Garter snakes are small and colorful North American snakes that are pretty much omnipresent in a variety of ecosystems.
They generally live near various bodies of water, thanks to their swimming proficiency, but are often seen around human settlements as well. Garter snakes have adapted to the human presence, especially due to the food associated with it.
Today, we will discuss what and how garter snakes eat and how they hunt to get a better insight into this species’ world.
Garter Snakes Diet in the Wild
Garter snakes are non-venomous reptiles specialized in a variety of prey, including small mammals, amphibians, other snakes, insects, etc. These are opportunistic hunters that won’t refuse a good meal when it presents itself.
Due to their opportunistic and scavenging nature, they won’t refuse carrion either if given the opportunity.
Because they are non-venomous, garter snakes have to rely on their teeth and mediocre constricting abilities to immobilize and consume the prey.
Unlike many other snake species, garter snakes can also hunt in the water, which is a massive evolutionary advantage.
This ability expands the snake’s meal variety considerably, adding various amphibians and fish to the menu.
Hunting and Feeding Behavior of Garter Snakes
Garter snakes rely on 3 basic hunting mechanisms to procure food:
- Scent – These snakes possess an impressive sense of smell, allowing them to detect the prey long before visual confirmation. This allows the snake to position itself on the route so that it is ready when the target reaches nearby.
- Camouflage – Garter snakes showcase a variety of colors, but they typically exhibit warmer colors like grey, black, brown, yellow, etc. This coloration allows the garter snake to blend into its environment, making it difficult for potential prey to detect the silent killer. The garter snake may also move closer to the prey to ensure the attack’s success.
- Constriction – Garter snakes only rely on constriction against larger prey. They will simply eat smaller prey on the spot without even killing it. The ingestion process will achieve that anyway.
When it comes to feeding, garter snakes use their small teeth to secure the prey and ensure traction as the esophagus muscles push the food down the slope.
This is typical feeding behavior present in all snake species.
Captive Garter Snake Diet and Feeding
The garter snake’s captive diet and feeding pattern are more confusing than you might expect.
You most likely know the feeding pattern rules when it comes to captive-bred snakes. To cut it short, juvenile and younger specimens require more frequent feeding than adults.
The feeding frequency depends on the species itself, but the overarching rule stays the same.
Well, this doesn’t apply exactly the same with garter snakes. One reason for that is the snake’s impressive dietary variation. Not all garter snakes inhabit the same ecosystem.
Some populate the wilderness and occupy areas around various bodies of water (rivers, swamps, or ponds, while others prefer fields, grasslands, and forests. And then you have urban garter snakes specialized in consuming primarily rodents or other human-related pests.
Each of these ecosystems provides the respective garter snake population with specific prey and feeding opportunities.
This means that your garter snake’s diet and feeding routine depends on the snake’s dietary preferences and subspecies. Not all garter snakes prefer the same foods, which means that they also differ in feeding frequency depending on the food type.
For instance, some garter snakes consume more insects, slugs, mice, and various worms. These snakes require more frequent feeding because their prey is smaller and easier to digest.
Larger garter snakes specialize in mammals, and larger reptiles require less frequent meals for obvious reasons.
However, if we were to put some numbers on it, younger garter snakes eat once every 3-5 days, while adult snakes are fine with one meal every 7-10 days.
This is quite a low feeding frequency compared to other snakes, making garter snakes cheaper to house.
Foods to Avoid Feeding Your Garter Snake
There are several things I’d like to mention here:
- Frogs and toads – Garter snakes have no problems consuming frogs and toads in the wild, so this may sound like a weird recommendation. The problem is that wild garter snakes have stronger immune systems compared to captive-bred ones. This means that they won’t mind the bacteria and parasites that amphibians come with, but captive garter snakes will. Avoid feeding your garter snake any type of amphibian, especially wild-caught ones.
- Live rats – Live rats are also some of garter snakes’ favorite foods. But, again, they’re fitter for wild snakes, not captive-bred ones. It’s never a good idea to put a live rat in your snake’s enclosure; rats are vicious animals that can exhibit extreme violence when cornered. There have been many cases of garter snakes being severely wounded by their rat prey. It’s simply not worth the risk.
- Anything they won’t eat naturally – Only feed your garter snake foods that it would eat naturally as well. Some garter snakes won’t consume insects or frogs, so don’t feed them such prey.
More importantly, you should never feed your garter snake wild-caught animals, no matter how exciting it might sound.
Wild animals contain a variety of bacteria, parasites, and even chemical contaminants like pesticides that can kill your snake. Instead, either purchase your snake’s food from reputed sources or set up a feeder tank with your snake’s favorite meal.
When it comes to dangerous prey like rats, go for dead and frozen rodents instead of live ones.
They’re safer and pack the same nutrients as their live counterparts. Just remember to warm them up before feeding.
Common Feeding Mistakes
The following feeding mistakes apply to both garter snakes and snakes in general when held in captivity:
- Overfeeding – This is probably the most obvious issue, especially among more inexperienced snake keepers. I understand why it happens, though; much of the thrill of owning a pet snake is witnessing it hunting and eating. So, it’s naturally very easy to overfeed your snake, especially since these reptiles have very slow metabolisms. They take time to digest their food, during which you shouldn’t provide them with another meal. This can cause the snake to stress out and regurgitate its last meal, leading to nutritional deficiency and dehydration. If that happens, excess weight gain will happen instead, and that’s also not healthy, except for different reasons.
- Feeding the wrong-size prey – The prey should be no wider than the snake’s widest point, which, in garter snakes, is its midsection. Otherwise, the snake may have difficulties swallowing the prey and can experience impaction if it does manage to swallow it eventually.
- Feeding at the wrong time – Garter snakes qualify as crepuscular or diurnal. So, they need light to become active and perform their daily activities, including hunting and eating. You should never feed your garter snake during nighttime. This can disturb the snake’s resting pattern and stress it out as a result.
- Live prey – Feeding your snake live prey is at least half the fun. However, as I’ve already pointed out, live prey can hurt your snake because no animal likes to be eaten by a reptile. You can use live mice, worms, or insects, but be careful when upgrading to rats, other snakes, reptiles, or other larger mammals.
- The wrong food – As I’ve already stated, not all garter snakes consume the exact same foods. Always learn your pet snake’s preferences and stick with what they like. It will make your and your snake’s life a lot easier.
- Ensure sufficient water – Water plays an important role in the effectiveness of the digestive system. A snake that eats but doesn’t drink will dehydrate faster than one that doesn’t eat or drink. Always make sure that your garter snake has sufficient drinking water; dehydration can become deadly fast in snakes.
- Ensure sufficient UVB lighting – A good light cycle can help snakes with nutritional intake. UVB lighting may be necessary for your pet to synthesize vitamin D3 and calcium properly. Speak to your vet about that.
Also, make sure always to check your snake’s food to avoid elements that are spoiled or unfit for consumption.
And consider supplementing the reptile’s meals with calcium and vitamin D3, depending on your vet’s recommendations.
Garter snakes are good and adaptable hunters with varied diets. They are easy to care for in captivity and only eat once per week, or rarer, depending on your luck.
Make sure you learn the most you can about your garter snake’s preferred diet and feeding frequency before committing to it.