Snakes eat infrequent but large meals, swallowing their meals whole. This includes the bones, fur, skin, and feathers of their prey. This raises questions about the length of time it takes a snake to digest food.
Snakes take an average of 4-5 days to digest food, from eating the meal to defecation. The prey is swallowed whole, so the bones need to be dissolved by stomach acid (pH of 7.5+). Once digestion has been completed, the snake’s slow metabolism means that it can be 1-2 weeks before the snake will have its next meal.
The amount of time between meals can come as a surprise to new owners, who think their snakes are starving. But such a long period of digestion is normal for all snake species, and is vital to their survival in the wild.
How Long Does Snake Digestion Take?
The typical 4-5 day digestive process in snakes encompasses the entire feeding process, from striking and swallowing to excreting feces.
The larger the snake, the longer it takes to digest its food. Big snakes eat larger prey, and larger prey takes longer to fully digest. It can take a large snake a week or more to digest prey.
Snakes have stomach acid and enzymes that break down prey. Once this process is completed, the food is moved on to the gut for further nutrients to be extracted.
Snakes can take a longer or shorter time to digest their food. Some constrictors can eat a meal, fully digest it, and defecate in only one day. Others will go longer, up to two weeks, for reasons which vary but include temperature and the availability of food.
How Long Can a Snake Go without Eating?
These long digestion times mean that snakes go long periods without eating. A snake won’t eat if it’s currently digesting something.
A snake will also refrain from eating long after digestion is finished. Snakes can go anywhere from a few extra days to several weeks afterward without eating. Again, the larger the snake, the longer this fast will last.
Snakes have slow metabolisms. They don’t produce body heat and are largely inactive, meaning they don’t need much energy.
And most snake species only eat foods that provide them with every vitamin and mineral they need. Take rodents for example:
- Their bones contain lots of calcium
- Their muscles (meat) contain lots of protein
- Their livers and other organs contain many more vitamins and minerals, e.g. B and A vitamins
There is no need for the snake to eat lots more food to meet its nutritional requirements. All snake species swallow food whole, and almost all snakes eat the same kinds of prey. They take roughly the same time to digest food.
The reasons described below apply to all snakes, not only certain species. But size does make a difference. For example:
|Snake Type||How Long Digestion Takes|
|Juvenile ball python||2-4 days|
|Adult ball python||4-7 days|
|Juvenile boa constrictor||2-5 days|
|Adult boa constrictor||7-10 days|
The same holds true across other species of snake, too. There are variations based on the individual snake, which is why the above time frames are averages rather than exact lengths. But these numbers generally hold true.
The only exception is the egg-eating snake. While it does swallow its food whole, once the egg is cracked in the snake’s body, digestion is much easier and quicker.
Why Does Digestion Take So Long?
There are two reasons why snakes can take so long to digest: the size and type of prey selected, and the morphology and behavior of the snake.
Each of these reasons has several aspects to it, i.e. there are several snake behaviors that make digestion take longer.
Here is a table to explain each of these reasons, before we look at them in more depth below:
|Snakes eat prey whole||Because snakes don’t chew their prey, it takes longer to break down in the stomach and gut.|
|Snakes take time to swallow||Snakes have long necks, and have to swallow horizontally. So, swallowing takes longer.|
|Snakes digest bones rather than regurgitating them||As snakes eat prey whole, they also eat bones. These take time to break down in stomach acid.|
|Snakes have slow metabolisms||Snakes spend most of their time sleeping and resting and aren’t warm-blooded, so don’t need much energy.|
|Cold temperatures make digestion take longer||Warmth makes digestive enzymes more effective, and stimulates gut bacteria. So, in cold conditions, snakes can’t digest easily.|
All of these factors add up to mean that snakes take their time to digest. So long as your snake is a healthy shape and weight, though, this is nothing to worry about.
Snakes Eat Prey Whole
The core reason why snakes take a long time to digest is that they swallow prey whole. If they could chew, the entire process would be a lot faster.
Most people think of ‘the digestive system’ as beginning with the stomach, but that’s not true. It begins in the mouth, specifically with chewing and saliva. Chewing tears and grinds food into smaller pieces that are more easily digested and saliva hastens the process.
Once in the stomach, because the food is chewed into pieces, a greater surface area can be dissolved into by stomach acid. This allows the enzymes of the stomach to break down the proteins and other nutrients in the food more easily.
But food that’s swallowed whole has to be dissolved from the outside. This naturally takes more time and energy. This is even more of a problem because snakes swallow large prey animals (sometimes even larger than the snake’s head).
Eating prey like this is so energy-intensive that a snake’s heartbeat will increase as if it’s exercising. According to the Journal of Experimental Biology, a Burmese python’s heart rate will ‘rocket’ when it eats prey.
This is complemented by the snake producing far stronger stomach acid (pH 7.5+) than other animals do. All of this is highly energy-intensive, which makes the process take yet longer.
Snakes Take Time to Swallow
Another issue is that the snake takes a long time to swallow its food. Roughly speaking, snakes are one-third neck, one-third torso, and one-third tail. This differs between species but is broadly true. This means that snakes can’t swallow as easily as people can.
The prey takes a long time to move down the snake’s neck to its stomach. The snake must first bite the prey correctly, i.e. head first. If it doesn’t, it must adjust the prey in its jaws until it is head first. This alone takes time.
Then, the snake has to force the prey down its throat. It uses its throat muscles in much the same way that people do. But because of the length of the neck, and the fact that the snake is horizontal, this takes a long time.
Because snakes take so long to swallow and digest, they have adapted to stay safer when they eat. According to Ecology and Evolution, snakes will stop foraging and find refuge while they swallow and digest. If they’re disturbed, they regurgitate their food and escape.
Snakes Digest Bones
Because snakes eat food whole, they eat bones, too. They don’t regurgitate bones: they digest them. Digesting bones takes lots of stomach acid, enzymes, energy, and time.
Snakes have no choice but to digest bones because they don’t have teeth to chew with. Venomous snakes only have fangs, which are sharp and pointy but brittle. Constrictors have other teeth, but their purpose is for gripping, not for ripping or chewing.
But this isn’t an issue for snakes. They get much of their calcium and many other minerals from bone and bone marrow. So, eating prey with the bones still in is an advantage for snakes, not a disadvantage. The only problem is that it takes more time.
Snakes Need Little Energy
Another reason why snakes take so much time to digest is that they need precious little energy. Whereas a person needs a constant energy supply, snakes don’t. That’s because:
- Snakes are cold-blooded. One of the main reasons why animals eat so much and often is to produce body heat. Snakes don’t produce body heat, so don’t need as much food.
- Snakes are largely inactive. Whether sleeping or resting, snakes are still for most of their lives.
According to Live Science, snakes slow their metabolic rate when they have less food. What this means is that the snake’s body slows down digestion and lessens energy use when it hasn’t eaten for a while.
Temperature Affects Digestion Time
Another factor that can make prey difficult to digest is the ambient temperature. Because snakes are cold-blooded, they get their warmth from their habitats. Warmth is key to the digestive process because it makes enzymes more effective, and encourages gut bacteria to thrive.
If a snake’s habitat is too cold, digestion can take significantly longer. Instead of five days, it may take ten days. It can take so long that the food starts to go bad in the snake’s stomach. It will then have to regurgitate the food instead of digesting it further.
This is why snakes don’t eat as much during the fall and winter months. It’s too cold for them to fully digest the food before it goes bad. If it does go bad, the snake will regurgitate the food and lose out on all the nutrients it could have otherwise got from it.