Breeding garter snakes is a rewarding and exciting venture, but can also be quite challenging. One of the main struggles you might encounter is feeding your newborn baby garter snakes. As they’re so small, it can be difficult to find foodstuffs small enough for them to eat.
Baby garter snakes like to eat pinkies or pinkie parts, as they are the most nutritionally complete food. If your snakes won’t eat pinkies, you can try scenting the mice with fish. You can also use earthworms or fish as food, provided that you add calcium and vitamin supplements.
Wild garter snakes eat a variety of prey, but only certain foods are suitable for baby snakes. We’ll look at which foods they will and won’t eat. We’ll also share tips on how to get baby garters to eat.
What Do Baby Garter Snakes Eat?
Baby garter snakes are tiny. When they’re newly born, they may be only six inches long, and no thicker than a pencil.
For this reason, it can be hard to find small enough prey animals for them to eat. Not only that, but baby garters are often quite fussy, and may refuse pre-killed food.
Fortunately, you do have options when it comes to nutrition for baby garters. There are four main foods that you can consider: pinkies (baby mice), worms, feeder fish, and frozen/thawed fish pieces.
Pinkies (Baby Mice)
Though garter snakes do not often hunt rodents in the wild, mice are the best choice for captive garters.
This is because mice are a “nutritionally complete” prey item. They contain enough calories, vitamins, and minerals to provide for 100% of your garter’s needs.
Depending on the size of your garter snake babies, they may be able to eat whole pinkies (newborn mice). Your garter snake’s body should be almost as wide as a pinky mouse before attempting to feed one whole.
If your garter snake is too small, you can chop up a pinkie into smaller pieces. While it is not a task for the faint-hearted, it’s the easiest way to ensure that your garter eats.
If you’re having trouble enticing your garter snake, try scenting the pinkies or pinkie parts. You can do this by rubbing the food against fish. The smell will encourage your snake to start eating.
Worms and Slugs
Baby garter snakes that refuse to eat pinkies or pinkie parts can often be tempted by worms. Nightcrawlers (Lumbricus terrestris), also known as dew worms or common earthworms, are best.
You can find nightcrawlers in your yard during the night, and after it rains. They are a free and plentiful source of nutrition for baby garter snakes. You may need to chop them up into pieces for smaller snakes.
Slugs are also an excellent food source. They are, however, more difficult to come by.
There aren’t many baby garter snakes that would refuse to eat fish in captivity. They’re a good option for juvenile snakes that aren’t yet interested in mice.
Feeder guppies and platies are two good choices. These are available at most pet stores, and are inexpensive. You don’t need to kill the fish – offer the fish live in a dish of water.
You can also offer your garter snake small pieces of larger fish, such as salmon, tilapia, haddock, and trout. Make sure to use frozen-thawed fish for safety.
Supplementing Your Garter Snake’s Diet
If you are feeding your garter snake pinkies or whole fish, you don’t need to worry about supplements. Mice and feeder fish contain all the nutrients that your snake needs to grow and thrive.
However, if you’re using worms, slugs or fish fillet, your garter snake’s diet will need calcium supplementation. You can buy powdered calcium from pet stores, for sprinkling over the food. You may also consider supplementing vitamin B1 and D3, to be on the safe side.
What NOT to Feed Baby Garter Snakes
Now that you’ve got a good idea of what you can feed your garter snakes, you should also be aware that there are some foods which are unsuitable. Here’s a list of potential foods to avoid.
Mealworms and Crickets
In the wild, garter snakes hunt a wide variety of different animals, from mammals to gastropods (slugs). However, they aren’t insectivores. Crickets and mealworms, and other insects, don’t interest garter snakes. Though they might be the ideal size, your snake won’t recognize them as food.
Red wigglers (Eisenia fetida), also called redworms, are a type of earthworm in the same family as nightcrawlers. The only real difference in appearance is that they are a brighter red in color. They are often sold in pet shops and bait shops, and they tend to be cheaper than nightcrawlers.
However, red wigglers are highly poisonous to garter snakes, and can cause illness or even death. Never feed your garter snake a worm unless you’re sure of its species.
Amphibians and Reptiles
Almost all species of garter snake are partial to toads, frogs, newts, and even small lizards. They make up a large part of a garter snake’s diet in the wild, and they will happily eat them if offered them in captivity.
However, we would never recommend feeding wild-caught amphibians or lizards to your pet garter snakes. This is because they are often riddled with internal parasites, which could be easily passed on to your snake.
Fish Containing Thiaminase
Though garter snakes will happily eat almost any kind of fish, you must be careful. Some species of fish contain thiaminase, an enzyme which breaks down thiamine (vitamin B1).
According to the Journal of Great Lakes Research, consuming thiaminase can cause animals to become deficient in vitamin B1, leading to illness and even death.
Some examples of fish which contain thiaminase include:
- Chub mackerel
- Common carp
- Fathead minnow
- Rainbow smelt
Always research a new fish before offering it to your snake, to make sure it doesn’t contain thiaminase.
How to Feed a Baby Garter Snake
Whatever food you choose to offer your baby garter snakes, the feeding process is just as crucial. There are some steps you can take to make the process easier and safer for your snake.
Defrost before Feeding
If you’re using frozen pinkies or fish, always thaw the food out before offering it to your snake. You can do this by placing the food item into a cup of warm (not hot) water. Leave it in there until it’s soft and slightly warm.
As snakes are ectothermic (cold-blooded), offering them food which is still frozen can be dangerous. They’ll have trouble digesting it, and it could lead to regurgitation. Not to mention, cold food often seems unappealing to snakes, so they’re less likely to want to eat it.
If you have more than one baby garter snake, separate them into different containers before feeding. Snakes which are fed together can often fight over food, and harm each other (or even attempt to eat one another).
Size the Food Appropriately
Regardless of which food you decide to offer, you must make sure it’s small enough for your baby garters to eat. The item should not be much wider than your garter snake’s body.
If the food is too large, your snake won’t recognize it as potential prey. Newborn garter snakes probably won’t be large enough to eat whole pinkie mice or particularly large worms straight away. Try chopping it up their food into smaller pieces before offering it.
How to Force Feed a Baby Garter Snake
If your baby snake won’t touch pinky parts, try scenting them with fish. You can do this by rubbing the food against some fish.
In most cases, they will be tempted by the smell, and will happily eat scented mice. If it doesn’t work, offering live fish is the next step. Select small feeder guppies or platies, and put a few of them into a shallow dish. Let your garter investigate, and you’ll find that it’ll start to hunt on its own.
Force feeding should only be carried out as a last resort. It involves gently opening your garter snake’s mouth and inserting the food inside. This will encourage the garter snake to begin the feeding response.
Baby garter snakes are incredibly delicate. You should not attempt force feeding unless you are given professional guidance, as it’s easy to cause harm inadvertently.
How Long Can a Garter Snake Go Without Eating?
Snakes are quite resilient when it comes to starvation. They don’t need to eat three square meals per day to stay healthy.
According to a study in the Zoology journal, some species of snake can survive for up to two years without food. They can adjust their metabolic rate based on a lack of food. This helps them to avoid losing weight.
However, the younger the snake, the less time they can safely go without eating. Baby garter snakes may start to lose weight and deteriorate in health after just two weeks of starvation. That’s why it’s important to try as many different foods and methods as you can.
If you’ve tried all of our tips and are still having no luck, visit an experienced veterinarian for advice. They will be able to show you how to force-feed if they think it’s necessary.
Here’s some advice on how to raise a baby garter snake.