Snakes are known for eating prey that ‘looks’ far too large for them to swallow. But when you feed a pet snake a mouse that’s too big, it could cause a serious medical emergency.
The snake will adjust so that it is no longer eating a mouse sideways or backwards. If it’s still too big, it can spit the prey up. But it likely won’t choke because of its special organ, the glottis, which helps it breathe. Leave the snake for a while. If the mouse is still stuck in the snake’s mouth, consult a vet.
You need to know how to tell if a mouse is too big for a snake. By feeding the right size portions, you can avoid this problem from ever arising.
Can Snakes Struggle to Eat Prey?
If a snake’s prey is too large, it can’t swallow it easily. This can easily occur in the wild. Snakes can’t afford to be too selective with their prey, and may not get a good opportunity to eat again soon. That’s why they may have to try to eat prey that’s too big.
There are several ways in which the prey’s size and shape can pose a problem.
Snake Eating Mouse Wrong Way
Ideally, your pet snake should eat the prey head first. That’s because snakes are comfortable eating something long. Snakes can even eat other snakes.
What they’re less comfortable with is eating something too wide. While snakes can extend their jaws wider than you might expect, this can still be a problem.
Another issue to consider is the snake’s striking reflex. Snakes have an inflexible feeding reflex. When they strike, it kicks in. The snake (if a constrictor) will not loosen its grip with its jaws as it coils around the prey.
The problem with this is that the snake may have bitten the prey at the wrong angle. It would then have to adjust its jaws so it can eat the prey head on.
Snakes are, of course, capable of doing this on their own. But they may make a mistake and try to eat the mouse side on instead. A snake eating mouse sideways will have to adjust the prey in order to swallow it.
Snake Refusing to Eat Prey
Snakes are picky eaters. In part, that’s because of their narrowly-defined diet. Some species only eat one kind of prey and nothing else. It may be challenging to get them to eat a rodent-based diet.
Aside from that, though, is the issue of a snake refusing to eat because its prey is too big. If you’ve had the snake since it’s a juvenile, and always fed it the same diet, this problem can arise.
The snake is struggling to recognize what you’re offering it as prey. It is used to seeing small prey, so now you’re offering it larger prey, it doesn’t see ‘food.’ You may have to go back to feeding it smaller prey, but twice the amount.
What Happens If a Snake Eats Something Too Big?
Snakes can eat things that look much too big for them. Snakes have a unique ability. They can open their jaws much wider than you might expect.
With items that are much too big for their jaws, the snake won’t recognize it as food. That’s why people afraid of pet snakes killing them are usually wide of the mark. Snakes smaller than the largest species on earth (dozens of feet long) don’t recognize people as food items.
But if the meal is between being too big, and the right size, the snake may try to eat it. If it does, then there’s a chance it could get stuck. This isn’t as much of a problem as you might imagine.
Can Snakes Dislocate Their Jaws?
It’s a myth that snakes can detach or dislocate their jaws. This isn’t necessary for them to open their mouths wide. It’s a misunderstanding, but it’s not far off the truth.
A snake’s upper and lower jaws aren’t connected, and neither are the left and right sides of each jaw. There’s no joint for them to dislocate. Instead, the jaw is held in place with stretchy muscles and ligaments.
They can open their jaws wide enough to eat prey much larger than their own head. So, even if something looks too big for your snake, within reason, let them try to eat it. That’s how big snakes in the wild can eat antelopes, pigs, and even people.
If the food item truly is too big, then the snake has options available to it.
Do Snake Regurgitate Food?
Let’s say you try to feed a rabbit to a boa before the boa is quite big enough to eat it. The snake will recognize it as prey, and it will be small enough for them to try to eat.
But it may be too big for them to swallow. If that happens, the snake has a built-in regurgitation mechanism. When a meal is too big for it to swallow, it’ll bring it up again.
