Archive for kingsnake

Feeding Your Reptiles: Frozen/Thawed Rats and Mice

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

One of the first questions that comes up whenever I tell people that I have pet snakes is inevitably, “what do you feed them?”  People are incredibly curious about how snakes eat, what they eat, and where you get such things.  And many people reveal during these conversations that the only reason they’d never looked seriously into getting a snake as a pet was because of a fear of (or simple distaste for) the idea of feeding live prey.

Most people are a bit surprised when I tell them that I simply buy frozen mice or rats, usually in bulk (packages of 12 or 24) so that I don’t need to worry about going to the pet store every single week.  I can then thaw the prey items out, one at a time, much like you’d thaw out a chicken breast before cooking it.  It’s fast, easy, and convenient.  And my snakes get a good meal whenever they need it, without me having to trek across town to the pet store, or worry about keeping live rodents in my apartment.

nom nom nom

 

So Why Frozen/Thawed Instead of Live Prey?

There are people who make the argument that live prey is more “natural”, because a snake in the wild has to stalk and kill its prey.  I find such arguments to be patently ridiculous, because there’s really nothing “natural” about keeping a snake in a glass enclosure in your home.  Most snakes in the pet trade were captive-bred — they’ve spent their lives living in “unnatural” conditions — and many were selectively bred for traits that would get them killed in the wild (ie, albinism).  Snakes in the wild rarely live for more than a few years, while in captivity they can live for decades.  Perhaps a frozen/thawed mouse is a bit unnatural, but it’s certainly no more unnatural than feeding kibbles or canned food to your cat or dog.

Many shops that carry reptile products do offer live prey items as an option, but any argument that a live mouse is somehow “healthier” or contains “more nutritional value” than a frozen one is purely specious — if anything, the frozen prey will be healthier, because pet stores often don’t have very good housing conditions for their prey items, don’t properly feed them, and don’t monitor for health problems the way that a dedicated rodent production facility has to do.  Live prey items might also carry parasites picked up at the store (or elsewhere), which freezing will kill off — live prey items are a potential source of mite infestations, for example, or may contain parasites in their guts.

The biggest risk with live prey, of course, is that it might fight back.  Rodents have long, sharp teeth that can seriously injure your beloved snake-friend.  A snake that misses on the first strike, or gets a bad grip on its prey, can be severely bitten (even killed) by a cornered, fighting-for-its-life rodent.  Vet bills for reptiles get expensive quickly — since they’re an “exotic” pet, even walking in to the vet’s office or emergency clinic with them can be a $100 appointment fee, before any tests/surgeries/medicines/etc even enter the picture.  And many vets are untrained in reptile care, and will be able to do little to help your injured friend — especially if you’re going to an emergency clinic or the like.  Herpetological specialists are rare, and their offices may have limited hours.

 

What If My Snake Doesn’t Like Already-Dead Food?

There are instances where a snake doesn’t immediately take to eating things that have been pre-killed for it.  Wild-caught individuals (which you should never buy — animals taken from their natural habitats are usually illegal and have to be smuggled across borders, are typically less healthy, and you may be destroying natural ecosystems by participating in their sale), or animals who were raised on live prey in captivity (there are still some major breeders out there who feed live, despite the risks), may not immediately recognize a frozen/thawed rodent as a food item.

There’s the odd animal who will simply never take to eating frozen/thawed, especially if this type of prey was not introduced to them until they were an adult.  But in 99% of cases, a bit of care and attention will get your animal eating f/t prey.  A few tricks to try, if you’ve got a fussy eater on your hands — I’ll arrange them from least to most macabre:

