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Live Vs. Dead Prey


| Introduction | Live Prey | Why Not To Feed Live Prey | Why Feed Live Prey | Conversion From Live To Dead Prey | When You Have To Feed Live Prey | Serious Problems Caused By Live Prey | Related Topics | Related References |
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There are a lot of issues going around on the feeding of life prey to other animals, especially to snakes. The feeding of live animals is already banned in various countries including Europe, The United States Of America and South Africa. It is described, especially by non-snake keeping people, as inhumane, cruel and unfair to these animals.

This section is written in the context of snakes eating rodents like rats and mice, but other rodent eating herptiles and herptiles eating other live prey should be handled equally

It is important to mention that rodent-eating snakes do not have to eat live prey, it is a matter of preference, not a necessity. It is known that some snakes are naturally opportunistic feeders. Western Hognose snakes (Heterodon nasicus) for example will eat various appropriately sized, dead and even decomposed carcasses when the occasion presents itself. There are a lot of ways to convert a snake from eating live to dead prey. Some methods are explained in this section.

At this stage it is also important to mention that the most dangerous animal a captive snake will come across is a live rodent. This however does not mean that it is impossible and always dangerous to feed rodents to snakes.

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Live Prey:

Prey size and type is dependant on the size of the snake. The choice usually lies between various sizes of mice, rats, hamsters, guinea pigs (order Rodentia), rabbits and hares (order Lagomorpha) and chickens. Pink rats and mice and chicks are obviously safe to feed, but still illegal and inhumane. Adult and larger prey can pose more of a threat.

Live prey should not be fed to snakes because of the following:

  • They have the ability to fight back and cause injuries
  • They might eat snakes
  • Legislation and animal rights

Rodents, coming from the Latin word rodere, meaning "to gnaw",  have one pair incisor teeth on both the top and bottom jaw. Although rabbits and hares have similarities in their teeth configuration they are actually grouped in the order Lagomorpha (lag"o-mor'fah).

Rodents are apparently more intelligent than  lagomorphs and some families may be faster than both inactive and even active snakes. Although rabbits and guinea pigs are not known to bite voluntarily, they might injure a snake quite badly if the prey killing process was not fast enough. It is more likely for a rodent to bite. Non-venomous snakes kill by constriction and hungry snakes can become over-eager and make attacking mistakes i.e. like striking from the wrong side of the prey. This gives prey ample opportunity to use its teeth and gnaw into the snake.

Injury can also happen even if the snake can get a perfect bite into the face of the prey. Other mistakes like missing its initial strike or loose control of the constriction process can end up in giving the prey, which in this case become the enemy, the opportunity to react on instincts and counter-attack. Consequences of an actual brawl might be far more devastating. Rats, mice and especially hamsters can become quite aggressive and might attack the enemy without hesitation.

Some literature mentions prey which literally started to eat a snake alive. This is just plain carelessness and bad husbandry. A snake which is not hungry will ignore whatever is going on around it. Prey left alone in a cage or container with a predator, however, is not so relaxed about the whole thing. The prey is usually terrified and will stay as far from the enemy as possible, but some might be hungry enough eat whatever is around. Some rats have literally eaten their way into snakes, exposing long stretches of backbone!

Crickets might do the same with lizards when left in the same container for long periods. This is especially true with diurnal lizards during the night when the lizard is asleep (i.e. Bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps)) or in the case where the lizard is physically soft and easy to eat into (i.e. Leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius)).

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Why Feed Live Prey:

  • Many snake keepers (especially amateurs) get very excited about the whole "hunt" and kill procedure. It is "cool", how else did your friend convince you to buy your first snake?
  • Relatively easier
  • More practical and cheaper to re-feed at a later stage when snake did not eat the first time around
  • More natural
  • Some snakes will only take live prey
  • Hatchling snakes might have trouble eating dead prey

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Conversion From Live To Dead Prey:

The sooner a snake is converted from live to dead prey the better. Start off by feeding hatchling snakes dead prey (pinkies). Although snakes can change their food preference over time they should be pretty constant.

Converting a snake from live to dead prey should not be a big problem. There are however those individuals who are exceptions. Wild caught snakes or near derivatives may have problems but conversion is still possible.

Try to delay normal feeding for a few days or so and make sure the snake is pretty hungry before starting the conversion. A snake should be pretty hungry after about two weeks without any food. First try offering dead prey. If this does not work try dangling the dead rat or mouse by the tail or by holding it in front of the snake with some or other tool such as blunt ended forceps. Offer food head first and never  hold  the  prey  in  your  fingers! You

When starving a snake make sure it cannot escape. Hungry snakes are more desperate to escape than fat satisfied snakes and will try alot harder.

may need to move the prey around a little to catch the snake's attention. Be prepared for the strike and quickly release the prey.

If the snake is not interested in the dead prey you might first need to feed a small stunned live prey. Mice (not rats and lagomorphs) can be stunned by giving it a hard bump to the head. A stunned mouse should be immediately followed by freshly killed mouse and then a pre-killed one. The next feeding should be started off with freshly killed prey, followed immediately by pre-killed prey. Snakes still feeding on pinkies can be sensitized with live pinkies moving towards pre-killed ones.

Pre-killed prey is prey that was killed, frozen and defrosted after storage. See the Preservation Of Live Prey section for more info. Also see the Reptile & Amphibian Feeding Problems section for more hints and details.

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When You Have To Feed Live Prey:

Always stand by when feeding live prey. If a snake is shy and does not like company, leave and return at regular intervals.

Wild and adult prey is obviously more dangerous than young, tame, captive-bred prey. Never feed wild caught prey and never be assured about the safety of feeding captive-bred prey. Gnawing due to mistakes is always possible, no matter what you are feeding. Make sure that prey is not too big for the snake. Rather feed more smaller prey than one or two large ones. Try to make sure that prey is not stressed before feeding. Feed more smaller prey to inexperienced snakes. Stop feeding live prey when a snake is full. Snakes are usually less motile after swallowing one or two mice and mistakes due to sluggishness becomes more common.

For the safety of a snake (and cruelty towards the prey) it is better to feed stunned prey.

Do not ever feed live prey in public for everyone to see! There are people who are sensitive and unhappy  about the whole issue.

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Serious Problems Caused By Live Prey:

Skin, muscle tissue and in some cases even bone itself were gnawed away by rodents. Serious trauma can obviously lead to death.

Other serious problems include partial or complete tongue loss and injuries to the head, eyes and nose. The tongue of a reptile necessary for smell and the loss thereof can become serious for future feedings. When the tongue has been damaged the effected tissue tend to form non-functional scar tissue which can lead to mouth obstructions.

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"If you think I should add more information to this section or think that something is incorrect, contact me and let me know. I would love to hear your ideas or methods you might use that is different than ours."

Last updated 07 March 2007 by Renier Delport

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Related Topics:

Rats & Mice As Food
Reptile & Amphibian Feeding Problems
Preservation Of Live Prey
Euthanasia Of Live Prey
Record Keeping

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Related References:

Miller, Stephen A. & Harley, John B. 1999 Zoology, Fourth Edition, McGraw-Hill.

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| Introduction | Live Prey | Why Not To Feed Live Prey | Why Feed Live Prey | Conversion From Live To Dead Prey | When You Have To Feed Live Prey | Serious Problems Caused By Live Prey | Related Topics | Related References |
| Email This Page | Rodents For Sale |


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