When you keep a corn snake, kingsnake, or most other pet snakes, feeding is pretty straightforward. They eat rodents, and almost all of them will accept rodents that have been kept in the freezer and thawed. But even the easiest species of snake can present feeding problems. Baby snakes in particular may take forever to start eating. The mouse may have to be washed, or brained, or wiggled in front of the snake’s nose before the snake will eat it. There are a number of well-known tricks of the trade to get a recalcitrant snake to eat, and you can find them in the better pet manuals.
All of this also applies to garter snakes, but, as usual, garter snakes are a little bit different, and can present a few additional challenges — especially if they haven’t gotten accustomed to eating rodents.1 Here are a few feeding challenges I’ve noticed with my own garter snakes.
First, some garter snakes can be very particular about what they eat, particularly when you first get them.
Rossi and Rossi2 divide the garter snakes north of Mexico into three groups based on their dietary preferences: fish and amphibian specialists, worm and slug specialists, and generalists. If, for example, you’re keeping a fish and amphibian specialist, like one of the aquatic garter snakes from the West Coast or a ribbon snake, you’ll probably have difficulties if you try to feed it mice or earthworms. You may run into similar problems with a worm and slug specialist, like the Butler’s, Short-headed or Northwestern Garter Snakes (though I’ve been feeding Butler’s garters mice for a decade — see my article about that). Except for ribbon snakes, though, most garter snakes commonly kept in captivity are in the generalist category, such as the Common, Plains, Western Terrestrial, Checkered and Black-necked Garter Snakes. Generalists are, in theory, the easiest to feed: they’ll eat fish, frogs and worms, and they’re the easiest to convert to mice.
But snakes are individuals, and they sometimes defy our expectations.
I’ve kept so-called specialists that were converted to a mouse-based diet — including ribbon snakes and, as I mentioned above, Butler’s garters. I’ve also had so-called generalists that resisted being converted to a mouse-based diet, despite the fact that, on paper, they came from a species that would. A male melanistic Eastern Garter Snake in my care strongly preferred fish, and a female Eastern Black-necked Garter Snake wouldn’t eat anything else. (We’ll talk about her again in a bit.) And, when I bred Wandering Garter Snakes in 2002, each snake in the litter (of seven) that was born exhibited different preferences: one would eat worms, one would eat fish, another held out for pinky parts (all of them, it turned out, would eat mice — see rule six of The Seven Rules of Keeping Baby Garter Snakes).
So you have to be prepared to offer different food items, at least at first. The main thing is to get your snake eating; once you’ve taken care of that, you can worry about changing the snake to something that’s better for it or more readily available.
Now, even if you have the right food, you may not be presenting it in the right manner. While most snakes kept in captivity don’t mind if their food is alive or dead (and some even prefer it dead, and are afraid of live mice, for example), some garter snakes need their food to move. Remember that garter snakes are much more visually oriented than the boas, pythons and constricting colubrids that people usually keep. They may strongly prefer their prey raw and wriggling: I’ve had snakes that turned up their noses at chopped nightcrawler pieces, but devoured smaller earthworms; they ignored fish fillet, but gobbled down live feeder fish.
This is both annoying and inconvenient, because pieces of worm and fish are easier to procure. It’s easier to buy those ginormous nightcrawlers as bait, for example, and cut them up to feed to small or baby garter snakes than it is to dig up earthworms small enough to be eaten whole, or collect them from the streets after it rains. It’s easier to buy frozen fish, whether fillets or whole small fish, and present them on a plate than it is to go to a pet store and spend a fortune on live feeder fish. Safer, too: freezing fish takes care of parasites (though not the thiaminase enzyme, which destroys vitamin B1 and causes all sorts of health problems — but that’s a subject for another article).
One alternative is to offer the food on tongs and wiggle it at the snake until it strikes and takes the food. You may have heard of this: it’s called tease-feeding. It works well with whole animals like small mice, but it can be a problem if you’re using food that is small and fragile, and that breaks apart easily when handled with tweezers, forceps or hemostats. Tease-feeding with fish fillet is tricky.
It can also be a bit of a challenge if the snake won’t eat with you around. Some snakes, including some garter snakes, are shy about eating in front of people. I’ve got a couple of snakes, including a female Checkered Garter Snake, that will not eat if you’re in the room with them. They’re all eating mice, and they’ll eat frozen and thawed mice (i.e., they don’t require tease-feeding), but they’ll eat privately, overnight, when nobody’s watching them.
The fun really starts when two or more of these factors come into play at once.
Take, for example, a female Eastern Black-necked Garter Snake that I had in my care for a year or so — incidentally, the most evil garter snake I’ve ever kept. Despite being a member of one of those generalist species, she was profoundly fussy. If I recall correctly, the only thing we could get her to eat was live feeder fish. Her food needed to move, but she was so profoundly freaked out by our presence that tease-feeding her wasn’t possible. That meant that we couldn’t use frozen fish or scented pinkies. We couldn’t convert her to a mouse diet, so her diet was problematic. Indeed, the reason she lasted only a year with us was probably due to parasites she picked up from a suspect batch of live feeder fish.
A snake that needs its food to move but isn’t freaked out by people can be tease-fed; a snake that is freaked out by people but doesn’t need food to move can be left alone. Either scenario gives you a way of feeding the snake properly, but both at once limits your options. And let’s not consider the possibility that all three factors could be in play at the same time.
In practice, though, what I’ve just been describing is not all that common. In fact, for most beginning and inexperienced snake keepers, the most common problem is expecting the snake to eat when it shouldn’t: when the cage temperature is too low, or the snake has gone into hibernation mode, or it’s about to shed its skin and really isn’t interested in eating as a result. Most often, though, snake keepers simply try to feed their snakes too soon: too soon after their last meal, too soon after coming out of hibernation, too soon after bringing the snake home for the first time. Rule out the possibility that the snake just isn’t hungry yet before hitting the panic button and trying more drastic measures.
(This article is an expansion of a response I dashed off to a question in the Garter Snakes group on Facebook; the question interested me enough that I thought it could use a more thorough response. I hope you found it helpful.)
- A garter snake that eats mice isn’t much different, care-wise, from a corn snake — except when it decides it isn’t interested in mice for a while. See my article, Resetting a Garter Snake’s Appetite.
- John and Roxanne Rossi’s Snakes of the United States and Canada: Natural History and Care in Captivity (2003) is the de-facto bible for the care of North American snake species, especially those that aren’t commonly kept.