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Reptile & Amphibian Feeding Problems


| Introduction | Husbandry | Handling | Feeding Containers | Routine | Food Size | Congenital Defects | Hatchlings | Other Problems | Extreme Measures | Last Resort | Regurgitation & Vomition | Sick Animals | Related Topics |
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Reptiles and amphibians present quite often with eating difficulties or anorexia (do not want to eat at all). This is especially true for wild caught specimens or congenital, genetic or congenital impaired hatchlings and animals which are kept in sub-optimum enclosures. It is important to distinguish between total anorexia, in which the causes are likely include disease or parasites, or just difficult eaters. Most of the time animals are stressed or are kept in sub-optimal conditions (i.e. husbandry related). Stress causes physiological changes in animals which have an effect on normal behaviour and appetite.

If large numbers in a batch of hatchlings are affected, a genetic, congenital or husbandry related origin should be suspected. Genetically defective animals, for example Corns snakes (Elaphe guttata guttata) which can present with a very low birth mass, should not be used for future breeding stock.

It is much easier to suspect problems in animals feeding on a more regular basis. Animals like Bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) and Leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius) are generally fed on a daily basis. Snakes on the other hand are not just more lenient on their feeding times and dates, but under normal circumstances they can also go weeks without food without having detrimental effects.

Before beginning an investigation of eating difficulties or anorexia, make sure the following basics are adhered to:

  • Correct food is offered (type & size)
  • Correct husbandry is applied
  • Animal was hungry before feeding
  • A newly acquired animal is accustomed to its new environment
  • Animal is not shedding or brumating

It is also important to note that it is not unusual for some herptiles not to eat during the winter. Some snakes go into complete hibernation, or more correctly brumation where they cease to eat totally. Some lizards species like the Bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) sometimes goes into a partial brumation where its food intake decreases drastically. It is important to consult appropriate literature on the winter behaviour of the herptile in question.

The rest of this page will take you through potential problems. Causes are more or less listed according to importance and significance. If these steps does not solve the problem, professional or veterinary intervention might be necessary. 

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It is still believed that most of the problems encountered with exotic herptiles, including eating difficulties, are husbandry related. It is crucial that an animal is kept according to a correct and proven care sheet. The most important factors include temperature, lighting (i.e. UV lighting in most lizards) and the correct physical environment (i.e. substrate and hide boxes).

"I would recommend consulting at least three different sources for appropriate care sheets. Sources include reliable internet websites, a nice up to date husbandry related book from your local library or book store and some advice form a pet shop or breeder. Combine these care sheets to something that works for you."

Temperatures that are either to hot or to cold alters the normal metabolic processes of exothermic animals. This will have a definite effect on the feeding patterns of those animals. Herptiles draw their functional energy from external heat sources (i.e. the sun in nature and a heat pad or overhead lighting in captivity). It is is crucial to supply and regulate heat in most captive environments. Cold temperatures will cause maldigestion or malabsorption and a decreased transit time of food, which will ultimately cause a herptile to eat less frequently or not at all. Too high temperatures will induce stress which could have the same consequences. The problem can be solved by supplying the correct temperature gradient.

The same problem can occur with inadequate hiding, no proper place to sit or climb or a too large environment.

Care Sheets
Accessories & Other Stuff For Herptiles

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Excessive handling, especially directly before feeding might induce stress. Never handle problem, young or wild animals on the same day they are to be fed. If a herptile has to be moved to another container to be fed, give it adequate time to adapt. The environmental factors should be the same than in the original container.

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Feeding Containers:

A separate vivarium or container can be set up as a so called "restaurant" where the environment is made optimal for feeding. The main reasons for these containers are to feed animals separately, removing the stress or danger associated with hungry or dangerous cage mates, better observation and a better or optimal physical environment for feeding. These containers should  have a good solid substrate so that nothing can stick to food and no obstacles for food to hide under or obscure the hunting process. Feeding containers can be used as an option if no apparent cause for feeding problems are observed.

It is once again very important to keep the environment in the feeding container as close as possible to the required environmental need of the species. The use of  feeding containers can also be the reason for a reptile or amphibian not to eat. The following problems are associated with feeding containers:

  • Territorial and non-territorial animals are placed in an unfamiliar environment
  • Handling necessary to move animal
  • Differences in temperature, humidity and lighting

Even a slight change in temperature can cause stress. Temperature changes should be made gradually over a period of time for the best results. When a small container is used it can be placed within the original terrarium to keep variables to a minimum. Remember to allow enough time for an animal to adapt in its new environment. Rather feed the animal in its original container if it poses problems when feeding in a feeding container.

Suitable Substrates For Herptiles

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Not all herptiles have the same frequency of feeding. Generally snakes can be fed once a week while lizards need to be fed on a daily basis. By adapting a feeding routine, i.e. by feeding your snake on the same day of the week, or by feeding your lizard every day at the same time might help to prevent feeding difficulties. If the animal refuse to eat on that day, keep the routine constant by not offering food later that day or the next day in the case of a snake. Animals will adapt to the feeding times and start to anticipate the next feeding.

Herp Record Keeping

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Food Size:

It is important that the correct prey size is offered. The transverse diameter of food should generally not be more than two times the diameter of a snakes body and the length between the eyes of insectivorous lizards can be used to indicate the maximum length of insects that can be fed. The diameter of Egg-eating snakes can be used to indicate the size of the eggs that can be fed. Day old mice pinkies should be offered to small hatchling snakes and only pinheads or very small crickets should be offered to insectivorous lizards.

