Professional Herpetoculture for the Pet Trade

Help! My Snake Won't Eat!

Introduction

We hear this cry for help a lot, and yes - sometimes even about snakes we've sold! There's a variety of reasons a newly acquired snake won't feed, but they really boil down to one of five different issues: the snake is sick, the snakes is insecure, improper environmental conditions, improper feeding technique, or wrong choice of food item. Your mission as keeper is simply to determine which one it is and correct it. No need for panic and hysterics, just a little careful investigation and thought. Snakes have been eating for thousands of years, so if your snake isn't eating then something is not quite right - at least in the snake's mind.

Is The Snake Sick?

Well, here's one I'm not going to be very helpful with. If the snake came from us, unless you've been keeping it incorrectly for an extended time period, you can rest assured it is not sick. Period. After nearly thirty years of doing this, we just never let them out the door if they aren't right.

If the snake came from elsewhere, then it's up to you to determine if it appears healthy or not. If you suspect it is not healthy, get it diagnosed and treated! It's not going to heal itself and miraculously start feeding again, life is just not that simple.

We get a lot of inquiries, wanting to know how to tell if the snake is sick or whatever. Please note that we are commercial breeders, not trained veterinarians. Obtaining an accurate medical diagnosis from an email description is simply not possible, and no respectable medical professional would attempt it. In all cases, we recommend presenting the specimen to a professionally trained veterinarian capable of making diagnosis and prescribing treatment or medications as needed.

We understand that obtaining advice from other keepers, and providing various "home remedies" is well-intentioned. But these can delay receiving proper treatment, cause complications, or "mask" the symptoms needed for accurate diagnosis, all of which may worsen the situation or even lead to the demise of your pet.

We do not wish to appear uncaring or unwilling to assist, we simply feel that your pet deserves the best possible care and feel this can only be provided by a trained professional. If you feel your snake is sick, get it to a trained professional.

Is The Snake Preparing to shed?

You simply would not believe how many inquiries we get from keepers stating their snake has gone off feed and after much discussion it turns out the snake is simply preparing to shed. Snakes with dull colors, bluish eyeballs and hiding all the time are preparing to shed - and usually will not feed. This is normal and is of no concern. Once the snakes has shed it's skin, it will resume feeding as normal.

However, the keeper should pay attention during this time and be certain that when the snake does shed, all the skin comes off. Snakes retaining some or all of the skin often will not feed - and usually are unable to get the remainder off by themselves without some assistance. Usually, placing small snakes into a deli cup with a damp paper towel and leaving them overnight is sufficient. Be sure they are placed at a safe temperature! Larger snakes may be hand assisted, or soaked similar to the above - just in larger containers.

Does The Snake Feel Secure?

I know, I know, you're new to keeping snakes and right now you are thinking "How the H do I know how the snake feels?" That's not really what's meant here by "feeling secure".

Baby snakes are preyed upon in the wild by just about everything from ants to aardvarks. That's just nature in action for you. As a result, baby snakes are incredibly insecure about their surroundings. In at least half of the "my snake won't eat" cases presented to us, insecurity is the cause. I'm sure you are proud of your new pet, and bought the biggest and most elaborate fancy cage you could afford, with nice bright lighting to show off your pet. But maybe that's not what the snake likes?

First and simplest, are there nice tight little hiding places for the snake? Often the simple addition of a proper hiding place will let your snake feel secure and it will soon resume feeding. I've seen a gazillion hiding places sold through pet stores over the years, and not one of them was worth a dime. They all look the same, a nice little cave made of plastic or ceramic or such with a hole the size of your wrist for the snake to enter. But what the snake really wants is to have his back against the wall.

That plastic cave you just bought is a good two inches tall, yet your new baby cornsnake is only as thick as a pencil, maybe less. He's just rattling around in there, you need to give him something to cram himself into nice and tight so he feels safe. An easy solution is to wad newspaper up inside the hide place, allowing the snake some cracks and gaps in the wads to sneak into. We sometimes use just a wadded sheet of newspaper as hide-houses for many of our babies, and I cannot count the number of soiled newspaper balls I've thrown in the trash, only to discover later the snake was still inside! They can really get in there tight and disappear.

Good tight hides are hard to find in stores, and you may need to be creative to provide one. Try using driftwood pieces with large cracks in them, I've yet to see a snake that didn't wedge itself into such a crack so deeply it could never be retrieved unless it wanted to exit. That's what they do in the wild - and it's what they are looking for in your home too! Experiment a little and see what you can come up with.

