If you keep snakes for long enough, you’ll undoubtedly notice that some individuals occasionally refuse to eat.
Thankfully, most healthy individuals can skip the occasional meal without suffering any serious problems – but if they continue to refuse food over time, even the healthiest snake in the world will eventually lose weight and become malnourished. Eventually, they may even starve.
This phenomenon is obviously hard for the snakes, but it is also difficult for keepers to endure. It can make you feel guilty for your pet’s suffering and doubt your skills as a keeper.
Don’t worry – there are a variety of things you can do to tempt reluctant feeders and convince them to begin feeding normally again.
We’ll share some of the most helpful tips for doing so below, but first, we need to explore some of the primary reasons that snakes may refuse food.
Figuring out Why You Snake Wont Eat
There are a number of common reasons that snakes refuse to eat, but we’ll try to explain some of the most common examples below.
Just note that in many cases, snakes will experience more than one of these problems at a time, meaning that you’ll have to correct several problems before your pet regains his appetite.
Stress is likely the most common reason that captive snakes refuse food.
This stress often precipitates from things like the trauma involved with the capture and importation process, as well as poor care at a retailer’s facilities.
Fortunately, with time and proper care, many snakes will eventually recover from these problems and resume feeding.
But while some sources of stress may have been present before you even purchased your pet, others may be the result of your husbandry practices.
Improper habitat design, for example, can cause a snake to experience stress, as can things like being housed with other snakes, handled too frequently, or denied access to a secure hiding space.
Illness or Injury
A variety of illnesses can cause a snake to refuse food.
Respiratory infections are incredibly common illnesses among snakes and, given that humans rarely enjoy eating while battling respiratory infections, it isn’t surprising that snakes often lose their appetites when battling respiratory infections too.
Additionally, things like tumors may also cause snakes to lose their appetites.
Injuries can also cause a snake to refuse food. This not only includes internal injuries, such as intestinal perforations or broken teeth, but cuts and other external injuries too.
Most wild animals harbor some parasites, and snakes are no exception. However, in their natural habitats, parasites rarely reach problematic levels.
The parasites and snake live together in a roughly harmonious fashion.
However, once captured, many of these snakes begin experiencing profound levels of stress.
This suppresses their immune system’s response to the parasites, allowing these parasite populations to explode. This can make snakes feel pretty rotten and all but eliminate their appetite.
It’s also important to note that many snakes are kept in communal enclosures at wholesaler and retailer facilities.
Often, these enclosures are filthy and cleaned quite infrequently (if ever).
This exposes each individual animal to the parasites his cagemates are harboring, which exacerbates the problem even further.
Your snake depends on you to provide him with the type of habitat and climate he needs to thrive.
If you fail to do so, he’ll undoubtedly become stressed and/or sick, and it may cause him to start refusing food.
However, species vary in their ability to tolerate less-than-ideal enclosure design and husbandry procedures.
For example, corn snakes are pretty hardy animals, who can often adapt to and overcome their keeper’s missteps.
They probably won’t continue to feed if provided with wildly improper temperatures, but they will probably continue to eat if their keeper provides hide boxes that are too large, for example.
On the other hand, many other species have very specific habitat requirements, and they’re unlikely to tolerate significant deviations from “perfect” habitat design and husbandry protocols.
Take green tree pythons, for example. If kept at inadequate temperatures or not provided with suitably humid air, they may not only fail to eat consistently, they may even succumb to stress or illness.
Seasonal Fasts or Reproductive Complications
One of the most common reasons some snakes refuse food is completely normal and no cause for concern.
This happens when snakes refuse food because their minds are focused on reproduction, rather than chow time.
These periods in which snakes may refuse food are typically referred to as seasonal fasts.
Seasonal fasts are most common among males, but they can also occur among females. Fortunately, these periods in which a snake’s appetite seems to disappear usually stop on their own, and most healthy snakes will endure them without trouble.
Note that female snakes will often stop feeding during different portions of the gestation process, as the developing ova or young take up space in the snake’s body cavity.
In fact, many experienced breeders deliberately withhold food during these time periods, even if the snake displays a willingness to eat.
