Snake Feeding Problems

Snake Feeding hacks for non-feeding snakes

A non-feeding snake is very frustrating for a snake keeper. The first thing to do is to relax. Don’t panic. Snakes can go a while without eating so you have some time to figure it out.

Active snakes have a faster metabolism. They burn more calories at a faster rate than less active snakes.

Baby Dumeril's boa
A baby Dumeril's boa might be difficult to get started. Remember patience. If the snake is healthy, it'll eventually eat.

First, assess the situation

  • Are the temperatures right for your specific snake species?
  • Do you offer a hide box or have a substrate for the snake to burrow down in?
  • Was the snake recently acquired? Are you handling it often? Leave new snakes alone for a week when introduced to a new home or enclosure. Don’t handle your new snake until after it’s feeding for you. After the snake eats a meal, do not handle it for 48 hours. 
  • Is the snake’s enclosure placed in a high traffic area? When a snake gets stressed, it’ll often go on a hunger strike.
  • Do you have the snake in the same enclosure as another snake? Keep snakes in separate enclosures while feeding.
  • Is the enclosure too big or too small for the snake? Some snakes actually prefer tight quarters for security. Sometimes you have to think like a snake, not as a human.
  • Was the snake recently ‘power-fed’? Power feeding any species of snake is not a good idea for many reasons. If the snake was power-fed for an extended period, it may refuse food for months.
  • Might the biological clock in the snake’s head be ringing? During the breeding season, or when a snake usually goes into brumation, it may stop feeding for an extended period.
  • Perhaps the snake is gravid? Many female snakes go off feeding while carrying babies. 
  • Is the snake be sick? Does it have an upper respiratory infection? Snakes kept in drafty or overly humid conditions can develop upper respiratory infections along with other ailments. Such a snake needs treatment by a competent reptile veterinarian.
  • Does the snake have mites, ticks or internal parasites? Is your snake captive-bred or field-collected? Treat field-collected snakes for internal parasites. Quarantined both captive-bred and wild-caught specimens and check them for external parasites such as snake mites

Try these hacks for a non-feeding snake

  • Offer live prey if the snake won’t take frozen/thawed. Don’t leave a live rat or mouse in the enclosure for too long. It may attack the snake if it doesn’t take it. On the other hand, toothless pinkies are safely left in the enclosure overnight.
  • “Braining” of the pinkie or mouse/rat. Cut open its head and some of its innards. Leave the gutted rodent in the enclosure overnight. Remove it the next day if it doesn’t take it. Sometimes the smell of the innards stimulates the snake to feed. 
  • Color of the prey item matters. Try offering rodents that are black or brown instead of pure white. 
  • Offer a pre-killed food item that is still twitching. This is referred to as stunning the snake’s prey. 
  • Take the water bowl out of the snake’s enclosure for five days. On the sixth day, soak a frozen/thawed prey item in warm water. Offer the wet rodent to the snake. If this doesn’t work, immediately place the water bowl back in the enclosure after removing the prey item.
  • Place the snake in a plastic shoe-box and offer it food after an hour has passed. Certain snakes are best conditioned to eat in a ‘food box’ exclusively. Especially pythons.
  • Scent the prey item with a lizard or toad according to the specific species. A hognose snake may take a toad-scented prey item while a gray-banded kingsnake may take a lizard-scented item. Water snakes might take fish or frog scented prey items. It’s best to understand your snake species biology in the wild even if it’s captive-bred.
Snake feeding problems solved
This female Arizona mountain kingsnake failed to thrive during the first year of her life. By the second year, she became much healthier and continues to thrive today.

A little privacy, please

Sometimes snakes just need a little privacy. You can place a towel or blanket over an enclosure while you attempt to feed the snake. Just walk out of the room for a half-hour or so. It’s also common practice to leave a pre-killed food item in the enclosure overnight. With any luck, the food item will be gone by the next morning.

One thing is for certain, not every snake takes food from hemostats or forceps. You’re using hemostats or forceps to feed your snake, right? It’s not a good idea to hand-feed any snake. A food response bite is in your future if you’re not using a tool. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Using a feed box

With boas, pythons and certain other snakes, it’s sometimes good practice to remove the snake from its enclosure and place it in a shoebox when it’s time to eat. The snake will hopefully recognize feeding time is when it’s placed in the box. Condition the snake not to expect a meal every time you open its enclosure.

