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Keeping Reptiles Newsletter
Vol 2, Issue 3    
February, 2006
How much food should I feed my snake?
In this Issue

Food Size

Offering the appropriate size food animal to your snake is important. If you offer too large a meal, it may not be swallowed or, rarely, may do internal damage if your snake does manage to get it down. If meals are too small, your snake may not be satisfied, and it won't grow at an optimal rate.

To choose a food item that is the correct size for your snake, a good guide to use is the snake itself. The diameter of the rodent should be approximately the same as the thickness of the middle of the snake. A live animal can be hard to choose because its fur is fluffy and because of the way they carry themselves. That can be deceiving, but with practice you can learn to judge close enough. Frozen food items are much easier to select because you can get a better look at each one.

A good size meal will normally be swallowed within 5-15 minutes and will cause a noticeable bulge in the snake's body.

Naturally, some snakes will swallow faster than others, but if it takes longer than 20-30 minutes of actual swallowing time, you may want to think about using food items that are a bit smaller. I have seen people feed snakes when it took well over an hour for the snake to finish swallowing a large food item, with no apparent damage done, but this is not advisable. Overly large food items are hard for a snake to digest and may be regurgitated, especially if adequate heat is not available.

Frequency Of Feeding

In nature, a snake can search for food or stake out a rodent's runway when it's hungry. A captive snake depends on you to supply the necessary food, but it can't tell you when it's hungry. Just because it's crawling around the cage doesn't necessarily mean that it should be fed, so you need to know something about how much food a snake requires.

Since baby snakes do grow quite fast compared to adults, they should be fed more often. In general, neonates can be fed two meals a week consisting of one or two appropriate size food items. A typical juvenile is fed about once a week, and adults that are no longer growing very fast can be maintained with one rodent every ten days to two weeks or so. Keep in mind that these are rough guidelines.

Some people will intentionally overfeed a snake to try to grow a giant specimen or to try to bring it to sexual maturity faster so they can try to breed it. This is not a good idea and can cause health problems with the snake. Very often it doesn't work anyway. Genetics play a major role in determining a snake's adult size; and regardless of size, age is an important factor in determining sexual maturity. Even if it is grossly overfed, a snake can only grow so fast. Excess energy will be stored as fat. Not only does obesity cause some of the same cardiovascular problems in snakes as it does in humans, it can even cause a sexually mature snake to be unable to reproduce. If breeding is your goal, you should work toward maintaining healthy animals and be patient until they're ready.

Each individual snake in captivity should be routinely evaluated for excessive weight gain or loss to keep them as healthy as possible. Even two animals from the same litter can grow at very different rates, and their diets will need to be adjusted accordingly.

Here is a good rule of thumb to use when determining the correct weight for your snake. First, your snake shouldn't have loose, excess skin. This would indicate that the snake is too thin. Generally, a snake's skin should be smooth and well filled out. If a snake doesn't get enough food on a regular basis, not only will it be too thin, but starvation also creates a stressful situation that can lead to the snake getting sick and/or dying. It's true that snakes have an amazing ability to go for long periods of time without food. That's because they can live off of fat that their bodies have stored during times when food was plentiful. They can't, however, consistently live on an inadequate food supply without suffering.

Secondly, you should look at the bulge created by a food animal in your snake's stomach just after it has eaten. Notice how that area is distended and how you can see the skin in between the scales. Sometimes this stretching of the skin creates the illusion of stripes running down the side of the snake. The scales should be stretched apart this way after a meal (or when a snake is pregnant), but you should not be able to see this on a constant basis. If you can see the skin in between the scales or the characteristic striping down the length of the animal (especially on the front half of the snake's body), your snake is probably overweight.

Of course, there are varying degrees of inappropriate weight. Monitor your snakes as you should, and they'll never reach the extreme and unhealthy conditions that are possible. If their feeding frequency needs to be adjusted, it's best to do it gradually so you don't overly stress the snake. Smaller meals should be offered less often to fat snakes so they still get some food, but not enough to continue supporting the overweight condition; no starvation diets. Malnourished snakes need to be fed more frequently, using small (easy to digest) food items.

