Appeared in 'Reptilia' Magazine, Issue 34
Sand boas of the genera Eryx and Gongylophis have long had an undeserved reputation of being boring pets. Most first-time snake buyers end up deciding on a colourful corn snake, kingsnake, or other small, easy-to-keep colubrid. Fact is, most species of sand boas are also simple to care for, and because they are smaller and slower moving, are also easier to handle — so they are good for beginners. There are a number of species to choose from, and many specimens are intricately patterned, without even mentioning the variety of colour morphs on the market. Sand boas are primarily nocturnal, meaning they are active mostly at night.
This article is a general overview on the care of sand boas. I explain the methods that have worked best for me, which should serve as a reference for determining the species and methods that are best for you.
Sand boa housing can be anything from a simple tupperware box to a naturalistic vivarium setup. For a baby sand boa, I recommend a tupperware box no larger than 10 x 6 x 4 inches (ca. 25 x 15 x 10 cm) LxWxH. A small first enclosure helps the young snake feel secure, and also helps stimulate a feeding response during this period when the snake may be a finicky eater.
A small adult male can be housed in a tupperware box of approximately 10 x 10 x 6 inches (25 x 25 x 15 cm) LxWxH. A small enclosure increases the chances of a good feeding response, which is especially important for males because they tend to fast for several weeks at a time throughout the year. I keep larger adult males in tubs measuring 16 x 10 x 6 inches (ca. 40 x 25 x 15 cm).
For housing an adult female of a smaller species, I recommend a minimum enclosure size of 20 x 12 x 6 inches (ca. 50 x 30 x 15 cm) LxWxH; for an adult female of a larger species, a minimum of 24 x 18 x 6 inches (ca. 60 x 45 x 15 cm).
Females of all species are often easier to care for than males (I would suggest acquiring females if possible). Females are generally not problem feeders, and are also generally larger and more active than males, making them easier to find in the enclosure. These factors make females easier than males to house in naturalistic enclosures. A 4-foot-long (122 cm) desert vivarium can be very attractive and should be considered by anyone who wants to keep these snakes as pets.
Whichever type of enclosure you decide to use, good ventilation is very important.
Tupperware boxes are virtually airtight, so holes must be drilled in the sides. I recommend a row of holes, every 2 centimetres, around the sides. To prevent escapes, the diameter of the holes should be no more than 2 millimetres for the smallest babies, and no more than 3-4 millimetres for larger snakes. I cut larger holes (50 mm) and cover them with fine-mesh zinc screen. There should be no rough edges left after drilling.
Creating a naturalistic vivarium setup can be very satisfying, but one rule should always apply: Safety first! All heavy objects must be carefully secured so that the snake cannot make them move — by climbing, pushing, or burrowing — and possibly be crushed. The layout should also be sensible. However attractive it might seem to construct a rock pile in the vivarium, finding your snake within it would be practically impossible. Design the decoration so that you have easy access to every part of the enclosure without having to move heavy objects.
Anything that goes into the enclosure must be cleaned thoroughly beforehand. A weak solution of bleach in warm water is adequate for washing cage furnishings. Rocks, wood, bark, and artificial plants are all fine for the sand boa enclosure. Driftwood is commonly available in many pet shops, and makes excellent décor for any terrarium.
Certain types of live cactus can be used, but these must be carefully chosen to avoid accidents. Stay away from those with lots of spines that the snake would have trouble gliding between. Also avoid spines that are soft and come off easily, as these could get into the snake's eyes and mouth. Other dessert plants such as stonecrop can also be used.
I use two types of heating for sand boas: heat mats for my racks of tubs, and basking lamps (in conjunction with fluorescent lighting) for my naturalistic setups.
Whichever method is used, a daytime hot spot should be kept at about 90ºF (32°C), and the snake should always be able to retreat to a cooler area kept at about 78ºF (25°C). Nighttime temperature can drop to about 76-80ºF (24-27°C) overall. Heat sources MUST be connected to a thermostat to automatically control temperatures. I use pulse-proportional thermostats for heat mats, and dimming thermostats for heat lamps.
