Snakes are becoming increasingly popular among reptile enthusiasts thanks to their unique appearance, low maintenance, and quiet nature. But like other pets, snakes rely entirely on their owners to provide them with food. That means you need to know what pet snakes eat and how often to feed them to make sure they stay healthy.
Today, we’ll talk about what’s involved in feeding snakes. But before we get to that, let’s talk about how snakes eat and digest their food. That way, you’ll understand why their diet is so important.
Why Snakes Eat The Way They Do
All snakes are carnivores, which means they only eat meat. Even if they wanted to, they aren’t able to live off of plants. That’s because they aren’t designed to digest plant material.
Snakes have short digestive tracts and don’t have the necessary gut bacteria to break down produce. This means they can’t extract the nutrients they need from plants, like fruits and vegetables. Not to mention, your snake probably wouldn’t recognize plants as food, so they’ll spend more time ignoring them than eating them.
Snakes need dense, high-calorie foods. And that means feeding them other animals.
Another unique thing about snakes is that they don’t chew their food … they swallow it whole. That’s because snakes don’t have the right kind of teeth for chewing. To accommodate this, their jaws aren’t fused together like a human's. Instead, their lower jaw can separate from the upper portion. This makes their mouth more flexible and able to rotate so that it’s easier for them to eat large prey.
In this article, we’ll talk about the types of animals snakes can eat and other dietary requirements. But remember … while most pet snakes have similar diets, some need special care. That’s why you should always research the specific snake you want to buy before buying it.
With that important note out of the way, it’s time to dive in …
How Often Do You Feed A Pet Snake?
Unlike most other pets, snakes don’t need to eat every day. How often and how much you feed them is based on several different factors. Here are some general guidelines, based on age and size:
Large or fully grown snakes only eat once every week or two
Young snakes need to eat more frequently to support growth so you usually want to feed them twice a week
Small snakes can’t consume as much food as larger snakes so they may need to eat more often
But age and size aren’t the only factors. Both males and females generally follow the same eating schedule, unless your female snake is approaching breeding season. In this case, she’ll need to eat more often. Shedding snakes, on the other hand, sometimes eat less. So don’t panic if your shedding snake suddenly is uninterested in food.
Environmental changes and activity levels can also have an effect on your snake’s appetite.
The good news is, it’s pretty easy to figure out whether your snake is hungry. If you offer food and they eat, your snake is hungry. If they don’t eat it, they’re not.
The only time you need to worry is if their lack of appetite is prolonged. If there isn’t an obvious reason, like shedding, there may be other issues you need to address. These can range from stress and loud noises to more serious issues like kidney failure or parasites.
Whatever the reason, the key is to stay calm. Check with your vet or a local expert to determine the cause and find a solution. It may be simpler than you think.
Can You Overfeed A Snake?
As we mentioned earlier, most snakes will only eat if they’re hungry. But, like some people, some snakes will eat everything you give them. This can lead to obesity and a shortened life.
To help ensure your snake doesn’t overeat, it’s important to maintain a consistent schedule.
What Do Snakes Eat
Let’s take a look at some of the common foods snakes eat and the types of snakes that eat them.
Most wild snakes live off of warm-blooded animals including small rabbits, squirrels, gophers, mice, and rats. They sometimes also eat birds and their eggs.
In captivity, most snakes are fed mice and rats as they’re a complete and balanced meal. The size of your snake will determine whether you should be feeding it small or large mice and rats. As a general rule of thumb, prey should be the same diameter as your snake.
PINKY & FUZZY MICE OR RATS
When you’re buying mice or rats, you may come across the term pinky and fuzzy. Pinkies are newborn mice that haven’t grown fur yet and are only 1 to 4 days old. Fuzzies are 5 to 13 days old. They have fur but still haven’t opened their eyes. Both pinkies and fuzzies are used to feed small or young snakes.
