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.