It seems a bit obvious, but if you want your snake to eat, you have to offer him prey that he recognizes and wants. In the case of opportunistic species, who are willing to consume a wide variety of prey items, this isn’t difficult.
But some species have pretty specific dietary desires. This isn’t always a problem either – snakes who typically eat small rodents in the wild will often accept domestic mice or rats in captivity.
The problem occurs when a snake is either extraordinarily picky or wants a difficult-to-obtain prey species.
For example, many popular snake species feed on lizards or frogs in the wild. And while you can occasionally find feeder lizards or frogs, they often present other problems.
Most frogs and lizards that are priced affordably enough to serve as feeders are wild-caught animals, who are likely parasitized.
This means your snake may become infested with the same parasites if you feed one of these lizards or frogs to your pet.
Other snakes prefer different prey species, ranging from birds to bugs to other snakes. Some even prefer eating snails or slugs.
These species are often even more challenging to source, and they present a variety of health risks to your snake too.
There are ways of side-stepping these challenges, which we’ll discuss in a moment.
You not only need to select a prey species your snake will accept, but you also need to present it to him in the proper fashion.
This isn’t always difficult for keepers who feed their pet live prey items.
Feeding live prey certainly isn’t advisable in most cases (it places your pet at risk and is incredibly traumatic for the prey animal), but the mouse, frog or lizard you offer will generally move around in a way your snake finds tempting.
On the other hand, if you feed pre-killed or frozen-thawed prey, you’ll often need to “animate” the prey item by wiggling it with tongs or tweezers.
This isn’t always necessary, as some snakes will find and consume dead prey items left on the enclosure floor.
But more often than not, you’ll need to make the food item appear alive to get your snake to strike it.
Doing so in a convincing fashion requires a bit of trial, error and practice.
Experienced keepers will often learn to do so over time, but it can be challenging for beginners to do so. Ultimately, this can lead to refused food items and frustration.
In addition to the general causes of inappetence and food refusal discussed above, some species exhibit unique feeding challenges.
For example, wild-caught ball pythons often “imprint” on the rodents they consume in the wild.
Once in captivity, they don’t recognize domestic rodents as food or find them objectionable in some other way that we don’t fully understand.
Similarly, some egg-eating species do not show interest in clean eggs.
Instead, they prefer “dirty” eggs, which seem to be more reminiscent of the eggs they’d eat in the wild.
Tips and Tricks: Getting Your Snake to Eat Again
Now that you have a better understanding of some of the reasons snakes commonly refuse to eat, we can begin discussing some of the best solutions to these issues.
Any of the tips or tricks discussed below may help, but it is wise to try them in the order they’re listed.
Reduce Your Snake’s Stress Level
The most common cause of food refusal among pet snakes is likely stress.
When a snake is worried about its well-being, safety or survival, it usually results in a reduced appetite. So, be sure to eliminate any and all sources of stress possible when dealing with a snake that will not eat.
Among other things, this means refraining from excessive handling and ensuring that your snake has at least one (and preferably several) secure hiding spots.
You’ll also want to be sure that he’s not watching rowdy children walk by his habitat all day, nor is he being “stalked” by cats, dogs or other pets in your home.
Visit Your Vet
The biggest mistake many new keepers make when trying to entice their pet to feed is neglecting to work with their veterinarian.
As discussed above, a variety of health problems can cause a snake to lose interest in food.
Often, after simply rectifying these issues, you’ll find that your snake will begin demonstrating a ravenous appetite.
So, while you needn’t visit the vet because your snake refused a meal or two, you should always make an appointment if your snake refuses several meals, and you can’t figure out an obvious cause for the problem.
Review Your Snake’s Habitat
Your snake’s enclosure is his world, so it is vital that you ensure it is set up to provide him with a suitable home.
This means reviewing everything from the enclosure size to your choice of substrates.
Double-check the enclosure temperatures and humidity level and be sure that you’re providing the types of hiding spaces, visual barriers and climbing branches your snake needs to feel comfortable.