Popular pet snakes that eat warm-blooded animals, like mice or rats, include:
But, as we mentioned, not all snakes eat warm-blooded animals. Here are some other common food sources for snakes.
Some snakes eat insects like caterpillars, crickets, spiders, and moths.
Common insect-eating snakes include:
Rough and Smooth Green Snakes that eat crickets, spiders, slugs, snails, and other bugs
De Kay’s Brown Snakes, which exclusively eat snails, slugs, and earthworms
Brahminy Blind Snakes that ant eggs and larvae
The idea of an insect-eating snake may be more appealing than one that eats mice, but they aren’t ideal for most owners. Many are wild-caught and rarely do well as pets, often refusing to eat in captivity. As such, these snakes are best left for expert keepers.
An Insect-Eating Snake That Isn't A Snake
If you like the looks of a snake but can’t handle feeding rodents and aren’t expert enough for an insect-eating snake, you may want to check out the legless lizard.
While the lack of legs makes this lizard look just like a snake, there are some key differences. Legless lizards have eyelids, external ear holes, scales on their bellies, and a fused jaw. None of which you would find on a snake.
The benefit of a legless lizard is that it chews its food. This means their diets consist of insects, like crickets and mealworms, and other common reptile food.
Many snakes will eat bird and reptile eggs but they still need rodents to survive. There are, however, two species of snakes that live solely on bird eggs – Indian and African egg-eating snakes.
Indian egg-eating snakes are incredibly rare so they aren’t usually kept as pets.
The African egg-eating snake is much more common, but like snakes that eat insects, they require expert care and an experienced owner. In addition, they rarely get big enough to eat chicken eggs, so you need a good source of small eggs, such as quail.
In the wild, most snakes will eat fish if they come across one and it’s convenient enough to go after. But there are some snakes that eat fish as their primary food source. This includes garter, cottonmouth, water, and dice snakes, as well as checkered keelbacks.
Of these snakes, garter snakes are the most common fish-eating snakes kept as pets.
Garter snakes will eat fish in the wild, as well as small mammals and worms. While you can feed them fish in captivity, you should give your garter snake the occasional pinky mouse. This will help to round out their diet and make sure they get the vitamins and minerals they need.
There are also some important considerations when feeding fish. The first is that live fish can increase the risk of parasites. Feeding frozen thawed fish can help reduce the risk. Secondly, you want to avoid fish high in thiaminase, such as goldfish, as they’ll cause B1 deficiencies.
Like fish, most snakes will eat amphibians like frogs and salamanders if the opportunity presents itself. But some snake species actually prefer frogs and other amphibians to small rodents. This includes snakes that live in the water (known as water snakes), as well as some species that prefer to live near water, such as garter snakes and wild hognose snakes.
Wild hognose snakes are commonly kept as pets. In the wild, they mostly eat frogs and toads. While pet hognoses can eat amphibians, they can be incredibly hard to find. The good news is, hognoses will normally eat a wide variety of foods in captivity and can be fed rats and mice like other common pet snakes.
Leaf-nosed snakes are another species that normally eat frogs (as well as lizards). Unlike hognose snakes, they don’t easily take to mammal-based diets. If you try to switch them to mice, chances are you’ll only stress them out. Leaf-nosed snakes are best left for expert keepers for this reason.
Can You Feed Snakes Raw Meat Like Chicken?
Because snakes are carnivores and eat meat, many people wonder whether they can eat chopped-up chicken and beef.
While some people do feed raw unprocessed meat to their snakes, it’s not a good idea. Snakes can't live off of this type of food for long. They need whole animals including the bones and organs so that they can get all of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients they need.
Feeding Live Vs Dead Prey
When feeding your snake, you have two main options – live prey and dead prey.
While you can technically choose either, dead prey is ideal.
Live prey can bite your pet snake, transmit parasites and cause potentially life-threatening infections. There have also been cases of snakes that refuse to eat for long periods of time after being bitten. Live prey can also cause psychological stress for the prey itself, which is seen as unethical.
