Feeding your pet snake is one of the neat and fun ways we get to interact with them. It is only expected that this can cause some frustration when things do not go well. Or maybe this is your first attempt at owning a snake and just don’t know where to start. There are a few factors to take into consideration when it comes to providing the proper diet and nutrition. We hope to provide you with as much knowledge in this article and build confidence in dealing with your pet snake or snakes.
First and foremost, we will need to identify the needs of the specific snake species in our care. There are around 3500 species of snakes in the world with new species still being discovered. Out of those, there are less than 100 species that are commonly found in captivity. Narrowing down species-specific care can be hard sometimes. Especially if you share a similar passion to us with the uncommon species of snakes. Learning about the natural history of your species of snake is highly beneficial, in this case. Doing your species-specific research will arm you with the knowledge and information you need to make the right decisions for your snake. We will go through as many of the factors you will need to pay attention to and develop your skills as a snake keeper and handler.
Most pet snakes fall under the families of snakes known as Boidae, Pythonidae, and Colubridae. The habits and metabolisms across all the snakes in those families can vary drastically. Some boas and pythons have slower metabolic rates at rest than others. This is linked to their ambush style of hunting as opposed to some of the faster actively foraging Colubrid snakes. Other factors like being found in colder latitudes or in desert regions, can also affect metabolic rates. The metabolic cold adaptation hypothesis states that a snake from a colder climate would have a higher resting metabolic rate than one from the tropics if kept at the same temperature. Basically, keeping the wrong species of a snake too warm or too cold can have negative effects on their metabolism and sometimes affect their ability to digest meals too.
The shape and thickness of various snake species are highly dependent on their typical types of activity. Even within each snake family, we can see various looks from the short and stubby to the thin and wiry. Arboreal snakes that tend to be more slender typically do not digest large meals that would slow down locomotion. On the other end of the spectrum, for example, we have the stockier-built Short-Tailed Pythons that can take much longer to digest. Long enough that some keepers think they are “saving it all for the end”. To those keepers, we recommend shovels not scoops. 😉
This is an often overlooked aspect of figuring out the best meal size. An example of this would be the common misconception that Cornsnakes and Kingsnakes of the same length can eat the same type and size of prey. While this may seem plausible, one must take into account the adaptations each species has for its specific natural prey. Kingsnakes being typically ophiophagous, are more adept at taking down and ingesting smaller size prey, compared to the arboreal Cornsnake that favors avian and mammalian prey. Snake mandibles (bottom jaws) are loosely attached to their head via a ligament and the bones that connect it to the cranium partly dictate the limitations in gape size across species. The majority of commonly kept pet snakes readily take rodents in captivity but not all species consume rodents as a large part of their natural diet. Doing some research into your snake’s typical prey is highly recommended and can really help add that finesse when it comes to feeding your snake.
When it comes to your snake’s natural diet, do not be alarmed to find that it can also consume a variety of other prey. In fact, most snakes are opportunistic and do not turn down a meal often. As mentioned previously, the specific jaw structure and head size/shape are in part determined by the choice of their preferred natural diet.
Kingsnakes and milksnakes favoring reptilian prey have a lower gape limit than, Ratsnakes of similar size that favor avian prey. Due to the size bolus of the food item like an avian body, boas and ratsnakes are well adapted to swallowing larger meals. The smaller mawed snakes, like milksnakes, have to settle for smaller and more frequent meals. This, in turn, is also a reason for the faster metabolic rates in similar species as well.
The difference in metabolic rate across species affects the rate of digestion as well. We have observed that feeding reptilian prey (using stillborns) to our ophiophagous snakes keeps them satiated for noticeably longer than if we choose rodents. The ability to digest reptilian scale and hide seems to require more metabolic effort than the fur-covered hide of rodents. One of the reasons why ophiophagous snakes, like our beloved Kingsnakes, are known for having a bottomless appetite. For more on Kingsnake digestion and other care info, check out our Florida Kingsnake Care Guide.
It only goes without saying, like most animal species, that the care varies from infancy to adulthood. This is very much the same with all snake species as well. The caloric input necessary for the growth in the early stages is significantly higher compared to mature animals. The reason for this becomes very apparent when the most significant stages of growth also coincide with a period of more frequent feedings. Essentially, younger animals require relatively smaller but more frequent meals.
