Buying bulk batches of frozen rodent snake food can be prohibitively expensive. That’s why many snake owners choose to breed mice or rats for their snake (or profit). And it’s easy, if you know how.
There are benefits to breeding mice and rats, not least that you’ll save money. Even though you need to purchase a tank, you still save lots in the long run. But it’s also crucial to acknowledge that there are negatives, too, which we also explore.
- 1 What Animals Can You Breed to Feed Snakes?
- 2 How to Breed Rats and Mice for Snake Food
- 3 Rat Breeder Setup
- 4 Breeding Mice for Snake Food
- 5 Euthanizing Rats for Snake Food
- 6 Why Breed Mice and Rats for Snake Food?
What Animals Can You Breed to Feed Snakes?
The majority of pet snakes eat small-sized rodents, which means that there’s a lot of variety available for anybody interested in breeding food for them to eat. It’s also possible to breed food for larger pet snakes—so what’s out there for you to choose from?
- Mice are small in size, and provide all the nutrients that a snake needs to survive and thrive. Depending on the age of the mouse when you feed them to your snake, you can also breed them to be small enough for even the tiniest of pet snakes.
- Guinea pigs. These are much the same as mice, offering a small portion size for small snakes. They also make better pets, which means you can sell them on to pet stores or new owners more easily.
- Again, you can purposely feed your snakes young rats that are smaller in size. But rats are best bred until adults, and then fed to larger snakes.
- For the largest snakes you can own—like Burmese pythons or reticulated pythons—rabbits make a good meal. They also make excellent pets, if you want to keep one, and can easily be resold both to owners and pet stores.
- The majority of snakes don’t eat crickets and insects, but some do (like green snakes).
- Small frogs. Many snakes eat frogs as occasional parts of their diet, or even as the entirety of their diet. Frogs are very easy to keep and care for, too.
Ultimately, it depends on what your snakes like to eat in the wild. If they’re a green snake, they’ll need plenty of crickets and other small insects. If they’re a corn snake or a ball python, they’ll need a range of rodents as they grow up (starting with smaller portions, before progressing to larger ones). And obviously, the biggest snakes need the biggest prey, like rabbits.
How to Breed Rats and Mice for Snake Food
Breeding rats or mice is surprisingly easy. If you’re an experienced snake owner, you should have no problem sourcing everything you need: an enclosure, substrate, water, and bulk pet food, for example. And caring for them is little different to caring for snakes.
You have to pay enough attention to keep their enclosure clean and, to be blunt, stop them from attacking and even eating each other. So, let’s start by identifying what exactly you need in your setup, and how much it might cost.
Rat Breeder Setup
Before we go into any depth on how to breed rats and mice, let’s be clear: there’s more than one way to do it. What we’re suggesting isn’t the only way, and another way might work for you.
We recommend the following:
- Purchase a 10-gallon tank, just like the kind you house your snakes in. Plastic or glass, it doesn’t make much of a difference; rats have less exacting needs than snakes, so won’t get too cold.
- Line the bottom of the tank with an inch or two of wood shavings, with shredded tissue paper on top. You could use aspen and coconut bark, although this would be more expensive, and wouldn’t make much of a difference for your rats. Avoid using newspaper as, while cheap, it a) is not hugely absorbent and b) often contains toxic inks.
- On one side of the tank, place a large water feeder and a large bowl for their food. Since they have large appetites, make sure they don’t run out of food by checking daily.
- On the other side of the tank, put extra substrate to act as their bedding.
It’s vital that you take as good care of your mice/rats as you do your snakes. While you might not care for them—and ultimately, they’re just going to end up as food—it’s crucial for your snake’s health that their prey is in prime condition. First, healthier rodents offer better nutritional value. But not only that, mice can pass on parasites or respiratory infections to your snake. So, keep their setup just as clean as you do your snake’s.
How much might all of this cost? Well, you can use a plastic enclosure that costs little more than a few dollars. One or two water feeders are more than enough for a large enclosure of mice/rats, and you’ll never need to replace them. And since you’re using cheap substrate, that keeps costs down too. All in all, you’re looking at $75 tops for your initial setup, if you shop wisely—remember, you have to buy your mice and rats too. Your biggest ongoing cost is food, although this is cheap too. All of your expenses will be far less than you’ll be paying for frozen mice/rats.
Caring for Mice and Rats
Just because you’re going to feed them to your snake, that’s no excuse not to take good care of your mice and rats. Follow these simple guidelines to take good care of your rodents:
- Rats enjoy company, so it’s best not to keep them on their own. Keep males with females when you want them to breed, and keep groups of males and females separate when the females are raising their young. Rats live in social groups in the wild.