There’s one instance where live prey may be necessary and this is if your snake needs movement or smell to entice them to eat. This is something your vet may suggest when your snake is sick and not eating. If this is the case, 1-day-old pinkies that can’t hurt your snake are ideal.
Any other time you feed your snake, the food should already be dead.
The good news is, most snakes are trained to eat dead prey. It’s also more cost-effective and convenient to store. When feeding dead prey, you can either use freshly killed or frozen prey.
How To Feed Fresh Killed Prey
Many pet stores sell freshly killed prey. Once you have picked it up, move the prey to your snake's enclosure with tongs so that your snake doesn’t accidentally bite you. Most snakes will eat the prey if it’s placed in their cage. Some will need more movement. If this is the case, lightly move the prey while holding it with the tongs and be ready to release when your snake attacks.
The length of time you leave the dead prey with your snake will depend on the snake itself. Some need a few minutes while others need to be left with their food overnight. In most cases, it’s recommended that you remove uneaten food after 4 hours.
Once your snake has eaten, give them time to digest before moving or handling them. On average, it takes snakes 4 to 5 days to fully digest their meal. That being said, you can usually start handling them again after 24 to 72 hours.
How To Feed Frozen Prey
Frozen prey is the easiest to find and most popular type of food. After you buy frozen prey, you will want to continue to store it in the freezer until it’s ready to be fed. 1 to 2 days before you plan on feeding your snake, move your frozen mice to the fridge. Only take out as many as your snake will eat during their meal.
When you’re ready to feed your snake, take the prey out of your fridge and let it come to room temperature. Once at room temperature, feed as you would freshly killed.
Do You Need To Move Snake Out Of Its Enclosure To Feed It?
Some believe that feeding snakes in their enclosure will increase the risk of cage aggression. Cage aggression is when a snake becomes defensive of its space and shows aggressive behaviour towards other snakes or owners.
There’s also a concern that the snake will eat substrate when grabbing their prey.
Whether you move your snake to a separate enclosure, is ultimately up to you. However, if you have multiple snakes, they should be fed separately to reduce aggression and competition.
Other Feeding Considerations
When caring for a snake, there are a couple of other dietary needs to consider, including water and vitamins.
Snakes don’t drink often but they still need a large shallow bowl of fresh clean water to soak in. This water will also help with humidity in your enclosure.
You want to be sure to change your snake's water every day. If your snake defecates in its water dish, wash and disinfect the bowl before refilling it.
If you feed your snake healthy, appropriate prey, they should not need any vitamins or minerals added to their diet. The only time you should need to provide any additional supplements is if your snake has a deficiency you’re trying to correct.
What Your Snake Shouldn’t Eat
While we have covered many of the foods you shouldn’t feed your snake, it’s worth repeating.
Pet snakes should not be fed live rodents as they can hurt your snake or make it sick.
While some will argue that it’s more natural, the reality is, your captive snake is not in its natural environment. Sure, they don’t get to eat live animals. But they also don’t have to worry about temperature changes, inclement weather, or predators, so it’s really a win overall.
In addition, your snake should not be fed fruits and vegetables. Even if they take it, snakes can not properly digest these foods and get no benefit from them. The same goes for grains and any processed food. Similarly, while your snake may eat raw meat like chicken or beef, it will not provide them with the nutrients they need.
When in doubt, consider whether the food you are giving them is something they may find in the wild. If it isn’t something they would normally hunt, it isn’t something they need.
Snakes are incredibly unique and fascinating creatures. But, as is the case with any pet, taking one on means that you need to know how to care for it. That way you can ensure your pet will live a long and healthy life.
If you’re grossed out by any of what you learned today, especially feeding your snake rodents, then a snake may not be for you. And that’s okay! There are still lots of interesting reptiles for you to choose from.
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