By Jill Fanslau
Snakes have been known to eat some wacky things: golf balls, lightbulbs, a pregnant sheep, and a gator. With a reputation for eating the abnormal, it makes sense to question, "What do snakes normally eat?"
Luckily for you, your pet snake will probably stick to a more basic diet of eating rats or mice, says Adam Denish, VMD, a veterinarian at Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Philadelphia and Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Snakes are carnivores, and a rat or mouse is typically a complete and balanced meal for them.
Certain species of snake can also eat baby chickens, guinea pigs, gerbils, or young rabbits, says Lorelei Tibbetts, LVT, VTF, a veterinary technician who specializes in exotic pet medicine and is the hospital manager at The Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine in New York City. Some snakes also eat insects, frogs and amphibians, earthworms, eggs, other reptiles, slugs and even birds.
Does the Snake’s Food Need to Be Alive?
Tibbetts recommends only feeding your snake pre-killed prey.
“There have been incidents where live prey is left in the tank, and the snake doesn’t eat it right away,” she says. “As a way of protecting itself, the prey will bite or gnaw the snake and severely injure them. We call these prey bites.”
Instead, feed your snake frozen rats or mice, which are available for purchase at most pet stores.
How Much Food Do Snakes Eat?
The amount of food a snake will eat during each feeding will depend on his age, size, and species. Talk to your vet or a knowledgeable pet store employee about the exact quantity. Whenever you feed your snake, though, make sure the prey is no larger than half the diameter of the snake, says Tibbetts. This will help with digestion.
As long as you follow that general rule of thumb, you can feed your snake his prey whole—no need to cut it up into smaller bites. That’s because a snake’s jaw isn’t fused together in the front like a human’s. It is connected by a ligament, which makes the jaw super flexible and enables it to rotate vertically and horizontally, explains Dr. Denish. This is why snakes are capable of eating large prey.
Do Snakes Drink Water?
Snakes do drink water, but not very often. However, you should still supply a large, shallow bowl of water in your pet’s tank, says Dr. Denish. Your snake will soak in it and may even go to the bathroom in it. The evaporation also helps maintain the humidity in the enclosure, adds Tibbetts.
How Often Do Snakes Eat?
Snakes don’t eat often. They’ll typically consume a meal only once a week or once every two weeks, but some snakes can go longer. Smaller, younger snakes may eat twice a week and large, older snakes may not eat for weeks at a time.
Not sure if you’re snake is hungry? According to Tibbetts, there are a few signs you can look for. Your snake may become more active or he may start to climb up the sides of his enclosure, as if he’s searching for food, she explains. Keep an eye out for a bowel movement, too, because they may hungry after that.
A Few Other Important Snake-Feeding Tips
Tibbets recommends moving your snake to another enclosure for feedings, somewhere separate from where they live. Doing this can decrease aggression in a snake, and make it so he’s less likely to strike if he’s hungry, Tibbetts says.
Additionally, you should wait to handle your snake for 48 hours after a feeding. Snakes can get stressed just like humans, says Dr. Denish, and if their meal isn’t fully digested, it can be regurgitated.
Dr. Denish also advises people with pet snakes to wash their hands thoroughly before and after feedings. Many reptiles can be carriers of Salmonella, a potentially life-threatening bacteria that can spread from pets to humans. Conversely, any chemicals found on your hands (e.g., moisturizers, lotions, hand sanitizers, etc.) can be transferred to your snake’s skin, which can cause irritation.