Kingsnakes are part of the colubrid family and includes the Grey-Banded, Prairie and Mole, Common, Mexican, Ruthven’s, Webbi, Sonora Mountain and California Mountain Kings, as well as all Milk snakes. In total, Lampropeltis contains 45 subspecies, many of which are readily bred in captivity. In this caresheet I’ll be helping you with setting up an enclosure and caring for one of the most popular species of King Snake, a subspecies of the Common Kingsnake, the California Kingsnake.
Meet the California Kingsnake
The California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae) – often referred to as a Cali King – comes from the western United States (including as the name suggests, California) as well as northern Mexico. They are a relatively small species of kingsnake, getting between 3.5 foot and 5 foot on average. In captivity the average lifespan is often quoted as being between 10 and 15 years, but I strongly think that it’s higher. I’m hearing of more and more king snakes reaching 15 to 20 years and even more.
The classic wild type California Kingsnake has a white or cream and black banding. In captivity there are a variety of morphs and patterns, and they can be quite variable with banding or stripes, from white, yellow and cream to black. Albino forms and other morphs are also not uncommon, and I’ll cover that in the colour morphs section later on!
Housing for California Kingsnakes
California Kingsnakes are an active, inquisitive species who will use the most of the space you provide them. I see so many caresheets list “20 gallons” as a tank size for Californian Kingsnakes, and I consider that completely inappropriate. Reptile care has moved forward and we should always be thinking about what’s the best possible environment we can provide, not what’s the bare basic our animals can survive in.
To allow for exercise and exploration, we recommend a 48x18x18″ enclosure for adult California Kingsnakes, though you can start with a smaller setup for juveniles. This is a confident snake with plenty of appetite and they usually do fine going straight into a large setup.
The setup that these are most suitable for is labelled as a Corn Snake Setup on our website. This is suitable for the vast majority of snakes and definitely for the California Kingsnake.
California Kingsnake Heating and Temperature
You need to create a hot and a cold end of your tank for your Californian Kingsnake. T his is so they can thermoregulate – choose between hot areas and cold areas depending on their body temperature. All your heating should be on one side of the tank, and this should provide an ambient of 85F – 90F which is 29c to 32c. On the unheated cool side of the tank your ambient temperature should be around 70F – 75F (21c – 23c). At night you can allow this cooler temperature to be steady throughout the tank.
You have two main options of heating:
1. Heat Mat
A heat mat is a device that goes underneath the substrate or against the back wall of a wooden tank. If your tank is made of glass, you can put the heat mat underneath. The heat mat should be well covered by substrate – you do not want your snake to sit directly on it, and should also be kept dry. Heat mats are a more old fashioned method of heating, but still reliable and suitable for California Kingsnakes.
Your heat mat should always be controlled by a thermostat.
2. Ceramic Bulb
A ceramic bulb is an excellent option for providing heat. It has a much higher heat output than most heat mats, making it more suitable for larger tanks and for obtaining more reliable temperatures. Heating from above is more natural as well. Ceramic bulbs are particularly good for larger snakes or larger enclosures. In the case of a California Kingsnake, a heat mat is absolutely fine, but we still prefer ceramic bulbs where possible and use ceramic bulbs in our setups.
Your Ceramic Bulb should be controlled by a thermostat and must be guarded so the snake cannot burn itself as well.
Keep a thermometer in the vivarium at all times – digital ones are best – to ensure the temperature is correct.
The ambient humidity in Wales should be ample for your California Kingsnake. You want it to be around 50-60% so you should keep your water bowl on the cold side of the vivarium, no need to spray or mist the enclosure, but you can provide a moss box during shedding. If the enclosure gets wet, make sure you clean it out promptly.
Lighting for California King Snakes
Having a small daylight bulb in the tank helps provide a natural photoperiod allowing the snake to distinguish clearly between night and day. This isn’t strictly necessary, but it has plenty of benefits and is very inexpensive. You can use a low wattage LED which won’t raise the heat much at all, or you can use a low wattage basking bulb if you do want to raise the heat a little in this area.
If you use any heat-emitting bulb you will need to put a guard around it to ensure the snake does not curl around the bulb and inflict burns upon itself. Snakes do not recognise pain very quickly and a snake can have horrific burns before it registers to move away.
UVB for California King Snakes
In the past people didn’t use UVB for nocturnal species of snakes such as California Kingsnakes. However, more recent research has shown that most snakes are active at dawn and dusk and will sometimes even bask in full sunlight. UVB has been shown to offer benefits to health, such as increased appetite, more activity and brighter colouration. Following recommendations from Arcadia Reptile, we would recommend having a UV Index of 2-3 in your tank. This can be obtained with a 6% T8 UVB at 10-15″ height or at a 15-18″ height you can use a T5 6% UVB or a T8 12% UVB. You should use a UVB guard to stop the snake damaging themselves or the bulb.
