By Timothy Zedi
Most of the commonly kept snakes are rodent eaters due to the fact that rodents are freely available in various sizes from newborn rodents for hatchling snakes to full grown rodents for adult snakes. However, not all snake species eat rodents and prey items can consist of fish, frogs, lizards, eggs,and insects. Feeding these species presents its own challenges from sourcing food to risk of internal parasites and frequency of feeding. There are many non- rodent eating snake species that make interesting captives, often due to their unique diets. This article discusses how to feed snakes whose diet does not contain rodents.
The most commonly available exotic, fish eating snake in South Africa is the American Garter Snakes and baby Rhino Rat Snakes. Other fish eating snake species include: Ribbon Snakes, American Water Snakes and European Grass Snakes. Snakes that eat fish are among the easiest non- rodent eaters to feed, as suitable prey is available in almost every pet shop in the form of goldfish and guppies. Goldfish and guppies are more expensive than mice and the price of a goldfish the size that an adult Garter Snake will require is currently around R20.00- R30.00. Most fish eating snakes are active hunters with high metabolisms and will need to eat a suitability sized fish two to three times a week. This soon becomes a big expense for a snake that is under a meter in length. As is human nature, people start to skimp and start feeding whitebait or hake pieces. White bait and other oily fish contain an enzyme called thiaminase which causes a vitamin B1 or thiamine deficiency. This results in a nervous system disorder which causes the snake to loose muscle control and the snake will usually die. This enzyme is also present in dried fish so hake fillet must be sprinkled with a vitamin supplement that contains vitamin B1. When a snake eats a whole fish it digests the bones, internal organs and gut contents which provide calcium and vitamins, a hake fillet lacks this and does not provide enough nutrition. A better alternative to hake is to purchase flat fish such as sole and cut a slice which contains bone and some skin. Whole fish of the right size make the best food item for fish eating snakes. Live fish such as goldfish can be placed in the snakes water bowl, the snake will see the fish moving about in the bowl and move in for the kill. For fussy eaters place the fish in a shallow water bowl, this will cause the fish to flap around which makes it more visible to the snake and will result in a quicker feeding response. Fish are usually swallowed alive, as once grasped by the snake they have no chance of escape and will suffocate if eaten on land. That said, Garter Snakes have an extremely weak toxic saliva which would help to subdue the fish while swallowing. Do not feed your fish eater huge meals like you would a rodent eater, a 5-6cm goldfish is the perfect size meal for an adult Garter Snake. Adult American Water Snakes and European Grass Snakes can take goldfish that are 10-12cm in length. Juveniles of all these species can be fed guppies. However, some Garter Snake species give birth to large litters of extremely small young which may need to be fed on earthworms until they are large enough to eat guppies. As mentioned, feed these snakes two to three times a week. Fish eating snakes defecate more frequently than rodent eaters and must be cleaned more often. All the above mentioned species will also eat frogs, however fish are a better choice as they have less parasites. Chequered Garter Snakes can be trained to eat mice by scenting them with fish, but this is not a given that the snake will eat the mouse.
Frog and Toad Eaters
The most commonly available frog and toad eating species are American Hognose Snakes , Madagascan Hognose Snakes, Night Adders and Red-Lipped Snakes. Western Hognose snakes will accept mice and do well on a diet of small rodents, however some hatchlings may need to be persuaded to eat pinkies by scenting them with frogs. Eastern and Southern Hognose Snakes are not so cooperative when it comes to eating mice and may have to be fed on a diet of frogs. The natural diet of Madagascan Hognose Snakes consists largely of frogs and toads. Since the majority of these snakes in the pet trade are wild caught and used to eating their natural prey, you may have to feed them frogs initially and then move onto scented mice. Night Adders and Red-Lips are unlikely to accept mice and will need to be supplied with a weekly meal of frogs or toads. You will only be able to catch frogs for your snake during the wet summer months, so either feed your snakes heavily during this period, hibernate your snakes in winter ( temperate or local species only) or stock pile humanely killed frogs in your freezer for the winter months. Feeder frogs are not available in pet stores, so they will have to be captured from the wild. Wild frogs harbour internal parasites that can get passed on to your snake, so take your pet to the vet every six months to a year to be de-wormed. Consult a field guide to identify the frogs or toads that you are going to feed to your snakes to make sure that they do not have toxic skin secretions and to confirm the conservation status of the frogs, you do not want your pet to be part of the reason a species goes extinct. Feed adult Night Adders, Red-Lips and American Hognose Snakes a frog equal in size to a small mouse once a week. Madagascan Hognose Snakes are large and will eat a frog equal in size to weaner rats once per week. Hatchlings and Juveniles will eat newly metamorphosized froglets and sometimes tadpoles will be accepted. Frogs and toads are subdued by mild venom produced in a modified saliva gland, in the case of American and Madagascan Hognose Snakes and Red -Lips, which can cause allergic reactions in humans. Night Adders have a mildly cytotoxic venom which causes swelling, pain and local tissue necrosis in humans, this species should only be kept by experienced keepers. If you can get your snakes to eat mice it will make your life much easier, however sometimes instinct over rides your efforts and to prevent the snake starving to death it’s natural prey must be given.
