If you’ve just bought a snake and they’re refusing to eat, no doubt that’s a major worry—especially if you’ve never experienced this problem or owned a snake before. What’s worse is that snake anorexia has many different causes, and potential solutions.
Snake anorexia can be caused by stress, illness, and seasonal changes (cold weather and drops in temperature). If your snake doesn’t eat a rodent diet in the wild, this could also be the cause. Overcome its fussiness by braining pinkies or with assisted feeding.
Of course, your snake could also not be hungry. That’s why it’s so important to identify snake behaviors that indicate whether they’re hungry or not, which we’ll cover in more detail.
Why Won’t My Snake Eat?
Snakes can be extremely temperamental as captive pets; far more so than other common pets we like to keep. One of the ways your snake might worry you is that they can occasionally choose not to eat, for any number of reasons.
The most common reason why snakes refuse to eat is stress. When a snake is in a stressful environment or situation, they naturally know not to feed.
That’s because if you disturb a snake that’s trying to digest, they’ll regurgitate their food before trying to escape, so that the big lump in their throat doesn’t slow them down.
So if the snake is in a stressful environment—a tank that’s too big for them, for example, or maybe you keep two snakes in one tank—then the snake knows not to eat because they might have to bring their food back up again.
Snakes don’t like to eat when they’re ill. This is in part because it takes energy to digest, and they need that energy to fight whatever it is they’re fighting against. Many problems list anorexia among their symptoms, including:
- Inclusion body disease, which is an invariably fatal viral infection which affects boids and pythons.
- Parasites can put a dampener on a snake’s appetite.
- Mouth rot doesn’t necessarily dull their appetite, but it does make it very painful for them to eat, which will stop them from trying.
- According to a paper in the journal Virology, respiratory infections can cause snake anorexia too. Respiratory infections can make it difficult for a snake to breathe, let alone eat.
Illnesses are usually related to a snake’s environment. So, their surroundings might be too cold, or too damp and dirty, or they may be infested with parasites.
Whatever the case, you’ll have to examine your snake thoroughly and their enclosure to figure out what’s wrong before trying to feed them again.
Snakes need warm temperatures to digest food. Like all reptiles, snakes are naturally cold-blooded which means they can’t generate their own body heat.
Unfortunately, warmth is required to break down food: it hastens the process, and encourages natural gut bacteria to flourish, which aids digestion.
That’s why, according to a paper in Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, snakes have a faster metabolism in warmer conditions.
If a snake eats during cold temperatures, there’s actually a risk that the food could rot in their stomach or gut. They would then have to regurgitate it, meaning they wasted all that time and energy for nothing.
If you’re keeping a pet snake, one of the most important things for you to do is keep them at the right temperature. The exact requirement differs by species, but many snakes need a temperature of up to 90 degrees in their basking spot.
Also, snakes need one half of their enclosure to be warm (the basking spot itself), while the other half is a somewhat cooler temperature.
4) Seasonal Changes
Snake anorexia can also be caused by changes in the seasons—specifically, the time of year when it starts to get cold and stay darker for longer. Snakes eat less during the cold winter because, like we said, they won’t be able to digest.
However, other markers of seasonal change like dark afternoons and evenings still affect snakes. If your pet is still warm, but can see that it’s darker than usual outside, then this might trigger their anorexia.
Not only that, but wild snakes can’t hunt in the winter because they’re more lethargic. They have to stay in their hide to brumate, which precludes them from being able to get out and hunt.
But even if they were to, snakes can’t move as quickly in cold weather before they warm themselves up in a basking spot. So if you notice that your snake is in their hide more often than usual, and not coming out for food, then this factor could be playing a part.
5) Snake Doesn’t Like Their Food
In the wild, snakes only eat fresh, raw prey. Unless you breed rats or mice, feeding your snake live prey isn’t going to be an easy option—it’s usually a lot more expensive.
If like most snake owners you feed your snake frozen and thawed mice, and the snake isn’t used to that kind of food, then you could have a problem.
This only really affects newly-bought or newly-hatched snakes that don’t recognize pinkies as food yet. However, it’s also relevant for snakes that don’t usually eat rodents, or don’t have rodents as the primary part of their diet.
Many snake species prefer to eat hatchling chicks, for example, and find it difficult to transition to a captive diet of frozen and thawed rodents.
Look up your snake species to identify their wild diet—because this might be the reason they’re turning their nose up at what you offer them.
How to Feed a Snake That Won’t Eat
Before you think about the snake’s diet, think about the snake. Think carefully about the points in the list above, and try to identify why your snake isn’t eating.
If you’ve only just bought your snake, then it’s likely their diet that’s to blame, but if you’ve had your pet for a while, then it’s probably stress or illness.
How to Get Your Snake to Eat a Frozen and Thawed Diet
Encouraging your hatchling or newly born snake to a diet of frozen and thawed rodents can be hard. But there are methods that you can try one by one until you finally get their attention. These are as follows:
- Allow the pinkie to thaw to room temperature, if not a tiny bit warmer. If their food is still cold, it’s not going to feel like food to them.
- Play around with their food, and make it move. Remember, snakes eat a diet of live While it is possible to feed a captive snake live prey, it’s easier and cheaper to feed them prey that’s already dead. Hold the pinkie with a pair of tongs and waggle it around in front of them. This might trigger something in their brain to help them recognize that they’re looking at food.