Food-response bites

In the past, I’ve taken food-response bites from certain kingsnakes, corn snakes and Northern Pine snakes. Feeding mistakes happen and I’m ultimately at fault any time I receive a bite. It’s been a while though. The last snake I received a food response bite from was a Children’s python.

Steps taken for non-feeding snakes

You might buy a snake from a seller who claims that it’s taking frozen/thawed. Sometimes they lie to make a sale. Here are the steps to take to get the snake feeding.

  • First attempt: Frozen/thawed (a few times (leave overnight) for two weeks)
  • Second attempt: Offer freshly killed (still twitching)
  • Third attempt: Offer live
  • Fourth attempt: "Braining" the pinkie or mouse/rat (cut open its brain cavity and leave overnight)
  • Fifth attempt: Use a feed box

At this point, contact the person you bought the snake from and let them know the snake isn’t eating.

Spotted Python eating

Entering last resort territory

  • Sixth attempt: Assist feed
  • Seventh attempt: Force feed

Switching water snakes from fish to rodents (AKA “scenting prey”)

For myself, it’s more desirable to feed my snakes rodents and not fish. Fish stink. When a snake passes a fish meal as opposed to a rodent, it’s a lot nastier to clean.

I also prefer feeding my snakes frozen/thawed for the obvious convenience. In my younger days, I didn’t mind driving to a pet store every week. That’s a good enough reason for me to go frozen/thawed but it’s also safer for your snake.

I once had a nice banded water snake. Actually, he wasn’t very nice. Water snakes make a better display animal than an interactive pet. Anyway, I wanted to switch it from fish to rodents.

Frozen rodents are convenient snake food.
Rodents are conveniently stored in the freezer.

After purchasing a fillet of tilapia at the local supermarket, I cut it up and placed the shreds in five plastic baggies. I then placed a pinkie mouse in the baggies and put them in the freezer.

The water snake gladly accepted the fish-scented pinkies over the course of five weeks. It never missed a single meal. On the sixth week, I offered an unscented pinkie which he gladly accepted. An easy hack, the water snake took frozen/thawed rodents ever since.

Switching snakes over from live to pre-killed (frozen/thawed)

Going from live to pre-killed rodents is desirable for many reasons. If you can manage to switch over to frozen/thawed it’s even better! Here’s why:

  • No chance of the snake getting injured by their potential “meal”
  • Freezing kills internal parasites, bacteria, and viruses that rodents carry
  • It’s more convenient than having live rodents on hand

Those who think snakes benefit from being fed live prey for ‘exercise’, please remember that in the wild they aren’t confined to such a small area of space. A live mouse or rat is far more likely to attack the snake in a confined area from which it can’t escape.

Sometimes even when the snake does manage to kill the rodent, it receives a major injury. A prime example of such an injury is the loss of an eye. Have you ever noticed how wild snakes are often full of nicks and scars? It’s not easy being a snake. Why put it through any more stress? 

Conditioning requires patience. Make it stink!

Conditioning a snake from live to pre-killed rodents requires patience. First, make sure the prey item is warm. Do this by placing a frozen prey item under a heat lamp or with a blow dryer. Don’t place the item too close to the lamp or it will cook. Nevertheless, you want the rodent to stink.

Allow at least four hours to pass before offering the food item. When ready, take your hemostats or forceps and place it by the nose of the snake. Avoid getting too close yet. Also, avoid making eye contact with the snake at this time. Mimic rodent-like movements with your wrist. If it doesn’t take it, try moving it closer to its nose.

If the snake doesn’t take the rodent after five to ten minutes, you have two options:

  • You could leave it in the enclosure overnight. Hopefully, it’ll be gone by the next morning. 
  • Alternatively, you could take the item away and repeat the process the following week.

Remember to have patience when switching from live to pre-killed. Don’t try to feed your snake every day. Wait an entire week from the last attempt. The snake will be okay if it’s healthy and not stressed. This is why it’s best not to handle the snake during the time you’re trying to switch it over. 

Seasoning snake food

When trying to switch snakes from live to frozen/thawed, take a frozen rodent and place it in some dirty rodent litter and allow it to thaw. If you feed the snake live mice, use dirty mouse litter. When offering rats, use dirty rat litter.

The smell of the litter on the rodent might entice the snake to feed on the thawed rodent. Frozen rodents tend to lose the “fresh” smell. “Seasoning” a previously frozen rodent makes it seem alive.

