Anorexia is the loss of appetite or refusal to eat. It can be a health problem in itself or it can be a sign of underlying problems. If your snake shows other signs of illness such as weight loss, depression, abdominal swelling, vomiting, diarrhea, sores in the mouth or on the skin, wheezing, abnormal discharges or abnormal posture in addition to not eating, there is a good chance that your pet is seriously ill and you should take him to a veterinarian who is experienced in reptile care.
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. Many snakes from temperate climates tend to decrease their feeding rate in the autumn as the light cycle decreases. If your snake is healthy, you may just want to decrease feedings for the cooler months, but you should be vigilant to ensure that as the light cycle lengthens your snake’s appetite returns. Many owners whose snakes significantly slow down for the winter season elect to hibernate them. When snakes are prepared correctly for hibernation, it may be preferable to keeping them active for the winter.
Snakes often go off feed temporarily prior to shedding. When their skin is grey, they cannot see very well and often appear to be irritable. Once the shed is complete, the appetite should return to normal.
Wild caught snakes that are not used to living in captivity or eating domestic prey animals often suffer from anorexia. Newly acquired snakes and shy, retiring species such as ball pythons often refuse food until they become used to their new cages and owners.
If anorexia is allowed to continue for more than a few weeks, however, it can predispose the animal to infection. Severe, possibly non-reversible liver and kidney damage can occur if anorexia is allowed to go on until the animal has lost a significant amount of weight. Anorexia is a sign that a snake does not feel secure enough in his cage to eat. This is a strong indication to improve husbandry and reduce stress.
Unless your veterinarian finds an obvious cause for anorexia on physical examination, such as mouth infection, pneumonia, or parasite infection, a detailed history is extremely important. If your snake has produced a recent stool take it with you to the veterinarian, so that it can be tested for parasites.
If your snake has not eaten for more than one to two months depending on the size and age of the snake or has lost significant body condition, further diagnostic tests are warranted. These include:
If husbandry problems are diagnosed and the snake appears healthy on physical examination, treatment is aimed at improving his environment and removing any intestinal parasites that may have been diagnosed on a fecal examination.
If your reptile has not eaten for awhile, he is probably dehydrated. It is important to rehydrate the snake prior to attempting to feed him. Depending on the severity of dehydration and the level of kidney and liver function, your veterinarian may select to rehydrate your snake with oral fluids given into the stomach with a feeding tube, subcutaneous fluids (under the skin), or intraperitoneal fluids (fluids given with a needle right into the abdominal cavity). In extremely severe cases, your veterinarian may want to hospitalize your snake and administer intravenous fluids.
Once your snake is rehydrated, it is important to start a series of tube feedings that are geared to prepare the intestines to digest real food again.
Concurrent treatment of any underlying medical problems, such as bacterial infections, obstructions or organ dysfunction, is crucial to the successful treatment of anorexia.
Administer fluids, food supplements and medications according to your veterinarian’s instructions. Also, observe the general activity level and interest of your pet. Note the character and frequency of stools. Contact your veterinarian if you notice regurgitation. This is a sign that the medications or the feeding regime needs to be updated. In addition, do the following:
The best prevention is to buy healthy captive bred snakes that are readily feeding on their own on easy-to-obtain prey items. At home excellent husbandry will prevent most snakes from becoming anorexic.
Avoid handling snakes for at least 48 hours after a meal. Have your veterinarian test a stool sample from your snake for the most common parasites found in that species. Follow your veterinarian’s instructions for administering de-wormers. In addition, make sure you clean and disinfect your snake’s cage and cage furniture after all de-wormer doses. This will minimize your snake’s chances of re-infecting itself from immature parasites or parasite eggs that may be in the cage.
Although adverse environmental conditions such as cold temperatures, very hot temperatures, drought, poor prey abundance, and flooding may force some species of wild snakes to fast for several months, these conditions usually are not the case for captive animals. In addition, wild snakes usually do not enter a fast suddenly; there is usually a gradual period of cooling or reduction in prey numbers that precedes the fast. During this period, the snake’s body has time to adapt to the fasting state.
When enduring a forced fast, snakes reduce their activity levels and the basic rate at which their body burns calories. They slow down their metabolism until the environment is favorable to them successfully hunting again. Herpetologists that hibernate their snakes have recognized the need for slow transitions for years. If snakes are not given the time to pass the feces of their last meal prior to a serious drop in temperature, the food left in the gut will rot and make the snake sick. In general, except for hibernation, snakes in captivity are not given the environmental cues necessary for them to successfully fast for long periods of time.
If you have acquired a snake that is not eating and someone tells you that this is normal, be careful. Unless the snake is purposefully being manipulated by cooling or change in water availability or just getting ready to shed, the anorexia is probably abnormal.
Neonatal snakes do not usually feed until after their first shed approximately two weeks after hatching. Until this time, they live off of the remnants of their yolk sac.
Although many cases of anorexia are secondary to poor husbandry, the following is a list of common medical problems that are associated with anorexia in snakes:
It is important to determine that a snake is really anorexic. Many snakes are overfed in captivity and simply cannot eat as frequently as their owner wishes to feed them. An excellent diet history and a normal physical examination with the exception of obesity is usually diagnostic for this condition. A conclusive diagnosis is made when the snake’s appetite returns after a decrease in portion size and an increase in feeding intervals is instituted.
Once this is tolerated, your veterinarian may use combinations of meat baby food, veterinary supplements or ground prey items to feed your snake. Once your snake is producing normal stools with this combination, it is time to offer small prey items. In most cases, if the underlying husbandry and/or disease problems have been corrected, the snake will be ready to eat on his own. Once the snake has formed normal stools, you can start to slowly increase the prey size back up to normal size. On rare occasions your veterinarian may need to force feed the first prey item. This needs to be done by an experienced person to avoid injury to the snake. It is extremely important to contact your veterinarian if your snake starts to regurgitate at anytime during treatment. It is an indication that the reintroduction to solid foods is occurring too quickly or that there is an untreated underlying problem.
Home Care In-depth
Unless you only use your heating devices during the day, make sure that they are not giving off visible light. Many people use regular light bulbs to heat cages. When they are left on 24 hours day, they can interfere with the snake’s circadian (daily) rhythms. Once the cycle is disturbed, many reptiles stop eating. Use of ceramic or infrared bulbs circumvents this problem. For snakes that use hide boxes or burrow, an under-cage heating pad can provide temperature gradients without excess light.
If your snake’s cage is located in a high traffic room, consider getting a cage cover, it can help maintain the normal light cycle and give your snake extra seclusion when its time to rest. If your snake still won’t eat, it may be necessary to move it to a quieter location.
The following tricks can be used to stimulate a feeding response in some snakes.
It is always best to feed the appropriate prey species to snakes, but should you temporarily run out of feeder snakes, lizards or amphibians you can try the following: Save shed skins from usual prey animals. Stuff small rodents into the shed skins before feeding. Rub the shed skins on feeder rodents. Some people collect the slime from amphibian and fish skin and freeze it in a jar. As needed they thaw a little bit and rub it on the head of alternative prey items.
Optimal treatment for snakes with anorexia requires a combination of home and professional veterinary care. Follow-up can be critical.
Administer any prescribed medications or food supplements as directed by your veterinarian.
Be certain to alert your veterinarian if you experience any problems while treating your pet. Be especially careful to report regurgitation, decreases in activity or the development of diarrhea.