- If a rat has unusually rapid or noisy breathing, this may indicate a respiratory disease. Red discharge around the eyes is also a sign of illness.
- If you handle rats from soon after they’re born, they learn to enjoy it, if this interests you. Follow normal handling guidelines to avoid them getting stressed. Only handle them in rat-proof rooms, where there’s no opportunity for them to escape, e.g., cracks in floorboards.
- Rats need exercise to avoid becoming stressed. For a pet rat, it’s advised that they spend some time outside the cage to exercise. With your rats, this would be impossible, so provide them with something to exercise and something to chew on in their enclosure/enclosures.
And that’s about it. Don’t keep them somewhere very cold, like in the garage in winter, and other than that they should be fine.
Breeding Mice for Snake Food
Start with one male and three or four females in a cage. You don’t need to prime mice or rats in any way before mating, as you do with snakes; they’ll do everything on their own. Once you can visibly see that each of the females is pregnant, remove the male and put him in a separate tub/enclosure. It depends on the species, but some rats and mice look quite pregnant. Others, you won’t be able to tell until they give birth.
However, there are a few signs to look out for:
- A mating plug. According to Acta Europaea Fertilitatis, just like in snakes, rats and mice use mating plugs. These are like biological corks, which males use to plug up the female’s vagina, to prevent them from mating. These are a sign of mating, although not pregnancy.
- The estrous cycle (also known as being ‘in heat’). Rats experience estrous once every five days on average. Just like if you or your partner were to experience missing a period, missing being in heat is a sign that the mouse or rat could be pregnant.
- Loss of interest in mating. If a female rat or mouse is pregnant, they won’t seek out males, and they won’t respond to the male’s advances.
- Nest building. A few days before giving birth, the female will start building a nest. She’ll start to pile the substrate into a noticeable ‘nest,’ using a hide if you’ve provided one.
Observe your mice/rats and take note of whether they’re mating, and how often they’re mating. The gestation period is only 21 days, so be sure that you pay close attention to your rats/mice and remove any males before birth occurs. If you don’t, there could be complications in that male rats can and will commit infanticide.
What to Feed Feeder Rats
Pet rats can eat almost anything—that’s what rats are renowned for. They can eat fruit like apples, bananas, and berries; they can eat vegetables from broccoli to carrots and squash; they can eat bread, pasta, and beans too. But if you’re breeding feeder rats, you no doubt want to keep costs down. That means finding the most nutritional content for the least cost.
Your best bet is bulk rodent feed from companies like Kent Feeds or Mazuri. These offer a complete balanced nutritional profile, including either 19% or 23% protein (in the case of Kent) alongside high levels of vitamins A, D and E. Their feed is available in big, bulk 50lb bags too, so you’ll practically never run out. Feeds like these generally contain:
- Ground wheat
- Ground corn
- Soybean meal or soybean oil
- Fish meal
- Dried whey
Your rats would, therefore, get lots of nutritionally dense food, plus the vitamins and minerals they need. It is possible to replicate this diet using the ingredients themselves, although this takes more work. That’s why your best bet is to stick to bulk rodent feeds.
As a note, it’s essential to keep your rats and mice well fed. According to a paper in Physiology & Behavior, a lack of food can lead to your rodents’ estrous cycle becoming disrupted. This would mean they’re less likely to become pregnant.
Euthanizing Rats for Snake Food
You can always feed your snake live prey, but euthanizing them first is best practice. Most owners choose to stun or kill their prey by hitting it as hard as they can. There are a few ways of doing so:
- Take the rat by the tail, and hit their head against a hard edge of some kind, e.g., a table’s edge. If it works, this breaks the neck, or at least stuns them. However, rats and mice are resilient.
- Cervical dislocation is the most common way of animal euthanasia. You apply pressure to the neck, to keep it in place, while pulling on the back half of the animal. The point is to separate the animal’s brain from their spinal cord, which is the quickest and most painless way to kill them. To kill a rat or mouse using cervical dislocation, apply pressure to the back of their head using an implement like a screwdriver or butter knife. Then, pull backward on their tail.
Euthanizing Rats for Snake Food with Gas
You could purchase a CO2 setup, which is one of the more humane ways to kill a rat or mouse. CO2 is what all large distributors use to kill feeder rats. Start by finding a container that’s large enough to fit many mice or rats at once: something like a Tupperware tub, a pot with a lid, or something similar. It depends on how many mice you need to kill (it’s more cost effective to gas many at once). You need to pick something that you can see through or see into somehow, so that you can see when the rats are dead.
