False water cobras (Hydrodynastes gigas) are large, rear-fanged, venomous snakes native to South America. Keepers refer to them as “falsies” for short.
Falsies are becoming increasingly popular in the pet trade due to their hooded appearance and “dangerous” reputation.
They’re certainly more of a handful than other colubrid due to their large size, high level of activity, and potentially dangerous bite!
Novice snake enthusiasts should avoid this species due to its more complex care requirements and venomous bite.
The false water cobra is a beautiful species suitable for experienced snake keepers.
A good understanding of husbandry and handling practices is a must.
Table of Contents
What You’ll Learn
In this article, you’ll learn:
- Whether a false water cobra is a good choice of pet
- Information about safely handling false water cobras
- What – and how often – to feed your false water cobra
- How to properly house false water cobras and provide a healthy environment
- Common health problems, including symptoms, causes, and methods of prevention
- Information about the false water cobras in the wild, including conservation within their native range
…and much more!
False Water Cobra Background Information
The false water cobra lives on floodplains East of the Andes mountains in South America.
Its range includes Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Northern Argentina.
These snakes are named based on their tendency to “hood” when threatened. Like cobras, they flatten their neck as a defensive display.
As their common name also suggests, they’re unrelated to “true” cobras (family: Elapidae).
They’re members of the family “Colubridae,” more closely related to water and garter snakes.
The false water cobra is also known by other common names such as ñacaniná – in the language of the Guaraní people – or the Brazilian smooth snake.
These snakes do possess venom but lack an efficient delivery system.
Their fangs are located at the rear of the mouth. They must “chew” on a prey item (or a keeper’s arm) with these rear fangs to deliver venom.
Little information has been published regarding the toxicity of their venom. Bites are usually mild, but this is dependent on the patient’s reaction.
Their Latin name, Hydrodynastes gigas, roughly translates to “Giant Ruler of the Water.”
False water cobras are large snakes, reaching around six feet in length. Females grow larger than males.
Some individuals can reach lengths of nine to ten feet!
Like cobras, false water cobras can flatten their necks when threatened, making them appear larger.
Unlike true cobras, false water cobras do NOT rear up to display their hoods.
False water cobras are usually brown or olive green. They have large, smooth scales.
A pattern of dark brown spots and bands help to camouflage these snakes against leaf litter on the forest floor.
Their pattern typically becomes darker toward the tail end of the snake.
They possess large eyes and rounded pupils, with a line of dark brown scales along each side of the head.
Their mask-like markings typically begin behind the eye and extend backward along the sides of the neck .
The morph market is far less diverse for falsies than for more common species, like the ball python.
Still, captive-bred morphs – such as hypomelanistic and lavender varieties – are available.
“Hypos” have less black pigment in their skin – resulting in a more yellowish overall coloration.
“Lavender” false water cobras – though rare – are incredibly beautiful. Rather than the typical greenish-brown and black coloration, they are pale with various shades of pink, purple, and grey.
It’s quite likely that new morphs will arise from captive breeders over the coming decade, given the increasing popularity of this species.
Still, many keepers prefer the “wild-type” falsie with its ornate pattern and quirky facial mask.
Natural Habitat and Ecology
False water cobras inhabit the humid floodplains of South America in tropical forests, swamps, and marshes.
As a semi-aquatic species, they prefer wetland habitats. They’re also capable of living in drier areas.
They’re non-arboreal and tend to remain on the forest floor, close to water.
False water cobras are diurnal – meaning that they’re most active during the day.
They’re generalist predators, feeding on a wide range of small vertebrates.
Common prey items include rodents, lizards, frogs, toads, and even fish.
They’re known for being voracious feeders, swallowing prey rapidly – sometimes while it’s still alive!
Little is known about the feeding behavior of wild false water cobras aside from a few published notes.
They can constrict and sometimes drown live prey in captivity, but it’s unclear how they feed in the wild.
A note by Patrik Viana (2019) describes the regurgitation of a pair of toxic cane toads by a false water cobra in Brazil.
One of the toads was still alive, showing their rapid swallowing behavior in action. Details are published in “Herpetological Review,” and you can access the note here.
Another note published by Weiler and Wood, 2010, contains images of a wild snake consuming a large eel.
In the wild, full-sized adults may fall prey to caiman and predatory mammals – such as the jaguar.
Small predators, such as wading birds, occasionally snack on juveniles.
The false water cobra has an average lifespan of between 12 and 20 years.
Like many tropical species, false water cobras are sexually active year-round.
Females can produce up to two clutches of eggs per year.
Clutches can contain as many as 20 eggs.
