Before specific feeding recommendations are made, it is very important to make several points and cautions regarding the feeding of captive snakes. The most respected herpetologists and experienced snake hobbyists all agree that captive snakes should be fed dead or incapacitated prey whenever possible. This is because such prey cannot injure the feeding snake. Providing killed prey that has been frozen is convenient and economical for the hobbyist. Snakes may be induced to eat thawed, frozen prey animals by clipping hair from the coat of a live rat and rolling the proposed food in it just before feeding.
Though freezing, thawing and subsequent feeding of whole prey animals is a common practice among hobbyists and herpetologists, some experts believe that such food sources should be “gutted” (eviscerated) before they are frozen. This greatly reduces the possibility of generalized bacterial contamination of the carcass. To replace those nutrients within the viscera that would otherwise be lost, the hobbyist can place a gelatin capsule filled with a vitamin/mineral/amino acid supplement into the body cavity before feeding the thawed prey animal to the snake. Rodents (rats and mice in particular) left unattended and unobserved within an enclosure with a supposedly
hungry snake sometimes turn on the “diner” and inflict serious bite wounds on it. These “dinner becomes the diner” incidents are most likely to occur when a snake is ill or otherwise uninterested in feeding.
If snakes do not accept freshly killed or well-thawed frozen prey, the live prey must be stunned so that it is sufficiently incapacitated and unable to injure the snake. Cervical dislocation of the spin is the preferred method to stun prey. If such an incapacitated animal is offered to a snake that is generally accustomed to receiving its food in this fashion and the snake refuses it, the prey animal can be killed and frozen, and offered at a later time.
If it is not possible to offer anything other than live and fully conscious prey for a snake to successfully feed, the encounter must be carefully supervised. If a snake shows no interest in feeding within 10-l5 minutes after the prey has been introduced, the prey should be removed and all of the possible reasons for the snake’s lack of interest in feeding should be investigated. (See section on Failure to Voluntarily Feed). If other similar attempts to feed the snake within the next 1-2 weeks are equally unsuccessful, veterinary help should be sought at once.
Snakes acquire a large number of infectious agents from the foods they consume, especially because of the snake’s habit of feeding on whole prey items. It is not practical or possible to ensure that all prey animals are absolutely free of disease-causing agents. However, prey animals that are to be fed to captive snakes should appear healthy and come from a reliable source. Breeding of your own prey food will provide a constant and healthy food source. Extreme caution should be exercised when feeding snakes. This is especially important if a given snake is expected to be hungry and if human-snake interaction is limited to feeding times. An overzealous and hungry snake is very likely to strike at a person immediately after the enclosure is opened and as the prey item is introduced. Large snakes can be especially treacherous and dangerous at these times because of their ability to overcome and overpower their keepers. Hobbyists and even a few expert herpetologists have been seriously injured or even killed at such times.
Great caution must also be exercised when feeding more than one snake within an enclosure. Serious problems result when 2 snakes choose to prey on the same food item. If one snake attaches to the front of a mouse and another attacks at the tail end of the same mouse, neither snake will surrender its hold. Both snakes will continue to feed and eventually one will consume the other! When 2 or more snakes are housed within the same enclosure, they should be fed individually by holding the prey animal in long forceps or tongs.
Captive snakes, as a group, usually do not suffer from major nutritional deficiencies, unlike the majority of reptiles kept in captivity. This is largely because pet snakes are allowed to feed as they do in the wild on whole prey items. The prey species fed to captive snakes are undoubtedly different from those present in the snake’s natural environment. Further, the relatively narrow diversity of prey animals that can be fed to captive snakes due to practical and economic considerations is in contrast to the wide variety of prey animals potentially available to wild-living snakes. In spite of these major differences, the incidence of malnutrition and malnutrition-related problems among captive snakes is quite low, markedly contrasting the usual situation with most captive reptiles and their seemingly limitless malnutrition related disease problems. The potential for malnutrition and malnutrition-related disease tends to be greatest among juvenile snakes fed primarily very immature vertebrate (rodents, birds, reptiles, amphibians, etc) and invertebrate prey species (insects primarily). These food items are not as nutrient-rich as their more adult counterparts. In particular, young growing mice/rats are calcium deficient because their bones do not harden during the first month of life and therefore, “pinkies” should not be fed unless supplemented with calcium.
Feeding schedules for captive snakes vary with the age, species, size, condition and specific requirements of the individual. Generally speaking, pet snakes are usually fed once every 1-2 weeks. Juveniles and adults for which a relatively rapid growth rate is desired can be fed more frequently, providing that environmental temperatures are warm enough to allow complete and thorough digestion. Older snakes are usually fed less frequently, often once every 3-6 weeks. The number of prey animals offered at each feeding is determined by the same factors discussed above with regard to frequency of feeding.
Overfeeding must be avoided because of the risk of obesity. Too frequent feedings and allowing a captive snake to consume multiple prey animals at each feeding encourages rapid growth. It also leads to obesity in older animals. The relative difficulties in procuring food limits this phenomenon in the wild.
Specific Dietary Recommendations
The variety of snakes kept in captivity is considerable and their food preferences are quite variable. Following is a list of preferred prey animals for the snakes most commonly kept in captivity:
Boa constrictors, pythons, rat snakes, gopher or bull snakes:
- Warm-blooded prey is preferred, such as rodents and birds. Juveniles of these species prefer the very small warm-blooded prey species.
- They may also consume very small lizards and snakes. Some tree boas and pythons prefer lizards to mammals and birds.
- Garter snakes, ribbon snakes, water snakes, etc: Fish, frogs, salamanders, toads, earthworms, slugs and carrion are preferred.
- Many accept dead mice if they are covered with the external mucus of frogs or fish before they are offered.
Indigo snakes, king snakes, and man’ racers:
- Warm-blooded (mice, etc.) and cold-blooded prey (other snakes, lizards, etc.) are preferred.
- The Indigo snake prefers frogs but may eat anything when hungry, including dog or cat food.
Ring-neck or brown snakes and their relatives:
- Salamanders, earthworms, very small snakes and lizards are the foods of choice.
Racers, vine snakes, coachwhips:
- Lizards are preferred. Racers also eat mice and chicks of ground-nesting birds.
- The young of these snakes eat large insects, such as crickets and grasshoppers.