Garter Snakes as Pets? Is It a Good Idea?

Garter snakes are one of the most common snakes in North America, frequently found in backyards, grasslands, and forests. Though generally terrestrial, they are excellent climbers and swimmers.

These snakes are also popular pets among reptile enthusiasts in the US! But why, and are they for everybody?

Garter snakes are popular pets because they are small, docile, cheap, and easy to care for. However, having them as pets mean dealing with their occasionally stinky smell, frequent escaping, and mild venomosity.

Garter Snakes Basic Care Guide

garter snakes as pets

Considering owning a garter snake pet but wondering if you have everything you need? Here’s an essential care guide for caring for garter snakes.

Enclosure Size

garter snake enclosure setup

Science Direct recommends that the perimeter of your cage (the distance around your tank) be double the length of your snake.

For example, a 12” x 8” tank will have a perimeter of 40”, making it perfect for a 20” snake. However, it will be too small for a 26” snake.

Generally, adult males are typically comfortable in 10-15 gallon tanks, while adult females need a 20-gallon tank.

This size is recommended for single snakes. If you are housing more snakes, you may need to get tanks a few sizes larger.

The good news is that you don’t need anything fancy, either. Snakes will be happy with a large plastic container with good furnishings.

Editor’s Note
Find the perimeter of your tank by adding all the sides. Using the previous example, a 12” x 8” tank will have a perimeter of 40” because 12 + 12 + 8 + 8 = 40.

Temperature, Lighting, and Humidity

garter snake enclosure with lighting

Remember that each garter snake species may have specific temperature, lighting, and humidity requirements. That being said, though, here are the general conditions for this pet snake.

Since garter snakes are diurnal, most only need additional lighting if you keep them in a dark room. They are happy with ambient light.

They do, however, still need basking lamps.

Garter snakes need a room-temperature tank area in the mid-70s and a warmer basking zone of around 90 °F. 

Lastly, their humidity should be kept between 50-60%.

Enclosure Accessories

All garter snake tanks must be lined with 2 inches of substrate. While you can use regular soil, you can also use coco fiber, peat moss, cypress mulch, and even newspaper. Avoid using coarse materials such as sand and shredded cardboard.

Additionally, all garter snake tanks must have the following:

  • Bark (either a tree or a bark wall) to rub against and help them shed their skin.
  • A large dish of water that they can soak in or “hunt” their fish food.
  • Hiding spots, either rocks, logs, or hiding boxes.
  • Small branches for climbing.

Fake branches will work just as well as real ones. Also, avoid bringing in branches from your garden for your snake’s enclosure since these may have bacteria or pests.

Your snake doesn’t need much more beyond these necessities. It may be easier to keep it simple so you will never “lose” your snake and have an easier time keeping it clean!


garter snake eating small frog

Garter snakes eat live fish, slugs, worms, and tiny frogs. Very rarely do they enjoy mice like other snakes do!

Ideally, you should train your snake to enjoy pre-killed fish or rodents to make storing their food easier. If your pet only wants live prey, you may need to set up a separate tank to keep its food alive!

If you feed it the occasional live fish, other owners sometimes place the fish inside their pet’s water bowl for the snake to “hunt” and “fish” on its own.

Like all reptiles, it’s recommended to dust their insect food with vitamin supplement powder.

However, garter snakes need to eat more often than other snakes. 

Juvenile garter snakes (0 to 2 years old) must eat twice or thrice a week. Once they become adults at around three years old, their eating will lessen to once a week.

Why Garter Snakes Are Good Pets

woman holding pet garter snake

Why are garter snakes such popular pets? There must be a reason thousands of people choose them as companions!

Yes, there are reasons—plenty of them. Here are nine of them:

They are small

small garter snake on man's palm

Garter snakes are small snakes. Females are usually between 2.5 to 3 feet, while males are even shorter at 1.5 to 2 feet.

They are also very thin and light. Most fully-grown garter snakes are only an inch in diameter and weigh 5 ounces or less than half a pound!

Editor’s Note
Garter snakes are so petite because they are not constrictors and never build the muscles needed for suffocation.

They are not aggressive

boy holding calm garter snake

Garter snakes are known to be very docile snakes, preferring to run and hide than fight.

However, this does not mean they won’t fight back if provoked!

Cheap and easy to find

This snake species can be found almost everywhere reptiles are available and sometimes can be bought for as low as $10. 

Note that it’s illegal to capture a wild snake and raise it as a pet. If you are looking for a garter snake, you’re much better off buying it from a registered store or breeder.

Many species and morphs to choose from

Generally, garter snakes are known for the stripes running down their bodies. 

Their base scales are typically dark colored, either olive, brown, dark red, or black. Meanwhile, their stripes are typically yellow, white, orange, or tan but can be more unique colors, such as bright blue. Their bellies are pale green or yellow.

