Pet snakes lead easy lives. They don’t have to hunt for food. They don’t have to fend off their own predators.
They live in climate-controlled comfort. But they can still develop digestive problems and anorexia.
Even if you give your pet snake a wonderful home and take care of it in every way, you can’t always tempt it to eat.
Snakes don’t eat every day, and some snakes (notably pythons) don’t necessarily eat every month.
Snakes that don’t eat for many months, however, will eventually starve to death.
If your snake has refused food for at least two weeks longer than you expected, you need to find the cause of the problem to keep your snake from sickness or even death.
Reasons Snakes Lose Their Appetites
It is not unusual for snakes not to have an appetite when you first bring them home from the pet shop or a show, or when they first arrive from the breeder.
Young snakes sometimes seem not to be sure what their food is. But the problem isn’t always the snake.
Here’s another way to look at the problem.
Suppose you were taking a day trip by car. After you have been driving for several hours, you feel like eating a Big Mac.
There isn’t a McDonald’s anywhere nearby, but there is a Burger King, so instead of getting a Big Mac, you get a Whopper.
You asked Burger King to leave off the tomatoes, but they didn’t, so you took them off your burger.
You asked for extra pickles, but they forgot, but you eat your Whopper anyway. You can always get something else later.
Now suppose you are a snake with an appetite for a nice, juicy pinky mouse. You are stuck in a terrarium, so you crawl around and sniff out a mouse you would really like.
You are a snake, after all, so half the fun of eating the mouse is tasting its mother’s milk in its stomach.
But only after you get to sniff it on the way down.
This strange mammal that stands on two feet and wears different colors every time you see her brings you a pinkie mouse from her pet supply store.
The pink mouse was raised in a lab on Purina Mouse Chow, so it smells funny.
It sat in a container in the pet store for weeks after the mouse grower killed it, so it’s dried out.
Not a hint of mother mouse’s milk. And it was frozen! Doesn’t the human know I’m a cold-blooded reptile?
At least that strange mammal that feeds you now and then didn’t add tomatoes and pickles.
One of the reasons new snakes become anorexic is that their new owners don’t get them quality food.
There are things you can do to make sure your snake’s food is palatable without resorting to raising your own rodents.
- Never feed your snake frozen food. Always let it thaw and warm to room temperature first. But don’t let your snake’s food stay at room temperature so long that it spoils.
- Give your snake gut-fed food. Snakes eat their prey guts and all. Whatever is in the guts (however disgusting it may be to humans) is important to snake nutrition. This means that snakes that eat insects need insects that have been feeding while they have been waiting to become snake food. If they eat rodents, they need rodents that have been fed a varied diet, not just mouse and rat pellets. Reptilinks offer a variety of prey meats (rabbit, chicken, frog, and so on) that snakes can recognize as food.
- Snakes need to smell their meals before they eat them. You are familiar with the principle. Human appetites are stimulated by the aroma of baking bread or grandma’s cookies. If snakes knew their grandmas, they would feel hungry at the first whiff of grandma’s dead mouse. Well, chances are a grandma snake wouldn’t share. But the fact is that a snake’s appetite is greater when the snake smells the scent of prey on its food.
You don’t want to be the scent that your snake associates with food.
Always offer your snake food with tongs. Never let your snake eat from your hand.
If you are offering your snake tasty, nutritious, appropriately scented food, loss of appetite may still not mean anything is wrong.
Periodic Loss of Appetite is Normal for Snakes
There are times snakes just don’t have any appetite. One of those times is when your snake is molting, shedding its skin.
When your snake is about to molt, its skin will lose any natural color.
Its eyes look blue.
It won’t eat, so it won’t have to pull its dead skin over any bulge in its digestive trace from its latest, slowly digesting the meal.
Molting isn’t the only time it is natural for snakes to lose their appetite.
Snakes also become anorexic during predictable life events such as:
- “Pregnancy.” Female Anacondas, Boa Constrictors, Tree Boas, Sand Boas, and Rainbow Boas (but not Calabar Boas) give live birth. They may not eat while they are gestating their young. This is also true of some female snakes that guard their clutches of eggs. After the young snakes are born, however, their mothers become ravenously hungry.
