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Snakes 101

Martha Stewart Living Television

Fascinating and low-maintenance, snakes can make wonderful pets. But according to pet expert Marc Morrone, it's important to equip yourself with some basic knowledge before you bring a snake into your home.

Though you'll find a variety of snakes at most pet stores, many of them are unsuitable for first-time snake owners. Avoid buying a snake that was caught in the wild, as they often suffer from bacterial or parasitic infections or refuse to eat. And be conscious of size: Many popular snakes, including the boa or Burmese python, start small but can reach lengths of more than 10 feet. Some people consider ball pythons -- which usually grow to about 4 feet -- a good alternative, but virtually all of them are caught in the wild and won't live long as pets. Your best choice is either a king snake or a rat snake; both stop growing at 4 to 5 feet, are gentle in nature, and generally will eat without much coaxing.

The best environment for a pet snake is a glass tank with a secure, locking screen cover. To maintain the ideal temperature of 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, you'll need a heat mat with a thermostat, as well as a heat lamp to warm the air. Line the bottom of the tank with newspaper or butcher paper, which should be changed weekly when you clean the tank. Add a few secure decorative objects to serve as hiding places for the snake, and keep a non-tipping water dish readily available to hold drinking water and to allow the snake to soak before shedding its skin. Wash the dish regularly with soap and water. Though snakes do eat rats and mice, you'll probably find that feeding them isn't as unpleasant as you expect: First, you can buy the rodents frozen, then thaw them just before feeding time; and second, the average king snake eats only one mouse every seven days, so this isn't a routine you'll need to perform too often.

As with all pets, if your snake shows any signs of bad health, immediately take it to a vet; most have at least a basic knowledge of reptile medicine.