The conservation status of false water cobras is currently unknown and has not been subject to a formal IUCN assessment.
Like many neotropical snake species, this species is understudied in the wild.
False water cobras are thought to be fairly abundant throughout their range.
Exporters harvest thousands of snakes – of many species – from around the world each year to supply the demands of the pet trade.
This removal of individuals often negatively impacts species restricted to small geographic ranges, or those already threatened by factors such as habitat loss.
Due to its wide range and (anecdotally) reported abundance, the false water cobra is unlikely to be under direct threat as a result of the pet trade.
False Water Cobra Venom – What You Need to Know
Whether or not false water cobras are truly “venomous” is a subject of some debate. Most experts consider them to be a mildly venomous species.
False water cobras are not true cobras. They also lack the potent neurotoxins and hollow fangs of their elapid namesakes.
They do have sharp teeth and a nasty bite. Bites can generate an unpleasant reaction in humans.
Though they lack “true” venom glands, they do possess a similar secretory organ, known as a “Duvernoy’s gland.”
The Duvernoy’s gland releases its toxic secretions in response to the chewing motions of the snake.
These toxic substances trickle downwards through grooved fangs at the rear of the snake’s mouth.
Being rear-fanged makes it more difficult for them to rapidly deliver a venomous bite.
Most “envenomations” occur when bites last for an extended period (30 seconds to several minutes).
Little is known about the toxicity of their venom or its effects on humans.
No deaths are known to have occurred as a result of a false water cobra bite. Still, individual reactions can vary from mild to severe.
One case study, published in the scientific journal “Toxicon,“ involved an adult human receiving a bite from a juvenile false water cobra.
In this instance, symptoms included:
- Burning or tingling sensations
- Localized swelling/fluid build-up
Most anecdotal reports – such as this one – describe similar symptoms.
Individuals can react differently to snake bites.
Due to an overall lack of reliable data concerning false water cobra bites, keepers should treat these snakes with caution and respect.
Purchasing a Healthy False Water Cobra
When purchasing any snake – including false water cobras – look for signs of good health, such as:
- Activity and alertness
- Healthy skin (without wounds or lesions)
- Good body condition (not obese or emaciated)
It’s best not to buy snakes showing obvious signs of disease, such as:
- Severe dehydration
- Blisters, sores, or other skin damage
- Oral mucus or open-mouthed breathing
When purchasing live animals, it’s also vital to be a responsible consumer. This need not be difficult, but there are a couple of things to consider.
Firstly, only purchase an animal if you’re confident that you’ll be able to provide proper care for the duration of its lifespan.
Remember that false water cobras live for up to 20 years.
Second, avoid wild-caught animals at all costs. There are a few reasons behind this, as follows:
- Wild-caught animals can bring parasites and diseases into your home
- Removing animals from the wild harms native populations and can drive declines in some cases
- Behavioral issues (such as high levels of aggression) are more common among wild-caught specimens
Expert Tip: As a rule, younger animals are far more likely to have been captive-bred than adults offered for sale.
Purchase directly from a reputable breeder to ensure your animals are captive-bred.
Purchasing directly from a breeder has a few more advantages.
When you buy from a breeder, you’re also buying from somebody who knows their care requirements well.
Breeders are more likely to provide accurate care information than other sources.
They’re also usually willing to stay in touch and answer your questions.
Another advantage is that breeders may know of an exotic animal veterinarian in your area.
This resource could come in handy later on and is particularly vital for venomous species such as the false water cobra.
Creating the Ideal False Water Cobra Habitat
False water cobras grow to be enormous colubrids and require plenty of space.
They also need plenty of enrichment opportunities and consistently high humidity levels.
These care requirements can make them a more expensive species to keep. Be prepared to spend hundreds of dollars on equipment.
Also, ensure that you can afford to feed and maintain your snake for its entire lifespan.
Enclosure Size & Shape
False water cobras are terrestrial. They will utilize horizontal space within an enclosure as opposed to vertical space.
Choose rectangular tank shapes that are wider than they are tall.
Plastic or glass enclosures are both fine for this species.
Some sources recommend wooden vivariums, but these can present issues due to high humidity and resultant mold.
Though they aren’t arboreal, false water cobras are natural escape artists.
They will climb out of any vivarium without a secure lid. Even juveniles are strong enough to pop the top of flimsier plastic models.
Juveniles can live in a 10–15-gallon vivarium. Your snake will quickly outgrow this setup.
For adult false water cobras, you’ll need to invest in a fairly large enclosure.
At a minimum, it should be as long as the snake and at least half as wide (e.g., 6 by 3 by 2 ft).
