When Your Snake Won’t Eat

When a pet snake misses several meals it is best to try and determine if this is the result of a medical illness or the result of environmental/ seasonal changes. Environmental or husbandry-related issues include the cage temperature being kept too low (or high), too much human handling or aquarium tapping, or housing in close proximity to a noisy home entertainment center. A visit to a veterinarian who is knowledgeable in the care of reptiles is always a good idea so that they may provide tips on appropriate care and to ensure there is not a medical illness causing the appetite loss. Always bring a fresh stool specimen during your visit as intestinal parasites are a leading cause for not wanting to eat. If determined to be healthy, there are a number of reasons why an otherwise healthy pet snake may not eat in captivity. Environmental temperature and humidity changes are one cause. The preferred Optimum Temperature Zone (POTZ) is the range of environmental temperatures that are best suited to a particular reptile species. The POTZ varies somewhat between snake species:

Species

T°Celsius

      T°Fahrenheit
Common Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getulus)      

25-50

77-86

Corn Snake (Elophe guttoto)                                     

25-30

77-86

Boa Constrictor (Boa Constrictor)                          

28-34

82-93

Burmese python (Python molurus)                        

25-34

77-93

Royal python (Python regius)                                   

22-30

72-86

 As a general rule, the cooler temperature in the recommended range represents the evening or nighttime temperature and the warmer temperature the environmental temperature near the basking light during the daytime. If the vivarium environmental temperature remains outside this range; lack of appetite may occur.

Cage size and set up including a hide box and stable branches for species that live in trees, preference for live or dead prey, the presence of another more dominant snake in the same cage and too frequent handling or human interference are additional factors that may affect a snakes appetite. Lighting left on for prolonged periods of time may also cause stress in a captive snake causing it to stop eating. Lastly, a snake may not eat if the wrong food is offered or if the food is offered incorrectly (e.g., on the ground for a snake that lives primarily in trees or during the day for a nocturnal snake), and remember, overfeeding a snake may also create a period of inappetence afterwards.

Keep in mind that some periods of anorexia (appetite loss) are natural for many snakes especially just prior to shedding, during the ‘hibernation’ or fall/winter rest period or during breeding season. As day lengths shorten in the fall or winter and there is a window in the room where the snake is maintained, appetite loss may occur. In this situation anorexia may occur regardless of whether artificial lighting is provided or not.

If your veterinarian determines your snake is healthy, intestinal parasites have been ruled out, and you have corrected the environmental influences discussed above, the following are some tips you may try to encourage your pet snake to eat:

  • Feed in a dark, very quiet environment and leave alone. It is OK to leave dead prey in overnight, but never leave live prey in with a snake unless you are monitoring the activity. Live prey have been known to bite snakes and cause serious damage to the skin and muscles.
  • Try fresh-killed vs. thawed, warmed previously frozen prey.
  • Instead of mice, try dark colored fresh-killed gerbils, or pinkie mice. If your snake likes gerbils, try placing mouse prey in dirty gerbil litter to mimic the gerbil’s scent.
  • Turn a small plastic bucket or flowerpot upside down, with a hole in its side large enough for the snake to enter. Place the prey/food item under the container and leave overnight.
  • Instead of the bucket try putting the snake and prey together in a brown paper shopping bag – staple it shut and leave in vivarium overnight.
  • Instead of whole dead prey, try cutting open the abdomen of the mouse/rat to expose the contents – sometimes this encourages a snake to feed.
  • Try dipping the dead mouse in chicken soup, straight out of the can, prior to feeding.

Finally, be patient – if these tips don’t work one week, try again a week later. Certainly if your snake continues to refuse food and starts to lose obvious weight, another health checkup may be warranted.

Peter G Fisher, DVM