Milk snakes are sought-after snakes by enthusiasts due to their unique color patterns and calm temperament. They belong to the kingsnake family and are not venomous or harmful to humans.
In the wild, milk snakes will eat rodents, birds, lizards, amphibians, and small snakes. Milk snakes in captivity can be fed pre-killed or thawed mice and rats, depending on their age and size.
Milk snakes are constrictors, and they kill their prey by suffocating it before eating. Snakes are not an uncommon food source, and they can consume larger snakes if given the opportunity.
Milk Snake Food and Diet
Milk snakes are more opportunistic hunters than corn snakes, for example. They’re recognized for eating a large variety of animals, including birds, eggs, rodents, frogs and other amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates.
Milk snakes, belonging to the kingsnake family, also consume various types of snakes. The word “King” in their common name refers to their ability to hunt other snakes and eat them, just like the King cobra. Some milk snakes are even immune, or at least partially immune, to venom from snakes living within their habitat range.
They can consume venomous snakes, as well as snakes much larger than them in size, with some varieties even having rattlesnakes as a common item in their diet. Many venomous snakes may use defensive mechanisms other than biting to defend themselves.
Nonetheless, most adult milk snakes typically consume rodents, such as mice and rats as well as lizards, such as skinks. According to an article published in the Journal of Herpetology, the diet of most milk snakes varies geographically, with the proportion of endothermic (warm-blooded) prey being greater in regions of higher latitudes.
As for young milk snakes, they will often be seen eating crickets, slugs, earthworms and other invertebrates in the wild.
How Does a Milk Snake Hunt for Food?
Milk snakes are nocturnal hunters and secretive burrowers. They’re rarely seen in the open as they hide during the day in loose soil, under logs or the bark of tree trunks or beneath items on the ground. The reptile moves above ground at night, and its coloring helps camouflage it in the dark.
Since milk snakes are cool weather reptiles endemic in southeastern Canada through the continental United States, Central America, western Ecuador, northern South America, and northern Venezuela, they suffer less from lower temperatures. This is unlike other snake species that are less active in the night or during the cooler days of spring and fall. For example, Louisiana milk snakes can move easily and swiftly in low temperatures.
Milk snakes are constrictor snakes and kill other animals via strangulation. A milk snake’s long and slender physique helps it move through grasses silently, without alerting a potential prey.
As well as using their nostrils, milk snakes also have special chemical detectors in their tongue that can catch odor from their environment – according to research published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. While flicking its tongue, a milk snake collects odors found in tiny moisture particles in the air.
A milk snake’s tongue has forked ends which fits in two holes that are part of the Jacobson’s organ, located inside the roof of its mouth. This organ transfers information regarding the smell to its brain. Milk snakes also have sharp teeth that point backward in their mouths. This helps milk snakes ensure that their prey moves in the right direction while it is being swallowed whole.
Do Milk Snakes Drink Milk?
Milk snakes, like all other snakes, are cold-blooded reptiles and thus, only drink water. They don’t consume any milk. Providing cow’s milk to a milk snake (or any other snake) can make your pet sick due to its inability to digest it.
According to a report by the University of Oklahoma, milk snakes have the word “milk” in their name because they were once believed to enter barns and suck cow udders to get milk. This is entirely false because snakes do not have a tolerance to milk, and they have sharp teeth, which can physically inhibit them from sucking milk from a cow.
They are, however, frequent visitors in barns because of their cool and dark environments, which helps them to easily access large populations of rodents that they can prey on.
What Do You Feed Milk Snakes?
Milk snakes eat rats and mice, so the size of the meal you provide is largely dependent on the size of the girth of your pet. The feeding style for milk snakes is similar to the standard specs when it comes to feeding other species of snakes.
The prey item should not be anything bigger than the thickest region of its body, nor should it leave a substantial lump in your snake after being consumed.
In captivity, a milk snake will happily devour a couple of decent-sized mice every week. For juvenile milk snakes, pre-killed pinkie mice are a great option.
Whether you should feed live or pre-killed rodents is a common question. While opinions may vary on this topic, most experts recommend providing pre-killed, thawed rodents to your pet milk snake. Feeding a killed animal is safer due to the possible injuries a live prey can inflict on your pet. It is common for rodents to leave bites on snakes, so feeding thawed meals is always a better choice.
Furthermore, thawed rodents are much cheaper in the long-term and are easier to deal with than leaving live animals with your pet snake. This can reduce the amount of mess created inside your pet’s tank, and ensure that you snake is fed in a smooth and effective manner.
It is also critical to understand that milk snakes may eat their mates if sharing the same cage, so it’s ideal that they are housed on their own.
Precautions When Feeding a Milk Shake
Pay special attention to the prey you choose before feeding. This can prevent nutritional deficiencies that may occur if your snake has been fed with an inappropriate diet. Furthermore, poor husbandry with prey animals may increase the likelihood of illness and disease in your pet snake.
Avoid purchasing prey rodents that have been recently treated with topical parasiticides, such as permethrin. The prey should only be treated with parasiticides three weeks before being offered to a snake. This can be confirmed by your dealer.
Ensure that prey are not treated with drugs such as antimicrobials and euthanasia compounds, as this could harm your pet in the long-term. Choose snake food and prey items from zoological institutions where the prey is frozen at 0 degrees Celsius for food preservation, instead of being treated with harmful substances that may pass on to your snake.
How Often Should I Feed a Milk Snake?
Juvenile milk snakes should be fed every 4 to 5 days. As the snake grows into an adult, start by feeding it adult mice or weanling rats 1-2 times per week.
You know your pet is too lean when its body is not well rounded, or its backbone or ribs start showing. If your milk snake appears overly lean, start feeding it twice a week, instead of once. Note that many milk snakes are likely to eat less during fall and winter.
Bear in mind that the prey item should not significantly bigger than the widest part of the snake’s body as doing so may cause internal damage to your pet. It’s also advisable to avoid handling your snake for the first few days after it has had its meal.
Why Has My Milk Snake Stopped Eating?
Many milk snakes may avoid eating if they’re preparing to shed. You’ll notice that your snake is about to shed if its eyes turn opaque or milky. Some milk snakes may not eat while carrying eggs.
It is common for milk snakes to brumate for three months around fall to winter time. If the temperature starts to get cooler, you may notice your snake getting restless and starting to refuse to eat. Due to their secretive nature, milk snakes can prove to be problematic during feeding. Your pet may also stop eating if it’s stressed, in pain, living in poor conditions, or is infested with parasites.
If you suspect your snake is stressed, providing it several hiding places in its enclosure can help. Always include a minimum of two hides in your snake’s enclosure. Semi-circular cork bark is an excellent choice, while also visually appealing. A flower pot on its side is another great option.
Milk snakes are timid reptiles and spend a lot of time hiding. Place one hide on the warmer side and another in the cooler side of the enclosure. This allows for thermoregulation inside your snake while it is digesting its food. Not providing proper hides for your snake can increase its chances of experiencing stress, subsequently causing it to stop eating.