You then have to attach tubing, so that you can pump the gas inside. You have to make two holes in the container: one for the CO2 to come in, and one for the air to come out. Make two cuts of tubing, each a couple of inches long and glue them in place. Use epoxy or similar strong glue and ensure that the holes are airtight.
You then need a CO2 source; you can get CO2 tanks that people use for paintball guns, or smaller ones that are for pumping up bicycle tires. You might need a valve (on/off air source adapter) that controls how much gas comes out—it depends on what you buy. Either way, take a good length of the tube and attach your CO2 source to the inlet, which is the bottom tube. Then, attach another length of tubing onto the outlet tube. Put the end of this tube into a bowl or cup filled with water. The point of this is so that the air you’re pumping out of the chamber can’t get back in.
Using this setup is as simple as putting the rats or mice inside, and switching it on. Unfortunately, using CO2 doesn’t guarantee a peaceful death: more the opposite! It’s carbon monoxide which puts you gently to sleep, whereas not being able to breathe due to CO2 feels more akin to drowning. If the welfare of your breeder rats is of concern to you, then this isn’t the best method for you to use.
Why Breed Mice and Rats for Snake Food?
There are a few reasons why you should consider breeding your own mice and rats for snake food.
- If you breed your own mice and rats, you would never run out of food. You have a never-ending supply of fresh food, plus as many frozen rats and mice as you like, if you know how to safely freeze them (and your snake will eat them).
- Snakes prefer live or freshly killed prey; that’s what they’re used to eating in the wild. Bulk bags of frozen rodents to be thawed out when you need them might provide the nutrients they need. But the freezing and thawing process does make food less appetizing for a snake, and that’s a fact.
- Breeding mice and rats is cheaper than buying them, even in bulk. Some factors—like the price of corn (rodent food), shipping costs and price hikes all combine to make buying mice and rats expensive whether they’re alive or dead. Breeding your own is generally far cheaper.
- You can cut down on waste by offering your snake live prey. If you thaw out a mouse or rat, but your snake decides they don’t want it, you’d have to throw it away. But live prey you can offer them again at a later date.
- There’s always going to be a demand for mice and rats, so breeding feeder rats for profit is possible, too. You make far more money from selling them than you spend on feeding and keeping them. You can even sell them as pets, for just as much money. They’re also used in the medical field, and of course by other snake owners.
It’s your choice; there’s no right or wrong answer, only different ways to care for your pet or pets.
Arguments Against Breeding Rats for Snake Food
At the same time, there are arguments against breeding your own mice and rats, too. These include:
- The smell. Mice and rats have a distinctive odor, even if you keep their enclosure or enclosures clean. And if you don’t keep them clean, the smell gets much worse.
- You might believe that feeding live rats or mice to a snake may be unnecessarily cruel. Of course, it happens all the time in nature, but it’s better for an animal to die quickly than slowly.
- Methods of euthanasia are imperfect. If you’re an experienced farmhand, then you’ll know exactly how cervical dislocation works, but if you’re not then you might again put the rats/mice through unnecessary suffering before they die.
- You might grow accustomed to your new mice and rats, and not want to feed them to your snake after all.
- If you have a large collection of snakes, you’ll also need a large collection of mice or rats. This could take up space that you just don’t have.
It’s up to you, so balance these issues against the positives in breeding your own snake food, and identify what’s most important to you.
Should Snakes Be Eating Live Prey?
Many breeders avoid feeding their snake live prey. That’s because even though they’re much smaller, there’s still a chance that live prey could hurt a snake for instance by biting or scratching at their eyes. A bite anywhere, really, could be serious since it could become infected.
The worst part of feeding your snake live prey is that the prey can try and eat the snake. If the snake refuses to eat the rat, for whatever reason, the rat can start nibbling on the snake. Remember, rats get hungry too.
However, it is possible to feed a snake live prey. You have to watch over them and make sure that everything goes to plan. Follow these steps:
- Take your snake out of their enclosure, and put them wherever you put them to feed them (i.e., a Tupperware dish, or another enclosure).
- Put the rat or mouse in there with them and wait to see what happens. Once they realize what’s going on, the snake should strike.
- If the snake doesn’t strike, remove the prey item and put your snake back in their enclosure.
It’s important to give your snake a few minutes to strike since, for many reasons, snakes can be fussy with their food. But don’t leave them with the prey item for an extended period of time, i.e., more than a few minutes.