- When the seasons are changing. A snake’s appetite may slow down in anticipation of winter brumation, a semi-hibernating state.
- Your snake is entering old age. Older snakes eat much less often than younger snakes.
- Your snake enters its annual brumation. Unlike hibernating animals, brumation snakes still drink water. But they go right back to their inactive state as soon as they have rehydrated themselves.
Environmental factors can also influence your snake’s appetite.
Some snakes will lose their appetite when you change the substrate at the bottom of their enclosure.
Strongly scented wood shavings may overwhelm your snake’s ability to smell and recognize its food.
Changes in the daylight-darkness cycle can change your snake’s appetite. Although there are exceptions to the rule (such as Garter Snakes), most snakes prefer to hunt and eat at night.
Leaving the light on over their enclosure in the evening until you go to bed may interfere with their appetite.
While most snakes eat what they are given, giving them entirely the wrong kind of food will cause them to lose their appetite.
Snakes that ordinarily eat insects should not be given rodents, and snakes that ordinarily eat rodents shouldn’t be given fish.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules, but you need to be sure that you understand the general kind of food your snake eats in nature and needs to stay healthy.
Sometimes the reason your snake won’t eat is a need for privacy. Snakes need hiding places where they can slowly swallow and digest their food.
In nature, this is a time that a snake is uniquely vulnerable to its own predators, and most snakes instinctively look for cover nearby before they begin to eat.
Before You Take Your Snake to the Vet
If you are feeding your snake the right food, and you aren’t doing any of the things that often cause snakes to lose their appetites, there are still a few things to consider before taking your snake to the vet.
Is your snake’s enclosure warm enough during the day? Snakes become lethargic and disinterested in food when they are cold.
They can develop respiratory conditions and even pneumonia. Snakes need a basking area, not too hot, and a cooler area in their enclosure to stay healthy.
Sometimes the most important thing you can do to help your snake regain its appetite is to check the thermostat.
Does your snake’s enclosure stay warm at night?
Any part of the enclosure where temperatures drop below 70° F (21° C) at night may be the reason your snake doesn’t have its normal appetite.
Diseases That Can Cause Your Snake to Lose Its Appetite
There are a number of diseases that can cause your pet snake to lose its appetite.
Some of them can become deadly if they are not treated in time. Here are some of the conditions that call for urgent attention from your veterinarian.
Constipation and Obstructions
Sometimes snakes don’t get enough moisture in their environments and become constipated.
When they are constipated, they don’t want to eat. Giving your snake warm water to soak in (don’t force this) for 15 to 30 minutes twice a day encourages defecation and restores appetite.
But when your snake eats something that gets stuck in its digestive tract, your veterinarian may have to remove it surgically.
Microscopic “worms” can accumulate in your snake’s intestine and cause its digestive tract to shut down.
You can’t detect these parasites by looking at your snake’s feces.
An exotic pet veterinarian can diagnose them from a fecal smear, collected at the veterinarian’s office.
You don’t want to eat when you have a canker sore or a broken tooth.
Your snake can develop a bacterial infection of the mouth that gives it too much pain to eat.
This is another condition that an exotic pet veterinarian can diagnose and treat.
Snakes that have respiratory infections don’t want to eat.
If your snake is sneezing or wheezing or has drainage from its nostrils, it may have a respiratory infection. Take it to your vet for treatment.
Checklist for Preventing Appetite Problems in Your Snake
You can’t always prevent appetite problems in your snake.
But you can minimize the risk of this problem with these simple steps:
- Provide your snake with the right type and amount of food.
- Give your snake a hiding place to swallow and digest its food.
- Make sure the temperature in your snake’s terrarium is appropriate for its species.
- Be aware of the symptoms of constipation, obstruction, mouth rot, and respiratory infections, and take your snake to the vet if these problems appear.
Once your snake starts eating again, be careful not to overfeed. Overfeeding can cause constipation that starts with appetite problems all over again.
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