The heat source should be at one end of the enclosure. I have 6-inch-wide (15 cm) heat mats at the back of my rack systems. The removable snake tubs slide into the rack and rest comfortably with the thermostatically controlled heat source at the back.
Lighting is not necessary for sand boas, so is used primarily for the benefit of viewers. If you choose to light your sand boa enclosure, use a fluorescent tube. I prefer natural sunlight tubes; they are inexpensive, bright, and emit very little heat, which is ideal.
Normal incandescent household bulbs can be used, but make certain that the snake cannot burn itself. These light bulbs get very hot, and, if used at all, should be protected with a mesh cage. Snakes are often burned when they climb too close to heat sources. Sand boas are no exception, and will climb if given the opportunity.
This is a perpetual topic of discussion among snake keepers. I currently keep all my sand boas on aspen bedding, although over the years I have tried newspaper, sand, bark chips, savannah wood chips, and corncob substrate. Following are pros and cons of various substrate materials.
Aspen. This relatively cheap bedding of shredded wood is lightweight and easy for the snakes to burrow in, so I do not even bother with providing hide boxes in my tupperware tubs. Aspen is relatively attractive, and soaks up excretion quickly. The one down side is that it is often dusty. It is a good idea to shake it well to remove most of the dust before putting it into the enclosure.
Newspaper. This is the most economic substrate, but it has many downsides. Newspaper, laid flat on the bottom of the terrarium, cannot be spot cleaned; instead it must be completely removed and replaced with fresh paper every week or two. If you spill the water bowl, you have to replace the whole lot. Also, newspaper does not allow the snake to burrow, so you must provide hiding places (at least two). This means more cleaning. However, if you have the time, newspaper is the most hygienic substrate.
Bark chips. I find this to be the most aesthetically pleasing, but also the most unhygienic substrate. When damp, bark chips provide favourable conditions for small parasites. I noticed an increase in snake mites when I was using this substrate. Also, the colour of bark chips makes it difficult to spot feces, which I therefore often inadvertently left in the boxes for a long time. I keep wanting to go back to this kind of substrate for its appearance, but it just isn't worth the hassle.
Savannah chips. These beechwood chips are not a great substrate for sand boas. After a short time they become compacted, making a harder substrate layer that is not as easy for the snakes to burrow under. If this substrate becomes wet or soiled, fungal growth appears more rapidly than with any other substrate I have used. It is also heavier than some other substrates, and quite expensive.
Sand. When people think of sand boas, they automatically assume that the best substrate material for these snakes would be sand. But in fact, of all the different species and varieties of sand boas, there are probably only two that are truly sand dwellers, the Arabian and the Saharan, and even these are quite happy on lighter substrates such as aspen. Sand is extremely heavy, and a real drag to work with. Some kinds are very dusty. If it gets wet, sand takes a surprising amount of time to dry, and can keep the level of cage humidity high for several days. I have also had bad experiences feeding snakes on this substrate. A sand boa can grab a mouthful of indigestible sand along with a prey item, swallow it all together, and end up with a gut impaction. On the other hand, sand is easy to spot clean with a sieve or scoop. Also, I think sand is the most appealing to the eye, and I use it in all of my display tanks.
Corncob. This substrate is lightweight and quite visually appealing. However, it should be avoided at all costs. If ingested, corncob can cause impaction in the gut and has been known to kill small snakes, and it is really no better in any way than other substrates already mentioned.
In general, sand boas do not drink quite as much as many other snakes, and it is not crucial that they always have water available. Hygiene is important, and water offered must always be clean, but if the bowl dries out for a short period, don't worry. I have found that removing the water bowl stimulates a feeding response in finicky eaters.