You’ll often find that by tweaking your snake’s enclosure slightly, he’ll begin exhibiting less stress, he’ll start to feel more comfortable and confident, and often, he’ll resume feeding normally again.
Consider Your Husbandry Protocols
In addition to your snake’s home, it is also vital that you assess the steps you take to maintain it.
This includes things like the frequency with which you clean the habitat, refill his water dish and replace substrates, as well as the products you use to clean the enclosure.
The details surrounding these procedures may seem insignificant, but they’re often quite important to your snake’s health, stress level and, ultimately, his appetite and willingness to eat.
Experiment with Different Prey Species
In some cases, it won’t make much sense to try alternative prey species.
Many common king snakes, for example, may prefer lizards or snakes as prey, but they’ll gladly consume rodents or birds when the opportunity arises. So, changing food sources is not terribly likely to yield successful results.
On the other hand, some snakes often respond remarkably well to changes in the prey species you offer.
For example, wild-caught green tree pythons may refuse rodents (despite readily feeding on them in the wild). But, if offered a bird or lizard, formerly finicky individuals may begin feeding readily.
Use Scent-Transfer Techniques
If you are having trouble coaxing your snake into eating a readily available food source, such as mice, it may be helpful to try to alter the odor of the mouse.
Specifically, you may want to make the mouse smell like a fish, frog, bird or some other snake.
This is a common strategy among experienced keepers, and – because snakes primarily rely on their sense of smell to detect food – it is often quite successful.
Scent-transfer techniques are often easiest to accomplish (and often most effective) with young rodents, who don’t have very much body hair.
Start by rinsing off a pre-killed or frozen-thawed rodent in warm water. Some keepers use soap during the process; just make sure you rinse the animal off completely if you choose to do so.
Then, with squeaky clean rodent in hand, gently rub it on the animal you want it to smell like.
In some cases, you’ll find that cage litter, shed skin or feathers will achieve the same effect. In other words, if you are trying to make a rodent smell like a snake, just stick a piece of shed skin on a freshly washed pinky mouse.
Conversely, if you are trying to make a pinky mouse smell like a hamster, wash it off and then roll it around in some used hamster bedding (try to keep it free of feces in the process).
Change the Time of Day You Offer Food
As simple as it sounds, changing the time of day in which you feed your pet can often alter the response you get from him.
Ball pythons, for example, are often much more likely to eat at night than they are during the day.
The same holds true of many other nocturnal species, including green tree pythons, gray-banded kingsnakes, and blood pythons.
Conversely, some snakes become largely inactive at night. This would include most fast-moving, lizard-eating species like black racers and coachwhips.
So, if you are faced with a diurnal snake that won’t eat when you get home after work, consider trying to feed him during the middle of the day (perhaps on a weekend, when you’re home).
Experiment with Different Presentation Strategies
In some cases, you needn’t take any drastic steps to convince your snake to eat again – you simply need to tweak your presentation strategy to make the prey item seem more appealing.
For example, you may need to add more movement to the rodent you’re offering your snake or whip it around quickly in front of the snake’s face.
On the other hand, some snakes are easily intimidated by excessive movement. These individuals may be more likely to eat if you simply lay a pre-killed rodent on the enclosure floor, and let your snake find and consume it at his leisure.
It is also important to note that some techniques are typically more successful with some species than with others.
Amazon tree boas, for example, are often extremely defensive snakes, who’ll gladly strike anything and everything that gets within a few feet of their bodies. So, it is often easy to “trick” them into eating by presenting a warm, pre-killed rodent to them.
They’ll usually strike it defensively, but once they feel the prey item in their mouth, they’ll often constrict and consume it.
Other snakes respond well when tapped on the body with the food item. They’ll often turn and look to see what threat touched them, which will cause them to strike and constrict the offending item.
Food refusal is certainly a frustrating problem to deal with, but most snake keepers will experience the issue at some point in time.
Just be sure to begin by ensuring your snake is as stress-free and healthy as possible, and then work through the other tips provided above.
With perseverance, careful analysis of the situation and a bit of luck, you should be able to get your snake to resume feeding normally again.