Feeding Baby Snakes
(Rodent Eating Species)
By Robert Applegate
P.O. Box 338
Campo, CA 91906
My hobby is raising, breeding, hatching, and selling snakes. I feel I am providing a desirable animal, with better than a wild animal's chance of thriving in captivity, and in no way harming the environment or continually depleting wild populations. The species I raise are adapted to life as captives, evidenced by the fact that most of my breeders were themselves captive hatched, raised to adult size, and started breeding in 9 months to 2.5 years. Sometimes a baby snake will refuse to eat what we want it to, and we would prefer that it eat a conveniently available source of nourishment, mice! This paper, which is my first revision of a 1983 paper by the same title, offers suggestions and techniques that I have used successfully over the years to get problem feeder snakes to accept domestic mice as a regular food. While aimed at hatchlings, these techniques can be used on larger snakes, using appropriately sized food items.
Before we can expect a problem snake to feed, we must provide a suitable environment. The cage should be clean, dry, 80-90 degrees in temperature (preferably with subfloor heat with warmer and cooler areas available), have clean drinking water, and a secure place for the snake to hide in both the warm and cool zones of the cage. The substrate can be of various types. Avoid any treated substances such as cat litter. Silica sand, newspaper, or pine shavings are fine, but don't use cedar or redwood products. The snake should be confined alone, and all food items offered 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 feed nocturnally, so you may have to try these techniques day and night. Best results are obtained after a shed, and I would suggest waiting if the snake is "blue" or opaque.
- Most babies will feed on live newborn mice (pinkies). Place a live pinkie in the opening to the snake's favorite hiding place. If uneaten in a few hours, replace with a dead pinkie.
- Wash a pinkie in soap and water, rinse well, dry, and place it in the opening. The washing removes some of the domestic mouse scent. Try a live pinkie and then a dead one.
- Get a feed lizard (Uta or Sceloporus) and rub it all over the pinkie, prepared as 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 pinkie's mouth.
- Kill a pinkie, cut open the top of the head, smear the brain material around, then place the pinkie in the hiding place. This grisly technique works surprisingly often, but I don't like to use if 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. On non-poisonous species, 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 take the pinkie next to it. 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.
Usually a snake will have fed before we reach this point, and once it has eaten, it is usually pretty easy to reverse the steps to get it to accept plain pinkies. If it has not eaten yet, heavily mist the cage with a water spray to raise the humidity and try the steps again. Don't keep the snake in a wet cage more than a few days, and be sure the cage is warm. 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. Some baby snake tract badly to constant contact with damp peat moss, suffering a dermatitis from the acid 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.
If your snake has not eaten 4 weeks after its first shed, which should come 5-12 days after hatching, you may have to force feed. Kill a pinkie and gently stick the head inside the snake's mouth, using the nose of the pinkie (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 it to spit it out. Wait until the snake is not struggling and 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 very dull object. Gently massage the pinkie down the snake's throat to a distance of one-quarter to one-third of its length.
If you have several problem feeders, don't have suitable sized food items, or don't have the time to "play" with feeding problems, there are "pinkie pumps" available. They are expensive but pay for themselves if you save 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.
Most snakes I hatch will feed readily on pinkies from the start, so the other "tricks" won't be necessary, but you should have an idea of what 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. I usually try to feed several lizards to such snakes and 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 reserves it will be fine the following spring. Usually, with spring comes an appetite and a much better chance for easy success.
One suitable sized meal per week (large enough to show a small lump) will give a good rate of growth. One meal every two weeks will provide healthy but slow growth. My records indicate you can't overfeed a baby snake in terms of frequency, but avoid oversized meals. My snakes seem to eat and grow in spurts. When they are accepting food, I provide a baby snake as much as it will eat. I have experienced very rapid growth rates. I have had male snakes breeding successfully at less than one year of age. I have one female that laid two clutches of eggs, all of which hatched before she was two years old! If a snake regurgitates, give it a few days off, then slow down the pace and feed a small meal for a few times, separated by 4-6 days between feedings -- then resume the growth program. Growth, maintenance, and raising snakes are beyond the intent of this paper, so I will leave off here. your snake should be feeding by now, so you are on your way.
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