UVB remains optional when it comes to nocturnal snakes like the California Kingsnake, but we highly recommend it. You can read our entire UVB guide here.
There are a few options for substrate. Aspen / lignocel is good for a dry environment and is easy to clean and offers good burrowing. Orchid Bark is a more rainforest substrate that holds moisture well. California Kingsnakes don’t need a lot of humidity, so you need to make sure that it doesn’t get too damp if using Orchid Bark, but it is quite a natural substrate.
The third option is to go more natural with a soil or coco fibre mix and this is also a viable option if you’re thinking of going bioactive. If you’re using this as an option we’d recommend a waterproof layer at the bottom of the vivarium to protect your wood from the moisture, as well as potentially adding a drainage layer with clay balls. On the whole, Aspen is the easiest and most popular substrate we sell for king snakes.
You will want to place at least two hides; one on the hot end and one on the cool end, big enough for your snake to feel secure in and then add decor.
Branches, plants, cork bark – all will give your snake an interesting and natural looking habitat.
A water bowl containing fresh water should be provided at all times. If the water spills, make sure you clean up the damp substrate.
California King Snakes are solitary in the wild and have no specific social needs.
It’s vitally important that you house them individually as these species are all known to be cannibalistic. They should only be introduced if you are specifically breeding and then under supervised conditions.
Feeding King Snakes
California Kingsnakes generally have a good appetite and will readily eat defrost mice or rats in captivity. A hatchling will eat a pinkie every 5-7 days, juveniles every 7 days, and adults every 7-14 days depending on their size and needs (breeding females may eat more often). This is a snake with a healthy appetite that will often eat more than is necessarily, especially as they get far less exercise in captivity than in the wild. An obese snake can have heart, liver and other organ problems and it can affect lifespan, so feed based on the amount of food that will maintain a healthy weight – not the amount of food your snake wants to eat!
You should be careful to wash your hands before feeding so your fingers do not smell like mice and to use long feeding tongs. As constrictors, California kingsnakes will often strike and constrict their mice. They do not have good vision and will go based on heat and smell, making it possible they could get your fingers confused with the mice if you do not use tongs to separate your hand from the food. If your snake is a particularly keen eater, or is hungry, be careful when opening the cage door as they might associate unexpected movement with food.
Some captive snakes, accustomed to a ready supply of food that doesn’t walk away can be quite lazy and might prefer to eat overnight at their own leisure.
Handling your Kingsnake
Some California Kingsnakes have garnered a reputation for being aggressive, but generally this is a docile and easily tamed species. They are a very food orientated species which is why there might be some misunderstandings between snake and owner. To avoid this, follow the above advice on washing hands before feeding and using tongs, and get the snake out regular for handling.
If you only open the tank once a week to drop a mouse in, your intelligent kingsnake will associate that door opening with food. If you open the tank every day and the kingsnake associates it with exercise and stimulation, there’s much less chance of any confusion occuring.
California kingsnakes can musk if they’re annoyed, alarmed or confused. This won’t hurt you but it does smell bad! The more you get your snake used to handling the less this should happen and some won’t musk at all.
Breeding Californian Kingsnakes
Before you breed, please consider whether your adults are healthy and genetically free of any problems that might be passed down. The female in particular should be fully mature, breeding any snake too early can cause serious health problems. Even the most healthy snake can still have problems during breeding which will need a veterinarian to help with, so make sure you know who your local exotics veterinarian is, and have the funds to take care of any medical needs that might arise from breeding.
You also need to be sure that you can house all your hatchlings separate, get them feeding, and find new homes for them.
Brumation happens naturally in the wild. In captivity it’s optional, but if you’re looking to breed then it helps the kingsnakes as they would naturally breed in the spring after brumating. Before brumation ensure that the digestive track is completely empty – don’t feed for at least two to three weeks before reducing the temperature, so stop feeding in mid October.
Around November reduce the temperature to between 55 and 60F. In the UK it can be quite difficult to obtain these low temperatures indoors, so you may need to use an outbuilding that you can keep at a constant temperature. We personally brumate our snakes in our attic with heat mats on thermostats, which enables us to get low and steady temperatures. We brumate for around 3 months, some people prefer to brumate for as little as 6 weeks. The important thing is that the snake understands the seasonal change and thinks spring is here, ready for breeding!
Bring the temperature up to normal and feed after a week of acclimatization. Females should be offered extra food now as they’ll be using all the energy for reproduction.