  • Warm the prey item to approximately body temperature by immersing it in hot water until it feels warm to the touch.
  • Wiggle the prey item around in front of the snake’s face (you may want to use tongs or forceps, rather than just holding the prey item in your hand — it’s not unheard of for a snake to mistake a human hand for a yummy rat, especially if you’ve got rat-smell all over your fingers).
  • Cut the prey item open a little bit, to get a stronger “blood” smell for attracting the snake.  Anecdotally, puncturing or crushing the skull is the best way to do this (apparently brains smell delicious), but if you’re squeamish it may be better to go for a less-gruesome tactic.
  • Try purchasing a live prey item, but killing it just before feeding it to your snake.  I’ve seen various YouTube demonstrations of how to use vinegar & baking soda to make a CO2 chamber at home, or how to use CO2 cartridges for the same purpose, but such DIY creations tend to be unreliable — often the prey simply falls asleep, and doesn’t actually die.  And there’s an argument to be made that suffocation may not be particularly kind, even if it looks (from an outside perspective) like just falling asleep.  If you’re not terribly squeamish, snapping the spine is one of the most humane & painless ways to euthanize a rodent.  If you feel confident in your ability to do so, snapping the neck manually is the most precise and “gentle” method.  Many people teach to simply whack the rodent (hard) off a table or other hard surface, which is less precise and may only stun the prey item, not actually kill it … plus it just looks & feels fairly brutal.  My chosen method (because I hate feeling bones snapping in my hand) is to place a hard, thin object like a screwdriver over the rodent’s neck, hold the tail in my off hand and the screwdriver in my dominant hand, and push (sharply) down and forwards.  It’s fast and precise, and the prey item feels little-to-no fear or pain, because it all happens in less than a second.  I don’t like doing it, but I’m pragmatic enough to understand that this is still far less traumatic to the animal than being dropped into a tank with a live snake, and then bitten & squeezed to death, would be.  Always wear gloves when handling live rodents; they have big teeth and can deliver mean bites.

If absolutely none of the above suggestions work, and your snake has gone a long time without eating, you may have to resort to live prey.  If that’s the case, feeding smaller prey items with greater frequency is usually the way to go.  A snake that could eat a medium-sized rat twice a month, for example, might do better if fed rat pups, every single week.  Younger/smaller prey items are less likely to be able to fight back or inflict serious injuries on your snake.  Never feed live prey without supervising the feeding process (have a set of good, thick gloves on so that you can pick up a struggling rat or snake should things go badly), and be aware of risks like parasites — check incoming live prey thoroughly to be sure it’s not carrying mites or the like, and always check your snake out visually following a feeding to look for bite or scratch injuries.

 

Are There Any Risks With Frozen/Thawed?

Now that I’ve outlined how f/t is the safer and more humane way to go, I’ll go over the couple of risks that may come along with feeding frozen prey items.

Most important is making sure that the prey item is thoroughly defrosted.  Snakes are cold-blooded.  A prey item that feels warm to the touch, but still has a big chunk of frozen meat inside of it?  That could cause your snake’s internal temperature to drop enough to cause serious problems, or even death from organ failure.  The same is true if the prey becomes too warm (which is why you should NEVER use a microwave to defrost frozen prey — the internal organs of the prey item will heat much faster than the outside, and can get hot enough to cause burns).  The microwave also risks actually cooking the meat, and snakes don’t have the same biology that we do — their bodies aren’t designed to digest cooked meat.  Defrosting a frozen prey item is best done by immersing it in hot water and leaving it to sit until it’s thoroughly thawed out (the larger the prey item, the longer it needs).  Give the prey item a squeeze, to make sure there’s no big frozen parts inside.  If it still feels cold to the touch, it’s not ready yet.

The other risk (which isn’t really limited to f/t items, but is more of a concern because they’re probably being stored in your freezer alongside your own food) is transmission of any rodent-borne dirt/bacteria to your own food & utensils.  Keeping separate “snake utensils” is recommended — a set of tongs & a “defrosting bowl” that are for snake-related uses only.  Frozen rodents are unlikely to have any parasites or diseases still living on them, since most bacteria and viruses and the like can’t live at freezer temperatures, but double-bagging frozen rats/mice & being sure to wash your hands after handling is a useful “just in case” measure.  Double-bagging also helps to prevent freezer burn, and may help to disguise the bag of frozen rats from any friends/family who happen to open your freezer and peek inside (I’ve definitely had friends scream and drop glassware upon going into my freezer to grab the bottle of vodka I keep in the freezer door, because the other shelf in the freezer door is the “rat shelf” … several broken glasses later, I’ve learned to warn people of this in advance).

 

Costs and Additional Notes

Snakes are extremely low-maintenance pets.  Being cold-blooded, they only need to eat a fraction of the amount that a warm-blooded mammal or bird would — and (generally) the larger the prey they eat, the less often you need to feed them.

