False Water Cobra
General Care Guide
Author: Scarlett Nightshade
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Scientific Name: Hydrodynastes gigas
Lifespan: 15-20+ years
Size: 6ft. on average for males; up to 8ft.+ for females
Habitat and Distribution: South America, predominantly Brazil; inhabiting tropical lands near rivers, streams and floodplains
False Water Cobras are a semi-aquatic rear-fanged venomous Colubrid snake renowned for their ability to flatten their necks out to resemble the hood of a Cobra. Although they do not perch up vertically as a true Cobra does, they certainly seem to find it threatening enough to use it as their primary defense mechanism.
Adult False Water Cobra
Photo Credit: Scarlett Nightshade
False Water Cobras are incredibly intelligent and inquisitive animals, and many keepers agree that the bonds they form with them are unlike any other. While they do have a few special care requirements, they are relatively easy to care for and make for amazing lifelong companions.
Firstly, it should be known that False Water Cobras can get rather large in size. The average size for male is about 6-7 feet, and around up to 8ft. for females. Regarding enclosure size, False Water Cobras should have plenty of floor space to utilize. This species grows very rapidly and will outgrow a standard sized tub, rack or 20 gallon tank within 6-8 months. While hatchlings can be kept in larger tubs and racks for the first year or so of life, they thrive best in large enclosures with plenty of space to explore. We keep our hatchlings in 32 qt. tubs for the first 4-6 months, then upgrade them to a 4ft x 2ft x 2ft PVC enclosure until they reach 4-5 feet long. From there, they are upgraded to an 8ft x 2ft x 2ft PVC enclosure for the rest of their lives. This species does not do well in cramped space, so it is crucial that you are able to provide enough room for them to move around freely in. The type of enclosure you use is also important. False Water Cobras are neotropical thus require high humidity, which is not easily achieved in a glass tank. While tanks can be used if heavily modified, PVC and other materials that better trap moisture will make it much easier to maintain the proper humidity levels.
Substrate and Humidity
There are a few different substrate options you can use for False Water Cobras, but ideally you will want your substrate to have enough absorption for their messy excrement, and be fine enough that it will not cause problems if ingested. We prefer to use the SoPhresh brand of paper pellet substrate since it has great absorption properties and is easy to clean up. However, since this substrate does not hold humidity too well, an appropriately sized humid hide should be used in combination. False Water Cobras are neotropical, thus humidity of around 70-75% is ideal.
There are a variety of ways to provide heat for False Water Cobras. You can use a UTH (under-tank heater), heat tape, CHE (ceramic heat emitter), or ambient heat. For additional enrichment, you can even provide full spectrum UVA + UVB during the early afternoon hours to allow them to bask as they enjoy doing in the wild.
Regarding temperatures, you will want to maintain a warm side of around 85°F, an ambient of 78-80°F, and a cool side of 75-77°F. Remember to equip your main heat sources with an accurate and reliable thermostat to regulate the temperature and assure it does not ever exceed 90°F. False Water Cobras are very sensitive to high temperatures and will quickly perish if they are exposed to high temperatures for too long.
Diet and Feeding
One of the most exciting aspects of keeping False Water Cobras is feeding them. This species is known for their enthusiastic feeding response, so extra long feeding tongs are encouraged.
While it is not required, dietary variety is beneficial for False Water Cobras. They can do perfectly fine on rodents alone, but offering chicks, quail, and certain fish (such as tilapia and salmon) on top of rodents is a great form of enrichment for this species. You can even offer cuts of chicken from the grocery store to include in their diet as long as nothing is added to them. That said, all feeders that are not whole prey items should be offered sparingly. They lack the calcium and other nutrients that snakes need to grow and thrive, and thus should never be fed exclusively. Be sure to offer at least one appropriately sized whole prey item each feeding to assure your snake is receiving enough nutrients. Stay away from fish that contain thiaminase, which you can read more about here.
False Water Cobras also have incredibly fast metabolisms. This means they must be fed more often than most other snakes. We feed our juveniles every 4-5 days, and our adults every 5-6 days. However, this species does not do well eating large meals. They can not stretch their jaws nearly as much as most other snakes, thus should be fed several smaller meals instead of one large meal.
As a result of their fast metabolic rate, False Water Cobras defecate much more frequently than other snakes. Their poops are also quite messy and have a potent stench, therefore you should expect to spot-clean every other day or so. It is important to check their water daily as well, since they have a knack for defecating in their water dish.
Enrichment is exceptionally beneficial for False Water Cobras in particular. They do enjoy climbing a bit, even if they’re bad at it. Anything you can provide for them to explore they will greatly appreciate. This is a very intelligent species and should be given adequate stimulation for this reason. We offer PVC pipes, ledges and small, make-shift rock caves for them to explore throughout the day. They also love exploring the outdoors on a mild summer day. However, if you decide to take your snake outdoors, be sure that your lawn is not treated with any chemicals, and always be on the lookout for predators, especially birds of prey.
Since False Water Cobras are semi-aquatic, it is necessary for them to have a water dish that is large enough for them to comfortably submerge their entire body in. When they outgrow more traditional sized water dishes, you can upgrade them to a large water basin meant for dishwashing. They are large enough to allow our 8 foot females to comfortably soak, and they even come with a drain at the base for easy cleanup. That said, not all False Water Cobras will soak often. Some of them may choose to only soak while in shed, and others may soak almost constantly. In either case, providing the opportunity to do so at any time is important for this species to thrive.
False Water Cobras are a rear-fanged venomous species that secrete a mild venom from what is called the Duvernoy's Gland, which is only found in rear-fanged Colubrids. As you delve into researching this species, you will hear various opinions regarding the venom, even though it has not been thoroughly evaluated by scientists. Some people tend to exaggerate the effects of their venom to make them seem more dangerous than they really are. As long as you do not allow for prolonged chewing, typically you will not experience anything more than a bit of itching for a day or so. That said, since False Water Cobras are rear-fanged, they really have to get a good grasp on you before they can even have a chance of envenomating you. Their fangs do not secrete venom directly into the bite channel like front-fanged venomous snakes. Instead, after they secrete their venom, it trickles down their rear fangs for envenomation into their prey. Since this entire process is rather inefficient, it's unlikely that you will be envenomated to begin with.
False Water Cobras have one of the most intriguing personalities of any snake I have personally kept. While their temperament may vary as with all snakes, many keepers agree that they develop a deep bond with this species. They are often eager to interact with their keepers and many even enjoy it.
It is worth noting that juveniles are usually a lot more feisty than the adults. They can be a bit nuts, especially when it’s feeding time, often displaying their lack of confidence by flattening their hoods or tail whipping. However, they begin to mellow out around the yearling mark, and as they become more confident into adulthood, they begin formulating a bond of trust with their keeper. Many people even call them cuddly -- in their own reptilian way, of course.
All of that said, False Water Cobras are a very rewarding species to keep and are perfect for those looking for a unique and interactive snake. They are the true definition of a lifelong companion, and are a species unlike any other. They really are one of a kind!