Turn down the lights! Most snakes are essentially nocturnal creatures, the bright lights that make your cage so attractive are simply making your snake feel insecure. Leave them off until the snakes has established itself in your care and is obviously thriving. Certainly, they don't want to eat under them, try feeding in the evening just as the lights go out.

Bigger isn't always better. Definitely not in the case of snake cages anyway. We raise our hatchlings in small plastic shoeboxes about a foot long and six inches wide. The whole thing is only a few inches high. Little snakes feel very secure in such small surroundings, and suddenly being placed in a four foot cage may just give your snake a case of the frights. Often such snakes just vanish into hiding places and never exit at all for fear of being exposed. Move him into a smaller cage for a while and see if he doesn't feel better soon. Don't forget the hiding place, even in the tiny cage.

Is This The Right Food Item?

Here at VMS, every snake sold is feeding voluntarily on appropriately sized rodents. What does that mean? Well, every specie we sell is fed mice, except for Ball Pythons which are usually given rats. Some Ball Pythons prefer mice when young, and if this is the case it will say so in the specimen description on the website. So in most cases, we are talking about mice if the snake came from VMS. If it came from elsewhere, ask the guy you got it from, don't ask me - I've got no way to know!

But what size is right? Well, to be honest sizes of rodents are really inconsistent in the marketplace. What one store calls a pinky, another may call a fuzzy. So I cannot simply tell you "it's feeding on pinkies" and expect you to be all right. Instead, use the visual sizing method - you are looking for a mouse that's about the same body diameter as the body of your snake. Too much bigger and the snake probably cannot handle it (and we don't recommend such large meals, even if it could). Too much smaller and the snake may have little or no interest in it at all.

Currently, here at VMS we start babies of the various species out on differing items. Here's a list of who seems to prefer what that may be of help:

  • Hatchling Cornsnakes, Kingsnakes, Milksnakes - We feed frozen-thawed pinkies to all of these. Occasional specimens prefer live and will be listed as such at time of sale. We do our best to convert them to frozen as soon as possible.
  • Hatchling Ratsnakes, Milksnakes (larger species, such as Hondurans and Vera Cruz - We feed frozen-thawed large pinkies or small fuzzies to all of these. Occasional specimens prefer live and will be listed as such at time of sale. We do our best to convert them to frozen as soon as possible.
  • Newborn Sand Boas - The majority of these prefer live pinkies to start, but many can be switched to frozen after just a few meals. While nearly all will eventually come to accept frozen if offered via forceps, less than half will simply locate and consume inert frozen pinks. They seem to like a little movement to trigger a feeding response. Occasional specimens prefer live and will be listed as such at time of sale. We do our best to convert them to frozen as soon as possible.
  • Newborn Rosy Boas - The majority of these prefer live large pinkies or small fuzzies to start, but many can be switched to frozen after just a few meals. While nearly all will eventually come to accept frozen if offered via forceps, less than half will simply locate and consume inert frozen pinks. They seem to like a little movement to trigger a feeding response. Occasional specimens prefer live and will be listed as such at time of sale. We do our best to convert them to frozen as soon as possible.
  • Newborn Ball Pythons - Each and every one of these seems to prefer live mice initially, usually hopper or weanling sized. After just a few meals, most will accept rat pups, either live or frozen. While nearly all will eventually come to accept frozen if offered via forceps, very few will simply locate and consume inert frozen feeders. They seem to require a little movement to trigger a feeding response.

If you do feed frozen, make sure they are fully thawed. Few snakes will accept a mousesicle, they just don't feed on ice chunks in the wild. Click here if you want to read some thoughts on feeding live vs. frozen food items. Also, many boas and pythons have heat receptive facial pits. These pits detect warmth in prey items, and this is an important triggering mechanism for a feeding response. Such snakes are accustomed to thermally detecting a warm prey item against a cooler background. Simply warming the rodent by holding it against a warm light bulb for few seconds may be all that's needed to get that stubborn Rosy Boa or Ball Python to nail it. Using forceps to keep the newly warmed rodents' heat signature distinct from that of your fingers is a big plus. To the snake, a warm area the size of your forearm is not a valid target, the smaller food item's heat signature needs to be separated and distinct from yours to trigger a response. Few Boas or Pythons will accept an inert thawed mouse left lying on the cage floor. In almost all cases, use of forceps to present the food item is necessary with these snakes.

