Most of the time, pet snakes don’t need vitamin and mineral supplements.
But to make sure your pet snake doesn’t need a vitamin or mineral supplement, you need to pay careful attention to these six principles of serpent nutrition.
6 Things to Know About Snake Nutrition (Vitamin and Minerals)
Let’s got through six things you should know when it comes to pet snake nutrition.
Part of making sure that your pet snake gets enough vitamins and minerals is making sure your snake gets enough water and stays well hydrated.
But what does good hydration have to do with your snake’s nutrition?
There are actually two ways that staying well hydrated helps your snake stay well-nourished.
Here’s the first reason:
Hydration is essential for digestion. Your snake needs access to water to help with the process of digestion.
Even if your snake gets all the vitamins and minerals it needs when you feed it the right prey, it still needs at least a little water to complete the process of digestion.
And here’s the second reason:
Snakes get some of their calcium and trace minerals from the water they drink. Most of the minerals your pet snake needs come from digesting the bones of its prey.
However, female snakes may need additional calcium when they are getting ready to lay their clutch of eggs or when they are about to give live birth, and snakes of both sexes may need additional magnesium, copper, zinc, and iodine when they have infections or hormonal disturbances.
The amount of minerals your pet snake gets from drinking water isn’t a lot, but may make a critical difference in its health.
So, what kind of water is the healthiest for your pet snake?
- Distilled water does not contain any of the minerals your snake needs for good health. Don’t give your snake distilled water.
- Tap water usually contains healthy minerals, but also contains chlorides and fluorides. If your tap water is heavily chlorinated (for instance, it smells or tastes like water from a swimming pool), don’t give it to your snake. If you live in a town that has high natural fluorides in its tap water (you can tell by problems with mottling and brown deposits on lots of people’s teeth), don’t give your pet snake that water, either.
- Bottled water is OK for your snake if there are problems with tap water. Many brands of bottled water actually are tap water, of course. But the main difference about bottled water is that it contains some of the minerals your snake needs with only minimal amounts of chlorides and fluorides.
Breeding females need extra calcium.
You can’t really get your snake to swallow a calcium pill.
You will need to give your snake calcium drops, following the directions on the label, in its drinking water to give it the extra calcium she needs for intact eggshells.
Pet snakes may also like to soak before or after shedding, or need misting when they are about to shed.
You could add mineral supplements (again, in the amounts recommended by the manufacturer stated on the product label), but this is not as helpful as adding them to drinking water.
Also read: How Long Can a Pet Snake Go Without Water?
Keeping your snake at the right temperature for its size and species is important to its good nutrition. How can this be?
Snakes cannot complete the process of digestion unless they have the right body temperature.
And snakes, for the most part, cannot regulate their body temperature. They depend on you to keep their enclosure at the right temperature to complete their digestive process.
Scientists have discovered that snakes aren’t really totally dependent on air temperature to maintain their body temperature.
Like other animals, including humans, the process of digesting food itself raises body temperature slightly.
But the “thermogenic effect of digestion” in snakes only raises a snake’s body temperature about 2° F (1.8° C). It’s not enough to compensate for trying to digest food in a cold cage.
Not all snakes need warm enclosures all the time. But all snakes need warmth for the one to three days it takes them to digest their food and absorb all the nutrients.
Just don’t carry this principle too far.
Your snake doesn’t need warmth in its entire enclosure when it is digesting its food, just on the warmer side of its terrarium.
Placing a snake in a glass terrarium with a heat lamp in the middle can cause dehydration and death in a relatively short time.
Measured Mineral Nutrition
We have made several references to the fact that snakes, especially female snakes in the process of reproduction, may need more calcium than they can get from their diets.
This is especially true if you have used lights to encourage your snake to have a longer breeding season.
However, we haven’t mentioned how much calcium snakes need for good nutrition.
Calcium binds other minerals. Snakes can’t get the iron, manganese, magnesium, copper, and zinc they need from their food when they get too much calcium.
Manufacturers of preprocessed snake foods like Reptilinks usually make sure that they include a small amount of bone, just enough that elemental calcium is 1 to 1.5 percent of the weight of the entire product.
You don’t really want to give your pet snake more than that. About 2 percent by weight is the upper limit of the amount of calcium they should get in their food.
And if they get that much calcium from food, they don’t need any additional calcium in their drinking water.
If you are feeding your snake live prey, or previously frozen whole prey that you have thawed out, you can safely assume it is getting enough calcium from the bones it digests.
Don’t give calcium supplements except when your vet tells you that your snake needs them or when a female snake is reproducing.
But keep in mind that snakes, like people, can’t get calcium inside their bones without vitamin D3.
Vitamins Are Vital, Especially Vitamin D
But only in the right amounts.
Snakes need the same vitamins that other animals do. (Like most animals, they make their own vitamin C and don’t need to get vitamin C from food. Humans are the exception to the rule with vitamin C.)
