The old image of the snake eating its own tail is one that suggests self-destruction or maybe rebirth, depending on which myth you ascribe to. But you probably didn’t expect to find out that the image has roots in reality. More precisely in an actual snake behavior.
As you will find out today, snakes do tend to eat themselves. Our today’s article aims to dissect what drives the snake’s behavior to engage in such a radical action and whether there’s anything you can do to prevent it. Let’s get it going!
Causes of Snakes Eating Themselves
Interestingly, snakes can actually eat their own bodies for a handful of reasons, some of which you might not even expect. Here are the most common ones to write down:
The term is quite self-explanatory. Hypermetabolism is an abnormal state where the snake’s metabolic rate is considerably higher than it should be. This is an abnormality and not a standard biological state. The outcome is that the snake exhibits extreme hunger, way past what’s normal in a healthy specimen.
This can lead the snake to eat more and resort to desperate measures when food is unavailable, including auto-cannibalism. And here’s the paradox – this tends to happen more often in captivity than in the wild. In the wild, the snake has the freedom to eat whatever it can find and go hunting more often. But, in captivity, the animal is at the keeper’s mercy.
And if the keeper doesn’t realize that the snake needs more food, it may not feed it properly. This may force the snake to resort to auto-cannibalism, at which point the problem should become obvious.
Snakes are cold-blooded animals, which implies that they cannot control their body temperature. Instead, the environment needs to do that for them. And it’s a rather volatile situation, especially for snakes held in captivity.
Wild-raised snakes can control their body temperature far more effectively because they have the entire nature at their disposal. They can move wherever they want whenever they need to.
This freedom isn’t available in captivity for obvious reasons. So, they’re the slaves of the circumstances. If the keeper doesn’t provide them with stable and optimized parameters, they will experience stress and anxiety and may begin to resort to extreme behaviors. Auto-cannibalism is the most extreme and damaging one.
It’s natural for shedding snakes to consume their old skin. This is typically because snakes have been nutrient-deprived for so long prior to the shedding process, so they require immediate sustenance once the shedding is complete.
Don’t worry, there’s nothing you can do to correct the issue, or not as much as you’d like anyway. Snakes will stop eating several days to weeks before the shedding begins anyway.
However, there may be some complications along the way. I’m referring to the cases of incomplete shedding, where the snake’s skin remains attached to the reptile’s body. This can happen due to stress, skin problems, or improper environmental parameters, among other things. In this case, the snake may actually ingest some of its tail along with the old skin still stuck on it.
You can prevent that by assisting the snake’s shedding process, but this is a discussion for another topic. I’ve already expanded on it in another article, so check that one as well.
Yes, the snake may actually attempt to consume its own body if starving beyond its breaking point. Don’t mistake this issue for hypermetabolism because it’s not. This time, there’s nothing wrong with the snake physiologically. Instead, it’s a matter of general care on your part.
If the snake isn’t getting sufficient food, it may begin to starve and experience nutritional deficiencies. This will force the animal to enter a state of emergency, which will influence its behavior. It’s common for snakes to exhibit tendencies of auto-cannibalism when starving. Fortunately, you can prevent this problem by ensuring a stable and diverse diet within a matching feeding schedule.
This time, the snake is eating enough but not eating the right things. All snakes require a fitting diet to match their nutritional needs. Snakes can experience several nutritional deficiencies due to a poor diet or insufficient food. Calcium deficiency is the most severe and dangerous because it can lead to Metabolic Bone Disease, which is deadly for snakes.
So, if your snake is eating enough but still resorts to auto-cannibalization, consider the possibility of a nutritional deficiency.
This should be a real reason for concern due to the effects it can produce. Poor husbandry can lead to serious fungal, bacterial, and parasitic infections that could threaten your snake’s life. Not only that, but the snake can actually attempt to consume its own body out of sheer stress and frustration.
Fortunately, it’s also one of the easiest problems to fix, especially since reptiles don’t need as much maintenance as other pets.
Stress and Anxiety
Snakes, and reptiles in general, can experience stress and anxiety in a variety of situations. These include inadequate diet, insufficient food, improper terrarium layout, frequent handling, poor husbandry, etc.