You should check snakes that are being fed less than they are used to and ensure that they aren't rubbing their noses excessively on the cage interior while looking for food. Some searching activity is normal and desirable because it helps burn fat, but if actual tissue damage is caused, that could lead to infection. In my experience, this is not a common problem with most captive-bred snakes. A wild-caught snake is much more likely to be aggressively searching about -- probably for a way out of the cage more than for food -- and, unfortunately, there's not much you can do about that. However, you can minimize the chances that the snake will rub its nose raw by avoiding items with rough surfaces in your cage setup. This could mean that an aquarium with a screen top may not be suitable for a snake of this type because screen tops can be very damaging to a snake's nose if the snake insists on pushing against it.

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

Note: I once lost a baby carpet through feeding a weaner rat that was too large. The meal was regurgitated and the snake found dead the next day. I was reluctant to feed it the baby rat but was assured by the person who sold me the snake it would be OK. Since then I have been very cautious about feeding food that looks too big. I'm not totally sure that it was the reason, but I'm cautious enough now not to want to find out again. Mark Chapple

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Big Sand Mound Trip

by Michelle T. Nash

Date: September 10th, 2005
Location: Big Sand Mound Nature Preserve, Iowa

Let me start with a giant thank you! to Deb Krohn for arranging last year’s exciting, educational, and fun trip to an awesome and unique habitat known as Big Sand Mound Preserve. It is found just west of the Mississippi River in the Muscatine, Iowa area. The day started off without a hitch due to Deb’s clever planning and organizing. Knowing that there were things to coordinate with the group prior to our entrance to the property, she allowed for extra time by advising everyone to come by 9 am so we’d be ready to hit the preserve as soon as we were allowed in at 9:30. This allowed us to make the most of the morning before it got too warm out and thwarted any potential problems that could delay the group. It was a warm and sunny day when we arrived at the entrance to the Louisa Generating Station, owned by MidAmerican Energy Company. Together, MidAmerican Energy and the Monsanto Company own and manage this marvelous 510-acre preserve. Right away what struck me was the ground cover alongside the road where we pulled off to wait for others. Typical of the Midwest grassy areas were dried Queen Anne’s lace and the blooming goldenrod, but surprisingly there were oodles of prickly pear cactus scattered about. I would have never guessed cactus live so far north or even in the Midwest. Perhaps it’s not that uncommon, but for me it was fascinating. I’ve only ever seen it in the grocery stores here in the Midwest. Once we were all gathered it was time for processing all us herpers. We piled into the cars and we lined up to pass through the security checkpoint where ID’s were shown and names were checked off, and we were given official visitor badges. NOW we were ready to get going!

Paul Mayes, an entomologist, and Connie Veach, Environmental Coordinator
for the Monsanto Company were our wonderfully gracious hosts. We had a brief meeting to go over some of the rules we must follow to protect the area, to discuss our game plan, and to review some of the cool critters the area was famous for and off we went. We drove out to a more remote area of the preserve and started discovering wildlife the moment we stepped out of our cars. Immediately one of the children spotted a praying mantis, the European variety I believe, and we all got a good look and headed off into the gently rolling, arid sand mounds of the area. The sparse, low-lying and desert-like plant life didn’t look terribly promising at first to the untrained eye, but it wasn’t long before someone spied a monarch chrysalis attached to a dried piece of brush in the field. A first for this amateur lepidopterist! I’ve caught dozens of monarch caterpillars and watched them eat and transform and eventually fly away, but have never seen a monarch chrysalis in the wild. We continued on our way, learning all the while as Paul filled us in on more of the rich history of the area and what other creatures awaited us. He identified the strange crescent shaped holes in the sand as toad burrows, though we didn’t manage to unearth any at the time, and not for lack of trying! Moments later we saw our first lizards, (race runners?) – and they don’t have those names for nothing! Try as we might we couldn’t catch any! Even the quick children with butterfly nets in hand had no luck. Still, catching sight of them and the resulting chase was exhilarating. It wasn’t long before we headed into the forested area that lay between the oxbow waterway and the desert-like sand mounds. Once there, we began to discover turtle shell after turtle shell, and eventually, the shells with the live ones inside.

