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Snake Feeding Diseases

Nutritional Deficiencies: As stated earlier, nutritional deficiencies and disease resulting from malnutrition are relatively rare among captive snakes because of their habit of consuming whole prey animals. However, exclusive use of whole but immature prey animals, such as "pinkies" (neonatal mice and rats), juvenile goldfish and invertebrates, can create nutritional problems. Further, certain snakes that receive a monotonous diet (no variety of prey items) are also susceptible to nutritional deficiencies. The hobbyist must find ways to 'supplement' the prey items in these cases before they are offered to the snake. One method involves injecting the prey items with vitamin and/or mineral preparations. Another involves implanting a gelatin capsule filled with a powdered vitamin/mineral/amino acid supplement into the prey animal.

Failure to Voluntarily Feed (Anorexia): Lack of appetite and failure to voluntarily feed are common problems among captive snakes. Despite the fact that snakes are uniquely suited to survive prolonged periods without feeding, the hobbyist must make every attempt to discover the reason(s) for the snake's failure to feed. This search must include the possibility of illness, since anorexia is a universal sign of disease in snakes. First consider the circumstances and situations during which snakes normally will not feed:

  • Recent acquisition of a snake.
  • Snake in pre-shed condition.
  • Latter stages of pregnancy.
  • Older, larger snakes feed less often than younger, smaller ones.
  • Obese snakes occasionally engage in self-imposed fasts.
  • Newborn or newly hatched snakes may not feed until after they've first shed 10-14 days after birth.
  • Hyperactivity associated with the breeding season or the imposition of captivity on newly acquired high-strung species.
  • Hibernation or attempts to hibernate.
  • Illness

If all of the above have been rejected as causes for anorexia, you must next consider problems with husbandry. The most common cause for failure of a snake to voluntarily feed is inadequate environmental temperatures. Tropical snakes require temperatures between 75 to 85 F for normal activity and optimum digestive capacity. Subnormal temperatures lead to sluggishness and incomplete digestion. The food literally spoils inside the snake, producing serious illness, an early sign of which is vomiting. The next most common cause for captive snakes' refusing to feed is lack of adequate visual security. Many snakes require privacy while they feel. A hiding box or natural bark or rock retreat may be necessary. Sometimes placing the reluctant snake in a room burlap bag along with a dead or incapacitated prey item provides the security the snake requires to feed. Strategic placement of silk artificial plants may also help provide additional visual security. There may be one particular area of the enclosure in which the snake feels more secure. The food should be consistently placed where to encourage feeding. It is important to note that the presence of spectators often discourages nervous snakes from feeding. The enclosure should be covered in these cases and the snake's activity discreetly monitored.

It is extremely important for you to understand the natural history of the anorectic snake being kept in captivity. Reluctance or refusal to feed often is the result of some omission or mistake in husbandry. Burrowing species require sand or fine gravel in which to bury themselves. The snake can often be induced to strike at prey by gently dragging the prey item across the sand. Tree-dwelling species require branches within their enclosure. Some of these snakes may be encouraged to feed by hanging the food in the fork of a branch rather than placing it on the floor of the enclosure. If these specific husbandry requirements are not provided, certain snakes may not feed. Offering incorrect prey items nearly always causes a captive snake to refuse to eat. One should offer the prey items that the snake would feed n in the wild or similar more "domestic" food that is available. Following is a list of additional suggestions to consider when you are challenged with a snake that refuses to feed:

  • Try feeding at different times of the day. Nocturnal (night-active) species cannot be expected to feed on prey items placed within the enclosure during the daytime.
  • Try feeding nervous snakes that share an enclosure with other snakes in an environment separate from them. Often, the movement of other snakes in the same enclosure induces anorexia in nervous snakes.
  • Moving a snake to a new or different enclosure may stimulate feeding.
  • Reduce handling of especially nervous or newly acquired snakes to encourage feeding.
  • Rubbing the food item over the sensitive areas of the snake's head (the nostrils and the areas surrounding the mouth) or gently hitting the snake with the prey may antagonize it to strike at the food.
  • Offer live prey to snakes that have been consistently offered dead or incapacitated prey (with close supervision). Certain aggressive snakes and snakes with an impaired sense of smell may require live prey to successfully feed.
  • For snakes that ordinarily eat live prey, try feeding dead or incapacitated live prey items. Often, the erratic motions of a rodent running around an enclosure can cause a snake to refuse to feed.
  • Try feeding a smaller prey item. A snake that has been recently injured by a particularly large and aggressive prey animal may be reluctant to feed.
  • Cater as much as possible to the individual preferences of an anorectic snake. If a snake refuses mice, try small rats, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits or even chicks. Some snakes can be very finicky.

If all of the above have been considered and attempted without success, take your snake to a veterinarian experienced with snakes. The veterinarian will collect a detailed history and conduct a through physical examination. It may be necessary to collect a blood sample to more thoroughly evaluate the patient. Take along a fecal (stool) sample from the snake so the veterinarian can also check for intestinal parasites. A veterinarian may pass a flexible tube into the stomach and force-feed the anorectic snake at this time. This provides some nutrients while the medical evaluation is in progress. Some anorectic snakes begin to voluntarily feed after such a feeding. This can be easily learned if periodic at-home force-feedings are anticipated. Strained meat baby foods with added nutrients or pureed dog food are recommended and easily pass through most stomach tubes. Larger snakes require relatively larger volumes of food; pureed dog food is a more practical food in these situations. Low-fat dog food is preferable.

Regurgitation: of food may result from handling a snake too soon after it is fed. Regurgitated food is undigested and relatively odorless. Another common cause of regurgitation is inadequate and incomplete digestion caused by relatively cool environmental temperatures. In these cases, the regurgitated food appears digested and is malodorous. If it is not possible to raise the temperature of the enclosure, a focal source of heat (hot rock, heating pad or pads) on which the snake can rest is a necessity to ensure adequate and complete digestion. Other causes of regurgitation include stress in easily excitable species, parasitism, intestinal obstruction and serious internal disease. An experienced veterinarian should be consulted if the cause for regurgitation is not readily determined.