Whatever animal you keep as a pet, watching its food intake is an excellent way of making sure that it is in good health. Snakes are quite difficult to feed, though, because it is not possible to completely replicate the conditions they feed under in nature, which is the capture of live prey. Some snakes are more finicky than others when it comes to food and some do not tolerate change too well, so giving them a different diet as they grow, for example, may prove problematic.
Causes of the snake losing its appetite
Snakes have a very precise set of conditions under which they are comfortable and if these are not met then often one of the first signs of this is that they go off their food. Snakes are easily upset by change and a move to a new home can put them off eating for days and in some cases weeks. This is not a cause for concern unless it goes on for a long time and the snake becomes lethargic and otherwise ill-looking. When the snake is shedding its skin, it will not eat; this happens in the wild as well and is not something to worry about. A snake is very vulnerable when it is sloughing, and it needs all its wits about it, so doesn’t need to get caught with a mouth full of mouse to make matters worse. A change of diet is often a real challenge for the owner of a snake off its food. There are ways around this, but they are not pretty – see below! If accommodation, stress levels, shedding and other issues have been addressed and the snake is still not eating, it should be taken to the vet, as it may be constipated, have mouth rot, parasites or an intestinal obstruction, so professional intervention is vital.
Depending on the species, snakes need very precise temperature control and if the ambient conditions go outside of this, the first thing to go will be appetite. Some experts advocate taking the temperature up to the very upper range to make a snake eat, but this is considered dangerous by many and should not really be attempted. A sign that the temperature is wrong is if the snake eats but then regurgitates its food; if the core temperature of the animal is wrong, then the digestive system will not work well. Also, some snake like a lot of privacy for their eating and subsequent digestive process. If their vivarium is too open, it might help it to regain its appetite to block off some of the sides, so it is not distracted and made to feel vulnerable while taking its food. Also, it is possible to give a snake too much room. Most snakes like to have a hiding place anyway, so this would be an improvement to the animal’s living conditions generally. For species which like high humidity, they will quite literally not receive the feeding triggers from their environment if it is too dry; increasing the humidity will have immediate effects on these snakes, for example, the Royal Python.
Trying different foods
Like people, snakes have personal tastes when it comes to food. When a snake has been obtained when quite small and grows bigger and needs bigger food, the change can be hard to manage. A snake which has been raised on mice will not always tolerate a change to rat, for example. They may seem pretty much the same to people, but not to a snake! One way of getting them to change is to split open a mouse skull and wipe the brains on the rat – no one said feeding a snake was going to be pretty! It is possible to get artificial flavourings to add to the food, or simply dipping it in chicken stock has been known to work. Splitting the food down the midline and drawing out some intestines also sometimes tempts a fussy eater.
Heat of food
Snakes in the wild eat their food as soon as they have killed it, so it might help to warm it up. Certainly, mice, rats or chicks should always be thoroughly defrosted and brought to at least room temperature. A blast with a hairdryer will sometimes make the food more appetising and realistic, especially to snakes which hunt by heat pits on the face. One thing that an owner must never do, even if the snake is refusing to take dead food, is to give live prey. It is totally unethical from the prey’s point of view and from the snake’s point of view potentially dangerous, as the prey may well bite back! If the problem is that the prey is still, a mouse being wiggled about with a human on the other end of it would probably be tempting enough to a hungry snake. And lastly, it is very unwise to feed snakes together. If they get their appetites back, they could well start on each other!
Letting the dinner go down
Snakes are remarkably fastidious creatures when it comes to feeding and do not take kindly to being forced to eat. There are methods to force feed a snake and most rely on placing the food well back in the throat so the peristaltic movements of the alimentary canal ‘catch’ it and carry it down to be digested. Most snakes hate this and the resultant stress can make the feeding issues worse and so it should not be done without express advice from the vet. Also it should be borne in mind that a snake can take what seems to be a very long time to digest a meal and during that time will not continue to feed. After owning a snake for a while, a routine will develop and not only will this keep the snake calm and happy, but should also make it easy to tell if it is genuinely off its food.