Reptiles have grown massively in popularity in recent years.
It seems more and more people every week are discovering the benefits of keeping snakes and lizards as pets. Whether it’s the relatively small cages required by many species, the lighter workload when compared to keeping “standard” pets like cats or a dogs, or the lack of noise, it seems that for many people reptiles represent the perfect pet.
That aside, keeping reptiles – and in particular snakes – is not without its challenges. Of them, one of the biggest lessons that new snake-owners need to learn is how to feed their pet snake.
The goal of this article is therefore a simple one; if you’re considering buying a snake but don’t know how to feed it, this introductory guide will teach you all the basics that you need to know.
What Do Snakes Eat?
Without exception snakes are carnivores. That means that they eat animal matter. A small number of snakes will eat eggs, and few others will eat invertebrates, but the vast majority need proper dead animals to eat if they are to thrive in captivity.
This applies to all the most common pet snakes kept, including royal pythons, corn snakes, king snakes and milk snakes.
In captivity this normally means feeding rodents – either mice or rats – of a suitable size.
How Big A Prey Item Will My Snake Eat?
Understandably baby snakes tend to eat tiny new-born rodents, while larger snakes eat comparatively larger meals. The question is really what size of mouse or rat is appropriate for your pet?
The simple answer is that most pet snakes are able to eat a rodent with a similar diameter to the fattest part of their body. If, for example, your snake is an inch or so in diameter then it can probably eat an adult mouse. A snake a few times that size might manage an adult rat.
Remember that snakes are able to stretch their jaws out and consume items considerably larger than their head. If you’re new to keeping snakes prepare to be amazed by the meal items your pet can fit down its throat.
Note that smaller items can be given, though of course you will likely need to feed these more often. Indeed some snakes do seem to favour slightly smaller, “easier to digest” meals than one single prey item of epic proportions.
In contrast, attempting to give your snake an item that is too large means it likely will be unable to consume it so is best avoided. If in doubt go smaller, not larger.
How Often Should I Feed My Snake?
Snakes are cold blooded. This means that they typically use far less energy than us mammals and, as a result, need to consume far fewer calories to stay healthy. As a result, it is generally unnecessary to feed your snake every day like you would with your budgie or your cat.
It is also important to appreciate that smaller food items will typically need to be fed more often. This can be especially challenging as a snake grows. You will often find that your pet is happy to consume two smaller mice, but is not quite large enough yet to eat one large one. More regular, smaller meals may therefore be in order.
As a rule of thumb, generally speaking most adult snakes will eat once or twice a week. Youngsters, in comparison, will normally eat two or three times a week.
It is rarely possible to overfeed a snake. If it isn’t hungry it won’t eat, and most snakes won’t gorge themselves and get fat.
The important thing to note here therefore is that each snake is different so while you can start off with these general rules, be prepared to modify them in line with your snake’s behaviour. If your snake keeps on leaving food, trying offering fewer feeds each week. If everything you offer gets ravenously consumed, try offering more.
Many snakes, speaking from the author’s experience, will actually change their behaviour when hungry. Rather than just lying around motionless for hours on end they will be seen actively searching for food. Once you get to know your pet snake this can be a strong indicator that another feed may be in order.
Where Do You Buy Snake Food?
When it comes to buying snake food the simplest answer is normally your local reptile shop. Snake food may also be bought online, though postage can be impractical.
Generally speaking most reptile shops maintain a freezer full of rats and mice of varying sizes. All you need to do is figure out what numbers you want, and of what sizes.
How Do You Store Snake Food?
It is important to think of your snake’s food as on par with your own. That is to say when you buy it frozen, you should endeavour to keep it frozen until you are ready to feed your snake. The freshness of your snake’s food is as important as it is for you.
If you’re going to keep snakes, therefore, you have two options. Firstly, you can go out to the reptile shop on feeding day and buy exactly what you need. Then come home, defrost it and feed your pet.
For many people though this becomes impractical, especially in snakes requiring two or three feeds a week. And it can be particularly frustrating if your snake suddenly decides not to eat and you’ve put all that time and effort into going out especially for their dinner.
The reality of the situation is therefore that most snake keepers maintain a section of their freezer solely for snake food. Perhaps dedicate an ice-cream tub or suchlike, which should be carefully labelled, to the storing of your snake food. You can then remove one or more prey items at a time, thaw them out and feed your pet with minimum fuss.
How Do You Feed A Snake?
So, you’ve got a frozen mouse in your freezer, but how do you actually feed it to your snake?
Firstly, you’re going to want to defrost it. Thawing out snake food is a relatively simple affair. For best results place the rodent into a plastic bag and suspend it in a container of hot water. This will not only quickly defrost the item, but will also warm it up.
This warmth is important because many snakes find warm food items more appealing than cold ones, so it will increase the odds of your snake eating on a regular basis.
Most snakes quickly get used to eating dead prey rather than catching live prey so it is rarely necessary to do anything fancy. Instead simply open your snake cage, keeping your distance so your pet doesn’t accidentally strike at you through hunger, and lay the warm, defrosted rodent in their cage.
Then leave them to it. Many snakes are shy feeders so sitting there with your nose pressed up against the glass is unlikely to be beneficial. Instead leave the room and let your pet find the food in peace. If you must watch your pet eating try creeping back in once your snake has begun feeding. Once they have got hold, very few pet snakes will drop a food item instead of swallowing it.
After Feeding Your Snake
The reality of feeding snakes is that not every snake will eat every time. Sometimes you’ll find your snake turning its nose up at its dinner.
If your snake hasn’t eaten its dinner within half an hour or so of putting it into the cage it is wise to remove it, and then either try feeding it to another snake or dispose of it. You shouldn’t try to refreeze the rodent or keep it for another day. It gets eaten, or it gets binned. Anything else risks poisoning your pet.
Lastly be aware that however unpleasant it may be a snake eating a whole rodent can make mess. Blood, for example, may ooze out and onto the bedding. As a result you should also check over your snake viviarium carefully after feeding and, if necessary, remove any messy bedding and replace with fresh.