Snakes swallow their prey whole, which means they must also consume the bones and fur. But most animals can’t digest bones, which makes you wonder how they’re processed by a snake’s body.
All snakes digest food using strong stomach acid and enzymes. The prey stays in the stomach for days, which allows it to digest bones. Fur or feathers can’t be digested by snakes as they’re made from keratin, which is an undigestable substance.
Snakes can consume prey that is much larger than themselves, right down to the bones, skin, feathers, and claws. So, the digestive process of a snake is completely different from humans.
Can Snakes Eat Bones?
Snakes don’t eat prey the way that other animals do. Most other predators will attack and kill their prey, before eating it bit by bit.
That’s why carnivores have teeth suitable for tearing into meat and ripping chunks off. It can choose to eat only the most nutritious parts, and avoid any that might make it ill.
Snakes eat their prey whole. This means that it swallows the prey’s fur, feathers, bones, organs, and all. This applies to hatchling and adult snakes.
How Do Snakes Digest Bones?
A snake can digest the bones of its prey due to its stomach acid and strong digestive enzymes. While snakes use hydrochloric acid, they employ it differently to humans, which helps them digest animals whole.
According to the Journal of Experimental Biology, once a python has eaten its meal, the pH of its stomach acid is 7.5. After 18 hours, the pH level fell to just 1.5. It remained that way until the meal move on to the small intestine.
Snakes don’t have to regurgitate any bones in their food. And if you check a snake’s feces, it won’t contain bones. If it does, it will contain only one or two, and not the hundreds that make up a rodent’s skeleton.
There are three main factors that enable a snake to digest bones. These are its stomach acid/enzymes, its physically strong stomach, and the length of time the food is in the gut.
Snake Stomach Acid And Enzymes
Snakes have stomach acid which can eat away at food. And to break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates further, snakes utilize ‘enzymes’.
Enzymes are produced in the snake’s body and act as a catalyst to the dissolving of food by stomach acid. They make the digestion process faster. The snake produces more of these enzymes by weight than other animals.
This means that the dissolving action which occurs in the snake’s stomach is stronger. It has to be because the prey is swallowed whole. The acid has to dissolve through the fur, skin, and bones before the meal is fully digested.
Venomous snakes use their venom to begin the process of digestion before the food arrives in the stomach. Hemotoxic venom contains enzymes that break down proteins in the same way that stomach enzymes do. So, the prey is already partially digested before it’s even eaten.
Snakes Have Muscular Stomachs
A snake’s digestive system is more muscular than that of other animals. Its throat muscles have to be strong because its meals are large.
The snake has to manually push the food down into its stomach. Other animals do the same, but with much smaller bite-sized chunks.
The muscle is similarly surrounded by muscles and has thick walls. It can stretch to a large size to accommodate large meals, too.
The movement of these muscles is akin to chewing, in a sense. It assists in the breakdown of food. Some species of snake even have spurs on their spines that they use to crack eggs in this way.
This is essential to full digestion because before the snake can dissolve the prey’s bones, it has to digest everything else first.
Length of Time in Stomach
Food remains in a snake’s stomach for days at a time, depending on the size of the meal. Throughout the entire period, it is bathed in stomach acid.
The head is the first thing to be digested, as snakes eat their prey head first. It is entirely dissolved, skull included. What’s left is a mushy mess that will later go through to the gut.
As this occurs, the stomach acid begins to eat into the prey’s torso. This takes the longest, as it is larger and contains the most bones. But after several days, this too will be entirely dissolved.
What’s left is then passed through to the gut. Here, it is fully absorbed. The digested bones are a vital source of calcium and other minerals for a snake.
The snake’s gut is short compared to that of other animals. That’s because the food is more thoroughly processed in the stomach before passing to the gut. So, the gut doesn’t need to be long to absorb all the nutrients in a meal.
Can Snakes Digest Fur?
Even though snakes can digest bones, they cannot digest fur. Hair/fur is made from keratin, the same substance that nails, claws, and horns are made from. It’s keratin’s unique qualities that make it indigestible.
Keratin is entirely insoluble in hot or cold water. So, if you put it in water, it won’t break down no matter how hot the water is.
It also can’t be broken down by the enzymes found in the stomach or gut. These enzymes break down protein molecules.
According to the Journal of Structural Biology, keratin is formed of filaments in a ‘protein matrix’, which is like a sheet of proteins.
But these filaments cross and overlap each other, forming a protective barrier that stops the overall structure being broken down. This is like how carbon fiber is made.
Things made of keratin can pass through a snake’s stomach and gut unscathed. Alternatively, the snake may regurgitate the fur as a furball.
This is partly why pinkies make such good snake food. Pinkies are tiny, hairless mice, so your snake won’t have to pass hair by regurgitating it.
Can Snakes Digest Feathers?
Many snake species eat birds, which don’t have fur, but do have feathers. Feathers are made from the same substance that fur is made of, keratin. This means that snakes can’t digest feathers. Feathers are more closely related to fur than people realize.
According to IPM, bird and mammal embryos develop specialized thickenings on their skin. These are called ‘placodes’. In birds, these become feathers; in mammals they become fur.
In reptiles, they become scales. Even snake embryos develop placodes, too. Scientists know that they’re related because the placodes in these different animals express some of the same genes. What this means is that feathers have a similar keratinous structure to fur, so can’t be digested.
Juvenile and adult snakes can safely eat feathers and fur. The only issue is that they can’t break them down to digest in order to digest them, but bones don’t present any such issue for snakes.