Feeding Stubborn Snakes

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I believe many readers would agree that for the most part, snakes make wonderful, low maintenance pets. However, some species are better suited as pets than others. Likewise, some snakes adapt smoothly to a captive lifestyle while other retain their more wild tenancies.

In the instance of the latter, it is not uncommon to encounter a snake that is what we call a stubborn feeder. That is, they refuse food for non health-related reasons. In some cases these are freshly imported animals that simply require time to adjust to their new surroundings prior to thinking about food. Other times it is a matter of offering the snake the wrong type of prey. Still in other cases, reluctance to feed is a result of naturally occurring appetite cycles that these animals would experience in the wild as well.

Regardless of the cause, once you have ruled out illness, there are a number of tips and tricks around that can drastically improve your chances of getting a stubborn snake feeding. Listed below are a few of my favorite tried and true techniques.

1) Know Your Snake Different snakes have different food preferences in the wild. Some eat rats, others fish, still others are lizard eaters. You can't expect your snake to feed if you don't know what it should be eating! Some species change their dietary preferences over time. For example, some baby colubrids will feed on lizards exclusively until they are a few months old at which time they switch to rodents without a second thought. Ball pythons eat gerbils and African rats in the wild, so it can only be expected that they be confused by the sight of a white rat with red eyes!

In short, research the needs of your snake first. Doing so will make life much easier for both you and your snake.

2) Color Counts As mentioned above, laboratory white mice and rats may be intimidating to a snake that is genetically programmed to hunt brown and black wild rats. Switching the color of the prey is perhaps the easiest method, and should therefore be tried first. Most pet shops or reptile stores should have brown or black rats and mice on hand at any given time, although the majority will no doubt be white.

3) Reduce Stress Stressed snakes will not be hungry. They will be concerned with avoiding whatever it is in their lives that is causing them discomfort. Stress can be caused by excessive handling (especially with new snakes that have not yet acclimated to their new homes), improper housing conditions, or illness.

If your snake has had ample time to settle into it's new environment, then you should double check that your temperature and humidity levels are correct, that the snake is set up properly, and that it has ample hiding places so that it may feel secure. And again, keep handling to a minimum until your snake has settled into a healthy feeding regimen.

4) Switch It Up Although most snakes can, over time, be conditioned to accept white mice, you should not ASSUME that yours will. If you have a snake that is naturally a lizard or fish eater, you may just have to bite the bullet and feed them what they want. Later, after they have fed a few times, you can try slowly switching them over to a food item that is more convenient for you.

Also, as far as snakes are concerned, mice and rats smell totally different. Try feeding rat pups to stubborn mice eaters, or large mice to snakes that would normally accept small rats. Again, this is a simple fix and should be tried long before any more invasive measures are taken.

5)When and Where Most snakes are nocturnal hunters and may be more inclined to feed in the evening. Also, feeding your snake in a dark, small container may help to ensure that predator and prey meet, while additionally preventing ingestion of normal cage substrate during feeding.

I have found that with tropical snakes, especially ball pythons (which can be notoriously picky), a heavy misting of warm water 2 times a day for a few days prior to feeding can help. This ques the snake that the "wet" season has come, when they would naturally be more active in the wild.

6)Tease Feeding This one can be a little tricky, so proceed at your own risk. The idea is to hold a pre-killed prey item with long forceps, and gently tap the snake on the side on the mouth. What you are hoping for is that the snake gets irritated enough to strike and grab the prey item. In the best case scenario, they grab the prey, and if left completely alone with NO interruptions, will swallow it.

Unfortunately the worst case scenario is that the snake remains un-interested and just gets further stressed from being tapped in the head with a dead mouse. This technique should be reserved for after other techniques have failed, and works best with naturally aggressive or arboreal species.

7)Scenting Sometimes you can get a stubborn snake to feed on a rodent by simply scenting it with a more appropriate prey item. Lizards, frogs, and birds are all examples of scents that snakes may find highly appealing. For scenting purposes you can use the actual animal, it's droppings, or dirty bedding to transfer the scent. If using one animal's feces to scent a feeder, please note that the risk of parasite transmission is fairly high, and this should be an absolute last resort.

Begin by washing the rodent with warm water, and maybe a bit of unscented soap. Rinse thoroughly, and dry. If you haven't already guessed, this is much easier to do with a pre-killed rodent. Then place the rodent is a non-porous container with the item you are using fro scenting. In some cases this will be a live (or dead) frog/lizard, or perhaps a bird feather. You can gently rub the two together to facilitate scent transfer. Snakes have a remarkable sense of smell, so it shouldn't take long to transfer enough scent. When you are satisfied, present the prey item to the snake as you normally would.

8) Braining/Splitting I do not know who originally figured this one out, but it truly works like a charm. It's a bit gruesome, but it can get stubborn colubrids and some boids to eat like clockwork. The method is simple, in theory, but may pose a problem if you are squeamish.

Essentially what you are doing is taking an (obviously) pre-killed pinky, fuzzy, hopper, or mouse, and splitting it's head open, revealing the brain matter. The combination of scents from the blood and brain seem to trigger something in snakes that they can't resist. Nine times out of ten this trick works with baby colubrids and is nearly as effective with other species.

Place the "split" prey item in a secure, dark container with the snake, and leave it alone for at least 30 minutes. This is an effective technique, so even if it fails on the first try, consider repeating it a few days later.

In Closing Keep in mind that the vast majority of pet snakes will eat standard rodent prey with gusto. Do not allow the above to sway your opinion regarding the ease of snake keeping. Only a small percentage of snakes sold (and even a smaller percentage of captive bred specimens) ever present feeding problems, but when they do, it can be terribly frustrating.

All of the above techniques have been used by both myself and many other with great success. My hope is that you can keep these tricks in mind should you encounter a stubborn feeder in your herping career.