It can be distressing seeing your snake regurgitate its food. Snakes eat much less often than humans, so 2 or 3 regurgitated meals could lead to severe weight-loss. If your snake can’t keep its food down, it may be stressed, uncomfortable, ready to mate, or ill.
Husbandry and handling techniques have a significant impact on digestive health in snakes. They are unable to digest their food if they’re cold, so make sure that their terrarium is warm enough for your species of snake. Also, do not disturb your snake too soon after feeding as it needs to feel safe and secure during this time.
If your snake has thrown-up its food, first check whether it has regurgitated or vomited. Regurgitation is often a sign of poor husbandry whereas vomit indicates an underlying physical illness with your snake. We’ll help you to identify whether your snake has vomited or regurgitated, and what can be done to treat each type of problem.
Regurgitation or Vomiting in Snakes?
There is a small difference between these two behaviors:
- If your snake expels its food soon after feeding, this is referred to as regurgitation.
- If the food enters the stomach and is partially digested before being expelled, this is vomit.
Snakes prefer to digest their food in private, so many owners don’t observe their snake immediately after it has eaten. As such, if the owner returns to the enclosure several hours later and notices some expelled food, it can be difficult to know whether this is regurgitation or vomit.
If your snake has vomited, there would be a foul smell in the air, and the prey item would be partially disintegrated. There might also be some white/yellow liquid in the enclosure. On the other hand, regurgitated prey would look almost entirely intact.
Regurgitation is not uncommon and can be discouraged by reducing stress and improving the conditions in your snake’s enclosure. Vomiting, on the other hand, is quite rare and should usually be investigated by a vet.
Why Do Snakes Regurgitate?
There are several reasons why a snake may regurgitate its food. These include:
- Handling Your Snake Too Soon After Feeding –Handling can be a stressful experience. If your snake perceives your hand as a threat, it will try to purge its stomach so that it can get away.
- Other Sources of Stress – Any source of stress will prompt your snake to purge its stomach. If another pet enters the room, a curious child taps on the glass or another snake is added to the enclosure; you could find that this prompts regurgitation.
- Over-Eating – while some species seem to know their limits (i.e., Garter snakes), some will keep eating food that’s offered to them until they literally cannot digest anymore, so it must be expelled. For example, ball pythons are known to overeat.
- The Heat/Humidity/Size of Enclosure is Insufficient – If your snake doesn’t have enough space, heat, or humidity, you’d probably have trouble getting it to eat in the first place. Nonetheless, snakes in poor conditions can sometimes be persuaded to eat, but then the food is regurgitated because their body is unable to process it.
- Gorging on Water – If your snake drinks too much water, it may end up regurgitating its meal. Rosy boa snakes tend to gorge on water.
- Breeding – “Breeding season anorexia” is when a snake refuses to feed during mating season. However, some evidence suggests that, in the wild, some snake species still eat small meals during the mating season. As such, some breeders offer their snakes small meals during the breeding season, and there’s a chance some will be regurgitated. This won’t be worrying if the snake continues to feed normally after mating season.
- Parasites and Other Illnesses – Illness can occasionally cause regurgitation, but snakes that are unwell will often vomit up partially-digested food.
Thankfully, most of these factors can be improved by some simple modifications to your snake’s enclosure or your handling techniques.
As mentioned, vomit can be a sign that your snake is sick, though a couple of other factors may contribute, too. For example:
- Terrarium Is Too Cold at Night –Some snake handlers turn off the reptile heat mat at night to stop the terrarium from overheating. But if the ambient temperature in the house is too low, the temperature may dip too much. Let’s assume you feed your snake during the day when the terrarium is warm enough, and it begins to digest its food. If the temperature dips below the threshold temperature for your species at nighttime, digestion cannot be completed. The food will start to rot in the snake’s stomach. As a defense mechanism, it will vomit the partially-digested meal back up. In this case, vomiting is caused by poor husbandry and not illness.
- Portion Is Too Large – If your snake eats a rodent that is too large, the bacteria in the rodent will decompose itself faster than the snake has time to digest it. In that case, it will vomit up partially-digested food (or risk being poisoned by the decomposing prey).