Courtship and Egg Laying
Introduce the male into the female enclosure if possible. This is because the female gives off pheromones that will be stronger in her tank, especially if she has recently shed. Because this species can be cannibalistic breeding should be supervised. It’s quite common for the male to bite and hold onto the female, this shouldn’t leave any serious injuries, but very occasionally can break the skin. He will line up on top of her and if she is receptive she will lift her tail, copulation may take several hours during which they shouldn’t be disturbed. After copulation they can be separated again. Repeat after a few days to ensure she is gravid.
The female will have a pre-lay shed after approximately 4 weeks. A week after her shed she will begin to look for a good spot to lay her eggs, and a week after that she will lay, so approximately 6 weeks after successful copulation.
You will need to provide a large egg laying box, ample for her to comfortably lay her eggs in. We recommend a small layer of vermiculite at the bottom and then lots of moss, kept slightly damp, but not wet. She will lay between 5 and 15 eggs approximately 6 weeks later. The eggs will probably be stuck together, if so, don’t separate them. Be careful not to turn them as the air bubble is at the top of the egg when laid. Instead, move all of the eggs carefully into your incubator.
It’s possible for a double clutch to occur without a second breeding, you should continue feeding the female well and ensure you keep an eye on her weight and shedding schedule, ensuring the egg box is still available for use.
Incubation and Hatching
We use vermiculite as an incubation media and recommend a professional incubator – but you can use anything as an incubator which holds a steady temperature and humidity. Most incubators are similar to a fridge but instead of a cooler, have a heater.
The eggs will hatch after 60 days at 80-82F. Going above 85F can kill the eggs, so precise temperature measurement and control is important.
The snake will break their way out of the egg using an egg tooth that drops off after use. They will often sit in the egg with their head out breathing air for several hours, or even several days, as they soak up all of the egg yolk. This is fine and you should let them hatch at their own pace. If it has been 2-3 days after all the other snakes have hatched and there are still a couple of unhatched eggs, you can create a small slit in them and see if the snake inside moves. In this situation, the snake has usually passed away and there are often a few that don’t make it in every clutch.
Baby king snakes are notorious for eating each other and hatch with an appetite. Immediately remove the babies into separate enclosures. It’s important you monitor your incubator regularly so you know when they’ve hatched to remove them as soon as possible.
Babies will shed in the first week and then should start to feed readily on defrost pinkies.
Californian Kingsnake Morphs
THere are a variety of captive bred Californian Kingsnake morphs, both selectively bred and genetic, affecting colour and pattern. Here in the UK there aren’t an abundance of Californian Kingsnake morphs, but I’ll go over a few that you may be able to find.
Wild Type / Normal
The normal California Kingsnake is a white and cream with brown or black banding. The banding can be uniform or speckled.
Albino is a genetic recessive trait which means the snake lacks black pigmentation, resulting in a white/grey/yellow/pink snake with red eyes. Albino California Kingsnakes can often be very vibrant and seem almost luminescent.
A High White California Kingsnake is as the name suggests, one where there is a higher than normal amount of white, and that is usually a bright white as opposed to the creamy variations that can be found in wild types.
Banana / High Yellow
Banana or High Yellow California Kingsnake has a creamy or banana coloured base colour, with much reduced black banding. It’s quite common to find Banana California Kingsnakes with abberant or dot-dash patterning rather than the standard striping. Some animals can be as high as 95% yellow.
In the Chocolate form the black banding is a rich brown, whilst the base is still white or cream. As an opposite to the Banana California King, the Chocolate California King often has a much higher amount of brown than the base white or cream colour. Some of them are almost entirely brown with some speckling, whilst others maintain a more traditional banding.
Lavender / Lavender Albino
There are two forms of Lavender. The first is a T- positive albino morph, which is a separate recessive strain of albino to what is known as the standard Albino. It results in dark red eyes, and a dark pink / lavender tone on cream or yellow.
In the UK, it’s more traditional to hear someone refer to a “Lavender Albino” as a selectively bred Albino which has higher pinks and lavenders. If looking for a true T- positive Albino it’s important to discuss that with the breeder and ascertain the exact genetics of the snake you’re buying.
Banded is the standard pattern type of contrasting coloured bands.
The Stripe has the dark base colour with the lighter contrasting colour in a stripe along the backbone of the snake, as opposed to banding.
A Reverse Stripe has the light base colour with the darker contrasting colour in a stripe along the backbone of the snake, ie. the opposite of the standard Stripe.
A Dot Dash kingsnake will have an abberant patterning with starts and stops, it may have some partial or full striping that doesn’t look like the standard striping, with dashes on the side of the snake.
The patterning variations can be combined with the morphs, so you could have an Albino Stripe, or a Chocolate Reverse Stripe, or a High White Dot Dash and so on.
I hope that this California Kingsnake Caresheet has provided all the information you need to know, but if there’s anything you have a question about just drop it in the comments, leave us an email or contact us on Facebook! We provide free advice on all species of reptiles.