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Feeding Your Snake

By: Frank Indiviglio

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Pet snakes are generally easier to feed than other reptiles. While an anaconda might need a good-sized deer and a reticulated python a pig every few weeks, your own pet will most likely have more modest needs. Most of the common pet species require pre-killed rats or mice (or rabbits for large specimens). These require no nutritional supplementation and one meal a week is usually enough.

That being said, there are enough special cases that one should check on the exact dietary needs of your particular animal. Swamp snakes, Regina alleni, for instance, eat only freshly molted crayfish, while snakes of the family Dipsadina eat only snails. The northern watersnake should be given whole fish and will require two or three feedings a week.

Some snakes, such as the delicate ring-necked snake, Diadophis punctatus, or the rough green snake, Opheadrys aestivus, feed on insects and require feedings three times a week. Feed crickets or wild-caught insects dusted with a mineral supplement, and add an occasional slug or earthworm.

The Snake's Menu

In the wild, snakes often travel long distances in search of prey. Depending upon the species, this can be insects, bird eggs, frogs, small or large mammals. In captivity, the basic diet will consist of young frozen mice called "pinkies." These come in different sizes at the pet store. Choose one about the size of the snake's head. This will provide a meal without stressing the snake.

Should You Feed Live Prey?

Although many hobbyists believe it is best to feed a snake live food, the bite of a live rodent, if it is not eaten immediately, or if it is gripped and constricted incorrectly by the snake, can cause injury to, or even the death of your snake. It is best to offer only pre-killed prey.

How Much Should You Feed?

One meal a week should be sufficient. How much this meal will consist of depends upon the size of your snake. An adult corn snake, for instance, should be fed two small mice a week; an adult boa, one larger mouse or rat per week, a Burmese python, one five-pound rabbit every two to three weeks; a garter snake, eight to 12 earthworms per week. If fed too much snakes will become obese. This happens most often when the snake ages.

Like all reptiles, snakes are ectotherms whose body temperature and metabolism depend upon the temperature of their surroundings. Changes in their environment - especially heat and light cycles - will affect their appetites. (Wild-caught individuals may respond to seasonal changes even years after they are caught, hibernating in winter even if the temperature of their enclosure hasn't changed.)

How To Know When Your Snake is Hungry

Snakes will let you know when they're hungry. They will start prowling their enclosure and their tongue flicks will increase in frequency and number.

The Best Method For Feeding

Drop the food into the pet's enclosure with a pair of tongs. Even docile snakes may strike at an owner's hands if they have the scent of the food on them. (Snakes may also strike at movements near them so use caution when reaching in to change or add water.)

If you have more than one snake, feed them in separate enclosures to keep them from fighting over the food. Snakes have curved teeth that don't allow them to release a prey they've sunk their jaws into and the larger individual may try to swallow the smaller.

What About Water?

Keep a small bowl of fresh water in the tank. For tree snakes, spray them and the inside of their enclosure daily and the snakes will take in the drops of water.

When Your Snake Won't Eat

Wild caught snakes that are not used to living in captivity or eating domestic prey animals are at a high risk for suffering from anorexia. Newly acquired snakes and shy, retiring species such as ball pythons are prone to refuse food until they become used to their new cages and owners.

Snakes will often temporarily go off feed just prior to a shed. When their skin is gray, they cannot see very well and often appear to be irritable. Once the shed is complete, the appetite should return to normal. Except for some female snakes just prior to egg laying and snakes undergoing planned hibernations, it is not normal for captive snakes to refuse to eat for more than one to two months.

While most rodent feeders in good health can easily endure a fast of even two months, it's important to recognize when your snake is suffering from not eating. Regular weighing is a way to keep a check on changes. If your snake's backbone appears too prominent, it is probably too thin. Snakes that have not been eating may become dehydrated. Their skin will pucker when squeezed and not return to its normal tautness.

When things have progressed this far, soaking the snake or even replacement of fluids may be necessary.

Temperature and light are the first things that should be checked when your pet stops eating. Many snakes from temperate climates will tend to decrease their feeding rate in the autumn as the light cycle decreases. Make sure that your snake gets a proper light cycle. Usually 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark is recommended for tropical species. For temperate species (animals living in North America or Europe), 10 hours of light and 14 hours of dark in the winter and 14 hours of light and 10 hours of dark in the summer is recommended.

Use a thermometer to measure the temperature gradient in the cage. Just feeling cage surfaces to feel if they are hot or cool is not precise enough. Adjust heating devices to maintain a temperature range recommended by your veterinarian.

If the snake is healthy, you may just want to decrease feedings for the cooler months, but be vigilant to ensure that as the light cycle lengthens the snake's appetite vigorously returns. Many owners whose snakes significantly slow down for the winter season elect to hibernate their snakes. When snakes are correctly prepared for hibernation, this may be preferable to keeping snakes active for the winter.

Parasites or illness can also affect their appetite. If your snake shows other signs of illness (weight loss, depression, abdominal swelling, vomiting, diarrhea, sores in the mouth or on the skin, wheezing, abnormal discharges abnormal posture, etc.) in addition to not eating, there is a good chance that your pet is seriously ill and you should take it to a reptile veterinarian.

When all other conditions seem right and the snake still refuses to eat there are a few things to try. First, try wriggling the food item in front of the snake with a pair of tongs. Sometimes even touching the snake with the food item results in a defensive strike from the snake, which may get it to eat the prey.

Provide the snake with a smaller area inside its enclosure, a hide box, in which to eat. Or place the food item into the enclosure for the snake to "discover" it there.

Try a different food item, a gerbil, chick or hamster instead of a mouse. Try making a cut in the dead animal's skull to increase the scent.

If live rodents seem absolutely necessary, use only pink, unweaned animals for adult rodents can easily injure your pet.

Force-feeding should be only a last resort, and only attempted by an experienced hand. Schedule regular veterinary visits to monitor the condition.

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