By Cheryl Lock
If you’ve ever seen snakes in the movies or on television, you might believe that they spend their days slithering around in the wild searching for mice to eat. While some snakes do eat mice, the fact is that not all snakes do, and it’s important to determine exactly what type of food your pet snake would eat before buying one. “Snakes are carnivores, so they do eat other animals,” said Mike Wines, herpetologist and lead reptile keeper at the Turtle Back Zoo in New Jersey. The difference, though, is that the niche a particular snake has evolved to fill will determine exactly what their prey will be. Here are some of the major details regarding snakes and their diets.
Different Types of Snakes Eat Different Things
There is no one-size-fits-all definition to describe what snakes eat, many types eat many different things. “Some snakes have special bodies that only eat one type of prey item,” said Wines. “The egg-eating snake, for example, only eats eggs. They have a special spur on the inside of one of their vertebrae that breaks the egg after they swallow it whole. Then they crush all the yolk and good egg-y stuff out. Finally, they spit the empty shell back out — it’s pretty great to watch.”
Of course this is just one example of what snakes might eat. Some eat fish, worms, termites, birds and bats while other snakes, like the king cobra, even eat other types of snakes. “Other [snakes] have evolved to a generalist diet,” Wines said. “An example is the Eastern indigo snake, [which eats] anything they can catch and fit into their mouths, including rattle snakes, small tortoises, frogs, rodents, birds and just about whatever else. Every species of snake has a different diet.”
Keep in mind, though, that it’s never a good idea to try feeding your snake plant materials. “Snakes always feed on animal matter, never plant material,” says Leo Spinner, herpetologist and founder and owner of The Spotted Turtle Herpetological Institute. “Their teeth are not designed for plant consumption.”
Luckily, most pet snakes eat rats that are generally easy to find at pet supply stores and online sources. It is not unusual for snakes to skip a meal here and there, however, if a snake goes more than a month without a meal, it may be time to call your veterinarian.
What to Feed a Snake Depends on Different Factors
Since a snake’s diet can vary so widely, it’s important to do some research before buying one yourself. “In captivity, it’s always best to feed your snake humanely killed prey that has been frozen for several days,” says Wines. “The previously frozen prey item should then be thawed and warmed for the snake.”
However, Wines said, some snakes won’t eat pre-killed food, so make sure your potential pet snake has already been on a diet of pre-killed, frozen-then-thawed food before bringing it home. There are some exceptions to this rule, though. Young snakes that eat the baby stages of mice rarely will eat them unless they are moving; so for them, live prey is acceptable.
There are several reasons to make sure your pet snake will eat this type of food — one of which is the cruelty factor. “If you feed your snake live prey, that prey often goes through more pain than is needed to give the snake nourishment,” Wines said. “If it can be killed humanely, it is better overall.”
That’s not the only reason to go with pre-frozen food, though, as live prey can sometimes fight back. “If it’s a rodent, it can bite the snake while the snake is attempting to kill it,” Wines said. “The snake will generally win the fight, but it may be injured in the process.” Another reason to purchase pre-killed, frozen food, says Wines, is to avoid any kind of parasite the prey may be carrying. “[Live prey] may have internal parasites, like worms, or external parasites, like ticks or fleas,” he said. “Any of these can be harmful to the snake.”
One added perk of buying frozen food is that it also tends to be cheaper. “You can buy it in bulk and keep it in your freezer,” says Wines.
But What Will My Snake Eat?
While you’ll need to do your research for the specific species of snake you’re buying to find out what it will eat, if it’s a generalist species, it’s best to give it several types of food, like live crickets, fish and small mammals like mice and rats, all of which should be readily available at your local pet store, Wines said. If the species you’re looking to buy is a specialist and only eats one type of food in the wild, be prepared to always have that particular food item on hand. Keep in mind that most snakes eat every 5-14 days, so determining ahead of time the types of food you’ll need to buy for your new pet will ensure that it stays happy, healthy and well fed for years to come.