been found in some northern parts of Oklahoma.
They have also been spotted in certain areas of Canada. They are an abundant and commonly seen snake species. It is therefore not close to being listed as threatened or endangered.
Despite that, the snake shouldn’t just be randomly killed. In terms of ecology and conservation, this snake is helpful in controlling rodent populations.
The serpent does well in a variety of habitats, from meadows to forest. In their pursuit of food, they come into more developed areas too, living in sheds and farm buildings if their are rodents to be found nearby.
Within these meadow and forest habitats, the black rat snake will take on any rodent, but will basically eat anything it can find. Adults snakes hunt even larger rats and also other small mammals like moles, rabbits, birds or squirrels. They also consume frogs and lizards and are quite prepared to forage around in the branches of trees and raid the nests of birds for eggs.
The snake is not venomous, but uses constriction to finish off its prey. It will lie in wait quietly and strike out at unsuspecting prey that comes near. It kills its prey by wrapping its body around the creature and constricting it.
They’re day-time hunters – diurnal – but during the heat of the summer, they may prefer to hunt at night. Snakes like this aren’t really strictly diurnal or nocturnal – they simply come out and find food when they can.
After devouring their prey whole, digestion is slow. How long does it take a snake to digest? It takes days for food to be fully digested. As a result, the adult black rat snake will only eat a couple of times a month.
In captivity, the black rat snake can live for 10 to 30 years. When the snake is young, it looks quite different from its adult counterpart.
Young snakes aren’t black, but a grayish-tan color with some darker patterns. As the snake matures they take on that sleek, black coloring, with the pattern of their youth gradually fading.
These snakes aren’t aggressive and they are fairly tolerant of people. They are easily tamed. The young ones do make a bit of an attempt at being aggressive, and they may even bite. They’re just establishing themselves, and settle down as they mature.
The Black Rat Snake is an attractive snake that is often mistaken for other similar looking snakes such as the northern black racers, the black kingsnake, and even the rattlesnake.
Just like the venomous rattlesnake, the black rat snake also vibrates, or rattles, its tail. They do this to mimic the more dangerous rattlesnake, hoping it will discourage any threat from attacking them.
In truth, these snakes are timid and they try to avoid human confrontation. The rat snake has a couple of clever tricks up its sleeve for when it feels threatened. It will go into what is known as a ‘kink’ position. The snake lies motionless with its body in a slight s-curve, taking on the look of an old tree branch.
The black rat snake is a non-venomous colubrid. When this snake feels threatened, the most it can do is emits a putrid, musky odor to ward off a predator. When it becomes the predator, however, it uses constriction to suffocate its prey.
The black rat snake usually reaches sexual maturity between 4 and 7 years of age. The snakes mate in the spring. They are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs. The female will lay between 4 and 30 eggs early in the summer. The number of eggs produced is related to the size of the female.
The male snake is prepared to slither far out of his regular range in search of females. He may have to fight other males for the right to mate with a female.
When they are ready to lay their eggs, the females seek a safe spot. They often lay their eggs in hollow trees or under logs. The eggs take anywhere from 35 to 50 days to develop and hatch.
The hatchlings, about 12 inches in length, stay near the birth site for a couple of years and will actually use the same sit as their hibernation den.
Black Rat Snake Care Guide
The black rat snake is an attractive, undemanding snake. It is a hardy, popular reptile pet for beginners, but has a lot of interesting features that also appeal to experienced snake owners.
As mentioned, they are excellent climbers, so you will need a secure enclosure to ensure they do not climb out and escape.
You can keep adult snakes in a 30 to 40 gallon glass aquarium or terrarium with a well-fitting lid. The taller the cage the better, as these curious snakes love to climb. And remember, 30 to 40 gallons is a minimum. More space is always better.
They are easy to keep as pets, and cleaning the enclosure, keeping the water bowls clean and feeding your reptile will essentially be your main duties.
When it comes to feeding, your black rat snake loves a regular diet of mice and rats. In the wild, they look for live prey, but in captivity, they will readily take dead prey. You should feed them thawed frozen mice or rats, depending on your snake’s size.
It is actually best not to offer live prey, because a live rodent can put up a good fight and potentially injure the snake. Feed your adult snake every 10 days or so.
Another plus in terms of keeping this snake as a pet is that it doesn’t require a lot of equipment. Unlike many other snake species who love warmer temperatures, this snake prefers a cooler temperature, since it lives in cooler locations in the wild.
If you want to prevent them from hibernating, keep the enclosure at a temperature of between 80 and 85° Fahrenheit, dropping to a minimum temperature of 70° at night.
There are special reptile heat lights in different sizes and shapes that you can use to maintain these temperatures. You can place heat lights on a timer, so that they come on and off every 12 hours or so, to replicate the day and night cycles.
Also, unlike other snake breeds, the black rat snake doesn’t require ultraviolet (UVB) lighting.
Your pet black rat snake is a burrowing snake, so you want to use bedding that allows them to dig. This means no newspaper or similar option. While they would still work, your snake just won’t be as happy if it can’t burrow.
The substrate needs to be clean and dry. That means you do not need to use bedding that holds moisture especially well, like you do with tropical snakes.
This buyer’s guide for snake substrates will walk you through the different types and help you find the right one for your snake. As mentioned, you want one that is good for burrowing and it does not need to be great at holding moisture.
As a climbing snake, add in some branches for climbing. You can use both natural and fake foliage. The snake also likes logs in the wild, so a hide box, available in log-like shapes will please your snake.
For instance, Zoo Med has a great option called the Habba Hut, available in small, medium, large and giant sizes. You will want the extra large for an adult rat snake.
This all-natural den or retreat is made of natural fir and it makes a great retreat for your snake, or any reptile. A log hide like this helps keep your snake’s stress levels down, because it provides your pet with an enclosure that is as close to your snakes’ natural surrounds as possible.
You can also add rocks for aesthetic appeal and for basking purposes.
We also recommend a large water bowl, to allow your pet black rat snake the chance to soak. Make sure the bowl is of such a size that it won’t overflow when the snake gets in. You don’t want the water soaking the substrate. Damp terrariums can lead to skin and respiratory infections.
Black Rat Snake: Final Thoughts
The black rat snake makes a great pet, and some have been so happy in captivity that they have reached more than 30 years of age. While they have been known to bite in self-defense, they are generally balanced, mildly tempered snakes, and they respond well to gentle, skilled handling.
Do your research first, before you bring your black rat snake into your home. You want to make sure you understand exactly what it needs and what it takes to care for one. That way your start your journey towards a long, meaningful relationship off on the right foot.
For more, read our comparison between a bull snake and a fox snake, which is a type of rat snake.