There are many snakes which eat lizards in the wild and many juvenile rodent eating snakes feed on lizards and as they grow larger their diet diversifies and rodents will be eaten. The diet of wild Bush vipers, Bamboo Pit Vipers and Horned Adders consists largely of lizards .Wild caught specimens and captive bred juveniles may refuse to eat mice which is an unnatural food for these snakes. So before purchasing one of these vipers keep in mind that you might have to provide lizards for the first few feedings. Newly imported, wild caught Bush Vipers are often dehydrated, stressed and have not fed in a while, so it is best to feed them on lizards to build up their strength rather than trying to get these vipers to eat mice while they slowly waste away. Wild caught female Bush Vipers are often gravid when captured and you will get a bonus of several tiny vipers whose appetites have to be satisfied with hatchling geckos, so be prepared for this. Bamboo Vipers have young which are too small to eat pinkies and despite what the pet shop assistant tells you, the cute neonate White-Lipped Tree Viper in the display cage is more likely to eat a lizard that took you an hour to catch than the pinkie mouse that took you five minutes to purchase. Horned Adder babies are also very small and the adults’ diet would consist of skinks and geckos. Feed these vipers geckos and skinks as juveniles, once they are bigger they should accept pinkie mice. Captive bred adults can be fed on appropriate sized rodents. Wild caught adults should accept rodents once they have acclimatised to living in captivity. As mentioned, these vipers will eat mice in captivity, ideally they should be given a diet of both lizards and mice. Geckos make good feeder lizards and they can be caught using a net, not that easy to catch ,so some effort has to be put in. Skinks can be captured using a pitfall trap, basically a hole in the ground that skinks will fall in if they walk over it. As with frogs, humanely killed lizards can be stored in your freezer for the winter months. Snakes that eat lizards should be de-wormed every six months to a year. Feed juveniles on small geckos or cut up parts of larger lizards, once a week. Adults will eat a large gecko or skink once every two weeks. All these snakes use venom to kill their prey, its effects on humans range from internal haemorrhage in Bush Viper bites to tissue damage and swelling in Bamboo Viper and Horned Adder bites. These snakes are not suitable for beginners. An interesting snake that feeds on small geckos and is rear fanged with a mild venom causing localised pain and swelling is the Long- Nosed Tree Snake which goes by the alternative name of “ Green Vine Snake”. This exceedingly thin bright green snake makes a nice display animal however this snake is extremely aggressive and should only be kept by people with extensive snake handling experience. There are many harmless lizard eating snakes native to South Africa including: Bush Snakes, Sand Snakes and Tiger Snakes . These snakes will make interesting pets if you are able to provide a constant supply of small lizards. Bush Snakes and Sand Snakes are active diurnal hunters who will need to be kept in large cages and need to be fed more frequently than their rodent eating counterparts, at least twice a week. Tiger Snakes and other nocturnal lizard eaters are calmer, need less space and only require food once a week and generally adapt better to captivity than Bush Snakes or Sand Snakes.
A variety of invertebrates are eaten by snakes ranging from earthworms, slugs, snails, termites and centipedes. There are not many invertebrate eating snakes available for sale due to lack of interest and the fact that these snakes often only feed on one or two types of invertebrates making sourcing food difficult. An example being the Black-headed Centipede-eater which feeds exclusively on centipedes, these insects are secretive and it is impossible to find enough of them to provide a regular supply of food, resulting in the snake starving to death. The Common Slug Eater and its cousin the Variegated Slug Eater are small snakes which feed on slugs and snails. Slugs and snails are plentiful during the wet summer months and are most numerous at night after rain, collect as many as you can and keep them in plastic tubs with moist sphagnum moss as a substrate, feed them on lettuce leaves, carrots and apple slices. Make sure that the snails or slugs are collected from a pesticide free area. Slug Eaters may eat the tinned snails offered by reptile food manufactures. Feed your Slug Eater several slugs or snails a week, slugs will be swallowed whole and snails will be pulled out of their shells by the snake before being eaten. The Rough Green Snake is a North American insect eating snake which is kept in limited numbers by snake keepers overseas, I do not know if this snake is available in South Africa. This is a small active snake that needs to be fed three to four times a week on crickets dusted with calcium powder.. Exotic snakes that feed on earthworms include the attractive Ringneck Snake and the tiny DeKay’s Snake. Earthworms can be found in moist soil, purchased from fishing shops or pet shops or you can set up a earthworm farm.
There are several snake species that specialise in eating eggs. The Central American Cat-Eyed Snake feeds on frogs’ eggs, Shovel Snout snakes eat reptile eggs and Egg Eaters only eat unfertilised birds’ eggs. The first two species cannot be successfully kept in captivity as finding the correct food is impossible, Egg Eaters do well in captivity and make very interesting pets. The only problem with Egg Eaters is finding suitable size eggs for hatchlings. Hatchlings need to be fed finch eggs, which are difficult to obtain. Hatchlings can be fed beaten hens’ eggs using a syringe and feeding tube, until they are large enough to eat quail eggs. Quails eggs can be purchased from grocery stores but are expensive, a better idea is to either find someone who keeps quails and purchase the eggs from him/her, or keep your own quails. An adult Egg Eater is capable of eating a small hens egg. Feed Egg Eaters a single egg once a week.
Burmese Pythons, Reticulated Pythons, African Rock Pythons and Boa Constrictors will eat chickens Juveniles will eat day old chicks and adults will eat full grown chickens. They are not the ideal food and it has been shown that hatchlings fed only on chicks grow into adults with poor muscle tone. Therefore, these snakes should eat rodents as a stable diet with only the occasional chicken. Juvenile Green Tree Pythons, Emerald Tree Boas, Amazon Tree Boas and Carpet Pythons may prefer to eat quail chicks rather than mice , they should eat mice as they grow older. Wild caught Boomslangs prefer to eat birds and they can be fed on day old chicks.
Choose your species carefully, make sure you can provide the correct food in sufficient quantities and you will have an interesting and unusual pet snake. Make sure that you have the relevant permits to keep the indigenous snake species mentioned in this article.
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