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Keeping Reptiles Newsletter
 Issue 4   
February, 2005
In this Issue


Because of the risks associated with feeding snakes live food, knowledgeable herpetologists often recommend that only dead food animals be offered to snakes. Also, as a matter of policy, many zoos will not feed one live animal to another. The vast majority of snakes will eat food animals that have been previously killed and even frozen. With only a couple of exceptions, I agree that it's best to feed only dead food whenever possible.

Of course, there is a certain novelty in seeing a snake kill its own food. But once you've seen it, why routinely put the well-being of your prized pet at risk? Is that something you really need to see at every feeding for every snake in your collection? Besides, many snakes strike and constrict even dead rodents, which is just as fun to watch.

True, there's a small percentage of individual snakes in captivity that consistently refuse prekilled food. In a later section of this book, I'll offer some help in getting hold-outs to eat dead food items.

One exception to the "feed only dead food" rule is that live, newborn rodents (called "pinks" or "pinkies") are sometimes used to get baby snakes to eat for the first time. At this sensitive stage of their lives, the most important thing is that the newborn snakes begin accepting food. It's not always necessary to use live food animals to get neonate serpents started eating, but they can be useful. Live pinks are safe to use because they are helpless and can't bite or scratch your snake, but if you use them, it's best to convert your snake over to eating dead food while it's still very young and get it into the habit early.

Frozen Food

Captive-bred rodents, raised in sanitary conditions with proper nutrition, are the preferred snake food, but they are not necessarily perfect. All living things are potential hosts for parasites and other harmful organisms. Some of these can be present in food animals in limited numbers and do no harm to a snake, but why not eliminate as many of them as is reasonably possible -- especially since it's so easy. A good solid freeze will eliminate almost every disease that could be passed on to your snake by a food animal. Why give your snake live food and risk passing on organisms that could cause problems with your snake's health?

It would be difficult to overstate the convenience of using frozen food animals. Since they are immobile, they can be easily measured or weighed and accurately sorted by size. For this reason, it's very easy to always have the correct size rodent on hand and to increase food size gradually as your snake grows. Frozen snake food has become more widely available as people have become more educated about the benefits and demand has grown. Frozen food usually costs no more than live feeders, but many people are willing to pay more for the convenience.

Thawing Frozen Food

Frozen food animals need to be thoroughly thawed before feeding them to a snake. Some snakes will eat rodents that are still partially frozen, but that can cause major digestion problems and is not recommended. It's best to warm the food animal up to approximately 80-110°F so the ingestion of the food doesn't negatively affect the snake's body temperature. This is very easy to do. You can place the food animal on top of a heating pad, under a heat lamp, or both at the same time. Another option is to put the frozen animal into a suitable container along with the hottest water you can get out of your faucet. If you cover the top of the container, that will help hold in the heat. A frozen pink mouse takes only about 10-15 minutes to warm up in one cup full of hot tap water. A three-pound guinea pig or rabbit will take significantly longer even in a large bucket full of water. For large food items, you may need to drain the water and replace it with hotter water if it cools too much and the food hasn't completely thawed yet. This will depend on the amount and temperature of water used in relation to the size of the food animal. If you desire, you can keep the food animal dry by placing it in a watertight bag, but that will slow down the thawing process. I usually put the frozen food animal right into the water and let it drip dry or paper towel it dry before feeding. Most snakes won't mind if the food item is a bit wet.

I don't recommend using an oven or microwave for thawing because you can easily overheat the food animal. You don't want the rodent to be so hot that it will burn the sensitive tissues in the snake's mouth or have any portion of the food item start to actually cook.

Purchasing Frozen Food

Some of the more progressive pet stores that deal in reptiles now carry frozen food animals. Herpetological societies generally sell frozen snake food and can be a good place to meet people that have frozen food animals available for sale. Additionally, some rodent breeders may advertise in your local newspaper. Buying locally is probably the most convenient because you can see what you're getting, and you will be able to choose the variety of sizes that will best fit your needs.

You can also have rodents shipped to you, and with proper care they should arrive frozen solid. If you don't have a good source nearby, or need to purchase very large quantities, it can be well worth paying some shipping charges. In general, light orders of frozen rodents are shipped right to your home using one of the many overnight or 2-day delivery services. They are packed in an insulated box with blue ice packs or dry ice to keep everything frozen. Shipping charges start at about small and increase as the order gets heavier.