Rats & Mice As Food
 Size, Appearance & Average Contents Of Different Eggs

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Congenital Defects:

Congenital defects are abnormalities that develop during the gestation period of viviparious reptiles or the incubation period or oviparious animals. It poses feeding problems from an early stage of life. A congenital defect can be caused for no apparent reason or because the incubation temperature or humidity was incorrect. Extensive electricity failures or inadequate heating equipment are often to be blamed.

A common congenital defect is small birth size. It is commonly seen in Corn snakes (Elaphe guttata guttata). Any anatomical abnormality can cause eating problems, but is not always the case. Usually there is nothing constant that can be done with these problems. Sometimes animals recover spontaneously, but if that is not the case the animals will most probably die or be defective for the rest of their lives.

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Snake hatchlings may feed as soon as they emerge from the egg, but most probably will not. Do not feel compelled to try to feed a hatchling snake after the first shedding. Hatchling snakes should start feeding within a month or so after hatching. It is crucial that the correct food size is offered. Starvation probably will not occur for several more weeks, but it is best to have the snakes feeding as soon as possible.

Insectivorous lizards will start to eat two to five days after birth. This is the time when their egg reserves (egg yolk) start to get depleted.

Hatchlings should be kept in separate containers. Snakes and Leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularis) should be kept in very small containers to adapt and grow to an appropriate size before moving them to a larger environment. Bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) can generally be kept as a group in larger containers from birth.

As a breeder it is important to keep individual hatchlings until their feeding habits are set. Only buy/sell animals that are potentially good eaters. Good eaters, or "better than the rest" eaters can be  identified by their apparent larger size. If possible, keep and ask for basic and feeding records.

Herptile Record Keeping

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Other Problems:

Sometimes feeding problems can be attributed to manners of peculiarities of individual herptiles. Some snakes can prefer only certain colours of prey or live instead of dead prey or vice versa. Hatchlings can only start to eat weeks after birth without showing any signs of anorexia, snakes and lizards might prefer prey that is larger or smaller than the recommended size, a snake might only want to eat every two weeks or a lizard every other day.

Some herptiles prefer to eat in privacy. Try moving away from the feeding container or out of the sight after food is offered. Food can also be placed under a hide box to make problem snakes feel more secure while eating.

Live Vs. Dead Prey

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Extreme Measures:

The following extreme measures can be tried if the abovementioned does not apply or solve the problem:

  • Cut food to pieces
  • Remove the scent of food by washing it or by artificially scenting it with commercially prepared scents or by rubbing it on preferred food items
  • Offer fresh or old food
  • Offer another species of food
  • Feed at different times of the night or in the day
  • Expose the brain or contents of the abdomen the of mammalian foods by slicing or puncturing
  • Make crickets slower by placing them in the fridge for a few minutes or by breaking their legs off
  • Stun live food
  • The sound of a squeaking mouse or the sight of another snake feeding might also help

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Last Resort:

  • Call the breeder or a experienced keeper and ask for help
  • Assist feeding
  • Force-feeding
  • Take the animal to a herptile friendly vet

Assist feeding is done by placing food in the mouth of the animal. The animal should be let to swallow on its own. Force-feeding is done by forcing food down the throat of the animal. Both these methods should only be performed by or under the supervision of a professional or an experienced  veterinarian.

Do not do anything stupid and do not try to do something you are not familiar with!

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Regurgitation & Vomition:

Herptiles, especially snakes have the ability to regurgitate or vomit its food. It is usually associated with stress or incorrect husbandry, but the potential for disease should always be investigated. Greedy snakes can also regurgitate when too much food is ingested or when food were too big. Try giving less or smaller food to prevent future problems. More common causes for regurgitation is handling snakes less than 24 hours after feeding and abrupt temperature changes up to three days after feeding.

Diseases that cause vomition and regurgitation include toxicity or parasitism. A diseases called cryptosporidium should be investigated when a snake vomits continuously shortly after a meal. No matter what the cause, the potential consequences of regurgitation and vomition include dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. It is always advisable to administer hydration fluids, containing electrolytes and to do a fecal examination to rule out parasitism. Regurgitated food and feces should be collected in separate plastic or ziplock bags and taken with the animal to a herptile specialized veterinarian.

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Sick Animals:

Sick animals will not eat for various reasons. If a disease is suspected the animal should immediately be examined by a experienced herptile veterinarian. Signs of sick health include dehydration (small skin fold on the body), cacexia, debilitation, or loss of body condition, sunken eyes, diarrhoea (runny, watery, putrid smelling stool). Once again try to include a fecal sample in a ziplock bag when presenting a herptile to a vet.

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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 9 October2007 by Renier Delport

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"Always remember only to buy healthy animals from reputable pet shops and breeders. Make sure to buy animals that are captive bred in your own country and that it is not illegally imported or caught from the wild."

Related Topics:

Care Sheets
General Snake Care Sheet
Corn Snake Care Sheet
Bearded Dragon Care Sheet
Leopard Gecko Care Sheet
Rats & Mice As Food
Live Vs. Dead Prey
Euthanasia Of Live Prey
Preservation Of Live Prey
Herptile Record Keeping
Suitable Substrates For Herptiles
Reptile & Amphibian Quarantine

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| Introduction | Husbandry | Handling | Feeding Containers | Routine | Food Size | Congenital Defects | Hatchlings | Other Problems | Extreme Measures | Last Resort | Regurgitation & Vomition | Sick Animals | Related Topics |
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