But snakes are particularly sensitive to deficiencies in vitamin D3.
Vitamin D3 is fat-soluble. Snakes get it from the fat of the prey animals they eat, and also from eating the liver, where it is transformed from its storage form (vitamin D2) to its active form, vitamin D3.
Snakes don’t make their own vitamin D by lying in the sun. Scientific studies have shown that exposing snakes to the UV-B rays of the sun, which humans need for making their own vitamin D, has no effect on vitamin D levels in snakes.
Some kinds of pet snakes like to bask in the sun or under their lamp, but this won’t help them get more vitamin D.
Snakes can only get their vitamin D from food.
They just don’t need too much.
Excessive vitamin D can cause too much calcium to go into bones, so much that they become brittle. It can cause calcium deposits to form in internal organs.
If you give your snake exactly what the manufacturer recommends, it will be beneficial.
Vitamin A Is OK
There is another fat-soluble vitamin that is important to your pet snake’s health. It’s vitamin A.
Snakes need vitamin A for healthy scales. They need it for immune activation. They need it for eye health.
Humans can make vitamin A from pigments that are found in plants, like the orange beta-carotene in carrots. (We can also transform the lycopene in tomatoes, the zeaxanthin in corn, and the cryptoxanthin in papayas, peaches, tangerines, and oranges into vitamin A.)
Snakes can’t do this.
Snakes have to get their vitamin A pre-formed. They get all the vitamin A they need from prey animals that had all the vitamin A they needed, again, mostly from fat and liver.
Giving your snake beta-carotene won’t do any good.
It’s OK to give your snake the manufacturer’s recommended dosage of vitamin A when there are problems with scales, mouth rot, or eye health, added to food, not to water. (Remember, vitamin A is fat-soluble, not water-soluble.)
Overdosing vitamin A can cause liver problems. Vitamin A, like every other vitamin, is vital, but has to be consumed in the right amount.
Provide Your Pet Snake with All the Nutrients It Needs at the Same Time
Snakes, as you probably know, can go days without drinking water and sometimes months without eating.
If you intended to give your pet snake a nutritional supplement and forgot it, you can’t really expect your snake to swallow a pill later.
And that’s not the only issue with giving snakes some of the nutrients they need instead of all of the nutrients they need.
Calcium, for example, is useless for keeping bones strong and forming strong eggshells without vitamin D3.
The process of keeping bones strong and forming strong eggshells also requires magnesium and phosphorus.
Snakes make their own vitamin C in their kidneys and liver, but they need fat-soluble vitamin E from the prey they eat to recharge it.
Snakes need the same B vitamins that humans do, but they need extra biotin for healthy scales if they eat too many raw fish.
Fish, especially guppies and minnows, contain a compound that breaks down biotin in the animals that eat them.
The key to good nutrition for your snake is keeping all its nutrients in balance, not too much, not too little.
The best way to ensure your snake gets good nutrition is to feed it healthy prey.
When specific nutritional deficiencies are evident, give your snake just enough supplementation to correct the problem, and be extra sure going forward to give your snake healthy food.
Frequently Asked Questions About Vitamins and Minerals for Snakes
Q. Do all snakes need vitamin and mineral supplements?
A. Most snakes do not need vitamin or mineral supplements, and when they do, they only need them to correct a deficiency.
You should not attempt to use vitamin and mineral supplements as if they were medications.
Vitamins and minerals support good health. They don’t cure disease. They help the body cure disease.
Q. Can I give my snake healthy plant foods for extra vitamins?
A. Snakes are strictly carnivores. They in fact do consume some plant foods that were in the guts of the animals they eat whole, but no snake will voluntarily, for example, eat a bowl of Brussels sprouts.
Snakes eat a limited variety of prey animals at specific temperatures, and cannot digest free plant matter that is not already being digested by their prey.
Q. Can my tap water interfere with the way my snake absorbs vitamins and minerals from food?
A. Tap water that is unusually high in iron or calcium can interfere with your pet snake’s ability to absorb vitamins and minerals from food.
Iron can deactivate antioxidants, like vitamin E. Calcium binds other minerals so they go with your snake’s fecal production rather than into its bloodstream.
Your tap water has too much calcium if you have a problem with your pipes and hot water heater getting filled with limestone-like deposits.
Your tap water has too much iron if your clothes look rusty after you wash them. These problems may be temporary in places that suffer summer droughts.
If your tap water is too hard or has too much iron, give your snake bottled water or use an RO purifier or water softener before giving tap water to your snake.
If your tap water reeks of chlorine or is heavily fluorinated, then it is a good idea to give your snake bottled (never distilled) water.
Q. Where can I find more information about giving my snake vitamin and mineral supplements?
A. Your veterinarian is always your best source of information about your snake’s nutritional needs.
Your vet will know your pet snake’s medical history, and will have the latest information from nutritional science to help you take care of your snake.
Other articles you may also like: