corn snake not digesting food
Snake Health

7 Common Corn Snake Digestion Problems

Corn snake digestion problems are surprisingly common, and have a variety of underlying causes. Digestive issues often pose a unique and difficult problem for snake owners to resolve.

What digestive issues affect corn snakes? Regurgitation and vomiting are signs of gastrointestinal disease. The issue could be rotten food, the wrong kind of food for corn snakes, incorrect digestion temperature, stress, or brumation.

It’s vital that you identify the problem if your snake’s stomach symptoms are chronic. A corn snake not digesting food, regardless of the explanation, will eventually die unless prompt action is taken.

Common Corn Snake Digestion Issues

There are two main ways that digestion can go wrong in corn snakes. They are vomiting and regurgitation. Vomiting is a different issue to regurgitation. People use the terms interchangeably, but they refer to different medical problems.

Regurgitation is where a corn snake brings up its food. It’s the same as regurgitation in people. The food is undigested, because it’s brought back up before it reaches the stomach. To put it bluntly, the food that your snake ate will be intact, if a little wet and slimy.

Because the food doesn’t reach the stomach, the process isn’t as painful as vomiting. The esophagus is, essentially, put in reverse to bring the food back up. The causes of regurgitation in corn snakes are normally related to the food. So, for example:

  • The food may have gone bad, or have bacteria in it, or be completely rotten
  • The food may be of the wrong kind for the snake
  • The food may contain a foreign object that the snake notices before it swallows fully

A snake may also regurgitate when it’s disturbed, and isn’t given enough digestion time.

Vomiting is different. This is where food from the stomach is rejected. Because the food has been in the stomach, sometimes for a while, it will be partially digested. It occurs after a longer period than regurgitation.

The causes of vomiting are varied. It may be related to food. But it may be related to a health condition that’s nothing to do with the food itself.

1) Corn Snake Vomiting Because It’s Sick

Think back to the last time that you had to vomit. It’s likely because you were sick for some reason. Perhaps it was a gastrointestinal condition, or because you ate some food that disagreed with you. Or, the issue could have been more general, and vomiting was one of many symptoms.

Whatever the case, this applies to snakes too. There are lots of ways in which a snake can be ill that would lead it to regurgitate or vomit.

Cryptosporidiosis in Corn Snakes

Cryptosporidiosis is a condition that can affect people and animals. You may also know it as ‘crypto.’

According to the Korean Journal of Parasitology, cryptosporidiosis is a disease that causes both diarrhea and vomiting. The cause is microscopic parasites that live in the gut. They can be passed from one animal to another through feces.

These tiny parasites irritate your snake’s stomach and gut. And while they’re small, they do as a sum total reduce the available space for food in your snake’s belly. These two factors combine to cause chronic vomiting/regurgitation.

In reptiles, snakes included, cryptosporidiosis can be fatal. It stops a snake from eating, and absorbing the nutrients of anything it does eat.

gastrointestinal disease in corn snakes

2) Corn Snake Disturbed while Eating

Snakes are vulnerable creatures. They only have two means to defend themselves. The most obvious is their bite. When a snake is eating, it can’t use its fangs to protect itself.

The other means of defense is to escape. But this, too, is difficult when it’s eating. It will have a big lump in its middle and be heavier than it was before. This makes it vulnerable to threats/predators.

To counter this problem, snakes use their regurgitation reflex. When a snake is eating and it’s disturbed, it will regurgitate their food quickly and try to get away. This may not work, but it works more frequently than trying to escape with a huge lump in its throat or belly.

This often occurs in the wild. But it can happen in captivity too. If you disturb your snake, for example by trying to handle it while it’s digesting, it may regurgitate.

How to Stop a Corn Snake Regurgitating when Disturbed

If the snake is trying to regurgitate its food, never try to stop it. Doing so would hurt the snake.

Instead, try to avoid this situation occurring. Wait until after your snake has gone to the toilet before handling it. That way, you know that it’s completely digested its food.

Stay away from your snake while it’s eating. Snakes are on high alert when attacking prey. They have to think of subduing the prey, but also any threats like predators. So leave your snake alone, only looking periodically to check it isn’t choking.

3) Anxious Corn Snake Regurgitating Food

You may take every possible step to avoid disturbing your snake after eating. But it may still regurgitate its food. The issue may not be due to you, but other aspects of the snake’s environment.

An anxious snake may frequently regurgitate because it generally doesn’t feel safe. Nervousness in corn snakes is caused by:

  • The lack of a hide. Snakes should have a minimum of two hides
  • The lack of enrichment like leaves and branches that a snake can hide underneath
  • Having clear cage walls on each side
  • Not having the right kind of substrate (that can be burrowed into or hidden under)
  • Having other snakes in the same enclosure, which shouldn’t be done with corn snakes

Anxiety will encourage several negative behaviors, such as striking, avoiding food, regurgitating food, repetitive head rubbing, and more. If the regurgitation occurs with these symptoms too, then nervousness is the issue.

4) Incorrect Digestion Temperature

Snakes are cold-blooded. This means that a snake relies on the heat of its environment, not its own body heat. It can’t produce internal body heat at all.

What you may not know is that body heat is a vital part of digestion. Warmth hastens the breakdown of carbohydrates and proteins in food, making digestion quicker. It also encourages digestive bacteria in all animals with a gut like ours.

This means that without enough warmth, the snake can’t digest its food. It will instead sit in the snake’s stomach and slowly rot. Now, for a short window of time, this won’t be a problem.

If the snake can find somewhere warm to sit, the food will digest with no problem. But if it can’t, the rotting food could make your corn snake sick. If the food does go bad, they will have to get rid of it. It’ll do so by vomiting it back up from the stomach.

5) Brumation and Digestion Problems

Many snake species, including corn snakes, go through a process called brumation when temperatures drop. Brumation is like the reptile equivalent of hibernation. The snake becomes largely inactive.

During this time, the snake doesn’t want to eat. It avoids eating because, as stated above, it can’t digest in low temperatures. The snake also wants to remain inactive and avoid hunting, to conserve energy. This gives it an innate desire to avoid food.

Your snake may take a meal shortly before brumation. If this occurs, the snake may not automatically seek out warm spots for digestion’s sake. If it doesn’t, then it will eventually bring its food back up.

Many snake owners put their snakes through a manual period of brumation over the winter. This is vital for breeders, as the end of brumation is the beginning of the breeding season. You can do this too, even if you aren’t breeding your snake.

During this time, avoid feeding your snake. Check that your snake completes the digestive process before you begin putting them through brumation.

Corn Snake Digestion Problems

6) Obstruction in a Corn Snake’s Gut

When a snake eats its food, it doesn’t chew. It can’t because it lacks the right kind of teeth. Instead, it swallows its prey whole. The advantage of this is that it’s quicker for the snake to eat.

One disadvantage is that it can’t spit out some of the food but keep the rest. Say, for example, that a snake accidentally ate a piece of plastic along with its meal. If the plastic is inside the meal, it can’t chew on it, spit it out, but keep the rest of the rodent.

A snake might have small foreign objects in its gut. Small enough, and these won’t cause significant problems. But if they’re a rough texture, sharp, or too big, they can irritate the stomach lining.

This would cause the snake to vomit its food back up, including the foreign object and the meal. This is unlikely to happen in captivity because you control what the snake eats. But it is still theoretically possible. If it does occur, it will likely only happen once rather than cause chronic vomiting.

7) Prey Items Too Large for Corn Snake

You frequently see this with news stories of large snakes swallowing enormous prey. Burmese pythons and similar that attack and eat pigs, deer, and even humans often have to regurgitate their prey. It’s too big.

This can occur with smaller snakes too. If the rodent is stuck in their throat, it will have to regurgitate it. The snake will try to do this as quickly as it can, naturally.

To avoid this issue in the future, feed your snake smaller prey. To make up for the smaller amount of food, feed them more frequently, or feed them double portions of smaller prey one after the other.

A good rule of thumb is that the prey shouldn’t be wider than the snake’s widest point. That point usually is its stomach. A little wider is no problem. You can also weigh the prey, which should weigh between 10% and 15% of your snake’s weight before it eats.