Slow but steady: Snails win the race

With my former pet snail, Biscuit.

My first encounter with snails must have been when I was but little, maybe 6 or so. I was in the countryside and snails came out in scores after the refreshing summer rain. I quickly became fascinated with their beautiful shells, their considered pace, and the sensation of their cold, moist flesh across the skin of my palms.

That summer and over many summers after it, I ended up doing everything that children like to do with snails: I went on fevered searches for these creatures after a rainy spot, I kept half a dozen of them in a large shoebox into whose lid my father had punched holes so they could breathe, I gave them lettuce and cabbage leaves, and I made them run in snail races (which were never won by anybody because the snails would always stray away from our improvised racecourse and into the more inviting garden).

My childhood is dotted with snail-related landmarks, and my first ever pets were snails since, growing up on the top floor of a tall block of flats in a busy city meant that my options when it came to pets were limited. (Add to this my mother’s fear of almost all kinds of animals, especially the furry ones, and you’ll understand why snails were an obvious go-to for me.)

Many years passed and, in my mid 20s, I found myself pining for a pet. But it was tricky: I was still a student, I had little money to spare, no place of my own, and I travelled between different countries often. Under these circumstances most animals, once more, were not an option for me. Until the idea struck — why don’t I get… a snail? You can find them pretty much everywhere, and they don’t require any sizeable investment of time and money, I told myself.

Biscuit, a grove snail (Cepaea nemoralis), on the day I found it.

One day (once more in summer), as I was going through a rough patch emotionally and professionally, I happened to find a small grove snail on my university campus. This in itself was quite surprising, as I had never seen snails on the campus grounds (I expect they do a good job of poisoning “pests”).

So I decided to pick it up and adopt it. I called it “Biscuit”.

As it turns out, I did well to take it in — Biscuit appeared to have lost part of one of its upper tentacles, and since snails use their four tentacles to navigate their environment, Biscuit was now somewhat disoriented.

This was my the beginning of a very serious love affair with land snails, and they are still a huge part of my life, as I expect them to continue to be. So I’ve finally decided to start writing about these amazing little creatures that don’t tend to get much love. They are beautiful and fascinating, and they can make the best of pets.

In fact, I highly recommend land snails as pets, since they are quite hardy creatures, they can be easily found wherever you live, they don’t require much of an upkeep, and they’re not smelly or noisy. Below, I outline some snail facts that you may have not known about, and explain who may find them a good option as pets, and how best to look after them.

About snails

Cepaea hortensis
A garden banded snail (Cepaea hortensis).

Snails belong to a type of animals known as “mollusks”, like mussels and even octopi. Mollusks are soft-bodied invertebrates, which means that they don’t have any bones or cartilage. In turn, mollusks are split into different classes, and of these, snails belong to the class “gastropoda” — gastropods.

There are very, very many types of land snails, as well as marine snails, but I’ll stick to the ones I know, and which are closer to home (for me). In Britain, where I’m currently based, but also in other Western European countries, some of the most widely spread species of land snails that you’ll encounter (possibly in your own garden) are: the grove snail (Cepaea nemoralis), its look-alike cousin, the garden banded snail (Cepaea hortensis), and the regular garden snail (Cornu aspersum, or Helix aspersa), which is much larger than the other two, and whose shell has a different colour scheme. [see photos]

Garden snail
Cookie, my former garden snail (Cornu aspersum).

Throughout Eastern Europe, the most common type of land snail is the Roman snail (Helix pomatia), the cousin of the Western garden snail; compared to Cornu aspersum, though, Helix pomatia is a little larger in size, and its shell is more of a tan rather than a brown colour. Some may also lack the Western garden snail’s distinctive stripy pattern.

The Roman snail is an edible species, and it is what posh French restaurants will serve you under the name of escargot. (Though if you do choose to eat snails, I’m afraid we can’t be friends!)

Pretty much all snails are hermaphrodites, which means that they have both male and female organs. The snails named above tend to prefer finding a mate to reproduce, despite being hermaphrodites, but the fact that they have both kinds of organs means that they can, in a pinch, further the future of their species by reproducing on their own.

Snails tend to breed in spring or summer, and they can lay up to 100 eggs, or thereabouts. Since not all eggs are likely to hatch, large numbers of eggs are necessary to ensure survival. When they hatch, baby snails look just like their adult parents, fully formed with shell and all, just super tiny!

Roman snail
A Roman snail (Helix pomatia) spied in the Croatian countryside.

These animals are also amazing at survival in other ways. For instance, they can repair any superficial shell damage, so if you find a snail with a cracked shell, put it somewhere safe, maybe under a bush, farther away from busy streets and natural predators, such as birds. But if the snails are squashed, that means that their vital organs, such as their lungs, which are hidden underneath the shell, will have been crushed, and they will unfortunately not survive.