Baby snakes of some species may require the use of odd techniques to give the rodent unusual scents that the snake may find acceptable. Snakes sold at VMS which are feeding on such items are always clearly described as such in the specimen description. This is not common, as we prefer not to sell them feeding in such manner.

However, occasionally a snake which has been frightened in shipping or by new surroundings may require use of such techniques to reignite interest in feeding. Essentially there two methods used: "braining" and "lizard-scenting". Braining is a very helpful method to use, but is a little disturbing in practice... Essentially what you are trying to do is to expose brain matter on the food item to the snake's sense of smell. While some keepers will actually cut the head open, we find this a little too grisly for our tastes and prefer to use the toothpick method. More or less a frontal lobotomy operation, this involves inserting a toothpick through the top of the pinky mouse's head and swirling it just a tad to get a very small amount of brain matter which is them smeared on the pinkies nose. Sadly, this works much better with live pinkies than it does with frozen. However, if you are squeamish, the technique can be used on a frozen pinky and then the magic material applied to a live one, it's a little more humane...

My only comment on this technique is that I do not want to meet the sick-minded individual that thought it up - that guy must be a real whacko. But it really does work....so I guess I'm glad he came up with it???? A piece of advice: Don't do this in front of the girlfriend, or if you do, at least don't be singing the little ditty "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy" while you're at it. This is not a chick-magnet procedure.

Another little hint: On occasion, mice obtained from different sources will have different smells - possibly a result of differences in foods used to grow them. On several occasions, keepers have simply switched sources for feeder rodents and had immediate results!

Are The Environmental Conditions Correct?

This is a huge subject, and I'm not even going to attempt to cover all of the environmental requirements for every available specie here. Do your homework (there's some helpful stuff on this website), at the very least review and have a clue before asking me questions, or I'll just get irritated that you purchased an animal without taking the time to familiarize yourself with it's needs. That's one of my pet peeves.

Sadly, this is also the hardest problem to overcome with keepers. Nobody wants to admit they aren't doing something right, but the simple truth is this: Your snake was feeding easily when it left here, so if all the other issues covered in this article have been exhausted, then as they say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem right? Please take no offense and read on...

First and foremost, look at the single most important factor: temperature. A snake that is at the wrong temperature, be it too high or too low, simply will not want to feed. The key phrase in all of this is: "a snake that is AT the wrong temperature". What I mean here, is what is the temperature where the snake is? And what options are available to it? I've had at least two gazillion keepers (that's a lot) report "the temperature in my cage is such and such" But upon further investigation, that temperature reading was taken with a little round stick-on thermometer glued to the wall of the cage a foot above the snake, and on the other end of the cage from where it hides. We don't care what the temperature of the cage is up there, we care about what it is where the snake can go. Peeling that little thermometer off the wall will return it to a useful condition. It can now be placed right under the hide house where the snake goes and then more readings taken at points all over the floor of the cage. While the temperature may have been fine up on the wall, you may be surprised to learn it may not be fine throughout much of the cage. Once you've discovered this, take whatever steps are needed to provide correct temperatures.

Second, we've already talked about security, but take a moment to think about how this applies to temperatures as well. Is the snake staying hidden in an effort to remain secure, but at the cost of being able to achieve correct body temperature? Is this because the hiding area is at the cool end of the cage? Provide several hides, or better yet a long hide where the snake can slide from hot to cool and regulate it's own temperature without exposing itself.

Humidity is an other important factor. When humidity is low, many snakes will simply remain concealed in the wild, preferring not to venture forth when conditions are dangerous for them and the likelihood of finding prey is low. The result is that many snakes will respond to a light spraying of the cage in the evening, causing them to prowl about searching for food. This is the time to feed them!

Proper Feeding Technique?

Often in life, it's the little things that make the difference between success and failure. Keeping snakes is no exception.

First of all, don't scare the snake half to death by pulling it out of it's hide area and then expect it to eat. It won't. Don't handle it at all for a day before trying to feed it. Try quietly slipping the pinky (or whatever, usually we are talking about baby snakes) into the mouth of the hide house and then leave the room. We talked earlier in this article about insecurity, and YOU might be the cause of it. To a little snake, you may be viewed as a threat!

