Snake refusing to eat
Help! How do I get my snake to eat again?
Royal python approaches a mouse, image by AlexanderShenkar.com
Ok, so we’ve worked out that the snake does not have a legitimate reason such as illness which accounts for its lack of feeding and therefore must be coaxed in to eating again. There are 101 ways keepers use to do this, ranging from the logical to the completely wacky (I have even been advised to dip the nose of the rodent in chicken soup before offering it, a method he swears by – how is that for crazy?).
Below we look at some of the methods you should try to get your snake feeding again.
Warming the food item
All food items should be slightly warmed before feeding to the snake – if you do not do this already it is good practise and may well encourage your snake to feed. You should aim to warm to about body temperature or a little above (it should feel slightly warm to the touch) before offering to the snake. There are a couple of ways to do this, you can use a hair dryer, you can place the food item in a water tight bag (sandwich/food storage bags work fine for this) and then sit this in a cup of warm/hot water for a few minutes. Never microwave the food item to warm it, it creates hot spots which can be dangerous. On the topic I can share an anecdote from a good friend who decided it would be a good idea to microwave a rat in his parents microwave to defrost it. He set the microwave off and then left the room, moments later he heard a bang and returned to discover the rat had exploded in the microwave coating the insides with what is best described as “bits of rat”. Accompanying these bits of rat in the microwave was a plume of intense rodent like smell which started by filling the kitchen before proceeding to fill the entire house. Never microwave rodents to defrost them.
Assuming you strike feed your snake, once you have warmed it (not in the bloody microwave!) you should grip the rodent by the scruff of the neck using your forceps and gently approach the snake with the rodent. As the snake will be in its hide you will want to gently approach the hide using the warmed mouse and almost ‘tease’ the snake in to striking at it. As soon as it strikes quickly let go of the rodent allowing the snake to constrict (if it does, not all snakes constrict, some are rather lazy simply aren’t constrictors) you should leave the room quickly, leaving the snake in the dark to consume the food.
Braining the rodent
This is not the most enjoyable of tasks, but it carries a high level of success rate. It is exactly what it says on the tin really, braining a rodent involves making a small hole in the skull to expose some of the juices of the brain, the smell of which can encourage snakes to feed. Don’t worry however – you are not going to have to take a mallet to the head of a rodent and beat it half to death, braining can actually be fairly painless. For most rodents you simply need to stick a sharp pin firmly through the top of the skull and give it a little wiggle – you will be surprised and perhaps slightly disturbed how easily the pin goes in. Once you have done this you can massage the head area a little and that should be enough. Congratulations, you have successfully brained a mouse prior to feeding.
All you need to do then is feed how you normally would.
For larger food items (rabbits or particularly large rats for instance) some force may be required to brain them, in which case you may need to use a small hammer and a tack (small sharp nail) to brain the food item and let some of those irresistible juices out.
Moistening the rodent
Another trick is to remove the water bowl from the snakes enclosure for about a week, depriving it of water. After which you should wet a rodent using warm water (this also helps bring the food item up to the correct temperature for feeding of course) and offer it to the snake. The combination of the moisture, the thirst of the snake and the smell of the rodent is some times enough to encourage a strike and feed response in your snake.
On another separate note, I have found that I often have a greater success rate feeding wet rodents over dry rodents in general, irrespective of if the snake has been deprived of food. This may be because wet rodents appear to give of more of a smell which is clearly more appetizing to the snake. This is probably just cause enough for you to attempt to feed your snake a wet rodent without any need for water deprivation.
I should also stress that this is not a method you should use on particularly dehydrated, ill or emaciated snakes, they should have fresh water available at all times.
PS – Don’t forget to add the water bowl back in to the enclosure after you have fed the snake.
Collection of frozen rodents, image by Kirstenv
There are a number of methods of food encouragement which come under the category of scenting. Firstly, you can scent with a different “more natural” food item (ie one which the snake would more likely come across in the wild, so for hognose snakes this could be a dead tree frog or a gecko, whereas for royal pythons scenting with hamsters or gerbils would be more appropriate).
Scenting with soiled substrate from rodents (be it mice, rats, gerbils or hamsters) is a good idea. If you go to your local pet shop and ask nicely they will give you a handful of soiled sawdust or whatever they use in their rodent enclosures (you will almost certainly get a funny look too when you ask). Once you have this you can rub it all over your food item before offering it, this will make it extra smelly.
Other forms of scenting can be a little more gruesome but still, very successful. One such method involves wiping the “juices” of one rodent on the food item you wish you offer to the snake. Buy something like a pinkie or a fuzzy mouse/rat (which ever your snake is feeding upon happily at the time – you do not wish to complicate things by mixing up rodents), make an incision nice and deep and then rub the bloody contents of the pinkie/fuzzie on the food item, making sure you cover the tip of the nose of the food item in particular as this is what you will be presenting to the snake.
You are advised to do the above wearing gloves, more for your own sanity than anything else. Once you have successfully scented the rodent you can throw your pinkie/fuzzie away (or indeed feed it to a baby snake if you have one about who is likely to eat it – waste not want not and all that). You can then attempt to feed your troublesome snake.
Alternative methods of scenting involve scenting rats with mice (literally rubbing a defrosted mouse all over a defrosted rat in order to transfer scent) in order to encourage your snake to move from eating mice to rats, or indeed vice versa.