Paul was an excellent guide as he identified turtle after turtle and shared his vast knowledge of the history of the area and it’s current inhabitants. He showed us how many of the turtle shells were notched by local scientists doing field research. This helps them identify and keep records on each individual turtle they came across. Paul welcomed all questions and answered with enthusiasm! There was so much sand in the area, and knowing he was an entomologist, I took a chance and asked him if the area had ant lions, to which he answered, “Absolutely!” I was thrilled. It didn’t take long for us to discover some of their small funnel-shaped traps in the sandy loam of the forest floor. We observed how ants fall into the lairs and are quickly snatched by giant jaws, then dragged under to meet their doom.

Being a very dry year, the water was very low as we tried to explore the oxbow region. There was no getting too close to the water unless someone wanted to lose a shoe in the ample mud! There was, however, a wonderful opportunity to explore a beaver lodge that was now somewhat high and dry. I tore my best jeans on protruding branches there, but had the best time poking my head down into gaps and trying to catch glimpses of the multitude of frogs taking refuge throughout the lodge. This is where the children who were present excelled. Being small and agile, they did indeed enjoy exploring this animal home as well. After leaving the water’s edge we headed back into the drier hills and were pleased to come upon a lovely hognose snake. The greenish color was stunning and its temperament was very accommodating, considering we had removed it from its hiding spot under a log. This find in the wild was a first for many of us and it was quite a while before we were done admiring it and were ready to put it back.

At a later time, several of us were taking a rest under some shade trees when one of our most avid herpers, Mike Scott, was still hard at work lifting timbers and peering into bushes. His diligence paid off when the largest of our finds that day, appeared to him as if by magic. It was lying right out in the open and it was a huge bull snake! Another first for many of us; and was it ever a hisser! They are said to hold the record for loudest hiss from a snake. A few of us held this big beauty and he was stunning! I managed to get a couple pictures while he was puffing out his cheeks and hissing when Mike Dloogatch held him. Many congratulations were offered to Mike Scott for the find of the day and he released the bull snake near a tall pine tree, which it promptly scaled (pardon the pun!) with the greatest ease. Once it got about 12 or 15 feet up, it positioned itself back and forth among the branches so it appeared to be just another limb on the tree. Fantastic camouflage! It left me wondering if they frequently climb trees to hide from or get away from threats because it seemed a wonderfully effective way to hide. Watching him climb, instead of diving under something, was a real treat.

Shortly after this excitement we were searching with renewed vigor and as usual, the ever-gracious Ron Humbert made the rounds among people and inquired if we were having fun and/or any luck. Which of course, we were! At that point it occurred to me that you just couldn’t experience better camaraderie than during one of these herping events. Though by this time, the heat of the day was making our hunting and exploring less productive, I was pleased we were all just as enthusiastic as the beginning of our adventure.

Towards the end of our day, we made our way back to the cars where a few people stayed to rest, and several of us took off for a short romp into another section of woods. This area was cooler and damp and was host to a number of box turtles and interesting fungi and lichens. While there, we even came upon a deer skeleton, which looked so perfectly placed as to resemble an exhibit created just to satisfy our curiosity. For the entomologists among us, there were oodles of more praying mantids in the fields on the way back. And not to forget the botanists, there were many cacti and various prairie flowers to enjoy. All in all, it was a wonderful day and we couldn’t have asked for a better group outing. Once again, I recommend to all CHS members that these trips are not to be missed if you want to have a great time and learn a few things along the way. Watch for another Big Sand Mound trip, which is currently being planned for April, May or June!

And lastly, just to share a few tidbits from others who came on this adventure, here are a few quotes from during and after this outing, as well as a more complete list of things we saw:

Alice Spencer (Deb Krohn’s mom) “Wow, these people sure do love herps. There really is something from everyone!”

Betsy Davis: “ …finding the hognose and the bull snake made the day great. And the [hognose] snake was so adorable.” “

My daughter Becky Nash: “ When can we do this again?! “ (before we’d even driven away)

Ron Humbert: “We only have an hour left in this paradise so let’s get moving!”- Said with a grin and met with enthusiastic smiles and affirmations from the rest of us.

