Snakes - Feeding

By Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Nutrition

What do snakes eat?

There are NO vegetarian snakes; all species are carnivores. The diet depends on the species. Some will specifically eat warm blooded prey (rodents, rabbits, birds), while others eat insects, frogs or amphibians, eggs, other reptiles, fish, earthworms, or slugs. Snakes swallow their food whole. It is important to understand the normal diet for a particular snake. The most popular pet snakes usually eat prey such as mice, rats, gerbils, and hamsters. Larger pet snakes will also eat whole rabbits.

"There are NO vegetarian snakes; all species are carnivores."

snakes-feeding-1Since snakes eat entire prey items, this simplifies things for snake owners and most certainly prevents many of the dietary-related diseases so commonly seen in other reptiles. This is because the normal prey represents a complete and balanced diet for the snake. A mouse, for example, is a complete and balanced nutrition package for a rodent-eating snake. However, it does present a problem for some people in that you must provide some type of prey to the snake. If you're squeamish about killing rodents for your snake and then watching it eat the prey, a snake is probably not the pet for you!

Although you can feed live, unweaned, infant mice (pinkie mice) to smaller or younger snakes, in general, it is not recommended to feed live prey to snakes. You can feed your snake either a thawed, previously frozen prey items, or freshly killed ones. You do not have to kill the prey yourself, as most pet stores will supply freshly killed or frozen "snake food". There are several reasons for feeding dead animals to your snake. Firstly, live prey will suffer some psychological stress or terror while being hunted by the snake, unless killed and eaten immediately. Secondly, and surprising for most snake owners, even a small mouse can bite and severely injure your pet snake; a mouse can even kill the snake if the snake isn't hungry!

For humane reasons, strongly consider training your snake to eat dead prey. The only time you should even consider feeding live prey to your snake is if you know that your snake is hungry and will immediately kill and eat the prey and you will watch the snake do this safely. Do not leave live prey with your snake at any time. Ensure the snake has killed its prey before you leave.

How often should I feed my snake?

That all depends upon the behavior of your snake, its routine of defecation, its size and its age. Smaller or younger snakes usually eat twice each week, and larger snakes eat once every week to once every few weeks. Female snakes approaching breeding season can be fed more frequently. Your veterinarian can give you more specific advice based on your snake's species and individual requirements. Your pet snake will also tell you how often he needs to eat by his response to your feeding schedule.

My snake won't eat! What's wrong?

There are many causes of anorexia or refusal to eat in pet snakes. These could be relatively benign causes such as the stress of a new or disrupted environment, noise, lack of privacy, improper environmental temperature, hibernation, shedding, pregnancy, or breeding season anorexia.

"Failure to eat could also be a sign of a more serious problem such as cancer, kidney failure, gout, parasites or other health issues."

Failure to eat could also be a sign of a more serious problem such as cancer, kidney failure, gout, parasites or other health issues. Your veterinarian can help determine the cause of your snake's anorexia after a thorough physical examination and appropriate laboratory testing.

Do I need to give my snake vitamins?

As a rule, no. However, since your snake "is what he eats", it's important to make sure that your snake's prey is healthy and well fed. For this reason, some snake owners, especially collectors, raise their own rodents for feeding to their snakes.

What about water?

A large, heavy ceramic crock or bowl (that cannot be spilled easily) with fresh clean water should be provided at all times. A good-sized dish may help maintain better humidity in the air. Some snakes enjoy soaking in their water dish periodically. Many snakes will eliminate in their water bowl as well as drinking from it. Therefore you should change the water frequently, and wash, disinfect and rinse the bowl on a daily basis.

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