Feeding Pet Snakes

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

What do snakes eat?

All snakes are carnivores. Their diet depends on the species. Some eat warm-blooded prey (e.g., rodents, rabbits, birds), while others eat insects, amphibians (frogs or toads), eggs, other reptiles, fish, earthworms, or slugs. Snakes swallow their food whole.

Constrictor species like boas and pythons, as well as adult king snakes and corn snakes, usually eat prey such as mice, rats, gerbils, small birds, and hamsters. Larger constrictor species may also eat whole rabbits.

Since snakes eat entire prey whole, it is easy to feed them nutritionally complete diets and prevent many of the dietary-related diseases commonly seen in other reptiles. Whole prey, such as mice and rats, compose a balanced diet for a snake. Some people have difficulty feeding whole prey to reptiles. If you are squeamish about feeding rodents to your snake, then a pet snake is probably not the pet for you.

"Even a small mouse can bite and severely injure a pet snake by inducing a severe, potentially life-threatening infection."

Live prey should not be fed to snakes, as the prey not only suffer psychological stress while being hunted by the snake, but also may harm the snake by biting it before they are eaten. Even a small mouse can bite and severely injure a pet snake by inducing a severe, potentially life-threatening infection.

Snakes should be trained to eat dead prey. It is more humane for the prey and safer for the snake. Snakes can be offered thawed, previously frozen prey, or freshly killed prey. You do not have to kill the prey yourself, as most pet stores supply freshly killed or frozen rodents to feed.

How often should I feed my snake?

How often you feed your snake depends on your snake’s age, size, and activity level. Smaller or younger snakes usually eat twice each week, while larger, more mature snakes typically eat once every week or two. Female snakes approaching breeding season can be fed more frequently. Your veterinarian can give you more specific advice about feeding based on your snake's individual requirements.

Your pet may let you know how often they need to eat by how they respond to you offering food. If they eat, then they were hungry and needed to be fed. If they do not eat it immediately, they are not hungry and likely did not need to be fed yet.

If you do feed live prey, never leave a prey item in the cage for longer that two hours. Rodents often begin biting the snake if they are not eaten within several hours. Serious and sometimes life-threatening wounds can occur in these situations. Bite wounds require immediate veterinary attention, as infections can become very serious from puncture marks and larger bite wounds. (Photo courtesy of Gregory Rich, DVM.)

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

There are many causes for a pet snake not wanting to eat (anorexia). Some causes may be benign, such as the stress of being in a new or disrupted environment, noise, lack of privacy, improper environmental temperature, hibernation, shedding, pregnancy, or breeding season anorexia.

Other causes may be more serious, including cancer, kidney failure, parasites, viral infections, and other health issues. Your veterinarian can help determine the cause of your snake’s decreased appetite by performing a thorough physical examination, fecal analysis for intestinal parasites, and other laboratory testing.

Do I need to give my snake vitamins?

As a rule, pet snakes do not need vitamin supplementation. It is important to make sure that your snake's prey is healthy and well-fed. Unhealthy prey choices may harbor harmful bacteria or intestinal parasites. For this reason, some snake owners, especially collectors, raise their own rodents for feeding to their snakes.

What about water?

Fresh, clean water should be provided at all times, in a large, heavy, ceramic crock or bowl that cannot be spilled easily. A good-sized dish may help maintain appropriate levels of humidity in the tank, which is critical to keeping the snake hydrated and helping it shed properly. Some snakes enjoy soaking in their water dish periodically, too, so the dish should be large enough to allow that. Many snakes will eliminate in their water bowl as well, so change the water frequently and wash, disinfect, and rinse the bowl every day.

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