Of course, your snake may continue to grow over time. Females, in particular, are likely to outgrow a six-foot enclosure in time.
For this species, a bigger enclosure is always better. Extra space to explore will provide additional enrichment to your snake.
Being such active snakes, adult false water cobras should never be kept in tubs or small bins.
Studies have linked lack of space and enrichment with behavioral problems in this species.
Enclosures should also be well-ventilated. A screen lid is best for this purpose. Good ventilation helps to prevent respiratory illnesses.
False water cobras produce a fair amount of waste. They’re messy animals due to their size and activity levels.
They also require access to water, creating opportunities for spillage to occur.
Select an absorbent substrate to help prevent waterlogging and mold growth.
Soil, cypress mulch, orchid bark – or a combination of these – are the most popular choices for false water cobra keepers.
Adding sphagnum moss can help to maintain humidity.
Aspen isn’t ideal for species with high humidity requirements. Some keepers report success when combining aspen substrate with humidity boxes.
Expert tip: Avoid cedar or pine substrates. These woods are toxic to reptiles.
Keepers of false water cobras can benefit from having a bioactive substrate.
Include a drainage layer and live detritivores – such as worms or springtails – to reduce waste buildup.
A bioactive substrate needs to be “fed” by adding new mulch or leaf litter periodically.
Temperature & Lighting
False water cobras are tropical species and require specific temperatures and lighting to survive.
For heating, you’ll need to invest in a reptile-safe heat mat with a thermostat.
For lighting, you’ll need some form of UVB. This may be an overall vivarium lighting setup or a basking lamp.
Snakes vary their internal temperature by moving between warm and cool areas of their environment.
This behavior can help them to digest prey or to rid themselves of diseases.
Providing a temperature gradient allows your snake to thermoregulate effectively by moving to warm or cool areas of its enclosure.
For ground-dwelling species -such as the false water cobra – heat mats are a great way to set up an effective temperature gradient.
Place a reptile-safe heat mat (with thermostat) beneath the tank on one side of the enclosure.
The warm end of your thermal gradient should remain between 29 and 31 °C (85 – 88 °F).
Use a thermostat to maintain this temperature and prevent overheating.
The other, cooler end of your enclosure should stay around 24 °C (75 °F).
Provide hides on both sides of your temperature gradient. Doing so will allow your snake to take refuge and thermoregulate at the same time.
Some keepers argue that UV lighting is “unnecessary” for false water cobras, being a forest-dwelling species.
Most sources indicate that these snakes will seek out UVB lighting if available.
Exposure to UVB light helps reptiles synthesize vitamin D3– an essential nutrient – from cholesterol in the skin.
Snakes can also use the sun’s rays to rid themselves of some external parasites and fungi.
It’s easy to incorporate a reptile-safe light with UVB capacity as part of your snake setup. There are two different ways to go about this.
Some keepers may opt for an overall vivarium lighting solution that includes gentle UVB across a wide area (such as fluorescent lighting tubes).
Others opt to incorporate a basking area into their enclosure. If providing a basking area, never allow temperatures to exceed 32 °C (90 °F).
Snakes require a consistent day/night cycle to maintain a healthy internal rhythm. Be sure to maintain a 12-hour light/dark cycle with all lighting.
False water cobras are adapted to thrive in swampy, tropical rainforests. Your enclosure should mimic these natural conditions as much as possible.
Ambient humidity of around 50-60% is considered ideal for false water cobras.
Select an appropriate substrate and mist your substrate daily to achieve and maintain these levels.
You may also wish to invest in an automated misting system.
Adding a hygrometer to your enclosure is essential.
This device will allow you to monitor humidity levels and ensure that they remain within an acceptable range.
Use a hygrometer to monitor humidity even after you have established a regular misting schedule that works well.
Humidity or hydration boxes can be another valuable addition to your falsie’s enclosure.
These usually consist of a ceramic or plastic hide with damp sphagnum moss inside. You can make DIY hides or purchase them from a reptile store.
Ensure that hydration boxes are large enough for your snake to shelter inside of.
Expert tip: Always place humidity boxes on the cooler side of your thermal gradient. Excessive heat will cause the sphagnum moss to dry out rapidly.
An environment that is too humid or too dry can cause serious issues for your snake.
Snakes are prone to respiratory illnesses and shedding complications when humidity levels are not properly maintained.
Provide at least two hide boxes per snake. Place one at each end of your temperature gradient.
There is a range of options available for large snakes, such as false water cobras, or you can make them.
Whatever hides you choose, ensure that they are both easy to clean and large enough for your snake.