It’s also possible for a snake to regurgitate food that it has completely swallowed. This can happen in different circumstances, such as:
- If the food is too big for it to digest comfortably
- If it’s disturbed when trying to digest it
- If the food contains parasites or lots of bacteria
- If your snake is ill
You don’t need to encourage the snake to regurgitate. It will know how to do so on its own. If your snake regurgitates unexpectedly, it may be a sign that it’s ill. You should get it checked by a vet.
This is especially the case if the regurgitation is repetitive. According to Bio One, imported emerald tree boas that regurgitate repetitively have a mortality rate of more than 50%. The figure is likely similar for other species, too.
Snakes Can Adjust Their Feeding Position
If the snake bites the side or rear of its prey, this will make eating it more difficult. So, once the prey has been subdued, the snake can change its feeding position.
This is a simple process to understand. The snake will release the prey, but only slightly, and bite down again in a more favorable position. They will continue this until the snake is biting the prey by its head rather than anywhere else.
Both pet snakes and wild snakes know how to do this as a matter of instinct. But some snakes, like those that are fussy eaters, won’t do it even if it would help them.
Can a Snake Choke on a Mouse?
Snakes cannot choke on food. To be clear, it’s possible for prey to get stuck in a snake’s mouth. But what isn’t possible is for a snake to choke on food.
Snakes have a unique adaptation that means they can swallow big prey items without danger of hurting themselves. They have an organ called a glottis, which is located at the top of their windpipe inside their mouth.
The glottis is an exceptionally useful organ. When the snake’s mouth is closed, it is moved up through the mouth and sits against the nostrils. This allows the snake to breathe more efficiently.
But it’s when the snake is eating that the glottis really shines. The snake will poke their glottis out from the side of its mouth when eating a big meal. If you don’t know what it is, you may mistake it for its tongue.
The snake can continue breathing even when eating a large meal, or eating a meal for a long time. Snakes take a long time to eat meals, so this adaptation is vital for all species, not just some.
If the prey is stuck fast and won’t come out for days, then this would put pressure on the snake’s respiratory system. In this scenario, it may eventually choke because it isn’t getting enough oxygen.
But what’s certain is that it can’t choke easily. So if your snake is struggling to eat a large prey item, don’t worry yourself too much.
What to Do When a Snake Has Trouble Swallowing Prey
If your snake is unable to swallow a particular prey item, or is having general trouble eating, don’t try to assist them by hand. There are problems associated with doing so:
- If you touch its prey, it will smell like you. You don’t want them to associate the smell of your fingers with food or it will strike at you when you handle them.
- Your snake will feel threatened. This will lead to regurgitating the food.
- Touching the snake while it’s eating will make it afraid of you.
What to Do If a Snake Can’t Swallow Prey
Leave your snake for a while. New snake owners are usually paranoid about their new pet. They think that the prey a snake swallows should immediately go to its belly. It doesn’t; it takes its time to go from the snake’s neck all the way down along its esophagus.
If you leave your snake to its own devices for a while, the prey will be swallowed and it will gradually move down along its body. Once in its stomach, it will have no problem digesting it.
If you’re feeding your snake prey that’s too small, that’s no problem. You can also feed them a double portion. Or you can increase the frequency with which you feed them.
How to Tell If a Mouse Is Too Big for a Snake
It’s wise to avoid these complications by figuring out the optimal size of your snake’s prey. Since rodents come in all shapes and sizes, you can tailor your snake’s diet precisely.
It should be around as big as your snake’s widest point, which is their middle. A little wider than your snake’s widest point is fine too.
If you want to be precise, you could measure your snake’s middle for an exact measurement. But this isn’t necessary. You can look at your snake and offer it prey based on your estimate.
Another way to gauge how big a prey item to feed is weight. This is a more precise way of measuring prey because it’s exact. Between 10 and 15% of the bodyweight of your snake is an optimal amount.
The only issue with these forms of measurement is if your snake is overweight. An overweight snake gains most of its weight around its middle. You may be feeding your already-overweight snake too much food.