In the wild there are records of milk snakes eating a variety of vertebrates and invertebrates. The preferred foods will vary with the subspecies, possibly within populations of a subspecies, and depending on food choices available, probably from individual to individual. From a strictly practical standpoint, we will focus on feeding milk snakes prey animals readily available to us as snake keepers: primarily commercially raised rodents.
The adults of the larger subspecies of milk snakes can and will eat baby rabbits and/or birds, but most milk snakes will thrive in captivity on a diet of mice and rats. There are some subspecies that are too small to eat a newborn mouse (pinkie) when first hatched. These subspecies are best avoided, or accepted as a challenge, to see if you can find solutions for satisfying their particular dietary needs, at least until they become large enough to eat "pinkies." A good example of this type of milk snake is the beautiful scarlet kingsnake (L. t. elapsoides). One of the reasons that this in-demand subspecies is not widely bred in captivity is that the tiny babies are notoriously difficult to feed.
FEEDING SCHEDULE FOR HATCHLINGS AND SUBADULTS
We will start the methodology of feeding with a baby milk snake just after its first shed. Soon after hatching, a baby milk snake can be offered a newborn mouse. It is, however, rare that the food will be accepted and eaten. Normally, a hatchling snake won't accept food until after its first shed, usually 6-14 days after hatching. After the first shed the snake should accept its first meal within two to three weeks. The first meal should be small enough to be easily swallowed, but large enough to leave a visible lump in the snake after being swallowed. A schedule of one feeding per week, with the size of food gradually increasing as the snake grows, will result in a good growth rate.
However, many herpetoculturists are in a hurry to grow hatchlings into adult breeders, so they will often adopt a feeding schedule consisting of offering an undersized mouse three times a week instead of a larger mouse once a week. Three smaller meals seem to produce better growth (more easily digested and allows for ingesting a greater total weight of food in a given time span than a single large meal), and be accepted more readily than one large one. It is normal for a snake to skip a meal or two every so often when offered food this frequently. If a milk snake continues to accept meals, it can be fed through its first winter (make sure to keep the snake warm) and through the following spring, summer, and fall. It can then be cooled during the second winter of its life. The following spring you should be able, following a return to normal maintenance and feeding schedule, to attempt to breed it.
As long as they are growing larger and longer you can't overfeed a baby snake. If one should regurgitate, give it a few days rest, then feed it small meals once a week until it gets back on track. With this intensive feeding schedule, babies will usually outgrow the shoe box in the first year.
Don't be surprised if baby milk snakes refuse a meal when opaque. This is normal in many cases but offer a smaller-than-usual meal anyway. Many milk snakes will eat when opaque, but you don't want to offer a food item that creates a large lump in the snake because it might hinder the shedding process. Sometimes when you move a snake to a larger or different cage its feeding pattern will be disrupted. Some snakes are more secure and eat better when in a confined space and don't readily feed when placed in larger quarters. If this happens, you may have to put them in a confined space or back into their previous cage setup to feed until they get used to their new environment.
Once the snake reaches adult size you will want to offer enough food to keep up continued growth and body weight, but not so much as to cause obesity. The relationship of food intake to length and weight increases will vary from individual to individual. Some milk snakes will "eat like pigs" and stay slim, while others will not consume as much, but get fat. If the scales are always stretched apart, or if the inside edge of a coil wrinkles or folds when a snake curls up, the snake is probably too fat.
Always keep snakes separate when feeding. If you are using the double-compartmented, drawer-type cages, feed one in the upper compartment and the other in the lower compartment, and cap the access hole. DO NOT FEED GROUPS OF SNAKES TOGETHER IN THE SAME ENCLOSURE.
With males, one meal per week is usually enough during the "warm" season. During the breeding season males may skip several meals (one- track minds, sex only?). Monitor males during this period for noticeable weight loss and review their feeding records. If continued disinterest in feeding is likely to jeopardize a male snake's health, he may have to be moved to a cage by himself, perhaps to a separate room away from the "aroma" of the females before he will resume feeding. If your records indicate a repetitive pattern of extended fasting during the breeding season, you will want to adjust your feeding regimen and offer a male snake additional meals during its feeding phase to provide extra weight gain in preparation for this fast.
Female milk snakes that are expected to lay eggs can be a little on the plump side. Unless obviously overweight, try to offer meals to adult females twice per week. When opaque prior to laying eggs, offer smaller delicacies. If a normal meal is a full-grown mouse, offer a pinkie rat or young fuzzy mouse. Some females will accept food between the pre-egg laying shed and the actual egg laying, even eating a small food animal the day the eggs are laid. It is also common for sexually mature, gravid females to go off feed completely. Offer food frequently because if they didn't eat today they may eat tomorrow. Having something continually digesting is the "secret formula" to getting milk snakes to lay two and sometimes three clutches of eggs per year. Egg production causes significant depletion of a female's bodily reserves and anything you can do to help her replenish them will be beneficial to her.
Stop feeding of adults two weeks before planning to drop the temperatures for "hibernation." This will allow most of the stomach contents to be digested and eliminated before the cooling period. Because the metabolic rate of snakes slows down when they are cooled, any undigested food can decompose and cause a harmful buildup of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.
Now and then, there is a snake that refuses to eat what we offer it. Most adult milk snakes should already have a feeding history by the time you get them, so what follows will focus on the newly hatched baby snake. By using larger portions the following guidelines can also be applied to adult or subadult snakes.
Before proceeding with methods for dealing with problem feeders, be aware that some baby snakes, for a variety of reasons, are destined to die. They may be deformed internally, unable to digest food, or have some other defects that will prevent a prolonged life. Fortunately, these are rare occurrences.