Here in Southern Ontario, small “pinky” or “fuzzy” mice cost about $1-$1.50 apiece, while adult mice may be $2-3.  Medium-Large rats may be more in the $5 to $8 range.  If you’ve got an especially large animal, you may need to be feeding a larger prey item like rabbits, which can cost $15-20 depending on availability in your area … but on the plus side, such larger animals often only need to eat once a month or so.  Buying in bulk can get you discounts, but you need to have freezer space for storing 24 or 50 or 100 prey items in order to make such discounts a viable option — and remember that like with all food, there’s a limited amount of time that something can be kept in the freezer before freezer burn starts to set in & nutritional value is lost.  Airtight storage bags & a clean freezer without frost on the walls will help with longevity in storage.

If you’re getting a new snake, ask the breeder/store/rescue where you’re acquiring it if it’s already eating frozen/thawed prey.  If not, be prepared that you might have to spend some time teaching your new pet to take f/t, and be ready to potentially buy some live rodents & kill them yourself, to get things started.  If that doesn’t seem like something you’re prepared for, ask for another animal that’s already taking f/t, or ask if they’d be willing to “test” the animal on f/t food for you, before you commit to buying/adopting.

And if you really love the idea of having a pet snake, but really *can’t* stomach the idea of handling dead mice/rats, there are a few species out there that eat other foods — like eggs or fish.  Dasypeltis, an African breed, is a commonly known egg-eating colubrid snake which you may be able to get your hands on (although they’re much less common than other colubrid species in the pet trade, and finding a captive-bred specimen may be challenging) — they are usually fed quail eggs in captivity.  Many species of garter snake prefer to eat fish (although live feeder-fish carry high risk of parasites; do your research before deciding on a fish-eating snake as a pet, and you may want to go frozen/thawed with fishy feeders, too, to kill off any parasites).  Other colubrid snakes may eat eggs, fish, or earthworms — but they may require vitamin or calcium supplements added to their diet, as these foods are not as nutritionally valuable as mammal prey.  Thorough research is necessary before acquiring any pet — don’t simply trust what “some guy at the pet store” said.  There are myths out there about snakes eating insectivorous diets and the like — these are MYTHS, and a snake won’t get proper nutrition eating only bugs.  But if you’ve done your research well, a non-rodent-eating snake may be a very beautiful and rewarding pet choice.

Meet the Menagerie: Penelope

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , , , on March 21, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

In this, the fourth installment of my “Meet the Menagerie” posts, I’m introducing you to my California Kingsnake, Penelope.

For years I’ve had a special love for colubrid snakes, and kingsnakes in particular.  When I was in high school, I had a friend whose older sister had a pet red kingsnake.  Every time I visited their house, I’d find an excuse to go stare at the snake tank for a while.  He was a fun snake to watch — very active, and very pretty.  So when I decided last fall to get myself a pet snake, kingsnakes were first on the (longish) list.

Basic Info

Kingsnakes (genus Lampropeltis) are non-venemous, constricting snakes that are common in much of the United States and Mexico.  They have shiny, unkeeled (non-ridged) scales, sleek heads, and long, thin bodies.  There are many different subspecies of kingsnake, from the brightly coloured red kingsnake with banding that imitates the venomous coral snake, to the dark chocolate-coloured Mexican kingsnake.  California Kingsnakes like Penelope (Lampropeltis getula californiae) are, as the name suggests, most commonly found in California — but they’re also seen in Arizona, southern Nevada, southern Utah,  southern Oregon, and northwestern Mexico.  There are several regional colour variations within the California Kingsnake species; Penelope exhibits what is commonly known as the “Newport-Long Beach” phase, with a broken-up pattern that looks almost like a cross between bands and stripes.  Banded snakes with either black and white or yellow and brown bands are more commonly seen, and snakes with longitudinal stripes are also found in the wild.  The thickness of the bands or stripes can also vary, creating different-looking snakes.  Check out some photos of different morphs here.