However, while there is a distinct garter snake look, remember that 30 species of garter snakes are available, some even having subspecies.

This means you have endless variations of lengths and colors to choose from.

Editor’s Note
All garter snakes have “keeled scales,” or ridged scales that are rough to the touch.

Easy habitat requirements

Since garter snakes are so small and thin, they need drastically smaller tanks than most other snake species.

They don’t ask for too many accessories within their tanks, too. 


garter snake stare

Garter snakes are very low-maintenance pets. Like most snakes, they prefer being alone rather than constantly in your company.

Therefore, garter snakes are suitable for those with busy schedules!

Can live with other snakes

garter snakes in one enclosure

Most reptiles can’t stand sharing their tank with another, even one from their species.

Garter snakes, on the other hand, are sociable animals.

In the wild, garter snakes band together for added protection and warmth. But some scientists have noted that they even enjoy the companionship of others of their species!

They bear live young

Garter snakes are ovoviviparous, meaning they give birth to live young.

This is good news for those looking to breed their snakes since you don’t need to worry about setting up incubators for garter snakelets!

Long lifespans

Assuming they receive proper care and do not get sick, garter snakes live between 8 to 10 years in captivity. This is twice as long as their lifespan in the wild!

Why Garter Snakes Are NOT Good Pets 

While garter snakes are great, they aren’t perfect. Here are a few downsides to having one as a pet.

They are mildly venomous

hand with blood bitten by garter snake

Garter snakes are mildly venomous. 

Their venom is not strong enough to kill you or your pet dog if you are bitten. But there is a possibility that your skin will become irritated, red, and itchy. 

They can be stinky

When threatened or distressed, garter snakes release a musky smell, similar to what a skunk does.

Your snake may also urinate or defecate when startled.

Therefore, if you handle your snake at the wrong time or if it becomes alarmed by a change in its environment, its room may be stinky for a while.

Need a lot of cleaning

Aside from their musky smell, there’s another reason you may need to clean your garter snake’s enclosure more often than other species.

Because garter snakes eat pretty often, they will also defecate quite often. Soiled bedding will need to be replaced daily or as often as needed.

Additionally, you must deep clean its tank at least once a month.

They can be difficult to handle

man with gloves holding garter snake

Though garter snakes are small and light, they often squirm. Unpracticed owners may need help keeping hold of their garter snake as it tries to wriggle to freedom.

They are escape artists

Garter snakes are notorious escape artists. Ensure you always cover their tank with a tight-fitting lid with enough holes for air but too small for it to squeeze through.

Failure to close its tank properly or too big holes may result in your snake happily slithering around your entire home instead of just inside its enclosure!

Most snakes for sale are wild-caught

Most garter snakes available on the market are wild-caught. The disadvantage of buying snakes from the wild is that they are more skittish around people and may never warm up to you.

It’s best to specifically ask for captive-bred garter snakes when buying your slithery pet.

More Tips for Purchasing Garter Snakes

Aside from requesting captive-bred garter snakes, the following can help ensure you’ll get along better with your pet.

Avoid young snakes

young garter snake on owner's hand

Young snakes tend to be more temperamental and aggressive than older snakes. Additionally, they are trickier to care for since they overheat or become dehydrated much quicker.

If you can, it’s best to get a snake at least a year old.

“Practice” first

two hands holding garter snake

Since garter snakes can be tricky to handle, try asking your local pet store if you can “practice” on some of their snakes on display.

This allows you to build your confidence before bringing your snake home.

The pet store benefits, too—assuming its snake isn’t overhandled (i.e., too many people practicing on it), being handled regularly will make the snake tamer and easily sellable.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Snakes Hibernate?

Snakes hibernate, but in reptiles, it is known as brumation.

Garter snakes typically brumate from October to March or early April in response to the cold weather. If your snake is brumating, it will barely move, eat, defecate, or urinate.

However, it’s always vital to have fresh water in its tank should it wake up to hydrate itself.

What Should I Do If I Get Bitten By A Garter Snake?

If you get bitten by your pet snake, gently but firmly grasp its head and pull it away. This is due to the shape of their fangs and how it hooks onto prey.

Beyond that, there is little cause for concern.

Garter snake venom is very mild and will rarely cause a strong reaction in humans. Still, always clean and disinfect the wound thoroughly to avoid infections.


Garter snakes have their pros and cons, as all pets do. 

Ultimately, it’s impossible to objectively say that they are “good” or “bad” pets since it all depends on whether they fit you and your lifestyle.

Also, remember that while there are generalizations you can rely on, each snake has its preferences and personality.

Therefore, the garter snake is the best snake for you if, and only if, you feel a connection with the specific snake in your hand and a desire to care for it.

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