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SNAKE ARTICLE > HOUSING AND HABITAT


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Keeping snakes in plastic boxes
- a scientific review

The captive housing of snakes is highly controversial, and recent trends towards turning plastic storage boxes (particularly 'Really Useful Boxes' or RUBs) into habitats has been met with both criticism and praise. For some, the use of plastic storage boxes and similar enclosures is seen as a care-comprimising, budget form of housing, whilst others see them as ideal DIY enclosures. This review aims to highlight the advantages and disadvantages of plastic storage-box style enclosures compared to purpose-built vivaria, drawing on several scientific works involving snakes in captivity.


Snake behaviour

Many snakes are considered to be thigmotactic; they keep large areas of their bodies in contact with surfaces of the environment to feel safe [1]. By keeping as much of the body in contact with the environment, the snake limits how much it is exposed to open space, and therefore predators. This same behaviour is seen in other animals including mice, which run alongside walls and other surfaces of the environment rather than venturing into open spaces [2]. This thigmotactic behaviour drives snakes to seek out small hide spots to squeeze into, such as under logs and rocks, and move along vivarium decorations rather than open floor.

So how does this thigmotactic behaviour relate to captive housing? As reptiles, snakes are poikilothermic, and require environmental heat for various bodily processes, including digestion and immune function. Many commercially available vivaria are constructed from glass, which allows the owner to view the animal easily, however is a poor material for heat conduction and insulation, a concern voiced by scientific recommendations [3]. This can not only lead to unstable environmental temperatures [3], but also forces a thigmotactic snake, moving along the boundaries of a glass vivarium, to invariably comes into contact with a cold surface. This is reduced in commercial vivariums which are partially built from wood/melamine or other, more insulating, materials, however most still rely on glass for at least one side of the enclosure.

In contrast, enclosures made from plastic tubs, be it commercial plastic vivaria or modified storage boxes (e.g. RUBs) provide both a stable internal temperature, and an insulating material for thigmotactic snakes to move along. This not only provides a constant ambient temperature for body function, but also prevents the snake cooling quickly whilst exploring the edges of the enclosure.

Ventilation, hygeine and light levels

Air flow is crucial to keeping the air temperature and humidity stable within the enclosure. Storage boxes can be close to air-tight when unmodified, however ventilation can be easily added by variety of methods, such as drilled/melted holes, or strong mesh used to replace sections of plastic. The light weight and rounded corners of many plastic storage boxes also make them easier to lift and move for cleaning and disinfection [3], and a recommended choice for animal shelters [4]

There appears to be a duality when it comes to the transparency of the 'viewing windows' in captive enclosures. Functionally, a snake owner needs to be able to observe behaviour and spot signs of enclosure maintenance. If an animal is ill, spotting the symptoms early is crucial, and good visibility into the enclosure is essential for this reason. Likewise, spotting animal waste for removal, and checking on food/water is also a daily necessity. There has been some criticism of plastic storage-type enclosures based on this, and indeed, compared to glass vivariums, visibility and the ability to fully observe the environment within is somewhat reduced.

Interestingly however, there is a flip-side to such visibility issues. Most snakes are nocturnal, or crepuscular ('twilight-active'), and highly secretive, preferring to stay hidden during daylight hours. For such snakes, reduced visibility (and therefore reduced stress from household traffic and excessive light) has been suggested to induce a sense of security [5]. Anecdotal evidence from Ball Python (Python regius) keepers indicates that stressed snakes which refuse to feed in vivaria settings can become reliable feeders when placed into plastic storage enclosures. There appears to be something of a trade-off between these two necessities of captive snake husbandry; to be both easily observed, and to be a secure environment for the snake. Striking a balance between these two factors is ultimately the role of the owner.

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Enclosure access

An important disadvantage of plastic storage when it comes to snake housing, compared to most vivaria, is the access of the enclosure. Many vivariums are front-opening, relying on sliding glass doors, however storage containers are nearly invariable top-opening with a removable lid. This method of access is sometimes overlooked, however can be particularly stressful on captive reptiles such as snakes, which are naturally hunted from above by birds. Generally, front-opening vivaria, and approaching the animal from the side, results in less defensive responses, compared to approach from above.

Relation to animal welfare

It is also important to note that plastic enclosures are not be suited to every snake species. For the most part, this review has focused on small nocturnal, terrestrial species. Aboreal (tree-dwelling) species may require enclosures of greater hight than most plastic storage boxes provide. Likewise, large boas and pythons may simply require enclosures larger than most plastic storage boxes are available in. To summarise however, it is worth referring the use of any enclosure to the 'five freedoms', which animal husbandry is compared to here in the UK by the RSPCA [6]:

1. Freedom from hunger and thirst

  • As long as water is provided, this is independent of the type of enclosure
  • 2. Freedom from discomfort

  • Plastic enclosures provide insulating material for thigmotactic snakes to manoeuvre along, compared to cold glass in traditional vivaria.
  • 3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease

  • Plastic enclosures can be easier to clean and disinfect than traditional glass or wood vivaria.
  • Plastic enclosures can have less visibility than glass for owners to spot problems, however there is no reason this can't be overcome by vigilant keepers.
  • 4. Freedom to express normal behaviour

  • If a plastic enclosure is well ventilated and heated appropriately, there is no reason it is not equivalent to traditional vivaria.
  • As for 'Freedom from discomfort', plastic enclosures cater to thigmotactic behaviour more efficiently than traditional glass vivaria.
  • 5. Freedom from fear and distress

  • Reduced visibility through plastic enclosures appears to provide an added sense of security and safety to captive snakes.
  • Top-opening design of many plastic storage boxes may need to be adapted to reduce stress.
  • Conclusion

    In closing, for some snakes species, plastic enclosures including those adapted from plastic storage boxes, appear to provide suitable housing for many snake species. Although they should not be carelessly recommended as a budget form of housing, they should not be dismissed as a suitable enclosure when adapted appropriately.

    If you have any questions on this form of housing, or this review article, feel free to contact me at:
    Paul Edmondson
    info@insectivore.co.uk

    References

    [1] - Michael V. Plummer, 'Communal Nesting of Opheodrys aestivus in the Laboratory' (1981)
    [2] - P. Simon, R. Dupuis and J. Constentin, 'Thigmotaxis as an index of anxiety in mice.' (1994)
    [3] - Orlando Diaz-Figueroa, 'Basic husbandry and nutrition of snakes' (2008)
    [4] - Lila Miller and Stephen Zawistowski, 'Shelter Medicine' (2012)
    [5] - M. D. Kreger, 'Comfortable quarters for amphibians and reptiles in research institutions.' (undated)
    [6] - R.S.P.C.A., 'Five freedoms for animals', (undated).



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