If you want to buy large food animals in quantity, 100 pounds at a time can be flown to an airport near you for about a reasonable air cargo charge. In this case, you should communicate with your food supplier and get what's called the "airbill" number once the order has been sent. This will allow you to call the air cargo office of the appropriate airline and track your shipment to get an approximate arrival time. It's best if you can be at the airport to pick it up when it's unloaded from the airplane. They fly at all times, so this could be anytime, even in the middle of the night. Most carriers have a refrigerator (not a freezer) that they'll put the boxes in if they're properly marked, but it's probably best not to rely on that. If the shipment is spoiled, you may not have much recourse if you've let it sit at the airport for too long. Shipping frozen food during hot summer weather, especially, requires prudent care.


Extract from "Snake Keeping - Proven Techniques Everyone Can Use" by Barry Neilsen

SNAKE MITES - The Life Cycle of the Snake Mite - Part 1

At the egg stage in the life of a common snake mite, Ophionyssus natricis, it is impossible to tell whether the mite is male or female, although unfertilised eggs will become male and fertilised ones will turn out female. It is easy to tell whether a mite is an egg or not as eggs obviously have no legs and can not move. The eggs are off-white to tan in color and oval. They are 300 - 400 microns in length and 200 - 300 microns in width. Newly laid eggs, which are often found in clusters on a surface in the tank, are sticky and as the egg develops, one end of it gets darker.

The next stage from an egg for a snake mite is as a larva. Larvae only have six legs, as opposed to eight seen on all other stages so can easily be distinguished from other stages. The developing fourth set of legs can be seen to be crescent-shaped structures behind the third (back) pair of legs. The larvae are small - measuring approximately 400 microns by 250 microns - white and fragile and last only 18 - 24 hours. Sex cannot be determined at this stage by looking at them.

Next comes the stage of protonymph. They are a similar size to the larvae (around 400 microns by 250 microns), but they have developed a fourth set of legs and the other legs can be seen to be longer, especially the first pair. Unfed protonymphs are pale ivory or yellowish in color, they are almost invisible to the naked eye, but when engorged after a blood meal, protonymphs are dark red in color, but not black and smaller than adult females. They also appear to be more segmented. The chelicerae (fanglike appendages near the mouth of the mite) are well developed for piercing the reptile’s skin so they can feed on the blood. The second, third and fourth pairs of legs are spaced evenly around the body for balance and fast movement. The first pair come out at the front, facing forwards, and contain sensory receptors so are used as ‘antennae’. They appear to have ‘claws’ at the end of the legs used to hang on to their host while feeding. There is no sign of sexual dimorphism at this stage of the mite’s life.

The fourth stage is of deutonymph. The chelicerae are less well developed and do not look as if they can pierce skin - from this I can conclude that the mite do not feed during this stage of development. The density of setae (stiff hairs) on the body appears to be less than on the protonymphs or adults. The deutonymphs are larger in size than the protonymphs - the body is around twice the size although the legs are similar in length - and are dark in color (dark red to black) and soft-bodied. When examined microscopically, the body shape is like a thumbprint. Sex at this stage can only be determined from the mite’s lifestyle and habits (but not from the physical appearance): deutonymphs destined to become adult males often hang on to the back of those which will develop into adult females.

The final stage of development for a snake mite is to become an adult. Adults are larger than any other stage and are ‘hairy’ in appearance (covered in setae). Both sexes have a tapered, scleritized body and are tan in color, although fully engorged males are yellow to dark red or black and fully engorged females are dark red to black. Fully engorged males are only slightly wider than unfed males, whereas fully engorged females are rounded and can exceed 1300 microns in length. This difference in engorged color and body shape can be used to tell males apart (i.e. if an adult mite is dark red - engorged - but still quite thin, it is male, but a female would be tanned when she was thin, so if she was dark red, she would be round). The adult male mite appears to have long antennae-like structures protruding from the head from between its chelicerae (the mouth part of mature males may be modified to be used in mating), which also seem to be longer. Like all stages after the larvae, the adult mites have eight legs.

Next Issue: SNAKE MITES - The Problems caused by Snake Mites.


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