- Illness – As mentioned, illness could be causing your snake to vomit. This could be a parasite (i.e., cryptosporidiosis), virus, cancer, liver disease, or respiratory infection.
Other signs your snake is unwell include:
- Blistered skin
- Foaming at the mouth
- Irregular breathing
- Unable to shed its skin/ spots or marks on its skin
If this is the first time your snake has vomited, consider whether you’re feeding it the correct portion size, and/or you’re keeping the vivarium warm enough. Failing this, take your snake to a vet for further examination. Most illnesses can be treated effectively if caught early.
Do Snakes Regurgitate Bones?
Snakes eat their prey whole. It’s difficult to imagine how they could digest the bones, teeth, and claws of their prey. Some birds are unable to digest the bones of their prey, so they regurgitate these in small pellets. For a long time, it was assumed that snakes did this too, but there’s little evidence to suggest this is the case.
According to ScienceDaily, pythons and some other species have special cells in their small intestine that have the power to degrade bones. Moreover, some venomous species use their venom to degrade bones and claws.
As such, most snakes will not need to regurgitate the bones of an animal unless the meal is too big for them (in which case they’d vomit or regurgitate more than just the bones). The waste products are usually digested and expelled in the snake’s poop.
Partially undigested bones and claws are occasionally found in snake poop. Also, snakes are mostly unable to digest fur, so this is excreted in clumps.
How to Care for a Snake After Regurgitation
If you do find regurgitated food in your snake’s enclosure, follow these steps:
- Remove the regurgitated food and allow your snake some privacy. Do not disturb your pet for several days if it’s a juvenile, or 1-2 weeks if it is an adult. Make sure there is enough fresh water in the enclosure.
- Follow the recommendations above regarding heat, humidity, and space to make sure your snake is comfortable.
- Attempt to re-feed – If you suspect the food you previously gave your snake was too large, reduce the portion size. For example, instead of offering a fully-grown mouse, offer a pinky mouse instead. Similarly, try modifying your snake’s diet if there’s an alternative that can be safely offered to them. Variety can help in this situation.
- If your snake regurgitates its food again (or refuses to eat after several attempts to re-feed), take it to a veterinarian.
How to Prevent Regurgitation in Snakes
If you create a comfortable environment for your snake, don’t disturb it unnecessarily, and provide a suitable diet, it should have no reason to expel its food. Follow these recommendations:
- Provide a Warm Hide Box– After a meal, snakes look for a warm and private place to digest their food. Try to provide your snake with a hide box on the warm side of its enclosure and make sure it reaches the optimum temperature for your species. This can vary significantly amongst different species so do your research. For example, the Eastern milk snake needs highs of around 82°F to digest food, whereas Garter snakes require highs of 90-95°F. Also, keep an eye on the ambient temperature. If you’re going to turn your reptile heat pad off at night, you might need to turn the central heating up.
- Water – Observe your snake: is it drinking a lot of water immediately before or after eating? It’s a good idea to remove a Rosy boa’s water bowl 24 hours before feeding and replace it 24 hours after. Even if you’re looking after another species, such as a corn snake, limiting access to its water bowl might be necessary.
- Do Not Disturb – Do not handle your snake for 48 hours after feeding. Ideally, wait for your snake to become active/leave its hide box before attempting to pick it up.
- Portion Control – Look at 1) how much and 2) how often you’re feeding your snake. Feeding requirements vary significantly between species so take some time to understand how much your snake needs. Not sure if your snake is eating the right amount? There should be a slight bulge in their stomach after eating. Some adult snakes prefer to eat several pinky mice as opposed to one larger rodent because it is easier for them to digest. This is true of several species of milk snake.
- Avoid Co-Habiting – While a few snake species can be co-habited safely, most cannot. This can stress them out and cause regurgitation.
- Is the Terrarium Big Enough? – Make sure the perimeter of your snake’s enclosure is at least double its length, and there are 2 or 3 hide boxes inside.
If your snake is regurgitating food, it’s probably stressed, too cold, or too full. If it’s vomiting, this may also indicate one of these things, but vomiting is more often a sign of illness and should be looked into further. Similarly, if regurgitation continues for a long period of time – despite your attempts to reduce stress and discomfort – you should consult a vet for further advice.