Before we can expect a problem snake to feed, and before we can tackle the problem, a short review of husbandry is in order. We must provide a suitable environment, preferably a small cage so the snake can't avoid the food item. The cage should be clean, dry, a 75º-88ºF temperature (preferably with subfloor heat with warmer and cooler areas available), have clean drinking water, a suitable substrate, and a secure place to hide in both the warm and cool zones. The snake should be kept alone and all food items should be of a size that can be easily swallowed without leaving a large lump in the snake. The food item should be left in the cage for several hours and the cage should not be disturbed during that time, preferably with no one in the room. Some snakes are nocturnal feeders, so you may have to try these techniques day and night. Best results are often obtained after a shed, so delay feeding if the snake is "blue" or opaque.
The following is a summary of techniques for dealing with problem feeders:
- Make sure that all recommended enclosure requirements are provided. Inadequate environmental factors can play a key role in the failure of snakes to feed in captivity.
- Most babies will feed on live newborn mice (pinkies). Place a live pinkie in the opening to the snakes favorite hiding place. If uneaten within a few hours, drop the pinkie inside the hiding place with the snake. If uneaten, replace with a fresh, killed pinkie.
- Was a pinkie in soap (non perfumed) and water, rinse well, dry, and follow steps in number one. The washing removes the domestic mouse scent and may make it more palatable.
- Get a freshly killed feeder lizard (Uta, Sceloporus or Anolis) and rub it all over a pre-killed pinkie, prepared as in Steps 1 and 2. You may have to cut a small piece of the lizard's tail off, rub the lizard's blood around the face of the pinkie, and put a piece of the tail in the pre-killed pinkie's mouth. Frog or worm slime may work here also and is worth a try.
- Kill a pinkie, cut open the top of the head, smear brain material around the head, then place the pinkie in the hiding place. This grisly technique works surprisingly often, but I don't like to use it if the other techniques work.
At this point, if the snake still has not fed, offer it any natural food item you think it might accept, just to get a meal into it. Offer the item (small lizard, tree frog, baby wild mouse) by hand first. If the snake will accept food from your hand, it will be easier to offer two food items at the same time and cause the snake to "miss" its target and to take the pinkie you are holding tightly next to the preferred item. Always leave a pinkie in the cage after a snake has accepted a different food item. Often, the snake will follow the first meal with the pinkie.
Remove the snake from the cage, place it in a small paper bag or plastic cup, and try steps 1-5 again if there has been no success at this point.
Usually a snake will have fed before we reach this point, and once it has eaten, it will usually be easy to get it to accept plain pinkies. If it has not eaten yet, heavily mist the cage with a wet sprayer to raise the humidity and try the steps again. Don't keep the snake in a wet cage more than a couple of days, and be sure the cage is warm. Another method involves withholding water from the snake for a few days, then put a wet pre-killed pinkie in a shallow dish in the cage. Sometimes a plastic container filled with damp shavings and having a small entrance hole will serve as a secure hiding place and encourage a feeding response when a pinkie is dropped inside with the snake.
Note: Some baby snakes react badly to constant contact with damp peat moss, suffering a dermatitis from the acid ground medium. Whatever material you use, keep alert for signs of skin disease when using wet media. The problem may show up as an inability to shed, a premature shed, sticking skin, or as skin blisters. These lesions, when healed, may leave discolored scales or scars. Damp paper towel is a good choice as a temporary, moist substrate.
If your snake has not eaten 4 weeks after its first shed, you may have to force feed it. Kill a day-old pinkie and gently stick the head inside the snake's mouth, using the pinkie's head (or other small dull object) to open the snake's mouth. When the pinkie's head is inside the snake's mouth, gently apply pressure to the outside of the upper and lower jaws of the snake with your fingers and gently pull on the pinkie. This will stick the pinkie on the snake's teeth and make it more difficult for the snake to spit the pinkie out. Wait until the snake is not struggling, gently put it down in the cage, and don't move! You may have to repeat this several times but often the snake will accept and swallow the pinkie. If this first approach at force feeding fails after a couple of tries, start the pinkie down the same way, then gently shove the pinkie down the snake's throat using a dull instrument. Gently massage the pinkie down the snake's throat to a distance of one quarter to one third the snake's length. If a pinkie is too large for a snake, try a section of mouse tail (the mouse must be humanely killed first). Force feeding sections of mouse tails is a relatively low stress method which works well with baby eastern milk snakes and other small subspecies. When feeding a section (use a section about the length or slightly longer than the body length of a pinkie) of mouse tail, make sure that you insert the thick end of the tail first so that the bristly hairs lie flat against the tail (don't go against the lie of the hair) as it is introduced.
If you have several problem feeders and don't have suitably sized food items, or, if you have a pinkie shortage and need to feed many with a few, or don't have time to "play" with feeding problems, you may want to consider using "pinkie pumps". These allow one to force feed small snakes pre-killed pinkies. "Pinkie pumps" are expensive but will pay for themselves if they allow you to save just one valuable snake. They can be used to force feed baby snakes assembly-line style and keep them alive and growing until they will accept pinkies on their own or grow large enough to accept larger food items. "Pinkie pumps" are available from specialty reptile stores or from mail order companies.
Most milk snakes that hatch will readily feed on pinkies from the start, so the other "tricks" won't be necessary, but you should have an idea of that to try if a snake won't feed. Some baby snakes, particularly those hatched late in the season, will not accept pinkies until the following spring. Feed "late hatchers" a few lizards or pinkie pump them a few times, then "hibernate" them until the following spring. Usually it is not worth the effort to work with one of these problem late hatchlings over the winter. Snakes lose very little weight when hibernating, and if a snake has any body fat reserves, it will be fine until the following spring. Usually, with spring comes an appetite and a much better chance for easy success.
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