Corn snakes are non-venomous reptiles that inhabit much of the Southeast US and can be found in a variety of habitats. These include fields, wooded areas, marshes, and even human settlements.
They are also known as red rat snakes due to their predilection for rodents, but what do these snakes actually eat in the wild?
More importantly, what do captive-bred corn snakes eat, and can they adapt to different foods and feeding behaviors? Let’s have a look!
Wild Corn Snake Diet and Feeding
Corn snakes can grow up to 6 feet and qualify as opportunistic feeders. They can consume a variety of prey, depending on what’s available in their habitat.
Some of the snake’s natural prey include small mammals and birds, but it prefers rats and mice above all else. This explains the snake’s intentional proximity to human settlements, especially areas that are likely to thrive in rodents.
The hunting and feeding behavior are typical for a constrictor. The snake will rely on its camouflage and ambushing abilities to stalk the prey. As the animal comes within striking range, the corn snake attacks and constricts the prey fast.
The squeeze will soon render the prey unable to breathe, leading to suffocation and death. As with any constrictor, the snake will hold the prey tight until it can no longer sense any breathing motion.
It’s only then that the feeding can begin. Corn snakes swallow their prey whole, starting with the head.
An interesting aspect about corn snakes: these reptiles have a higher metabolism than other snakes.
This means that they eat more frequently, which explains some of the snake’s popularity as a pet, aside from its docile and friendly behavior.
Feeding Habits & Nutritional Requirements for Pet Corn Snake
Corn snakes are popular for their docile demeanor and overall hardiness. They are also quite easy to keep well-fed and satisfied, so long as you learn their feeding habits and nutritional requirements.
Fortunately, these are nothing to sweat over about. Corn snakes have a slightly more active metabolism, so they may need more frequent feeding, compared to other species.
But let’s separate the snake’s diet into several distinct categories:
The typical adult corn snake may require one meal every 7-10 days, although some people recommend longer timespans between the meals. It all depends on your snake’s age, size, and appetite, among other factors.
As general rules:
- Hatchlings require one consistent meal every 4-5 days
- Juveniles by the age of 6 months old are fine with a meal every 5-7 days
- Adults need one meal every 7-10-12 days
- Older snakes may only eat once every two weeks or rarer
Also, sick snakes may exhibit low appetites, depending on their condition. The snake’s appetite may also vary depending on the environmental conditions.
The lower the temperatures the rarer the snake will eat, due to its metabolism dropping as a reaction to the cold.
Nutrients Needed for Optimal Health
The real benefit of owning a corn snake becomes obvious when assessing the reptile’s nutritional requirements.
Corn snakes demand a diet high in protein and low in fat, which you can easily achieve by feeding the snake its favorite meal: mice and rats. These snakes can easily survive on rodents alone, although you should consider some food variety over time. And the interesting part is yet to come.
Unlike other snake species, corn snakes typically don’t require any type of food supplements. No calcium, phosphorus, or vitamin D3 supplementation is required, as your corn snakes will do just fine without it.
This is thanks to the snake’s feeding specialization, which allows its organism to extract all of the necessary nutrients from one type of prey alone.
This being said, always consult with your vet on the matter, especially if your corn snakes show signs of nutritional deficiencies.
Just because most corn snakes don’t require food supplementation, doesn’t need no corn snake does.
Appropriate Diet for Hatchlings and Adults
While both hatchlings and adults belong to the same species, they have slightly different feeding requirements.
Here are the ones worth mentioning:
- Feeding frequency – Hatchlings (called neonates) require more frequent feeding, typically once every 3-5 days.
- Prey size – Hatchlings can only consume small prey, particularly pink mice. These are easy to eat and contain all of the nutrients that the tiny snakes require to grow fast and healthy.
- Nutritional requirements – Hatchlings require fewer fats but more protein to support their growth cycle.
- Constant monitoring – Neonates grow fast, so they need constant dietary adjustment. You should always supervise the snake’s growth rate so you can adapt to the animal’s growing appetite.
Also, keep in mind that some corn snakes may require calcium and D3 supplementation, despite the fact that most don’t. So, consult with your vet in this sense.
Foods to Avoid
Corn snakes are highly adaptable and opportunistic predators, so they can consume a variety of prey. But there are some foods that you should consider off-limits for your pet corn snake.
- Fish – Fish contain thiaminase, an enzyme responsible for breaking down vitamin B1, which is actually essential for your snake’s health. So, no fish for your corn snake.
- Dairy products – All corn snakes are lactose intolerant, which means that dairy products will cause diarrhea, which, in turn, is responsible for accelerated dehydration. And dehydration is particularly deadly for reptiles.
- Any fried or processed foods – These foods are usually high in fats, which makes them unhealthy for corn snakes.
