SNAKES THAT ARE NOT EATING WELL
Healthy snakes might go as long as six months without eating, or without eating well. (Ball pythons are particularly notorious for this behavior.)
Healthy young snakes show great variation in when they first start to eat well. (Young corn snakes and ball pythons are notorious for starting to eat later rather than sooner.)
If an otherwise apparently healthy snake is not eating no medical treatment is usually needed, but it still may be months before the snake will eat, and some internal or external stimuli might have to change before appetite returns.
Any one or more of a large number of causes for this lack of appetite are possible. The cause for any individual snake is most likely a complex combination of several of these possibilities:
- in preparation for hibernation
- in preparation for shedding
- prior to egg laying
- reproductive seasonality can be seen with both sexes
- temperature too high or low
- humidity too high or low
- inadequate (too small or too few) hiding places
- excessive lighting - at least 10 hours of dark per day are needed
- excessive activity outside the snake's enclosure
- inappropriate species combination
- anxiety caused by uneaten live prey animals
- excessive handling - particularly within the first few weeks of ownership, or prior
to shedding; young snakes are particularly sensitive
- inappropriate feeding
- not weaned onto dead food
- wrong food offered
- food offered apparently not identified as food; for example, sometimes white
mice are not eaten and brown mice are; this may depend on prior experience
- offering food during the wrong time of day, for example, during the day for nocturnal
- many possibilities
With the possible causes listed above in mind, all aspects of the snake's care should be reviewed. An excellent online resource is anapsid.org.
Our first and most important test is the physical exam. Because the exam findings for an ill snake can change slowly, recheck exam(s) can be very worthwhile.
If a snake looks healthy on exam we do not usually do other tests right away. If a snake looks ill on exam then we often recommend other testing, including laboratory tests (blood tests, etc), imaging (x-rays and ultrasound) and trial medical therapy.
If the snake looks ill on exam, then diagnostic tests and / or treatments are in order. In some cases a snake will look healthy on the first exam and sick on a recheck exam days, weeks, or even months later. Exam findings can change, and with snakes they can change very slowly, so recheck exam(s) can become very important.
MANAGEMENT AND TREATMENT OPTIONS
Review all aspects of the snake's care.
Minimize handling to only what is necessary.
Separate from other snakes, at least to feed.
Cover the snake's enclosure on three sides to minimize visual stress.
A hide box (or boxes) is essential.
Appropriate sized prey is necessary. One rule of thumb is prey should not be any larger than the width of the snake's head.
Warm the prey before offering it. Place the prey in a plastic bag in some very warm water to do this.
Offer a live pinkie or fuzzy mouse (pinkies and fuzzies are too small to injure the snake.) Do not offer larger or older live prey.
Most snakes feed at night, and are more likely to eat if confined closely with prey. Confine the snake overnight in a small container with an appropriately-sized prey item.
Some snake care-givers believe appetite can be stimulated by "braining" the prey - making a small incision into the skull to expose the brain.
Rub thawed food with a live rodent before offering it to the snake. Some snakes appear to be more tempted by frozen, thawed mice if they are rubbed on a gerbil.
Offer a different type of frozen rodent than has previously been offered. Some snakes appear to be more interested in brown mice or rats than white ones, and some snakes appear to prefer gerbils.
Place the prey item under an upside-down clay flower pot, the kind with a hole in the bottom. The snake can enter the pot through the hole and eat the prey in private.
A daily bath for 10 to 20 minutes in lukewarm (about 85 degrees) water might stimulate appetite.
Weigh the patient once weekly and keep track of the weights. For young snakes a postage scale works well.
No force-feeding or other medical treatments unless prescribed by the veterinarian.