It's easy to provide a snake with a balanced diet, since snakes, being carnivores, consume whole prey items. Snakes should be taught to eat dead prey items to prevent dangerous bites from rodents. Boas and pythons, which are commonly kept as pets, usually begin eating baby mice, called pinkies. Some snakes start off eating lizards and are switched over to pinkies before being offered for sale in the pet trade. Snakes in the wild may eat mammals, birds, other reptiles, amphibians, fish, worms and insects.
A Healthy Appetite
When considering purchasing a snake for a pet, make sure it's eating at the pet store prior to bringing it home. Small snakes eating pinkies usually graduate to consuming older and larger mice. You may have seen advertisements for pinkies, fuzzies, hoppers, weanes or weans, smalls and adults. These are different ages and sizes of mice destined to be snake food. Rats also come in different sizes. Since snakes usually consume their dinner whole they usually get a good balance of nutrients.
An exception to this is when a snake is ill or for some other reason, will only consume pinkies. Pinkies are baby mice, and therefore don't yet have a well-developed skeletal system. The bones of a pinkie contain more cartilage and less calcium than the bones of older mice. If a snake eats pinkies as the sole or major portion of the diet, it may develop a calcium deficiency after a period of time. This can be rectified by judiciously dusting a calcium supplement onto a pinkie prior to feeding it to your pet snake. You should always consult with your herp veterinarian prior to doing this, however.
No Live Prey!
You should never feed a snake live prey items! I have seen too many snakes with terrible bite wounds along their backs from a hungry rodent left in the cage with a snake that wasn't hungry. Many pet stores now offer frozen rodents that simply need defrosting prior to feeding, eliminating purchasing live rodents that need to be killed before feeding. You can also purchase frozen vacuum-packed rodents through the mail.
Teaching Your Snake to Eat Dead Prey
How does one convince a snake to eat a dead rodent? That's simple! Jiggle the warmed rodent by its tail, and a hungry snake will usually strike at, and then quickly consume it. Most snakes can be easily trained to feed on dead prey. Don't use your fingers to dangle dinner in front of a hungry snake! Use tongs, tweezers or a hemostat, instead. To a ravenous snake, anything that moves is fair game, and it is in your best interest to keep fingers and hands out of striking distance. Believe me, snake bites are painful and prone to becoming infected, requiring a visit to your human physician.
How often should a snake be fed? A good rule of thumb is to feed juvenile boids (boas and pythons) an appropriately sized meal every 6 or 7 days, and adults, every 7 to 14 days.
Ball pythons are common pets. They don't grow quickly to an unmanageable size and are quite docile. They're bred in greater numbers in this country every year, but some imports are still offered routinely for sale. Balls tend to be shy feeders and do best with a dark box for shelter. If your ball python is reluctant to eat, try feeding it at night in the dark because they're nocturnal creatures. Handle your snake as little as possible at feeding time. Imported balls may not recognize the classic white mouse as normal prey and, by substituting a brown mouse, gerbil or hamster, your snake may be more likely to eat. Another important point when trying to entice a snake to eat is to make sure to keep it within the proper temperature range (for ball pythons, this is 80 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit). To prevent regurgitation, don't handle your snake for a few days after feeding.
Fresh water should be available at all times. Provide your snake with a bowl or tub large enough for it to completely submerge. Snakes will drink water from a bowl. Being able to soak will often aid the snake when it comes time to shed.
What if your snake won't eat? If you're keeping it at the correct temperature, and it's healthy, it should feed regularly. If it refuses a meal several times in a row, if it regurgitates, or if you notice obvious weight loss or signs of disease (fluid or bubbles in the nostrils, sneezing, open-mouth breathing), it's time to make an appointment with a herp veterinarian. Unless you are experienced, you shouldn't attempt to force-feed it because it's possible to cause serious damage to the snake's mouth or throat. It's important that your vet uncover the reason why a snake isn't eating, so that it can be properly treated.
If a mature boa or python is subjected to decreasing amounts of light, as occurs in the fall, or if the ambient temperature is slightly lowered, it may cease feeding - due to an urge to breed. A mature snake that is ready to breed may stop feeding and become restless, often pacing its cage. A snake preparing to breed will appear very different than a snake that is ill because it will remain alert and active. Mature males may become aggressive during breeding season. Boas and pythons mature at different sizes and ages, so if in doubt, consult your herp veterinarian.
In all cases, snakes should be housed in a secure cage. A hungry boa or python is very strong and may be able to push open the top of its cage. All cages must be securely latched to prevent escape. Even a relatively small boid can cause serious bites to family members and pets. A responsible pet owner will provide secure caging for boas and pythons, or any snake, for that matter!
Feeding your snake can be challenging, but the health rewards your pet will receive from a diet of killed prey are well worth the effort.