Thawing rodents in water

I prefer soaking food items in a glass of warm water when feeding snakes that readily take frozen/thawed. After the rodents have thawed, I take them out and place them on paper towels to soak up the excess water. Thawing in hot tap water may split the frozen rodent open.

To avoid this, let the water cool down to room temperature before removing the rodent. Never thaw frozen rodents in the microwave or boiling water. Sometimes I take a group of frozen rodents, place them in a baggie and allow them to thaw all day. Remember, stinky is good, but not to the point of decay.

Assist feeding your snake

Before we get started, take note – the following information should only be used as a last resort when all other options fail. This is very stressful for the snake and can do more harm than good even when successful.

On the other hand, sometimes baby snakes need to understand what their food is. Baby ball pythons and Dumeril’s boas are often difficult to get started. Nevertheless, it’s important to have patience with a non-feeding snake. A healthy snake will eventually eat under the correct conditions.

Assist feeding versus force-feeding?

When force-feeding, the prey item is more forcefully shoved down the throat of the snake.

Assist feeding is more gentle. The idea behind the technique is to get the snake to open its mouth by placing the food item with slight pressure in front of it. If the mouth opens, place the food item inside. The snake will then either chomp down and swallow it, or spit it out. 

Use precision and have confidence

When placing the food item in the mouth you must use precision and have confidence. If your form is sloppy, there’s a better chance of the snake spitting out the food item. Use something small, like a pinkie mouse, or pinkie rat for bigger snakes. For extremely small snakes, use pinkie body parts, or a mouse tail.

I have an Arizona mountain kingsnake who refused its first meal after hatching. The breeder placed her into brumation and I bought her right after she woke up. I was aware of the situation. She was so tiny that I had to cut the head off a small pinkie. I offered it without assist feeding and she luckily took it. She is doing well today but it took an entire year before she began to thrive. 

When is the right time to assist feed your snake?

To reiterate what I stated earlier, assist feeding is only attempted when all other options have failed. In some cases, keepers assist baby ball pythons to get them to start feeding four to six weeks after their first shed. Ideally, after two or three feedings, the snake will start to eat on its own (preferably frozen/thawed).

In other cases, the right time to assist feed is when you start to feel the spine of the snake more prominently. Different boa species, including Dumeril’s boas, can go a very long time without eating. If the snake still has a good amount of body weight, patiently hold off. No heavyset snake has ever died of starvation from what I’m aware of.

Tease feeding snakes

Here’s another ‘last resort’ method of getting a snake to eat. Tease feeding works best with arboreal and aggressive snakes but can also help to get lizard-eating hatchling kingsnakes started.

Hold the snake firmly, yet gently about an inch and a half back from the head. Allow the snake some wiggle room. With your other hand, place a pre-killed pinkie mouse up to the snake’s mouth and press against it. The idea is to get the snake annoyed enough that it will bite down on the pinkie. 

If the snake does bite the pinkie, do not release your hold on the snake’s body until it completely swallows the pinkie. If you let go too soon, the snake will spit it out. This is because the snake thinks that whatever is holding it, is also in its mouth.

In the mind of the snake, swallowing it will result in the grip being released. The snake associates the pinkie with what’s restraining it.

The odds are about 50/50

With any luck, after the snake bites the pinkie, it will go ahead and swallow it.  Alternatively, the snake may spit the pinkie out or completely refuse to bite it. Use this method as a last resort only.

This is very stressful to the snake which could worsen the situation. Such stress could further complicate the snake’s desire to eat. It may work, but it may not. If it does work, after a few feedings the snake should figure out the procedure and take it by itself.

How to feed your snake the right way | Snake Hacks
Forceps used as a tool to safely feed snakes.

Snake regurgitation

A snake regurgitating a meal is never a pleasant experience for neither the snake or the keeper. It smells really bad and is nasty to clean up. It’s also not healthy for the snake.

Some species are very sensitive to regurgitation. Their internal organs might be damaged with fatal consequences. Keep in mind, regurgitating once is not an automatic death sentence. Still, you should take steps to avoid it from happening in the first place.

The reason your snake regurgitated could be caused by different factors

  • The temperature in the enclosure is too low
  • Stress
  • Handling too soon after feeding 
  • Sickness, disease, mouth rot, mites
  • Power feeding. Overfeeding is the most common reason for a snake to regurgitate.

