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Complex Habitats or Rack Systems for Captive Snakes?

Posted by on February 1, 2022 at 4:55 PM

Complex Habitats or Rack Systems for Captive Snakes?


Reptile owners and breeders engage in an on-going debate as to whether snakes should be kept in environmentally complex enclosures or racks. My opinion, based on information in the scientific literature, on personal observations of snakes at our facility when given preference tests, and considering anecdotal stories and observations from caretakers is that keeping snakes in tubs with no access to natural (or simulated natural) light and heat, without the ability to fully stretch out or move rectilinearly, and without access to opportunities to express natural behaviors is not optimal welfare. Consider both sides and let me know in the comments what your thoughts are.

Breeders and keepers who maintain snakes in tubs state that it makes it easier to care for large numbers of animals, it is easier to maintain sanitized conditions, it is easier to monitor body functions such as food and water intake and elimination behavior, that it is easier to notice issues such as mites, it is easier to maintain uniform heat, and that snakes in the wild prefer to hide in tight, dark spaces and don’t require UVB or natural light as many are nocturnal.

I find flaws in each of these premises except the ability to maintain cleanliness and notice mites. That is true. When snakes are kept in a plastic container with paper for substrate and just a water dish, keeping it very clean and noticing the presence of mites or other parasites will be very easy. The cons of keeping this way are numerous. The snakes have no access to light or heat from above as they would in nature, they have no access to climbing or burrowing opportunities as they would in nature, they usually have no ability to observe the external environment (some tubs have small windows in them) which prevents them from passively habituating to human behavior and activities going on outside, unless the tub is very long the snakes cannot fully stretch out or move in a fully rectilinear manner, they have no exposure to novelty, and some keepers do not provide hides as they say the tub itself is “like a hide”. Some species of snakes do like to hide in tight, dark spaces when they are sleeping; however, when observed during periods when they are naturally awake and active, they engage in activities out in the open, fully stretched out, and travel distances longer than the length of a tub or most enclosures. Some species of snakes (i.e., Morelia bredli, Morelia carinata, Python reticulatus) sleep or rest while partially visible in trees, rock crevices, or on ledges. The bottom line with tubs is that while they are an easy way to provide excellent cleanliness, the snakes have no ability to exercise choice and control, access natural or naturalistic stimuli, passively habituate to living under human care through observation, and lack opportunities to express most natural behaviors.

Numerous studies which I will post below support that snakes will choose larger enclosures over smaller ones when given the choice and that snakes who live in enclosures with the ability to express species-typical behaviors and who are exposed to environmental complexity are better at problem-solving tasks, grow larger and develop more muscle tone, have increased cognitive abilities, and are able to discriminate between known caretakers and strangers.

Keeping in tubs satisfies the aspects of effective husbandry such as cleanliness and easily observing the physical condition of the animal and anything that comes off or out of the animal such as feces, urates, regurgitation, parasites, etc. Uniform temperatures are typically able to be maintained via ambient room heat or under tub heating across all units. Keeping in tubs does not satisfy aspects of husbandry such as the ability to express natural behaviors (climbing, burrowing, swimming hiding, basking, moving long distances during awake periods, etc.), the ability to get physical exercise, opportunities for cognitive stimulation, or other aspects of optimal welfare outlined in the Five Domains. Here are a list of papers that delve into both styles of keeping and how they impact welfare. Some of these are open access and others are not. I have all these full papers and am happy to share if anyone has an interest, just ask and I will send them to you.


Almli, L. M., & Burghardt, G. M. (2006). Environmental enrichment alters the behavioral profile of ratsnakes (Elaphe). Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 9(2), 85-109.

Cargill, B., Benato, L., & Rooney, N. J. (2021). A survey exploring the impact of housing and husbandry on pet snake welfare. Animal Welfare, 10-7120.

Emer, S. A., Mora, C. V., Harvey, M. T., & Grace, M. S. (2015). Predators in training: operant conditioning of novel behavior in wild Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivitattus). Animal cognition, 18(1), 269-278.

Hoehfurtner, T., Wilkinson, A., Walker, M., & Burman, O. H. (2021). Does enclosure size influence the behaviour & welfare of captive snakes (Pantherophis guttatus)? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 243, 105435.

Hoehfurtner, T., Wilkinson, A., Nagabaskaran, G., & Burman, O. H. (2021). Does the provision of environmental enrichment affect the behaviour and welfare of captive snakes? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 239, 105324.

Hollandt, T., Baur, M., & Wöhr, A. C. (2021). Animal-appropriate housing of ball pythons (Python regius)—Behavior-based evaluation of two types of housing systems. Plos one, 16(5), e0247082.

Loughman, Z. J. (2020). Utilization of Natural History Information in Evidence based Herpetoculture: A Proposed Protocol and Case Study with Hydrodynastes gigas (False Water Cobra). Animals, 10(11), 2021.

Mellor, D. J., Beausoleil, N. J., Littlewood, K. E., McLean, A. N., McGreevy, P. D., Jones, B., & Wilkins, C. (2020). The 2020 five domains model: including human–animal interactions in assessments of animal welfare. Animals, 10(10), 1870.

Ledger, R. A., & Mellor, D. J. (2018). Forensic use of the Five Domains Model for assessing suffering in cases of animal cruelty. Animals, 8(7), 101.

Mellor, D. J. (2017). Operational details of the five domains model and its key applications to the assessment and management of animal welfare. Animals, 7(8), 60.

Mellor, D. J., & Beausoleil, N. J. (2015). Extending the ‘Five Domains’ model for animal welfare assessment to incorporate positive welfare states. Anim. Welf, 24(3), 241.

Nagabaskaran, G., Burman, O. H., Hoehfurtner, T., & Wilkinson, A. (2021). Environmental enrichment impacts discrimination between familiar and unfamiliar human odours in snakes (Pantherophis guttata). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 237, 105278.

Spain, M. S., Fuller, G., & Allard, S. M. (2020). Effects of habitat modifications on behavioral indicators of welfare for Madagascar giant hognose snakes (Leioheterodon madagascariensis). Anim. Behav. Cogn, 7, 70-81.

Warwick, C., Arena, P., & Steedman, C. (2019). Spatial considerations for captive snakes. Journal of veterinary behavior, 30, 37-48.


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