- A similar method is to try and aggravate the snake a little, to stimulate its biting reflex. Take hold of the prey in a pair of tongs, and hold it in front of the snake. If they don’t bite, try poking them on the snout and the side of their mouth. Don’t be too forceful; just forceful enough to be a little annoying. This can encourage the snake to snap out, and then eat the prey.
- If your snake is accustomed to different kinds of prey, it’s possible to help them switch. Let’s say your snake prefers chicks. Take a chick, live or dead (but not cooked), and rub it on the pinkie before offering it to the snake. If that doesn’t work, try feeding your snake a pinkie
If these methods don’t work, there are still two to try: braining the pinkie before you offer it to them, and assisted feeding.
How to Brain a Pinkie for a Snake
Before jumping to assisted feeding, it’s wise to try and make a snake’s existing food more appealing first. The best way is to brain the pinkie you’re trying to feed them.
Now, that might sound a little disgusting—and if you’re not used to owning snakes, then no doubt it will be, at least the first time. Here’s how you do it:
- Take the pinkie, thawed to room temperature, and place it on a clean surface.
- Take a sharp knife, for example, a box cutter. Hold the pinkie securely in place by the body.
- Cut into the pinkie’s head to expose a small amount of brain matter. Open the cut you’ve created to make it more accessible.
Braining a pinkie exposes a part of the mouse that should smell a little fresher than the rest of it.
When the snake sniffs the exposed cut (i.e., flicks it with their tongue), a light bulb should switch on for them: “Wait a minute, this is food!” With any luck, this should convince your snake to eat. If not, the only option left is assisted feeding.
How to Force Feed a Snake
Assisted feeding should only be used as a last resort, since it’s so stressful for the snake. However, stressful or not, it is safe if performed correctly.
You have to hold the snake just behind their head, not gripping them hard, but forcefully enough that they can’t move their head away. Take care not to close off their windpipe.
You then take the prey item and push it gently, straight at their snout. The snake should open its mouth a tiny bit. Take advantage of that by continuing to push the prey item forward, until it reaches the back of the snake’s throat.
At this point, the snake’s feeding reaction should kick in, and they should start ‘chewing’ on it to move it further in. If your pet is particularly stubborn, they may spit the food out; if they do, repeat the process. It’s vital that you don’t push the prey item forcefully.
If you do, you could break one of your snake’s fangs or teeth. This can lead to mouth rot if you don’t treat it correctly.
How to Chain Feed a Snake
If you do have to assist feed your snake, you could also take advantage of chain feeding.
This is where you feed one thing after another to a snake, which is what people do to bulk up an underweight juvenile snake; essentially forcing them to eat more. You can also chain feed a snake that’s happy to eat, though, if necessary.
When the prey item is at the back of the snake’s throat, that’s the perfect time to chain feed. Place the food in their mouth and, again, gently push until they bite on to it. With any luck, they’ll be more inclined to eat since they’ve already started.
How Often Should I Feed My Snake?
Of course, your snake might also not be eating because they’re not hungry yet. Most snake owners base their initial diet plan for their pets on ones they find online.
While these are helpful, you shouldn’t let them have the final say. You have to adjust your snake’s diet to suit the snake itself, because snakes of the same species can come in different sizes and have different temperaments.
Generally speaking, you should feed a hatchling snake one pinkie every five days or so. A juvenile can eat a larger portion, but less frequently; so perhaps two pinkies every seven days.
An adult may be able to eat one, or perhaps two adult mice at a time, but will only need to eat once every two weeks. However, it’s vital that you look at one of our care guides for your species of snake.
A corn snake won’t need as large portions as, say, a fully-grown reticulated python. So, do your research before settling on a diet plan.
The best judge of your snake’s diet, though, is the snake itself. If your snake consistently doesn’t want to eat on the day you’ve allocated to feed them, it could be because you’re feeding them too frequently. Space out their feedings a little more to give them more time to digest.
Conversely, if you can see that your snake is more active than usual for a day or two before each feed, that could be because they’re already hungry—so try feeding them sooner.
How to Tell If Your Snake is Underweight or Overweight
A great way to get a handle on whether you’re feeding your snake enough is to check whether they’re underweight. Just like humans, if a snake eats too little, they’ll lose their muscle definition and fat stores. So, what are the signs of an underweight snake?
- If you took a cross-section of an underweight snake, it would look like a triangle. They have a prominent ridge running along their back, which is their spine showing through. You may also be able to see their ribs. Being underweight is often associated with other health problems, too, since they cause anorexia.
- If you took a cross-section of an overweight snake, it would look like a perfect circle. Their middle third and their neck would look fatter than your average snake. You would also notice scale spreading, which is where you can see their skin through gaps between their scales.
A snake of a healthy weight is rounded on the top, but flat on the bottom; it doesn’t have scale spreading, and you can’t see their ribs poking through. If that’s what your snake looks like, then you’re probably feeding them often enough (and in the correct portion sizes too).
You have to work together with your pet rather than against them. Check to see if there’s anything in their environment or health triggering their anorexia; but if there isn’t, then it might be your snake trying to tell you something about their diet that they dislike.