Dinner Time (?)
Many of the commonest problems that snake keepers encounter are related to feeding. The trouble is that we, as mammals, are greedy beggars. There's a standard part of any snake-related talks that I do that goes a bit like this:

Put your hand up if you've eaten anything in the last hour (usually a third of the audience have)

Last two hours ? (over half)

Last four hours ? (usually everyone)

You see, we eat all the time. We eat to maintain a constant body temperature which is (certainly here in the UK) considerably warmer than our surroundings. Snakes don't mess about like that - most of their heat is derived from their surroundings so they don't need to eat as much as we do, and they don't.

There's three main worries people have over feeding - "What?", "How?" and "How Often?" - let's look at all of these, then I'll make a few observations from my experiences.

What to feed:

Snakes are carnivores. Sorry but there it is. With the exception of a rather small group of egg eating snakes (Dasypeltis) they all eat other animals.
"wot - me ?"
I wouldn't feed a live animal to a snake. Most good pet shops will supply frozen dead rodents for snakes. Apart from my being a bit of a softie there's several good reasons for feeding dead prey including:

You don't have to keep a frozen mouse fed while you're storing it in the freezer

Frozen rats won't attack and kill your snake

and, provided you make sure to thaw out the prey properly, I can't think of anything against feeding dead prey. Mind you - a word on defrosting. Don't try to rush thaw by immersing in water (snakes like dry food), microwaving (rodents explode) or putting on a radiator (stinks). Just pop the stuff on a surface and cover with newspaper. Leave it to thaw naturally. Also remember that snakes don't always feed. I offer food to all my snakes weekly, and I defrost two food items for every three snakes to reduce wastage.

As a rough rule of thumb pick a food item which is as thick as the thickest part of your snake - that should be about the right size. Snakes can dislocate their jaws and swallow things which are quite enormous compared to their mouths.

But this is just a guide - all snakes are individuals and will change their minds about the size of things they will eat.

The royal python (right) and the sand boa (below) quite happily scoff things which at first sight would seem far too big.

I've known anacondas to go the other way - an adult yellow anaconda I once had went for several months refusing anything larger than a small mouse.

Some snakes will have preferences - I once knew of a burmese python that wouldn't eat anything white and it's not uncommon for royal pythons to eat gerbils exclusively.

Do try to vary the diet - don't just give them rats or just mice. Ask what else your herp store has. Also, I occasionally put a couple of drops of vitamin supplement on the food items.

How to feed:

Let's assume you've got a snake and you yourself have not seen it feed before.

If the man in the shop says it only takes live food, click here and look up the FAQ on this subject. Feeding live food really should be avoided as generally it ends up with a vivarium containing a live food item and a dead snake killed by the live food. If you must feed live, watch the snake until it has killed the food - don't take your eyes off it for one second

You effectively have two options.

Using forceps, tweezers, tongs or pliers wave the dead food item gently in front of the snake


Using forceps, tweezers, tongs or pliers put the dead food into the vivarium, close the tank and go away.

If you don't use forceps, tweezers, tongs or pliers you will eventually get bitten. I know because I have. Now some snakes will snatch the food from your forceps, some will take in gently, some will open their mouths and expect you to put the food in their mouths. Others will shy away and only take the food once you've put it down and gone away - some may even wait and feed in the dark.
Now be careful. No matter how tame you think "Timmy the snake" is, remember that feeding is a reflex action for many snakes - they are not gentle with their food. Never hold food in your bare hands - use tongs and wear gloves at feeding time for your own safety.
Never assume that just because the snake has seized the prey they will eat it Some seem to enjoy playing with the food, just to discard it later. If any food has not been eaten remove it with your forceps (sometimes the act of moving the food prompts them to strike & eat) and then throw it away. Never re-freeze the food to use again later.
A word of advice - if you've got more than one snake you will need to either watch them closely at dinner time or separate them. It's not uncommon for two snakes to attack the same food item and then start attacking each other. Bigger snakes will even accidentally swallow smaller tank mates that are having a go at their dinner
And then - leave the snake alone !

As you can see the snake has swallowed something enormous. It would be comparable to a human swallowing a football. They need to be left for a few days to digest.