Another thing that snails can, surprisingly, fix are their four tentacles: two upper and two lower ones. The upper tentacles end with a pair of eyes, while the lower ones are used for smell and taste. All of these tentacles thus help the snails to navigate their way through the world. While unhappy encounters with predators can cause the snails to lose one or more of their tentacles, these well-adapted creatures are able to eventually regenerate their lost tissue, though it will take a while for the new tentacles to gain 100% sensitivity, and some may not be able to regain their full function, making the snails more disoriented in their environment.

Snails as pets

As I keep reiterating, land snails — and here I mean specifically local, native species — can be great pets, firstly because you don’t need to buy them from a pet store or breeder; all you need to do is step outside on a wet spring or summer afternoon, and there they’ll be.

Note regarding conservation status: All the snail species I named above are listed as being of “least concern”, which means that they are not threatened in the least, and their populations are stable in the wild.

Also, feeding them won’t require much financial investment, since you can easily forage for food in the local park or surrounding countryside, or even in your own backyard. Conversely, buying some cheap greens at the local market or supermarket will also do.

So, who are pet snails for? I’d say that they make excellent pets for flighty students, or busy professionals, or anyone who doesn’t have enough time, money, or geographical stability to afford a more high-maintenance pet.

Biscuit in a shoebox
In this photo, you can see how Biscuit had munched on the lid of the shoebox that served as its home at the time.

What can you keep snails in? Very many different things, as long as they’re reasonably well ventilated. You can keep them in a discarded shoebox, or other cardboard box (with holes appropriately punched in the lid, to let some air in), but be careful! Snails eat through paper and cardboard, and they may eat a hole through a cardboard box.

I have kept snails in shoeboxes before, and they never actually ate the whole way through (perhaps because the outermost layer of the box is typically coated in plastic or some such material), but that is always a possibility.

You can also use any kind of tupperware or plastic storage boxes and convert them into terrariums, again, as long as you punch enough holes into the lid, to make sure the box is reasonably well ventilated. Finally, you can buy terrariums/aquariums/vivariums online for very reasonable prices, if you want to treat your snails to a particularly nice condo.

What do garden snails eat? The species that I’ve named above, as well as many other land snail species, just love almost all kinds of leafy greens. My ones (Cornu aspersum and Cepaea nemoralis) are great fans of lettuce, spring greens, and sweetheart cabbage. (Please wash any market- and especially store-bought plants before giving them to your snails! They may have been sprayed with toxic substances that kill snails and other “pests”.) Surprisingly, they don’t appreciate white cabbage or Savoy cabbage, perhaps because they’re tougher and fibrous and less juicy than some other types of cabbage.

Snails LOVE to feast on carrots!

They also absolutely adore carrots and cucumber, which makes sense, because the latter has a very high content of water, which is essential for snails’ well-being. On this note, snails should always have a source of water in their enclosure, and this could be a little plastic lid, serving as a shallow water puddle. My emphasis is on “shallow” because land snails can drown if they find themselves in a pool of water that is too deep for them to navigate.

Snails also need a permanent source of calcium, which is crucial for the health of their shells. Without calcium, their shells tend to deteriorate, and snails may munch on each other’s shells to absorb the calcium they need, if they can’t find it elsewhere. Sepia bone (or cuttlefish bone) is an excellent source of calcium, it can be bought very cheaply in any pet store, and it lasts for absolutely ages.

Or, if you live near the seaside, you may actually be able to find cuttlefish bone on the shore. If you do forage for it, however, make sure to keep it sunk in plain water for about a week or so (changing the water regularly), to make sure that any seawater salt is removed. Salt is to snails what sulphuric acid is to humans — it will kill them in the most painful way possible.

Snails don’t eat any pungent plants, such as onion or garlic, nor do they eat foods that are highly acidic, such as citrus fruit (lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruit etc.). Also, although they love carrots, they don’t touch carrot leaves, as these, too, are highly acidic.

Snails in the underbrush
Snails love to burrow and hide, so it’s good to provide them with options to do so.

Some points on snail upkeep. Snails love humid environments, and they love to burrow and hide, so it’s great to provide them with hiding places. Also, they tend to be nocturnal, meaning that they are more likely to wake up in the evening or at night.

If it is too cold, snails will hibernate; conversely, if it’s too hot and dry, they will aestivate — in both these circumstances, they retreat deep into their shells, forming a protective “seal” at the entrance to their shell. This doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with them; they’re just “sleeping” and preserving energy until their environment becomes friendlier.

While snails can actually do well without food for quite a long time, mouldy foods make them sick and kill them. That’s why it’s important to change any food you give them before it gets the chance to grow mould that is toxic to these tiny creatures. Or else, if you won’t be able to change their food frequently, make sure that they are in a super-well ventilated enclosure, so that any lettuce leaves etc. dry out rather than become mouldy.

Pro tip: Spring greens and sweetheart cabbage stay fresh much longer than lettuce, so they’re a better option for snail lovers who can’t commit to keeping a close eye on the state of the food all the time.

I realise that even this looooong blog post hasn’t touched on all the relevant aspects of snail-rearing, so don’t hesitate to hit me with questions in the comments, and let me know if you’d be interested in my going more in-depth about various aspects of snail life, such as reproduction.

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