Decor and Enrichment
In captivity, it’s easy to assume that a snake is content with a full belly and a warm hide to crawl under. That is NOT the case for the false water cobra.
False water cobras are large, active snakes.
They’re also regarded as highly intelligent by many keepers.
Wild snakes spend much of their time exploring their habitat, following scent trails, and seeking mates.
These behaviors are essential for the snake’s health.
Snakes lacking in enrichment will become under stimulated, and may begin to exhibit unusual, repetitive behaviors.
These behaviors are a sign of chronic stress that will ultimately make your snake more susceptible to disease.
Enrichment is one main reason to provide ample space for this species. A larger enclosure means more space for your snake to explore.
Additional space should be made even more interesting by adding objects for your snake to interact with.
Branches, cork tunnels, plants, and a large water bowl provide three-dimensional space for your snake to explore.
These additions serve as environmental enrichment.
If you use wooden branches, consider the type of wood and how it will fare in a humid environment.
Cork is an excellent, versatile, and cheap option. You’ll find it in most reptile stores, and it does well with higher humidity.
Ghostwood is more expensive but visually stunning. It also fares well in humid enclosures.
Other great choices include manzanita, Mopani, and Malaysian driftwood.
Avoid using grape wood. Although cheap, it’s known to accumulate mold in moist conditions!
Most false water cobra keepers avoid live plants, as they can be damaged easily by a large, wandering falsie.
Reptile-safe live plants can be great additions to juvenile enclosures.
Some keepers argue that handling serves as enrichment for snakes.
Snakes often experience stress when involuntarily removed from their enclosure. Doing so may do more harm than good for your animals.
A complex environment is the most effective source of enrichment for snakes, and will keep them happy and healthy!
False Water Cobra Diet and Feeding
In the wild, false water cobras feed on amphibians, reptiles, fish, and small mammals.
They’re highly generalist predators and will consume most animals small enough to be swallowed whole!
As large snakes, they also have a considerable appetite.
Though individuals differ, most false water cobras are easy to feed. They will generally take a variety of frozen/thawed foods without much fuss.
What to Feed Your Snake
False water cobras will happily take a range of foods, such as:
As with most reptiles, these snakes will benefit from a diverse diet.
Expert tip: Live rodents can cause significant injuries in an enclosed environment. Frozen/thawed foods are safer for your snake and easier to work with. Be sure to properly thaw all food items before offering them to your snake.
Size-appropriate rodents are the best bet for consistent staple food.
They’re widely available, fairly cheap, and provide plenty of nutrients. Offer these once per week.
Ensure that rodents are small enough for your snake – no wider than the snake’s body at its widest point.
Chicks are another feeder animal that you’ll find in reptile stores, usually in frozen form.
Chicks make an excellent treat for your snake every few weeks or less.
Whole frogs or frog legs are another option for an occasional treat. Ensure that frogs are non-toxic before feeding them to your snake.
You can also add live feeder fish to your snake’s water bowl.
Live fish provide an excellent source of enrichment, allowing your snake to effectively “hunt.”
Offer only one or two appropriately-sized prey items per feed.
How Often to Feed Your Snake?
There is some disagreement among different sources as to how often false water cobras should feed.
Some keepers suggest feeding adult snakes as often as twice per week, citing their fast metabolism.
Others feed as rarely as every other week to prevent obesity.
The best strategy for most keepers of false water cobras is to try a feeding regime somewhere in between – around once per week.
Adjust your schedule accordingly if your snake is becoming over or underweight.
Offer your snake a source of fresh water at all times.
False water cobras are semi-aquatic snakes. A large water bowl can be a great source of enrichment for this species.
Be sure to select a heavy, non-tippable bowl that is large enough to accommodate your snake’s entire body. They’ll attempt to bathe in it either way!
Snakes will often defecate in their water bowl. In this case, clean (with reptile-safe cleaner) and replace it immediately.
Otherwise, replace the water once daily.
Spot clean your vivarium daily – removing feces when it appears. Replace water daily (or more if soiled with feces).
You may find this species to be “messier” than others due to its large size and high activity level.
Vivarium walls may also become soiled. Wipe walls regularly with a dilute vinegar solution, followed by water.
A bioactive substrate may also need to be “fed” by adding new mulch or leaf litter once the old has decomposed.
False water cobras are fairly hardy snakes and do well if given proper care. Still, it’s good to be aware of potential health issues that they can develop.
Like all snakes, false water cobras will shed their skins as they grow. The entire intact “skin” should peel off each time this process occurs.
