Feeding Pre-killed Prey to Reptiles

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Many wild reptiles include some sort of living prey in their natural menu. Be it insects, rodents, birds, or fish, the fact is that many herps have the instinct to hunt for their food. For years hobbyists have been familiar with the concept of offering herps (usually snakes) prey that has already been humanely dispatched, and in some cases frozen for storage and re-thawed. Some keepers feel that pre-killing prey is a time-consuming and un-necessary hassle, but the fact is that in most cases it is a warned and worthwhile practice.

When it comes to feeding vertebrate prey (i.e Mice, Rats, Rabbits, etc.) to reptiles, the animal being fed nearly always is a snake. Large carnivorous lizards such as Monitors and Tegus tend to have little trouble with live rodents; however, the principles presented here still apply and should at least be considered if you routinely feed live rodents to your monitors or tegus.

First let me explain some of the advantages to feeding pre-killed prey, then I will offer some steps to take in order to get you snake interested in prey that's no longer alive.

Advantage number one is directly related to the safety of your pet. Weanlings through adult size mice as well as all sizes of rats are capable of inflicting a nasty bite on another creature. If your snake happens to be unlucky, or perhaps doesn't grab the prey just so, there is a good chance of the rodent biting back. This is relatively common, and generally not serious, but as with any wound (especially a bite) there is a chance of systemic infection in your snake. Also, despite sounding ridiculous, I have personally observed a number of snakes that, after being painfully bitten by a mouse while killing it, went on to refuse food for an extended period of time. In either case, the end result is preventable.

A less common, though much more serious situation occurs when a live prey item is left unattended with a snake for some period of time. There are countless reports of snakes (usually finicky ball pythons) left for days in a closed box with a live prey item. The results are usually deadly. Snakes are often chewed on by hungry rodents that have nothing else to eat. Remember, snakes can go months without food, but not mice and rats. Why would a snake let this happen? Simple. The snake isn't hungry. It may be stressed, ill, or just plain full. In any case, if the initial feeding response is not there, then leaving the rodent with the snake for hours will make no difference. If a snake doesn't show interest right away, chances are it won't eat right then. The longer the prey item is left with the snake, the more desensitized the snake becomes to the prey item. Rule of thumb: Don't leave live prey with an unattended snake for more than 15 minutes at a time.

So, perhaps your asking yourself, who pre-kills the rats and mice for these snakes in the wild? Well, nobody. But that's OK. These snakes aren't in the wild. They are our pets, and their health and very lives are our responsibility. It is up to us to do everything we can to make our pets safe and comfortable as long as we continue to keep them as pets. To the person who insists that feeding live prey is the natural, only way to go, I offer this: Why not also expose your pets to other "natural" factors. How about unexpected cold-snaps, or predators. See my point?

By offering freshly killed prey, you are obviously able to avoid the whole prey-fighting-back phenomenon. However, you can take it a step further and increase the safety and convenience of feeding rodents to a whole new level. Consider purchasing frozen prey. They are readily available for less than the price of a live food item, and can be stored in your freezer for months. Additionally, by freezing the prey item solid, any potential diseases and or parasites that may have been present in the rodent are unquestionably killed.

There are cases when feeding live prey will be needed. Finicky or young animals may be stubborn about taking dead prey, as well as certain individual animals that will simply never cooperate. In all other cases, the only advantage to feeding live prey is for the entertainment value it provides its owner. Sure, the chase can be exciting, but is really worth the potential harm to your pet?

So, you've decided to give the pre-killed feeding thing a try. Good. You have nothing to lose. If your snake is used to being offered live prey, then I would continue to do so in your home until your snake is fully settled in. There is no use in trying to further confuse and stress an already upset animal adjusting to a new environment. It's best to give the snake a few weeks to settle in, before making any drastic changes in feeding practices.

In the best case scenario, your snake will accept the prey with little or no work on your part. Snakes with strong feeding responses such as most colubrids and boas will often take the prey if simply left alone for a while with the dead rodent in a dark, quiet place. (Remember, it's always a good idea to feed your snakes in a container other than the one they live in. Doing so greatly reduces their aggression level in the cage, as well as your chances of being bitten.) If the snake has not eaten after 15 minutes, you may want to consider leaving it with the prey overnight in a secure and warm area. The drawback here is that as time progresses, the prey item will begin to stiffen and cool to room temperature. Both of which may cause the snake to lose interest. My personal opinion is that if the snake hasn't consumed a dead prey item after an hour or so, it probably won't, so rather than leaving the snake crammed in a feeding container, just call it quits, and try again in a few days.

Lots of snakes are attracted to the movement and/or body temperature of their prey. If you do not succeed the first time feeding your snake pre-killed prey, try slightly moving the food item with a long pair of tongs or a long, smooth stick. Usually a slight jiggle or two is enough to attract the snake's attention. The animal will often flick its tongue once or twice, realize you have food, and then go to town. But there will be exceptions. Sometimes you will have to dangle the prey item for a number of minutes before the snake strikes. Just be patient and try not to frighten the snake with fast movements that the snake may interpret as threatening.

As for temperature of the prey, remember that pythons as well as some boas and all pit vipers, sense the heat of their prey's body while hunting. Obviously a mouse that has been dead for 2 hours is going to have little or no effect on the snakes' heat sensing abilities. To combat this problem, you can only offer freshly killed food (as opposed to prey items that were killed 5 hours ago and just left to sit at room temperature). Also, you can warm up the prey slightly by placing it under a low wattage heat lamp, or by popping it a zip lock baggy and floating it in some very warm water. Under no circumstances should you microwave prey to be given to a snake for food. Chances are it will explode, or worse, burn your snake internally.

If you are feeding prey that has been frozen, then you simply need to thaw the food item out prior to feeding. Never offer frozen prey that has not been completely thawed. Sometimes the outer layers seem thawed but the food remains frozen in the center. After being consumed, these prey can quickly lower a snakes body temperature from the inside out. The best ways to thaw prey are to just leave them out at room temperature until completely thawed, then set it under a warming lamp for a few moments so that it is slightly warmer than the snakes environment. The other tried and true method is placing the rodent in a water tight plastic bag, and putting into warm water. This method is quick and clean, it usually takes 10-15 minutes to thaw an average sized mouse.

Hopefully the information I have shared here makes sense to you. Remember, when we take wild animals into our homes as pets it is our responsibility to provide for them the absolute best care possible. Good nutrition is the corner stone to caring for any type of animal. So give feeding pre-killed a try. It's safe, convenient, and an excellent way to insure the health and long life of all the animals in your collection.

All your Reptiles feeders can be found at LLLReptile.com, by clicking on the feeder link on our home page. We carry a complete inventory of Frozen Mice and Rats, as well as Crickets, Worms, and Fruit Flies.