‘That Reptile Smell’ and Beginner Garters

Jack writes:

Hi! I’m 13 years old and am looking into getting a garter snake. I have a suitable enclosure and equipment and can provide food, read your care guide along with some others, and there is now just one last boundary. My mother can’t stand “that reptile smell.” Do garter snakes tend to have that, or is the smell the substrate for the reptile (I’m planning on using paper towels)? If you could tell me if I will have that with a regularly cleaned terrarium, or if with any reptile that is inevitable then that would be great. And also, could you suggest a good beginning garter snake species for me? Preferably a smaller species (two and a half to three feet at the most) and a calmer, easier to handle one. Thanks for reading my questions!

My response:

I have bad news: garter snakes tend to be smellier than the average snake. Some of that is due to their diet. Feed them worms and their feces is watery. Feed them fish and their feces is extra-stinky. But if you feed them mice, they’re not much worse than the average snake. That said, they do defecate a bit more often than a corn snake.

The smell is at its worst just after they defecate and the feces is wet, but once the feces dries there is very little smell. Snake feces is a lot like bird feces that way.

Now let’s keep this in perspective. Unless you’re right in front of the cage, whatever smell there is is usually not noticeable; the chances of it wafting into the next room is pretty small. Unless your snake has a serious intestinal problem, or you’re feeding it fish every few days, or the snake is throwing up its food (snake barf is worse than snake feces in terms of smell).

This all assumes that the snake doesn’t musk when handled, and that’s the other reason garter snakes tend to be smellier than the average snake. Many garter snakes never musk, but some do, and it can be pretty bad. I’ve been mucking around with garter snakes since I was eight years old (I’m 40 now), so I’m kind of used to it, but I know people who can’t stand garter musk — guys who wrangle alligators and vipers, who won’t touch garter snakes because they can’t handle the smell.

You can’t predict which garter snakes will musk and which ones won’t, though bigger ones tend to musk less than smaller ones.

As for species, there are some that tend to be better than others for beginners, and that tend to be calmer and easier to handle, but every snake is an individual. There’s always going to be a grumpy snake, or a snake that’s harder to feed, that comes from a calmer, easier species.

That said, here are a few suggestions. Stay away from ribbon snakes: they tend to be nervous and hard to handle. I’ve had the best luck with Common Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis), Plains Garter Snakes (Thamnophis radix) and Western Terrestrial Garter Snakes (Thamnophis elegans). If you’re looking for a snake that doesn’t smell bad, these three tend to be more willing than others to eat mice, which will help. If you find a Checkered Garter Snake (Thamnophis marcianus), that might also work, but I’ve had worse luck with the four I’ve kept.

As for size, most garter snakes stay under three feet. Males stay under two feet. Females are bigger but calmer (though not necessarily tamer), and in my experience tend to have better appetites.

If you found this website helpful, please consider making a donation toward my web hosting costs.