Kingsnakes in the wild live in a variety of different habitats, but are most commonly found in rocky or scrub-brush terrain where there are plenty of hiding spaces.  They’re good snakes to have around, and those who know their reptiles are happy to find kingsnakes living near their homes, because kingsnakes are immune to the venom of most rattlesnakes and will happily eat the venomous snakes.  Their taste for other snakes is why they are called “kings”.  They also eat mice, rats and other unwanted vermin, which is also appreciated by their human neighbors.

Kingsnakes are often killed by humans when mistaken for other, more dangerous species.  Red kingsnakes have a pattern that imitates the banding of the venomous coral snake, and those who don’t know the rhyme “red and yellow kills a fellow; red and black is okay, Jack” may kill the harmless and helpful kingsnake by mistake.  Other kingsnakes, like the California kingsnake, may be mistaken for rattlesnakes, because when threatened they will quickly vibrate their tails.  Despite the fact that they don’t actually have “rattles”, this vibration will often create enough of a noise to fool a predator — or a human — into thinking that they’re the real thing.  If you do live in an area where kingsnakes are common, get to know what the local species look like.  This way you’ll be able to protect both the snakes and yourself.

Kingsnakes in Captivity

In captivity, kingsnakes have a few simple requirements.  First, and most important, is a large enough tank.  With kingsnakes, as with most snakes, you want to follow the “L Rule” when selecting an enclosure:  the length of the snake should not exceed the length of two consecutive sides of the tank.  In other words, if the snake were to bend into an “L” shape, with the tip of its tail in one corner of the tank, would its head touch the opposing corner?  If so, you should get a bigger tank.  For an adult kingsnake you’ll likely be looking at a 40 gallon tank, as they grow up to about 5 feet long.  If you can afford to go even larger than that, please consider doing so:  these are very active, curious snakes, and more space will give them more mental stimulation, and allow you to observe a wider range of natural behaviours.  Speaking of mental stimulation:  making changes to their environment on a regular basis can also keep life more interesting for your animal.  I try to move at least one piece of cage furniture every week, to encourage exploratory behaviors and keep Penelope active and happy.

Always remember when keeping snakes:  a secure lid is VERY important.  Snakes are curious creatures and amazing escape artists — if they can push the lid of the tank up even a little bit, they’ll escape, and with all the multitudinous hiding places available in an average house you may never find them again.  Many large terrariums are designed with lids that lock closed, specifically to prevent snake escapes.

Kingsnakes also need a ready source of fresh, clean water — and their water dish should be large enough for them to curl up and take a bath in, if they want to.  A large margarine tub is a simple (if not very attractive) option.  There are also commercially available reptile dishes that are large enough — or you can go with any other (non-breakable) dish that’s of an appropriate size.  I specify non-breakable because if your snake is anything like mine, that dish is going to get moved around the terrarium quite a bit.  Kingsnakes are curious and will happily re-arrange their tank furniture during their exploratory missions.  You can also increase the amount of activity and exercise they’re getting by taking them out of their tank on occasions (always make sure you’re carefully supervising, as they can make quick getaways when you’re not paying attention).  Some snakes will enjoy handling more than others.  Penelope is quite personable and enjoys exploring people (and especially crawling inside of shirts and into pockets).  Other snakes may be more skittish, and so you’ll have to limit the amount of handling they get.  Respond to your snake’s personality, and do what is best for them.  If you find that your snake is extremely aggressive when handling, you may want to increase the amount you’re feeding them, since kingsnakes are usually a very docile species.

Hiding spots are also important when you’re setting up your snake’s home, as kingsnakes in the wild will find sheltered spots to curl up in when they rest.  At least one of these hides should be a “moist hide”, with some sort of moss or soil inside to retain moisture.  Snakes, like other reptiles, seek out humid places when they are shedding, as it helps them in sloughing their skin.  In Penelope’s tank I’ve used a mix of branches and PVC pipes to create spaces for her to hide.  I’ve also sectioned off one area of the tank to have soil as the substrate (to retain moisture and give a natural look to the space), and another section to contain a product called CareFresh — a recycled paper product that is commonly used as reptile or small mammal bedding.  Penelope likes to burrow under the CareFresh to hide.  The only reason I don’t recommend it as the substrate for the entire tank is that it turns to mush when wet, and so you can’t really use it near the water dish.