- Veggies and fruits – Corn snakes are carnivorous animals, which should tell you everything you need to know about their relationship with veggies and fruits.
- Wild-caught food – Wild-caught food is a big no-no. All wild-caught animals tend to be infested with various bacteria, parasites, viruses, and other unwanted pathogens. These can easily transfer to your snake and affect its quality of life dramatically.
Different Types of Food You Can Feed Your Corn Snake
By different types of food, I actually mean different modes of food presentation. Because the food is pretty much the same in all situations: rodents. It’s the meal presentation that’s different.
In this sense, we have:
Live prey items – Live prey is always the golden standard when feeding snakes, but only from the entertainment perspective. It’s simply more fun to watch the snake hunt, kill, and eat its prey than feeding it already dead.
However, I advise against feeding live prey to your snakes. Rodents are extremely unpredictable when threatened and may react violently, hurting your snake in the process.
This is less likely to happen in the wild, where the prey has no idea it’s being hunted. By the time the realization sinks it, it’s already too late for it to fight back.
But the rodent’s self-preservation instincts kick in the moment you place it in the snake’s lair.
- Frozen prey items – These are preferable because dead animals cannot really fight back. Freezing the prey also allows you to build a food supply to feed your snake for longer. Just make sure you unfreeze the food item before serving it to your snake. You may also need to wiggle the item around the snake’s mouth to activate its feeding instincts. This may be necessary at first when the snake hasn’t yet learned to recognize the motionless prey as valid food.
- Prepared diets & supplements – Only your vet or a snake professional can tell you whether your corn snake requires food supplementation.
- Variety is key to a balanced diet – You should always seek to vary your snake’s diet according to its natural feeding preferences. While corn snakes prefer rodents in the wild, they don’t always have access to them. So, they’re forced to consume a variety of other prey, depending on what’s available around them. Small birds, other types of small mammals, and even reptiles and amphibians can be on the menu.
Prepare Food and Feed Your Corn Snake
Fortunately, this is quite easy to achieve since corn snakes eat their food whole. There’s little-to-no preparation required.
Even so, there are several standard requirements to abide by:
- Finding the right food – Don’t feed your snake wild-caught food. Wild rodents contain a variety of bacteria and viruses that could kill your pet snake. Instead, source your rodents from pet specialists that produce feeder animals designed specifically for snakes. You can also purchase the rats or mice live from the store. Even better, you can set up a feeder tank at home to grow the rodents yourself. This allows you even more control over the food’s quality.
- Kill the prey beforehand – You can either purchase the rodents already dead and frozen or end them yourself. If you can stomach that concept, of course. We’ve already discussed why dead rodents are better meals for your corn snake than live ones.
- Food presentation – Corn snakes are more likely to consume live food on their own initiative than they are dead food. So, you may need to spike your snake’s interest in the meal by wiggling it around a bit to mimic natural movement. Poke the dead rat gently against the snake’s nose or place it in its vicinity and make sure it discovers it on its own. No matter the direction you choose, make sure that the snake actually finds and eats it.
- Mind the prey size – The prey’s size should match the snake’s eating ability. If the prey is too small, it won’t be enough nutritionally speaking. If it’s too large, the snake won’t be able to eat it. Make sure that the prey isn’t larger than the snake’s wider area, which tends to be the midsection.
You should also remove any uneaten food item to prevent it from harboring bacteria and other dangerous pests.
Signs of Nutritional Deficiencies
So, how can you tell whether your snake is safe and healthy or whether it experiences nutritional deficiencies?
Consider the following:
- Loss of appetite – This is the first sign that something’s not right with your pet corn snake. Corn snakes always exhibit a lack of appetite when stressed or experiencing some type of physical discomfort. This includes nutritional deficiencies as well.
- Color changes – Stressed and underfed or improperly fed corn snakes can exhibit duller colors. If you notice your snake losing its coloration, check its diet before anything else.
- Weakness – Watch your snake’s movement and activity level. A snake with nutritional deficiencies will appear weaker and lethargic and sometimes become unable to move.
- Stunted growth – Keep a journal to record your snake’s growth rate. If the snake appears to grow at a slower rate than normal or not at all, the diet is most likely the culprit.
- Swollen jaw, mouth, or joints – This is typically a sign of calcium deficiency, although there may be other viable explanations to consider.
A quick disclaimer here: don’t take these symptoms for granted. Many, if not all, of these symptoms, are also responsible for a variety of other health issues. So, you might want to discuss the issue with your vet for a more accurate diagnosis and clinical assessment.
You could say that corn snakes are born for life in captivity, given their overall adaptability, hardiness, and ease of care.
Even so, you need to learn the species’ specifics to make sure you provide your corn snake with the best care.