When choosing a water bowl, remember that sand boas are very strong burrowers. The bowl does not have to be heavy, but it should sit flat, directly on the bottom of the enclosure. Sand boas are generally clumsy, and quickly knock over small bowls that are not of an appropriate shape or are not positioned correctly. Small porcelain pet bowls can work well. It is important that the cage not become wet, so choosing the right water bowl is important.
Juvenile sand boas need a regular feeding every 5-7 days. They have a higher metabolic rate than adults, so burn off their food much quicker. Baby sand boas of all species are very small. Some — especially Turkish, Javelin, and Russian sand boas — may be even too small to feed on pinky mice. Try offering pinky mice anyway (you may be amazed at the size of prey they can swallow), but if the snakes really can't take them, you may have to use pinkies of smaller rodents (such as Russian hamsters), or pieces of larger rodents. Parts of the tail of an adult mouse often works.
As the young snake grows, it can be stepped up to taking mouse fuzzies. I have found it better for the snake to feed on one larger prey item rather than several smaller ones. I prefer feeding one fuzzy instead of two or three pinkies, and have found that the snakes grow quicker with this method.
Once the snake is able to take small to medium-sized mice, one feeding every 7-10 days is adequate, and one feeding every 14 days will suffice for adults. Most adult sand boas can take adult mice or weaner rats. The ideal prey size is just slightly bigger around than the girth of the snake. Males often choose not to feed for several weeks at a time, and some individuals may eat only 6-10 times a year. Females should be offered more, and will readily accept. Breeders should be offered food weekly.
Occasionally, sand boas stop accepting food, or, in the case of newborns, never even start to feed. Following are a few tips to help get problem sand boas to take food.
o The first and foremost reason that juvenile and newly acquired snakes do not feed is unsuitable habitat — enclosure size, substrate, hiding areas, heating, etc. Double-check to make sure conditions are correct.
o The prey item may be the wrong size. Sand boas even sometimes refuse food that is too small. They usually readily accept prey that is about as big around as they are at the thickest point. Try feeding larger food items rather than smaller ones; this has worked for me particularly with rough-scaled sand boas.
o Prey species also makes a difference. Some individuals may prefer mice to rats, or vice versa. Try varying food items, including mice, rats, hamsters, gerbils, chicks or small birds, and small lizards such as Sceloporus or Anolis.
o If all else fails, my next step would be to "dry the snake out." Remove the water bowl and turn up the temperature a degree or two. After a week, offer a dripping wet prey item, touching it to the snake's mouth. Often the snake will drink from the food, and then proceed to eat it. This method has worked several times for me with rough-scaled sand boas and Russian sand boas.
Table 1. Overview of sand boa species that are available (or becoming available) in the hobby.
Species/ Size (approximate) / Male / Female / Temperament
Eryx jaculus jaculus
Javelin sand boa 12-18 in. (30-46 cm) 20-30 in. (51-76 cm)
Eryx jaculus familiaris
Bulgarian sand boa 12-18 in. (30-46 cm) 18-24 in. (46-61 cm)
Eryx jaculus turcicus
Turkish sand boa 12-18 in. (30-46 cm) 18-24 in. (46-61 cm)
Arabian sand boa 16 in. (40 cm) 16 in. (40 cm)
Indian sand boa 24-30 in. (61-76 cm) 30-48 in. (76-122 cm)
Eryx miliaris miliaris
Russian sand boa 12-15 in. (30-38 cm) 20-28 in. (51-71 cm)
Eryx miliaris nogaiorum
Black Russian sand boa 12-15 in. (30-38 cm) 20-28 in. (51-71 cm)
Eryx tataricus tataricus
Tartar sand boa 24 in. (61 cm) 36 in. (91 cm)
Eryx tataricus speciosus
Spotted sand boa 24 in. (61 cm) 36 in. (91 cm)
East African sand boa 15-18 in. (38-46 cm) 24-36 in. (61-91 cm)
Rough-scaled sand boa 15 in. (38 cm) 30 in. (76 cm)
Saharan sand boa 24 in. (61 cm) 30 in. (76 cm)