Some people use wood shavings or chips as a substrate for their snakes, but it’s not my substrate of choice.  Some types of wood — like pine and cedar — MUST be avoided because they contain resin that can be irritating to the snake’s skin and respiratory system, and it’s poisonous if ingested.  Wood chips of any kind are also very hard to digest if accidentally ingested, and can cause impaction, so if you’re keeping your snake on wood chips you’ll always want to take them out of their tank before feeding them.  Some snake enthusiasts and breeders swear by aspen shavings, but I’m just not a fan, and I definitely encourage you to do your research before deciding on wood (it’s not a decision to make just because “the guy at the pet store said so”).

The final requirement for your snake is, of course, heating.  Like all reptiles, snakes are cold blooded and need to regulate their body temperature by moving between warmer and cooler parts of their environment.  You’ll want it to be about 87-90 degrees Fahrenheit on the hot side of the tank, and 78-80 degrees on the cool side.  Temperatures above 90 or below 75 degrees should be avoided.  A heat lamp is the best source of heat for snakes, as they have a tendency to burrow when they are feeling too warm — many injuries have been caused because a warm snake decided to burrow closer to its under-tank heating pad, instead of moving further away.

Delicious and Nutritious Foods


While wild kingsnakes will eat a wide variety of foods, ranging from other snakes to rodents to eggs to lizards, in captivity they are most commonly fed on rats or mice.  These are easily available live or frozen from any pet store that handles reptiles, and they come in many sizes.  Choose the size of rat based on the size of the snake — the food shouldn’t be bigger around than the largest part of the snake’s body.  I prefer to buy frozen, myself, because they’re easier to buy in large quantities, and I don’t need to worry about doing the killing (it’s not really difficult, but it’s unpleasant). With frozen rats, all you need to do is thaw them out by leaving them in warm water.  Be sure the rat is thoroughly thawed, so that your snake doesn’t get frostbite, and never use a microwave to thaw out the rodents, because they may thaw unevenly or get too hot and burn your snake.  If you decide to go with live rats or mice instead (some snakes will never take to eating something that’s been frozen first), you’ll want to kill them just before giving them to your snake.  The kindest way to do this is by snapping the neck (it’s pretty much instant death), or by using CO2 gas (which puts them to sleep).  Don’t put your rodents in the freezer to kill them — it’s a long, slow, unpleasant death.  I’m also not a fan of the “whack them off a table” method … it’s brutal and not always accurate (sometimes the rodent is only stunned, and it wakes up a few minutes later and you have to do it again).  I don’t recommend feeding live rodents to any snake, as it causes unnecessary terror to the prey, and your snake might get bitten or scratched if the rodent fights back in self-defense.

If you’re squeamish about killing the prey yourself, simply ask the person you get the snake from whether they’re eating frozen/thawed prey (if they are, you’ll be able to feed them that, too).  Or you may be able to get the staff at your pet store to do the killing for you, and then just feed the rodent to your snake immediately when you arrive home with it.

Juvenile kingsnakes should be fed every 5 to 7 days.  Once they’re full grown, you can go 10 days to 2 weeks between feedings.  The only exception occurs when they are shedding: snakes are unlikely to eat when they’re preparing to shed their skin, so always check their eyes to see if they have gone “opaque” before you attempt to feed them.  A snake that is going to shed in the next few days will start to look dull and have a whitish sheen.  When their eyes appear to have a white film over them, it’s a sign that a shed is going to happen in the next day or so.  At this time the snake is more likely to be defensive and it won’t want to be handled.  Young snakes will shed about once a month; adults will shed four or five times a year.

Once your snake has eaten, try to minimize handling for the next few days.  They’re busy digesting, and undue stress can mess with that process or even cause them to regurgitate their meal.  In the wild, a well-fed snake would probably remain mostly in hiding while it digested its food, and your captive friend will want to do the same.  A few days after eating, your snake will poop (snake poop is pretty smelly, so you’ll want to clean it up right away).  After that he or she will be back to their normal, personable self, and you can resume regular handling.

A Final Note

If you’re interested in getting a kingsnake as a pet, do your research, people! They’re not difficult animals to keep, but they do need more extensive (and expensive) setups than, say, a leopard gecko.  There’s no substitute for knowing your stuff, and people at pet stores can’t always be trusted when it comes to accurate reptile information.