How Often:

How long is a piece of string ?
This burmese is eating a rabbit. She will not be hungry for a few weeks, maybe even a month. However if all she took was a small rat or mouse she would be hungry again the next week.

This boa is eating her second rat of the night. She is a funny one - she will eat two or three large rats like this one and then
will refuse food for anywhere up to two months before she then will eat three huge rats again.
It's a bit like us - if you scoff a three course steak dinner you will be stuffed for some time. If you have a packet of crisps you will be hungry again in ten minutes. Watch your snake and recognize the signs of hunger - they prowl for food, they can be quite scatty when handled.

I personally would recommend that in the first instance you offer food to your snake weekly on a regular basis (for me Friday night is feeding night) but be prepared for the fact that they will not always feed. Eventually you may recognize patterns in their feeding.

Do keep written record of feeding - you may find patterns of feeding over several months. I have a burmese which will be incredibly greedy for three months, then not feed for six weeks.

Some tips


If you have several snakes, feed all your snakes in one sitting. Ones not being fed can smell the food and can get stressed.


Once a snake has fed, do not handle her for two or three days to allow her to digest


Don't feed live prey to your snakes


Use forceps, tweezers, tongs or pliers to handle food


Wear gloves as well - pythons have heat sensors and will smell the food but bite your bare hand as they sense the heat.


Don't expect them to feed every time

And now some problems:
I've noticed that some snakes will grab their dinner when waved at them, constrict it, and then cuddle it for hours as though it were a teddy bear.

Gregory here has been cuddling this mouse for over an hour.

If you can get hold of the prey item with a pair of forceps and wiggle it the snake may well then eat it. Otherwise the snake may release it. Either way keep an eye on what's happening - uneaten food soon stinks. Boa constrictors especially like to cuddle their dinner for ages before eating it.

I mentioned earlier about the dangers of feeding snakes together. I knew it was safe to feed my royals together because Ashley eats anything and Beverly only eats gerbils. As you can see I was wrong; Beverly fancies a bit of rat today.

OK - so what did I do here ? The first thing I did was to holler for help. You need more than one pair of hands here.

The royals were beginning to constrict each other so the important thing was to stop them doing that. We got them un-knotted, but they were still both firmly latched on to the rat. After holding a snake in each hand and feeling them both pull for ten minutes "er indoors" went to get some scissors, the idea being to cut the rat. However before we could do that, one of the royals gave up the struggle. In the past I've had three rainbow boas so firmly knotted and bitten into each other that the only way to separate them was to drop them into a bucket of cold water.

ALWAYS watch what the snakes are doing at feeding time.

Earlier I said that you should wear gloves. You should. The small scars left by a yearling carpet python are nothing to the mess a large burmese will leave.

Not feeding at all ?

Try putting the snake into a small darkened box with the food item and leaving overnight. This often works.

Feeding newborns & hatchlings

Newborns & hatchlings can be a worry for feeding. They've certainly worried me, but I've just been given this wonderful tip.

Take an "extra-long matches" matchbox & take out the matches. I use this brand as it is all that Tesco's had at the time. I'm sure any brand will do.
Pop a dead pinkie in the box and then put the baby snake in. (Best done in that order)

Putting the snake in the box is easier said than done.

Leave in the viv overnight - and look - the snake has fed.

This does work sometimes with other boxes, but I'm told that matchboxes work best. Maybe it's the smell - I don't know.

This trick can work with older snakes - here's an email from Victoria:

I've just read the feeding section on the web site. and the part about the matchbox.

I'd had my royal for 4 weeks now and she still hadn't fed! starting to get worried and as a first time reptile owner. All I could find was one of those large type ice cream containers, I thought that would do, how right was I! I made a small hole in the top (just big enough to fit the fluffy through) placed the snake inside on some newspaper, then with twezers dangled the bait through the hole, wow 2 minutes later BANG 1 snake feeding, i couldnt believe it!


Don't assume that because the snake has started eating that they will finish scoffing. Royal pythons like this one can be easily spooked and may spit the food out. If, like I have done before, you've assumed that the snake has eaten OK you may well be in for a smelly surprise.
and finally - an animation of a retic feeding made up from photos sent to me