Part 7: Food
All snakes are carnivorous and, as such, they eat only other animals. This makes some people squeamish. If you're one of those people, a snake may not be the pet for you. But let's assume you're cool with all that. Here's what you need to know:
Most pet snakes feed on rodents...
In the wild, however, snakes have adapted to feed on a variety of animals including insects and other invertebrates, fish, amphibians, birds, lizards, turtles, crocodilians, various mammals and even other snakes. Each species has its own preferences and may not eat prey that it doesn't recognize. Some baby king snakes, such as the grey banded king snake, will only eat small lizards. They don't recognize mice as a source of food until they're older. The eastern mud snake eats only frogs and amphiumas (a salamander-like creature). You're probably not going to have access to large quantities of such exotic animals to feed to your snake. There are tricks for persuading a snake to eat foods it normally wouldn't accept, but if you're a beginner, you should choose a species that does well on easily available rodents.
Live vs. pre-killed
Snakes are powerful predators, but don't underestimate the damage that a rodent can do to even the biggest, strongest snake. Rodents can be very aggressive and have vicious teeth. It's generally better to serve your snakes pre-killed mice or rats.
Some snakes are picky and will only take freshly killed animals. The technique for this is simple but kinda gross: you put a mouse or rat in a pillow case and whack it against a hard surface, killing it.
I prefer the easy way: I buy frozen rodents. You can get them from your pet store or in bulk from a rodent supplier online. You take out the mice or rats you need, leave them out for a while to thaw (they MUST be completely thawed or your snake could die) and then feed them to your snake. Some snakes will prefer you to wiggle their food to simulate a live animal, others prefer you to leave the food alone for them to "find." Learn which your snake prefers.
It's important to feed your snake appropriately-sized meals. Most species eat food the same size as (or slightly larger than) the thickest part of their bodies. If you feed a snake a meal that is too big it could regurgitate or, worse, it could die from internal injuries.
How often to feed
Most pet stores will tell you to feed your snake about once a week or every 7-10 days when it gets larger. A snake can survive on this type of feeding schedule, but it will grow slowly. I recommend feeding a new baby snake a single rodent of the appropriate size every 2-3 days to get started. After a few feedings, I increase that to 2 or 3 rodents every 2-4 days. As the snake grows, gradually increase the size of the rodents, always about the same diameter as the body of the snake, and feed it as much as it will eat.
Observe your snake and let it's behavior tell you when it wants to eat. If it hasn't moved from its hiding spot since its last meal, it's probably not hungry yet. But if it's come out and pooped and is moving around its cage, it's most likely ready for a meal. I find that it's almost impossible to overfeed a growing snake.
What if my snake won't eat?
First off, if a snake skips a single meal (or even a couple of meals) it's no cause for alarm. It could just be entering a shed cycle (in which case you should wait until after it sheds before offering it food again), or it may sense the change in seasons and be inclined to go off feed for the winter.
There are a number of other reasons a snake might not eat. Stress is a common cause, as is disease. Check the conditions of your snake's cage. Is the temperature and humidity right? Is the cage clean? Does the snake have an adequate place to hide? Are you offering the snake the appropriate type (and size) of food? If your snake refuses to eat for more than a few weeks you should consult with a qualified veterinarian.