After a snake regurgitates, you should allow ten days to pass before offering it another meal. This time will allow the enzymes in the snake’s stomach to replenish themselves.

Feeding a snake too soon after it regurgitates will most likely lead to another episode of regurgitation. Now you’re getting into dangerous territory putting the snake’s health at risk. Have patience and wait ten days.

Feeding pine snakes and bullsnakes

I’ve found that pine snakes and bullsnakes are especially prone to regurgitation when overfed. The easiest way to avoid this from happening is not to power feed them. Also, do not offer them especially large prey items.

These snakes invade pocket gopher holes in the wild. Instead of offering your bull or pine snake a large rat, offer it two or three smaller items depending on the size of the snake. Feed these snakes appropriately sized items every four days for the first year of their life. After the snake reaches one year in age, they should only be fed once every seven to ten days.

Power feeding snakes (avoid this)

Back in the 1980s, power feeding was a common practice but today, we know better. Avoid power feeding no matter what species of snake you may have. We as humans, tend to treat other animals as if they were human.

Snakes are not human and healthy snakes are not obese. Power feeding leads to problems with the internal organs, especially the liver and kidneys. Your snake will grow just as fast if you feed it the correct way. They’ll also live longer and be more capable of breeding. 

During the first year of your snake’s life, it may take appropriately sized prey every four or five days. By the next year, it should only be fed an appropriately sized meal every seven to ten days.

In the case of snakes known for having a slower metabolism, such as Dumeril’s boas, feed them once a week during their first year and every three weeks when they reach adulthood. Know the biology of the snake species that you’re keeping.

Feeding most hatchling colubrids

Attempt to feed the hatchlings after their first molt. Personally, I would first offer them a frozen/thawed pinkie. If they don’t take it, I would offer a live pinkie after two days.

If that also fails, I would scent the pinkie with a lizard such as an anole or gecko. Once they’re feeding, continue with the lizard scented pinkie a few more times before finally offering an unscented pinkie. They should take the unscented pinkie with no problems. If not, you may have to go back to scenting the pinkies for a while.

In the case of a hognose snake, scent the pinkie with a toad or frog instead of a lizard. 

Only offer hatchlings a meal once a week. After several feedings and the snake is well started, you can offer them an appropriately sized pinkie every four days, eventually working your way up to fuzzy mice.

Once the snake is off pinkies and fuzzies and on mouse hoppers, cut back feeding to once every seven days. Do not power feed these snakes and remember, always offer a bowl of fresh water to them.

Boa constrictors such as the mighty Colombian boa

You might find yourself tempted to power feed your boa constrictor if it’s of the Colombian, Argentine or Peruvian variety. It’s important that you resist this temptation. Even though these snakes can grow to impressive sizes, they’re not Burmese, reticulated, or African rock pythons.

These boas rarely have the sense to know when enough is enough on their own. Obesity is common and shortens the lifespan of the snake. They’ll still grow just as large when fed the correct way.

A large female Colombian boa constrictor.
This female Colombian boa constrictor is obese.

Tree boas and tree pythons 

A generalization: It’s best to feed adults every three weeks, yearlings every two weeks and babies every ten days.

Feed them smaller prey items than you would a boa constrictor or Burmese python – smaller rats for tree pythons and depending on the size of the tree boa, mice or small rats. Keep these snakes lean, especially males for breeding purposes. Female tree pythons need a bit more weight during the breeding season.

Don’t overfeed and don’t power feed. While some tree boas are cheap, certain species along with tree pythons are rather pricey. Chances are if you’re spending a good deal of money on an expensive tree python, you want to feed them correctly.

Emerald Green Tree Python

Conclusion

Getting an unreceptive snake to eat is frustrating. Especially if it’s new to your collection and it hasn’t had a meal under your care yet. First, remember to have patience. That’s the key here. If the snake is healthy and not stressed, it’ll most likely eat when it’s ready.

I wouldn’t consider force-feeding a snake that’s only been with me for a week or two. Remember, most pet snakes can go awhile without eating. Don’t panic and reasonably access the situation. Find out why the snake isn’t eating. Most of the time it’s due to stress or it’s not set up correctly.

What snake feeding hacks do you know about that aren’t covered in this article? Add your advice in the comments section below so others may find help from your knowledge.

Ways to Get a Pet Snake to Eat

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