New Snake Keepers!

I frequently hear new snake keepers getting upset because their snake struck at them, or hissed at them. They freak out if the snake won’t eat for two weeks. I personally feel that if you are not going to do your research before you get an animal, any animal, then you are not ready to have one. Exotic pets in particular. You can make mistakes with a cat, or a hamster, or (most) dogs, and still come out on top in the end. Snakes and other exotics are another matter. They aren’t tolerant to as many mistakes. Their feeding and care is very precise and particular. They need certain temperatures maintained, certain humidity, and a certain environment. Their feeding needs must be strictly met with little variation.

I cringe when I hear people say they feed snakes insects. A snake’s natural diet does NOT include insects. They eat rodents and various birds. And that depends on their species. A ball python cannot be fed crickets, for example. So you can’t feed your ball python and your bearded dragon the same type of food, just because they are both reptiles.

Snakes strike at their prey, and they strike to defend themselves. They don’t have legs, so they can’t run away or stand and fight. Your snake doesn’t think like a person. A snake is not a cuddly pet who wants to be held. He wants to get away and hide. So if you approach him from behind where he can’t see you, he will bite your hand when he senses or sees it. Also, if your hand smells like rodents, he may bite. I got bitten by our carpet python the other night because I reached out to push him back into the feeding tub. This is the second time this snake has bitten me, and both times it was my own fault.

An average snake bite feels like a pinprick (baby corn) to hot needles (6-foot carpet python). Most of the time, they don’t hang on. If you are bit, do not jerk your hand away. I know that is everyone’s first impulse, but you can rip out the snake’s teeth. If he bites and hangs on, run him under cold water until he lets go. My significant other seems to be the one who is mistaken for snake food most often. He has had corn snakes, baby king snakes, and baby ball pythons grab and munch many times. To a seasoned snake keeper and lover of snakes, this actually becomes funny over time. Of course if it is a BIG constrictor snake or a venomous, it is NOT funny. We pick our battles based on our choice of serpents.

Hissing is a snake’s form of communication. It says “Go the hell away” basically. I personally feel rejected if at least one doesn’t hiss at me on a daily basis.

Snakes can go for weeks, even months, without eating. Ball pythons are particularly notorious for this. We have ball pythons who haven’t eaten worth a crap since we moved a year ago. Don’t listen to anyone who says it’s cruel to only feed a snake once a week. If they don’t understand the biology of an animal, then they have no business saying anything about it. Other reptiles need to be fed daily, such as bearded dragons, iguanas, etc. Snakes are fed on average, depending on size, age, species and breeding status, between every 5 days to every 2 weeks. Our babies are fed every 5 days until they get to a certain size, then are switched to 7. If one of them is getting too fat, particularly a male or non-breeding female, then we knock them down to every 10-14 days. And they are healthy.

In our experience, any snake can get used to eating frozen/thawed rodents. Live rodents can injure your snake with their claws and teeth. Just make sure that the rat or mouse is fully thawed, and warm, or the snake won’t eat it. Put the rodent in a sandwich bag and thaw it in hot water. If your snakes are on a substrate such as aspen bedding, make sure the rodent is as dry as possible. If the bedding gets stuck all over the rodent and the snake ingests a good quantity, it will kill the snake. If it doesn’t choke him, it will block him up and he won’t be able to pass it.

It is recommended that you feed your snake in an enclosure other than his living space. The reason for this is that if you feed him in his habitat, he will associate anything coming into his enclosure with food. So you will get nailed every time you want to pick him up or need to clean his house. Some snakes, however, will not eat if you disturb them prior to feeding. Again, ball pythons are notorious for this. Our ball pythons and our pickiest corn snakes are fed in their own tubs only because they wouldn’t eat at all if we moved them first. Snake keeping takes good common sense and a lot of care. Each individual snake must be treated as an individual, just like you would any other pet.

Some people say not to use aspen bedding. We use aspen bedding for our snakes and for the rats we breed and raise. Everyone has their own feelings on this, but it’s worked fine for us. If you have ONE snake or a few, then other substrates make sense. If you have 100+, then aspen makes better financial sense. If you have 100+ snakes, breeding and raising your own rodents makes EXCELLENT financial sense.

Ball pythons should be introduced to rats from the start. You can feed them mice, I suppose, but as they grow they’ll need more and more per feeding and it gets expensive. I don’t know exactly why, but there seems to be a difference in scent between a mouse and a rat, to a snake. Our ball hatchlings are fed rats from the first feeding on. We try to do frozen/thawed from the start, but problem eaters will start with live rat pinkies. The pinkies, obviously, don’t have claws and teeth yet. Feeding is one of the many aspects of snake keeping that requires particular patience, especially if you are breeding and dealing with hatchlings.

A snake can eat a rodent that is the width of its body. Snakes unhinge their jaws to swallow their prey. It looks a little scary at first, but that’s how a snake is built.

Mites are a common snake problem. Usually found in snakes bought off Craigslist, random auction sites, or people who don’t know what they’re doing, mites are microscopic black bugs that can compromise a snake’s health if they are not dealt with PROMPTLY. If you see the snake soaking in his water a lot, and he’s not “blue” (cloudy, getting ready to shed), and the temperature and humidity of his habitat is fine, then keep your eyes open. You may see the tiny black dots in his water bowl. You may see them crawling on him. Mites like to wedge themselves under the snake’s scales, so you may want to (gently) lift a scale or two if you see a tiny black dot. Treating mites is simple enough. You have to remove all bedding, hides and water bowl, put newspaper in his tank or tub, and mix one 4-oz bottle of Nix lice shampoo with one gallon of water. An empty milk jug works great. Then pour the mixture into a spray bottle and spray down the snake, the newspaper, and the entire habitat. Leave the treatment on for at least 24 hours and then check to make sure there are no more live mites before putting everything back in with him.

A new snake, no matter where you buy it, should always be kept separate and on newspaper for at least 24 hours, in “quarantine”, if you have multiple snakes or other reptiles. Trust my experience in telling you that treating 100+ snakes in racks for mites is NOT fun.

Upper Respiratory Infections (URI)
Snakes are very susceptible to these. If their environment is too cold, or if they are overly stressed, they can develop a URI. If you see your snake opening and closing its mouth, other than to put its jaw back into place after eating, take a listen. If you hear him making a “popping” noise, chances are he has a URI and you need to get him to the vet. Most vets in more rural areas do not handle exotics, but they can give you a liquid antibiotic for the URI. Our only “exotic vet” is 45 minutes away and doesn’t know jack about snakes. So we only take a snake there with a URI…which fortunately hasn’t happened for a couple years now.

If you are planning to breed your snakes, please do extensive research first. We know what we’re doing but have not experienced all the problems that could occur, so I leave that tutorial to the more seasoned experts.


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