Typically most Colubrid snakes are fed at least twice as often during this stage. Pythons and boas are roughly close to the same as well. The need to gain size to avoid predation by literally any predatory animal (even insects) is so dire that their metabolism supports a frequent intake of food to compensate for the smaller prey items. Some snake species will change their prey preference based on their size and maturity as well. A few of the uncommon colubrid species like the Malagasy Cat Eyed snakes and Indian Ratsnakes (Ptyas mucosa) in our collection, sometimes prefer lizard and amphibian prey as hatchlings and graduate to the more tenacious rodents when they gain confidence with size. The ability to take down a mature rodent (even the smaller species) can sometimes leave the aggressor with war wounds inflicted by rodent incisors. To stumble upon an unguarded rodent nest is even less likely for a hatchling snake to depend on for growth, let alone survival. Some boa and python species are born large enough to start with mammalian prey and typically never have to begin life on a reptilian diet. These larger species, like the Short-tailed Pythons, Ball Pythons, and Colombian Boas, are typically mammal and bird hunters. It goes without saying that the other larger Boa species and giant pythons also have a similar preference in diet during this neonate/hatchling phase.
While feeding for growth during the early stages, one must be aware of the need to adjust the feeds according to the slowing down of the “growth spurt”. Within 1-2 years, most snake species will start slowing down in their caloric/metabolic needs as they approach sexual maturity. This need might be boosted again during courtship and breeding but more on this further along. With Colubrids typically having higher metabolisms, our rule of thumb is that “You cannot overfeed a neonate”. As long as adequate prey size is selected and no “chain feeding” is performed, the neonate’s appetite will more than directly be related to the rate of caloric consumption. “Chain feeding” is the act of following up one meal item with another just as the first one is almost in. This leads to the snake resulting in ingesting a larger meal size than previously sized up before beginning consumption. We do not condone this practice at all as we find it unfair and intrusive to the animal. Boas and pythons have relatively slower metabolisms but still also benefit from our previously mentioned style of “free feeding” in their first year. Whatever species of snake you are caring for, keep a close eye for that tell-tale slowing down of the appetite as it reaches maturity.
Feeding your adult animal can sometimes be tricky to nail down as the effects of poor nutrition take a while before becoming visibly noticeable. This is true of all reptile species. That being said, time can be on your side as adult animals are more forgiving with their slower metabolism. The general rule of thumb for most adult colubrids is a weekly feed. Boas and pythons benefit from a 1-2 week feeding schedule. The size of prey may have to be tweaked to adjust to this. We should not have to start counting calories and sending our snakes to spin classes! The appetite of your adult animal will be your best teacher. Be aware that there can be exceptions to most rules. We have encountered a few individual snakes, no matter what species, that are just complete gluttons sometimes. These particular individuals do require a bit extra attention to tweak their feeding schedule. Less fatty options to rodents, like chicks and quail are great for supplementing adult maintenance diets, especially for those ever-hungry types.
The caloric/metabolic needs are increased in sexually active snakes. The courtship and breeding process takes a toll on adult snakes’ resources. This is especially true for ovulating and gravid females. The activity levels of most males during this period may go up due to the increased movement and locomotion to find and secure females. But male snakes are notorious for “not having anything else on their minds” and will often not feed during courtship. While females typically do not travel much during the breeding seasons, they require much more nutrition for producing embryos or fertile eggs. This increased caloric need typically slows down after live birth or egg-laying. We increase the feeding frequency for females to hatchling frequency, to imitate prey abundance. This stimulates follicular development and ovulation. Feeding may slow down, and sometimes stop, as the embryos or eggs start taking up more space in their body, but they typically feed heavily up until this point.
The first key thing to note when it comes to figuring out the right size for the meal is that there is a range. Do not start measuring your snake’s head or weighing your meal item each time. You won’t need that level of scrutiny unless you are in a laboratory. This is why we strongly disagree about the use of feeding charts for any species. If you are choosing to use a chart to feed your snake, you will not be able to accommodate your snake’s changing needs throughout its life stages. Also, choosing to feed the same type of meal at the same size every single time provides no enrichment and variety in their diet. Remember that almost all snakes (except for the few specialist eaters) ingest a variety of prey in the wild. Snake nutrition should be approached with a broader scope than hoping to stick with charts and numbers.