A list of many of our finds:

Ant lions, beaver dam, bobcat tracks, box turtles (ornate), bullsnake, butterflies, caterpillars, cricket frogs, deer skeleton, eastern hognose snake, amazing fungi, garter snake, green frogs, Illinois mud turtles (shells), red & green lichens, painted turtles (shells), preying mantids, racerunners, red-eared turtles (shells), toad burrows, turkey (tracks), and turkey vultures!

Michelle is an avid reptile keeper in the Chicagoland area. She stays involved in the Chicago Herpetological Society and has had writings published in the CHS Bulletin. She has done educational presentations for local grade schools and exhibited at North America's largest educational reptile show, ReptileFest, held in Chicago during April each year. She is a wife and mother and has been a nature enthusiast since the age of 7, when she spied her first coral snake in a pine forest of the southern U.S.

Frequently Asked Questions - Snake Shedding Problems

Snake Shedding Problems

Over the last couple days I have noticed the skin on my ball python getting a bit milky looking, now her eyes are hazing over. I know this means time to shed. My question is, how long does the whole process take? And, when and if I should worry about providing increased humidity or anything like that.

You're right, it sounds like it's shedding time. The length of the entire process can vary, and another problem in counting the exact number of days is that the starting point is subjective. (At what point do you start counting?) Since this animal is new to you, it had probably started the cycle a couple days before you noticed it. After more experience with this snake, you'll see it coming sooner. Basically, the short answer is that it takes a week to two weeks. Extra humidity during the entire shedding cycle can be very beneficial (even necessary), but I can't comment specifically on your setup since I don't know what conditions you are currently providing to your snake. Offering a shedding box may be a good idea since you don't know for sure what this particular animal's needs are yet.

You can use the experience of each shed to determine what your snake needs, and then you can attempt to provide better environmental conditions the next time it becomes "opaque". After a couple of cycles, you'll know what conditions this animal requires to ensure a trouble-free shed. Also, in case you don't know, you should refrain from handling and feeding this snake until the shed is complete.

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In the News

Those pesky reptiles....

Some are a little bigger....

Some a just darn huge.....

And others are newly discovered...
(I know this has been shown before but I am interested in what people think about this. Should it be preserved and left alone, logged, used for research and medicine, should people be allowed to visit, should we be totally banned except for research purposes? How should we & Indonesia deal with this? What unknownreptiles, for example could exist there and should we be allowed to capture them and show them to the world? Is his possibly one of the last untouched rainforest wildernesses left on the planet?)

Finally, will this extend beyond this proposal...
Will you need one soon?


Tell Us What You Think!

If you have a story about one of your critters, funny or serious, found a great web site, found a great article or would like to contribute in any way, please contact me. I'm friendly, don't bite and would welcome your contributions.

And of course, if you have any suggestions for upcoming issues that you'd like to share with us, please send those too!

These could include:
- Great herp web-sites
- A fantastic herp article you know of that should be shared
- Why you pet reptile is fantastic
- A great idea you had
- Funny things that happened
- Dumb**s things that happened
- Images you'd like to share
- Care sheets for your herp

Remember - there are lots of people who would love to hear your stories. Just e-mail me at: Reptile-Cage-Plans

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Tell Us What You Think!!

Thanks to those who have given me feedback. I always want to
know of your achievements, good and bad.

I've just added a section on making cages waterproof. There
are a number of ways to do this and I have covered some of
those options.

I have also added "How to Make a Reptile Cage Stand in Five
Easy Steps" to the bonuses. Those of you have purchased the plans
are welcome to download it. It is about 25 pages and has detailed
steps. It is aimed people who have not made something like that
before. There is a picture on the website of what a finished
stand would look like.

I am currently finalising a book on making glass vivariums
and should have that available within a month or so.

I have also some plans for a 3'x3'x18'' display type cabinet
with side doors. This should also be available within a month
or two.

Thank you to those people who continue to give me feedback
and help others in their endeavours. You know who you are
so well done!!

I have a few ideas for some other additions to the book and
perhaps some other publications but I would love your input.

These could include:

  • Great herp web-sites
  • Why you pet reptile is fantastic
  • Funny things that happened
  • Dumb**s things that happened
  • Images you'd like to share.

Remember - there are lots of people who would love to hear your stories. Just e-mail me at: Reptile-Cage-Plans

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