Second, many snakes don't feed when preparing to shed. If the eyeballs are all blue and the snake is a dull color, there's nothing wrong, relax and try again after it sheds. Ditto for a snake that attempted to shed, but was unable to complete the process. Snakes with shedding stuck all over them usually don't eat. Place the little snake into a deli cup with a damp paper towel overnight. Usually they'll get it off themselves during the night. Try feeding again the next evening.

Place the food item where the snake will find it. I know this sounds basic, but you cannot believe how many people put a ten inch snake in a four foot cage and then just toss a pinky in one corner, expecting the snake to somehow know it's there. Figure out where the snake hides and quietly slip the food item into the opening of the hide box or whatever. Many times the entire problem is just that the snake never even knows the food is in the cage.

We almost always use the "deli cup method" for feeding very small snakes here at our facility when first hatched. But it also serves well for re-starting snakes which have turned stubborn. We just place the snake and the food item into a deli cup (the one we shipped it to you in is perfect) along with a half sheet of folded paper towel and place in a warm area overnight. Don't set it on the heater of your cage, or you'll have snake jerky in the morning. This is the number one solution to feeding problems with baby snakes. We do this for two reasons: It facilitates keeping track of several hundred babies being offered food at the same time, and the snakes just eat better this way for their first few meals. After several meals, they'll usually start feeding right in the cage and you can skip the deli cup thing.

Pre-scenting often works. Pre-scenting is something that happens in many large commercial facilities naturally, and many of us fail to even realize it's importance. The concept is simple: In a large scale facility a huge number of rodents are brought into a room and all the snake snakes are then fed. The odor soon spreads throughout the room, awakening and exciting many snakes - making them very ready to eat. Sort of like a pot of chili simmering all afternoon on the stove works on humans... Duplicating this by placing some stinky rodent bedding in a deli cup inside the cage for half an hour before quietly introducing a pinky can work wonders.

That's really what it's all about, doing whatever it takes to get the snake to start feeding again for a few meals.

A Run-Down:

Most often, it's baby snakes we're talking about, so here's a few steps to try in order if your baby corn, rat, king or milk is acting up. I'm assuming all of the above comments, thoughts and suggestions have been reviewed. Be sure to allow time for the snake to settle into it's new surroundings if it's a newly acquired specimen. Snakes seen prowling around at night are hunting for food, they are ready. Snakes not seen prowling at night when they should be hungry are scared or environmental conditions are not right - make changes. The number one change to make may simply be leaving it alone. I know it's your new pet and everything, but getting it feeding again has priority. Leave it alone so it can calm down, and if it begins to feed again, you'll be able to handle it all you want for the next twenty years or so. Always try feeding just before lights out, this is the prime time for snakes - just after dark.

Use the deli cup method. Place a folded paper towel in the bottom of a small deli cup, add a live pinky mouse and snake and leave at a safe temperature overnight. It's best to do this in the evening right at 'lights out'. Be careful not to unduly frighten or disturb the snake when placing it in the cup.

  • Use the deli cup method, but using a frozen pinky mouse (remember to thaw fully)
  • Use the deli cup method, but with the "braining" technique added to a live pinky.
  • Use the deli cup method, but with the "braining" technique added to frozen pinky.
  • Start over again, this time trying the same techniques very early in the morning, before the sun comes up (yeah, I know, that is way too early, but you'll only have to do it a couple of times if it works)
  • Start over again, this time trying a light spraying of the cage about an hour before dark. Then cup the snake as described above.
  • Start over again, this time trying scenting the pinky with anole scent (blood from a broken tail section works best - and the lizard lives to tell the "tale" (pardon the pun). This can work wonders with stubborn Cornsnakes in particular, along with some milks and kings.

Remember to try these food items in your order of preference. If you really want the snake to feed on frozen, try that first. If you least want it on anole-scented, try that last. The order listed above is about the same order of preference shown by the thousands of baby snakes we've raised here, and probably should be followed more or less, for quickest results.

It's rare for one of these techniques to fail with a snake that's already been feeding but has recently stopped. If these methods don't do the trick, go back and review the earlier sections in this article, something was probably missed. Don't delay, start trying these ideas right away if a snake previously known to be feeding has refused two or more attempts at feeding it.

Oh, and if that big new fancy cage turns out to be the problem, don't worry - the snake will grow into it soon enough once it's feeding again!