Snakes may not be the most cuddly of pets, but for those with an interest they can still be a rewarding one. The three best options for pet snakes are the three most common species kept in homes - corn snakes, ball pythons and garter snakes.

"These three are relatively inexpensive and easy to handle," says Tanya Master, a veterinary surgeon at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Hong Kong www.spca.org.hk

Corn snakes, Master says, are probably the best option for a beginner, as they become docile and tolerant of frequent handling, are hardy, and a readily available captive-bred species. They are good eaters, can grow up to 1.9 metres long and are slightly heavier than the other two. Although ball pythons can become tame, as babies, they are shy and nervous.

"They also come in many different patterns, some of the more unusual colours costing tens of thousands of dollars," says Master.

While garter snakes are the smallest of the three, they have a tendency to musk - excrete an oily, smelly substance when stressed - more often than other species.

"They also tend to do better on a diet of fish, which can make feeding more difficult," Master says.

She says the three snakes have similar housing requirements but each species has its own dietary, temperature and humidity needs, which can vary, so it is important to understand what is required.

Ball pythons are constrictors, so they feed on small rodents and will eat every seven to 10 days. They are terrestrial and like a lot of floor space, are nocturnal and generally shy - a box in which to hide is a must. They will often refuse food if they are handled excessively or when their habitat changes, and will need time to get comfortable in new surroundings.

Corn snakes are also constrictors, so they have a similar diet but will also feed on chicks and small lizards, and will feed once or twice a week. "Their vivariums can be set up as woodland or desert-types, but they like to climb, so they need lots of branches and a tall tree limb," Master advises.

Garter snakes are active and need to be fed frequently. Their diet consists of small fish, earthworms, insects and frogs. The vivarium can be set up as an aqua or woodland-type, but it requires high humidity and vertical tree limbs to climb.

All snakes require access to water; a shallow dish is usually sufficient for drinking and bathing. All pet snakes also need heat supplementation, and digital thermometers should be used to ensure the tank is always at the optimal temperature. Some species require ultraviolet-ray B supplementation to aid calcium metabolism, which can be provided via a UV lamp.

The maintenance cost for snakes is low but, Master says, the initial set-up costs can be considerable when taking into account the vivarium, equipment and environmental enrichment. Although the three most common species are generally docile, she says, each is different and some will never be tame or accept handling. Other points that Master says potential owners need to consider include commitment. "In captivity, snakes can live for up to 40 years, which is a big commitment, and although originally from the wild, domesticated snakes cannot be released after being kept in captivity."

To comply with welfare standards, pet snakes should only be fed dead prey, which can be bought in most reptile shops in Yau Ma Tei.

Each species has specific husbandry requirements to maintain a good standard of welfare and health.

"Most health issues encountered by snakes are due to inappropriate housing conditions and/or diet. As pets that would not be handled on a day-to-day basis, many signs of illness may go unnoticed until your pet is quite sick," says Master.

While they do not require daily care, tanks must be cleaned weekly, excrement removed immediately, and fresh food and water supplied each day.

In terms of where to get a snake, Master says: "We would never advise buying snakes that had been bred and captured in the wild. When buying from pet shops, it is difficult to trace the origins of the snake, and they are often kept in suboptimal welfare conditions. Instead, look for domesticated snakes in adoption centres, such as the SPCA, or buy from home breeders to ensure good welfare standards have been followed."

She says it is important to treat the snake with respect and be responsible when introducing others to your pet, and never use it to scare someone. 

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