A question by e-mail from earlier today: “My 15-year-old daughter wants a garter snake, but we have two cats who’d love to eat a tasty, wriggly snake given the chance! How would I keep her snake safe? (She’ll be taking it out of its enclosure from time to time for handling; she thinks garters are just adorable.)”
First, your daughter has excellent taste.
While there is some risk involved with keeping cats with snakes, it’s not too hard to keep them apart. If anything it’s less of a problem than keeping cats with birds, and people do that all the time.
We have two cats ourselves, and yes, they were awfully interested in the snakes when they were kittens. They’re a little less interested now that they’re older and less rambunctious. Which is to say that they do grow out of it. Mostly. Occasionally one of our cats will still bat a paw at a snake, and the snake will react, but since the cat and the snake are separated by aquarium glass, no more harm is done.
There is one issue that can occur when cats watch snakes in their cage, and that’s when the cat gets it into its tiny little feline brain to sit on the cage lid. This is less of a problem with a snap-on metal grille, but it’s a big deal with a screen lid, which can break under the cat’s weight.
In general, she needs to make sure that the cage is escape-proof; I go into some detail about that in the Housing section. She doesn’t want the snake escaping its cage only to come face to face with a cat.
Finally, she does have to be rather aware of where the cats are and what trouble they’re getting themselves into while she’s actually handling the snakes. Partly it’s a question of situational awareness — being aware of what’s going on around you when you’re doing something. If there are cats around she’ll want to ensure the snake is in her hands at all times, rather than having it crawl around the couch or the bed or so forth. (This is not necessarily a bad thing: snakes will frequently defecate on your furniture but not in your hands.)
(If you’re interested in encounters between cats and snakes outdoors, read my blog post from November 2009.)