Offering different food itemsMay sound like an obvious one, but trying different food items is a good idea. If your hognose snake won’t take mice, try offering it a slice of fresh freshwater trout from the fishmongers. If your corn snake won’t at a rat, try a mouse, etc etc. There are plenty of options. Caution must be expressed however if you have a particularly fussy snake and offer it a rare foodstuff which it eagerly eats but then refuses any other food. This is a fairly common problem with keepers who decide to try their ball pythons on hamsters or gerbils – as soon as they get a taste for such a food item they completely refuse the conventional mice and rats which are normally fed. Have you ever tried to get a regular source of frozen mice and gerbils? Its expensive and I personally would not want to do it on a regular basis
Feed in a ‘secretive way’
Simply leave the food in the vivarium just before you go to bed and place a towel or sheet over the vivarium shrouding it in darkness. Leave the snake completely undisturbed (don’t even take a peak!) for 24 hours and then see if it has fed. If it has then you need to start using this feeding method for a few consecutive feeds before you attempt to feed again in a more open way.
A variation on this you should try is similar but involves moving the snake to a much smaller tub for the feeding attempt. You place it in a small storage box (RUB as they are commonly known) along with the rodent to attempt the feed – covering the whole thing with a towel. You want the snake to feel like its in rather enclosed space – think of a burrow like situation – but you don’t want to be squeezing it in to a tiny box if you get my drift. Some owners also like to place some dirty rodent substrate in there to simulate the snake wondering in to a burrow. Personally I have never tried that so I can’t comment on it – intuitively however it does make sense, particularly if you are working with a WC specimen.
PS – Don’t forget breathing holes and don’t forget to ensure the temperatures are ok!
A further extension of this method involves placing the snake in a pillow case with the food item – once again it forces the snake in to close proximity with the food in an enclosed secure place.
Increase the temperatures
Another good method is spiking the temperatures by a few degrees in the vivarium to kick start the snakes metabolism and convince them that summer is upon them and its perhaps high time they started eating. Turning up the dial on your thermostat by a few degrees might be all that is required to kick start the feeding response. I would advise raising the temperatures for a few days before attempting to feed (ie don’t increase the temperature of your snakes vivarium in the morning and then try to feed that evening).
After trying this method for a couple of weeks remember to drop the temperatures back to how they should be.
Ball python feeding, image by batwrangler
Pre killed food
This is an option which shows great success rate however it is not for the feint hearted. It involves killing the rodent immediately before feeding it to the snake. This is essentially feeding a fresh kill. This is successful because the rodent is the correct body temperature, carries the odour of a live animal, is fresh, etc etc. Essentially, it should tick every box in the snakes head which says “this is food”. This is particularly successful with WC specimens which will not recognise frozen thawed (F/T) food as proper food.
You will need to buy a mouse/rat from the pet store (best not tell them what the purpose is) and dispatch of it yourself, or get a friend to help you. You need to do this as quickly and humanely as you can. The preferred method is to do this with anything larger than a fuzzy is to snap the neck of the mouse/rat, killing it instantly.
One method (which some keepers find unsavoury, however if done right its very humane) is simply place the rodent in a paper bag and then give it a sharp whack (really give it a good swing) against the side of a table, door frame, etc. The paper bag prevents any mess going anywhere (it can be difficult explaining blood stains on door frames).
Alternatively you can use a ruler to separate the vertebrae around the neck on the rodent. Place the rodent somewhere such as a table gripping it by the base of the tail, use the thin edge of the ruler firmly on the neck of the rodent behind the head, holding it down and simultaneously giving a sharp tug on the tail of the mouse. You should feel something of a click. The sharp tug of the tail will separate the vertebrae killing the rodent quickly. Whilst the death twitches the rodents make can be distressing, however that is all they are: automatic twitches. They are no sign of the mouse being alive, or of suffering.
Some people like to use CO2 to dispose of their mice, in most situations this is the best method. However you are trying to encourage a snake to eat when it is refusing food to freshness is essential; or this reason I do not recommend using CO2 as a method of killing the live food (the pre-described methods are much faster and allow for fresher food delivery).
A final resort, please remember this. Never feed live unless you have to.
Firstly I would like to dispel a few myths. Live feeding is not illegal in most countries (please check your respective country to be sure). I am familiar with the laws in both the US and the UK where most of the readers of this website come from so I will discuss these:
US Live feeding laws: Feeding live vertebrates (ie animals with a backbone, so rodents, reptiles, etc) is perfectly legal
UK Live feeding laws: Live feeding is perfectly legal in the comfort of your own home. So long as you are not doing it as a public display it is perfectly legal. Many will say “it has to be a last resort” or “its completely illegal” but in fact no such law is in place making the act illegal. To clarify, so long as you do it privately, it is perfectly within the law to feed live vertebrates (ie rodents, reptiles etc) in the UK.
Always be cautious when offering live food, Rats and mice can and will scratch and bite to defend themselves and can cause major damage to your pets. When offering live food make sure you supervise the situation at all times, never leave a live rodent in with your snake unattended, they can cause terrible injuries.
To feed live food simply place the food in the enclosure and your snake will hopefully do the rest. Live food is readily accepted by many snakes as it is the perfect smell, temperature, activity, etc. The snake simply recognises it as food.
Mice bred for snake food, image by terriem
Please note, if you only have a snake which each live food you should make a push toward moving the snake on to frozen thawed (F/T) food. You should always try to progress a snake which eats live to eating pre killed food, followed by F/T food. It is the feeling of the author that if you don’t at least attempt this, you are being irresponsible. Of course there are many snakes which never take to pre killed food and must be fed live for life.
Hopefully there are enough ideas on this page to help you get your snake feeding again. If you are really having difficulty, consult a vet as there could be a health problem. Alternatively if you know anybody who has multiple years in the hobby you may wish to hand the snake over in to their care for a few weeks or months to see if they can encourage feeding.
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