Sometimes – particularly if humidity is too low – snakes may encounter issues with incomplete shedding.
If this happens and a shed becomes stuck, try soaking your snake in warm water for at least half an hour.
You should then be able to gently coax the remaining skin from your snake’s body with a pair of tweezers. Do not use force, as this can harm your snake.
- Usually, low humidity
- Can also be due to fungal infection.
- Dead skin remaining after a shed.
- May also cause inflammation of the skin.
- Soak the snake for 30 mins or more in warm water, then gently coax skin away with tweezers.
Prevention: Maintain proper humidity levels and provide a large water bowl for soaking.
Bacterial or fungal skin infections are another common problem with snakes.
Typically, they will require veterinary attention.
Your vet will need to first identify the cause of the infection (bacteria, parasite, or fungus) and then prescribe medication to treat it.
Chronic stress, a dirty enclosure, or waterlogged substrate can increase your snake’s risk of developing a skin infection.
- Fungus or bacteria infecting the skin.
- Inflamed skin.
- Constant basking behavior.
- Lethargy and loss of appetite.
- Cloudy eyes (even after shed).
- Bumps or lesions on the skin surface.
- Antibiotics, prescribed by vet.
- May take up to a month to treat.
- Seek veterinary assistance immediately.
- Change substrate and spot clean regularly
- Maintain healthy humidity levels at all times
- Avoid feeding live foods that can wound your pet
Respiratory infections are – unfortunately – a common cause of premature death among captive snakes.
These are typically preventable diseases that occur due to poor husbandry.
- Bacterial infection of the mouth (mouth rot)
- Loss of appetite
- Wheezing sounds
- Open-mouthed breathing
- Pus or mucus oozing or bubbling from mouth or nostrils
- Antibiotics, prescribed by a vet
- Seek veterinary assistance immediately
- Maintain healthy humidity levels and temperature at all times.
- Offer your snake a diverse diet.
- Maintain overall substrate cleanliness.
False water cobras can adjust well to being handled.
The keeper must be willing to accept that there will always be a risk of envenomation.
Each adult snake will have a different temperament. Some may never take fully to handling at all.
Juveniles are also far more likely to bite than well-trained adults.
Behavior & Temperament: “How to Train Your (False) Water Cobra ”
Learn to read your false water cobra’s warning signs. This species has several obvious defensive behaviors that it will perform under stress.
If you choose to ignore these signals, you give your snake no further option but to bite to defend itself.
Firstly, your snake may extend its characteristic “hood.”
This flattening of the neck is a way of appearing larger to would-be predators in the wild. A hooded snake should be left alone.
Tail whipping is another unusual defensive behavior reported by many keepers of this particular species.
Though it may not actually hurt, it’s a warning sign, and you should heed it as such!
Musking – the secretion of a pungent substance from glands around the snake’s vent – is another tactic employed by snakes when cornered.
If your snake musks, it’s afraid of being eaten and does not want to be handled.
Each of these indicates that a snake does not wish to interact with you.
Wait until the behaviors have ceased before attempting to handle your snake.
Expert tip: Always wait at least 24 hours before handling your snake after feeding. Also, never attempt to handle a hungry snake on feeding day!
There are many ways to make handling a safer experience for you and your snake.
Always sanitize your hands before and after handling.
Doing so reduces the risk of disease spread (in either direction). It may also remove lingering smells that could trick your snake into thinking that you’re dinner!
You should also consider wearing gloves when handling these snakes to minimize the risk of a bite.
Gloves are essential when handling unfamiliar or juvenile snakes.
Open your enclosure carefully. A grumpy (or hungry) false water cobra may strike at you from within the tank.
Use caution and avoid reaching directly into the habitat with bare hands.
Check if your snake is exhibiting any of the defensive behaviors listed above. If your snake is behaving defensively, stop and wait for it to calm down.
If your snake is calm, reach into the enclosure with your snake hook, and make the snake aware of it by gently touching its skin.
Your snake will learn to associate this stimulus with handling over time.
Use the snake hook to gently remove your snake from its enclosure.
You may need a sturdy hook for adult false water cobras as they can be quite heavy.
Lift from beneath the girthiest part of the body. Stop what you’re doing if your snake begins to act defensively.
If your snake is calm, you may find that you can handle it once it’s outside the enclosure.
Do False Water Cobras Make Good Pets? A Summary
Many seek to own this species due to its name and reputation – frankly, the wrong reasons to purchase any animal!
For the experienced – or more dedicated intermediate – keeper, the false water cobra can be an awe-inspiring animal to own.
Their enormous size and beautiful coloration make them a highlight of many reptile collections.