Snakes grow over time. Having a life expectancy of 20+ years (based on commonly kept species) in most cases allows the keeper a slight margin of error in feeding. If your snake refuses a meal, it is fine! Completely normal to encounter missed or refused meals with your snake. This can sometimes be the most unnecessary stress the beginner keeper encounters. Your snake will catch up on the next feeding sessions and in the grand scheme of things over 20+ years, what’s a few missed meals? We typically do not worry about an animal until it has refused at least 2-3 times consecutively. That can sometimes be a sign of distress or discomfort that may require attention. Do not stress over the size of each meal. The best thing you can do is to find out from your breeder or pet store, what your snakes are currently eating. All you need is a starting point for reference. Using the rest of the tools in this article will help you learn the rest of the way.
This is another aspect of feeding snakes that many beginners worry about too much initially. I always recommend doing what works best for the keeper’s schedule. Every animal has different needs as we have talked about, and it is up to us to provide for their needs. The keeper who has worked out a routine that works with their lifestyle is more capable of providing consistently good care and practice. As mentioned before, most adult snakes can be maintained on a weekly or bi-weekly feeding schedule. That being said, we have to allow for variations as well, due to different life stages and species-specific needs.
We feed our neonate Colubrid hatchlings twice a week allowing 2-4 days for digestion in between. Of course, this number varies due to the species of hatchling snake. Boas and pythons, due to their slower metabolisms are fed every 5-7 days. In theory, this sounds great but expecting your new neonate to achieve this feeding schedule might take a while. The first few meals in a new home for a hatchling snake can be a daunting task. Check out our Hatchling Snake Care Guide for more information on how to help your new baby adjust to its new home.
Typically, the feeding/growth curve starts tapering after the first 1-2 years and juvenile/subadult snakes will graduate to bigger prey and a slower feeding schedule. The changes to their caloric/metabolic needs may sometimes seem to change every couple of months during this time. This is where most feed charts fail the beginner keeper. Learning to grow with the needs of your snake is a sign of a responsible and attentive keeper. Since this is the most drastic transition in the feeding schedule, we think it is best to leave specific timelines out for juvenile/subadult snakes.
Maintaining an adult snake’s diet and nutrition can sometimes be more fun. Adult snakes are more confident in trying out new prey items. Even though many believe that their snakes will get “hooked on” a particular prey item, we have not found this to be true across almost all species we have worked with, past to present. Snakes thrive on having a variety of food items. A well-adjusted snake will not hesitate to turn down a meal of adequately sized quail or chick. We sometimes experiment with atypical food items on certain species. We found out that Korean Ratsnakes (Elaphe anomala) readily accept frozen thawed frog legs from your local Asian grocery store. Only to find out via an article that was published later, that Korean Ratsnakes that were previously thought to share a closer diet to their closely related Russian Ratsnakes (Elaphe schrenkii), does in fact stay near bodies of water and consume amphibians. We have fed chicks to everything from Kingsnakes to Ball Pythons. We even have a few kingsnakes that have taken frog legs. The line was drawn with a Florida Kingsnake when we tried an orange wedge. Yes, this is not one of our proudest moments. As soon as it began chewing, the juice seemed too acidic and turned off the animals from ingesting it further. We sometimes try and disprove the insatiable appetite of Florida Kingsnakes by resorting to oranges. 😉
The breeding adult snake has higher caloric needs and feeding them according to specific needs is important during this phase. Since the breeding behaviors and caloric/metabolic needs have to be catered to each species and each sex of snake, we will leave out this section that is better suited for the intermediate or advanced keeper. Species-specific needs are crucial to be met during this phase. You can get more info on this in our article “Thinking of Breeding Snakes?”
We hope to have allayed some fears by showing insight into some typical concerns. Snakes are amazing hunters and predators that have adapted over millennia. It is time we adapted to their ways and let them be our guides once in a while. 😉
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https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29142118/ -Climate and foraging mode explain interspecific variation in snake metabolic rates
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22158960/ -Metabolic cold adaptation in fishes occurs at the level of the whole animal, mitochondria and enzyme
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https://www.jstor.org/stable/1445298 -Effects of Variation in Food Intake on Locomotory Performance of Juvenile Garter Snakes
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