This is quite a debatable topic. Many keepers and breeders of reptiles and other exotic pets have different points of views and preferences on whether to feed their animals live rodents or frozen/thawed. There is no right or wrong between the two methods: as long as the snake is getting its food and eating it you are succeeding, so the choice between the two options is purely a personal decision that the snake or reptile owner needs to make in order to use the most effective method for their needs. In this article we will run through the two feeding methods and ultimately the decision will have to come down to you.
First off, you don’t feed out the prey while it is frozen! You do need to thaw it thoroughly and warm it slightly before offering it to your snake. Freezing rodents for 30 days kills off most parasites and other organisms that may be harmful to your animal. Prey may be kept safely frozen and fed out for many months after the date it was first frozen.
The most common arguments presented for feeding live prey are that “feeding live is more natural for the animal – after all, no one kills their food for them in the wild” and “I like to give my animal a chance to hunt and kill because it really likes it.”
The fact, however, is that captivity is not a natural state. Our reptiles and amphibians are not spending their days searching for food, hiding from predators, searching out favored microhabitats while avoiding aggressive members of their own species, hiding, vulnerable to predation and attack during their shed periods. Instead they are housed (or should be!) in a comfy enclosure with all of their habitat needs met. If we wanted our animals to enjoy a natural state, we would never have acquired them.
For some of us that may breed our own rodents, it is often a practical solution to freeze excess rodents during the cooling periods when many of our adult snakes, especially our colubrids, are eating less or not even eating at all. Then when they start feeding again we have a supply of rodents built up which is ideal, especially for feeding those females a bit extra for breeding. We can also freeze excess pinkies at this time in preparation for that seasons’ babies. So there are many factors and ways we can use frozen thawed rodents to our benefit needs and to meet our reptiles’ needs.
It may be hard for some to believe but a rodent, especially a rat, can cause some serious damage to our animals and even end up killing them! Rodents can also bite your snake during the process of constriction but I have never known this to be serious problem. Snakes have scales for a reason and can take a bite from a rodent that is being constricted. This is one of the benefits of feeding/frozen thawed or freshly killed rodents is that your snake is at no risk of being injured whatsoever.
Frozen rodents are also a good thing for the industry, especially when it comes to people wanting to keep snakes but can’t get past the idea of feeding a live mouse or rat. This is also a good option for kids that want to keep snakes but their parents (mainly their mothers) don’t want to deal with feeding live prey. It can also be beneficial as you can buy a couple months’ worth of food in one go and keep them in a freezer rather than having to travel to a pet store once a week, especially if the nearest pet store is far away.
One of the biggest benefits of working with frozen rodents is their availability. They can be transported easily and can be stored in a freezer until needed without having to be fed and looked after etc. It takes much less room to store 100 frozen adult mice in your freezer than it does to house, feed and care for properly the same number of live mice. The only hassle, which isn’t a major issue, is the process of having to defrost the prey. Try and make sure that they stay dry so no substrate gets stuck to them as the snake is swallowing the rodent. If you are using newspaper as a substrate then as long as it is clean you won’t have a problem.
The best method for defrosting is to remove the number of frozen rodents you need from the bag, place them into another clean plastic bag which can then be placed in warm water or left in the refrigerator overnight to defrost. If you are skilled with your microwave, larger prey may be defrosted and gently heated using the defrost setting or lower power settings. Small pinkies can be quickly defrosted and warmed by holding them under warm running water, or in a bag on top of a warm surface, such as the stove-top over the pilot light. Always make sure that not only is the frozen prey thoroughly defrosted, but that it is warmed up to a temperature above room temperature. You do not want your warm reptile eating cold prey, and warming the prey also makes it smell more strongly, and thus more attractive, to your reptile, and may be especially important when feeding reluctant feeders and when in the process of converting live feeders to killed.
Feeding Killed Prey
When first converting your herp from live to killed, try first offering a killed prey by dangling it from hemostats or kitchen tongs — never hold the prey in your fingers! You may need to move it back and forth a bit to catch the herp’s attention. Be prepared for the strike and quickly release the prey.
Converting Live Feeders to Eating Killed
If the herp is not interested, you might need to first feed a small stunned live prey item, followed immediately by freshly killed prey, and then pre-killed prey. At the next feeding, start off with freshly killed prey, followed immediately by pre-killed. When these are easily taken, go to offering the pre-killed prey.
Humanely Killing Prey
There is a way to kill prey that is less traumatic to the mammalian prey animal and ensures immediate unconsciousness followed almost instantaneously by death. This is done by setting up a tank, be it a deep aquarium, bucket or rubber or plastic wastebasket set aside for this use, and filling it half full of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas. Once the tank is thus ‘charged,’ the prey animal is placed inside (be careful to not get your head too close to the tank as the gas is quite capable of knocking you unconscious, too). It is immediately rendered unconscious and is killed within a few minutes. The killed prey can then be removed (it is recommended that you use long kitchen or barbecue tongs), and set aside to be fed out or frozen for later use. Let the gas dissipate outside by setting the tank outside for a couple of hours.
Feeding live prey is the traditional, and you could say old-fashioned, way of feeding our reptiles. I must say most of my life that I have kept snakes I have fed mostly live prey, purely because I breed my own rodents so therefore they are removed from their breeding cages and fed to my snakes. I don’t think breeding my own rodents saves me much more money but it is something I have always enjoyed doing. That being said, I have certain species of snakes that will not eat live food. Those are mainly one or two of my milk snakes and mountain king snakes which will only eat dead prey. Another species is Ball Pythons, which can go either way; some of mine will only eat frozen/thawed while others will only eat live. So you have to be prepared to offer both. Find out which your snake likes and stick to it.
When feeding live food it is important that the rodent is not left in the cage over a period of time. This will stress the snake out and, as mentioned above, the rodent can end up severely hurting and even killing the snake! If a snake is hungry and ready to eat, it will generally take the rodent without any hesitation. When feeding live we go around putting the rodents in the snakes’ cages and then 30 minutes later do another round to remove uneaten prey items in order to avoid any stress or possible injury to the snake.
I personally think that frozen/thawed prey might become more and more popular in the future. As there are more and more companies taking on the challenge of supplying mice and other frozen rodents it will start becoming cheaper and therefore possibly a more economic way of feeding our snakes, which can save us money and time that we can then put back into our reptile setups and or even buying more snakes! Let’s hope!
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