Q&A: Feeding Recently Wild-Caught Garter Snakes

Liz writes with a question about feeding two recently caught garter snakes:

I recently found two small garter snakes while hiking in a nearby forest. My fiancé and I decided to catch them and take them home. I read through your articles on caring for garter snakes and it has helped a lot helping me meet the needs of my snakes, although I am having trouble finding food that they will eat.
Before I read your article my fiancé swore they ate crickets though I know now that is not true.
I also tried small goldfish (alive in a rock bowl) but there was no reaction to them. One of the snakes poked its head in the water and went right past the fish. One of the fish died so I cut it up right away and tried to serve it to them that way and still nothing.
Someone also said they do not eat very often so I thought that may be why I couldn’t get them to eat anything.
I have not yet tried earthworms; the pet store was out of them when I tried to pick some up and pinkies are so expensive I was afraid I would spend money on them and they would be ignored as well.
I’m a little concerned that my snakes will die if I don’t find something they will eat soon. I have had them for about three and a half days now, and as far as I could tell they have not had anything to eat.
The pet stores in my area have been having problems with getting their shipments of fish in so no one has guppies and one place had minnows but refused to sell them when they heard it was for snake food.
I am all out of ideas other than drowning my lawn for worms.

Catching wild snakes involves a host of considerations that buyers of captive-bred snakes don’t usually have to face; the biggest of these is getting a recently caught snake to feed. (This is one big reason why most snake keepers recommend getting captive-bred animals wherever possible, incidentally.)

Not every wild snake settles down in captivity; some resolutely refuse to eat. For example, Eastern Milk Snakes in my area are notorious for refusing all food and starving themselves to death (although I did keep one for a few years that would eat). Now, before Liz gets any more alarmed, I should mention that it takes an adult snake several months to starve to death, so her two garter snakes are in no danger of immediate starvation.

Actually, garter snakes have a pretty good reputation for eating in captivity, so long as the right food is offered — and fortunately, most of them aren’t very fussy. By trying to find every food item that might be of interest to a garter snake, Liz is definitely on the right track.

Liz did not say where she lives, so I don’t know which species (or subspecies) might be at play here. If she has a Butler’s, Northwestern or Short-headed Garter Snake, she might do better with earthworms than fish; if she has an Eastern or Western Ribbon Snake, she’d do better with live fish than worms. Common Garter Snakes should eat both.

It’s of interest to me that the snakes aren’t showing any interest in live fish; most species would gleefuly attack and devour any live fish that were offered. But there are always exceptions: individuals and local populations that aren’t interested in what their species normally eats. Or maybe she has a worm-eating species.

Her best bet is to try to locate some earthworms, which most garter snakes will attack with relish; I’ve often thought of earthworms as comfort food for garter snakes. If pet stores don’t have them, she should try a bait shop, making sure to get nightcrawlers rather than red wigglers. I rather suspect that her two snakes will eat if she gives them some worms. (She should be very careful to feed them separately; I’ve had to intervene when two garter snakes attacked the opposite ends of the same worm!)

If they don’t eat earthworms, and they’re not ribbon snakes or some west coast aquatic species of garter snake, then something might be up. What might that something be?

  1. They may not have adapted to captivity yet. There’s a rule of thumb among snake breeder that says that once you bring your new snake home, you should leave it alone for three days, without trying to handle it or try to feed it, so that it can get used to its new surroundings. And that’s with captive-bred snakes; wild snakes are going to be even more stressed out by being captured and put into a cage. Liz has only had these snakes for three and a half days, so they may simply have not settled down yet.
  2. There may be a problem with the cage. Liz should make sure that there’s a source of water, that they’re warm enough (but not too warm; we’re talking 75-85°F/25-30°C, no more), that there’s enough room (but not too much room; a 25-gallon tank would be the upper limit for two garter snakes), and that there are places for the snakes to hide.
  3. They may not be hungry yet. My snakes get fed every week or so, though garter snakes can be opportunistic gluttons that gorge themselves at every opportunity. Even so, this may also be a possibility.
  4. They may be too shy. Some of my snakes won’t eat in front of me. I have to leave them alone and wait overnight for them to eat.
  5. They may not be garter snakes. Let’s assume that Liz has identified these snakes properly, but not everyone does. I’ve seen green snakes, gopher snakes and rat snakes tagged as garter snakes; it seems that in North America, some people think that every harmless snake is a garter snake. If these aren’t garter snakes, they’ll want something else to eat.

In the end, though, if they continue to refuse to eat, or she can’t provide them with something they will eat, she should probably release them, within a week or two, where she found them, so that they can go and find something they want to eat, and on their own terms.

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