Even something as harmless as too much light or noise in the room can rattle the snake and stress it enough to produce unwanted effects. One of them is the tendency for auto-cannibalism.
The Dangers of Self-Eating for Snakes
I would assume it’s rather obvious that self-eating isn’t something to aspire towards. Auto-cannibalization comes with a variety of health risks in snakes, including:
Injuries and Death
There are 2 points worth mentioning here.
- Direct body damage – This occurs due to the snake actually eating its own tail and beginning the digestion process. The snake’s tail will experience significant tissue damages due to the digestive juices going to work. However, this is unlikely to occur because the snake may regurgitate the tail immediately. But it can happen.
- Direct internal damage – This is far more likely to happen, and it refers to the tail itself moving inside the snake and damaging its organs. This can lead to internal bleeding and death in more severe cases.
Chronic Health Issues
These are the direct result of the snake experiencing internal damages when attempting to self-cannibalize. The tail is still active and may poke the snake’s entrails, causing damages subjected to infections, digestive disorders, and chronic conditions.
These issues can cause immediate distress, grow into more complex health problems, and reduce the snake’s quality of life and lifespan.
In worst-case scenarios, they can also cause death.
Malnutrition and Lack of Necessary Nutrients
Self-cannibalism isn’t the same as eating. The snake cannot extract nutrients from its own body, which causes it to experience malnutrition fast. However, I would rank this problem last on the list. You should be more worried about the direct damages coming from the act of self-cannibalism, which we’ve already discussed.
Spread of Infectious Diseases
This may be a weird one, but it makes sense once you understand the process. In short, the act of eating its own tail renders the snake vulnerable to the parasites and bacteria present on its own tail. These can reach the digestive system and the blood via the subsequent damages associated with self-cannibalism.
The pathogens can impact the snake’s health immediately and even cause shock and death, depending on the disease itself.
Physical Distress from Internal Damage
The internal damage that the snake endures will cause significant distress, contributing to the snake’s downfall. Your snake will exhibit lethargy, lack of appetite, and worsened physical and mental states as a result.
Mental Instability from Stress
Stress is recognized as a reptile killer due to its immediate and long-term impact. A stressed snake will eat less or stop eating altogether, exhibit lethargic behavior, and struggle with a weaker immune system. This leaves the reptile vulnerable to infections and parasites, degrading its health even further.
How to Prevent Self-Eating in Snakes
Preventing auto-cannibalism in snakes is obviously preferable to dealing with the problem after the fact. In this sense, consider these as the best approaches:
Improving Husbandry Practices
Snakes may not require intense cleaning and maintenance, but they still need adequate care and hygienic living conditions. Make it a routine to clean the snake’s poop and food leftovers and clean and sterilize the habitat regularly, at least once every 2 weeks.
You should also replace the substrate, if any is present, to eradicate the bacterial and fungal growths which are likely to occur in the humid and warm environment.
Removing Sources of Stress and Anxiety
As we’ve already discussed, snakes can become stressed and experience anxiety for a variety of reasons. These include improper housing conditions, improper or fluctuating environmental parameters, poor diet, insufficient food, etc.
Your goal should be to identify the underlying stressors and address them in a timely manner. Stress and anxiety are notorious for causing a variety of health problems in snakes, especially relating to poor immune responses.
Providing Appropriate Enrichment and Stimulation
Snakes should be preferably kept in habitats that mimic their natural environment. This means that, depending on the snake, you should prioritize different terrarium layouts.
Some species demand various climbing areas and others are ground-dwellers, so they need a lot of horizontal space. And then, you need to find room for one or two hiding spots where the snake can cuddle when frightened, stressed, or simply tired.
These personalized settings keep the snake healthy and happy and will improve the reptile’s quality of life dramatically over the years.
Ensuring a Nutritious Diet
Your snake should eat well and should eat enough. Only you know what foods your snake should consume and how often, depending on the animal’s size, age, species, and overall health.
Speak to your vet to determine the animal’s ideal diet and prevent nutritional deficiencies or any dietary-specific problems.
Snakes are probably the only animals in the world that eat themselves. But, at least now you know why they do it, what that means for their health and state of mind, and how you can prevent it. And, as a responsible snake owner, you should do everything in your power to prevent your snake from engaging in auto-cannibalism.