Snakes are famous for their ability to withstand a large period of time without eating. This is thanks to their slow metabolisms and digestive system, which require a lot of time to break down each meal. As a standard rule, most snake species can last up to 2 months without anything to eat.
However, as we will see in today’s article, this timespan can vary dramatically depending on a variety of factors.
So, let’s go through these, one by one. But before that, let’s have a look at the snakes’ digestive system and how it functions.
Snake Digestion Process
Snakes require energy to survive, just like any other animal. The difference is that they need considerably less food for that, primarily because their digestive systems are slow.
Another reason would be the snakes’ ability to consume very large prey, which requires a lot of resources and energy to consume, and this takes a lot of time.
There are several basic things to note about the snakes’ digestive system and how it functions:
- Elastic stomach – The snake itself is elastic in many aspects. The mandible can detach itself from the upper jaw to accommodate large prey, the esophagus can expand, and the stomach itself is flexible and elastic. These features allow the snake to consume very large prey, sometimes several times wider than the snake’s own body. It’s not uncommon for a python to feed on a jumbo rabbit, despite the jumbo rabbit being several times larger than the snake’s head.
- The ability to store fat – Snakes can store impressive amounts of fat. That’s because they have very slow metabolisms, so they only consume a limited amount of energy during their active hours. But each meal they’re having provides them with a lot of nutrients, protein, and fat that the snake’s body cannot process at once. So, it stores most of the fat around the snake’s body, primarily in the tail, for the snake to use gradually over the following weeks and even months.
- Snakes can lower their metabolism – If the snake doesn’t have any food for long periods of time, it will enter a semi-lethargic state, which allows it to decrease its heart rate and metabolism. This means that the reptile will consume fewer nutrients over longer periods of time until a new hunting opportunity arrives.
These aspects show that snakes are fairly unique in the digestive department, and we have barely scraped the surface of the issue.
So, let us scrape even deeper!
Regular Feeding Schedule of Pet Snakes
There is no universal feeding schedule for snakes since all snakes are different, eat differently, and have different feeding routines. However, there are universal recommendations in this sense.
- Determine the right feeding schedule – Your first goal should be determining your pet’s feeding pattern. What it prefers to eat, how fast it can digest its food, how frequent its meals need to be depending on the prey and the snake’s size and unique preferences, etc. Learning all of these specifics will allow you to have a clearer picture of your pet’s eating habits and behavior.
- Select the right prey – Not all snakes feed on the same type of prey. Some snakes are too small and prefer to feed on insects and worms, for instance. Others are larger and can consume larger prey as a result. And some, like corn snakes, for instance, prefer certain prey like mice and rats. While others snakes have a less-specialized diet and don’t have a preferred type of prey.
- Adjust the feeding schedule – You can’t use the same initial feeding schedule over the years to come without adjusting it at least a bit. You’ll most likely need to adjust it several times, depending on the circumstance. For instance, snakes tend to have fewer meals with more time in between as they mature and grow old. That’s because their metabolism drops over time, so they no longer require the same amount of nutrients. Also, sick snakes eat less or not at all during their recovery period, and the same goes for shedding specimens.
It’s important to note that snakes have wildly different feeding patterns depending on their size, normal diet in the wild, health status, and even the species itself.
So, you need to adapt to your pet’s diet accordingly.
Effects of Fasting on Pet Snakes
Snakes often undergo extended periods of fasting in the wild, both intentional and incidental.
Sometimes, they fast because they have no other choice. Other times, the fasting period is voluntary, depending on the snake’s current state and situation.
This means that fasting can be both beneficial and damaging for snakes, depending on the circumstance.
Let’s look into that!
Benefits of fasting:
- Prevent obesity – Sometimes, it’s better to force your pet snake through a period of fasting to combat obesity. Reptiles are prone to obesity due to overfeeding, and they often require an off time from eating to recover their lost agility and athleticism.
- Healthy digestion – Fasting allows snakes to regulate their digestive system and even enhance its effectiveness. Fasting is particularly beneficial when the snake is dealing with constipation or impaction due to improper temperature or ingesting excessively large prey that needs more time to digest.
- Prevent regurgitation – Regurgitation refers to eliminating undigested or partially digested food, which can happen due to stress, illness, or overeating, to name a few causes. A controlled fasting period allows the snake to digest its food in peace to prevent issues like impaction and regurgitation.
Negative effects of fasting:
- Severe weight loss – A period of forced fasting can cause your snake to experience rapid weight loss, which can impact the animal’s health dramatically.
- Nutritional deficiency – Snakes require a stable source of nutrients to stay in good shape, physically and mentally. Not getting sufficient food can place them at risk of developing nutritional deficiencies, which can get deadly fast. Calcium deficiency leads to Metabolic Bone Disease, for instance, which is deadly and incurable in its late stages.
- Lower immune system – Forced fasting causes the snake’s immune system to drop, leaving the reptile vulnerable to parasites, bacteria, and various diseases.
So, fasting can have both beneficial and harmful effects, but it all depends on the situation.
Signs of Starving Pet Snake
The problem with snakes is that they don’t know how to ask for food when hungry. At least, not in a way that a novice and inexperienced snake keeper would understand.
So, here are several markers to help in this sense:
- Visible excitement – If your snake has already grown comfortable with your presence, it may now associate you with food. So, the snake will appear excited whenever you get close to its cage. Snakes aren’t known to be the emotional or social type. So, if your snake looks very excited to see you, fixating on you with its eyes and coming close to the enclosure’s walls to inspect you closer, this is most likely a sign of hunger.
- Lethargy – If they don’t eat enough for a long-enough period of time, snakes will enter an emergency state, where they begin to conserve energy. Their metabolism will drop drastically, causing them to move less and appear lethargic because of it.
- Lack of appetite – This may sound counterintuitive, but it makes sense. This is also an effect of the slower metabolism, causing the snake to no longer require nutrients. If the metabolism drops low enough, the body will switch to consuming its own fat reserves and the snake’s hunger will cease. Which is obviously not a good thing.
- Behavioral changes – Starving snakes can become irritable, aggressive, and more reclusive, spending more time in their hiding spot.
- Cloudy eyes – This is either a sign of malnutrition or dehydration. Either way, it’s worth investigating fast.
You should never ignore any abnormal signs that suggest your snake isn’t doing well. A starving reptile is always at risk of developing deadly nutritional deficiencies shortly.
Factors that Affect Snake Fasting Period
Reptiles, and snakes in particular, have different metabolic and physiological mechanisms than other animals.
They also have different profiles from each other, depending on numerous characteristics. Because of this, there are a variety of factors that influence a snake’s fasting ability.
- Age – Young snakes are higher metabolic rates, so they cannot fast as long as adults. The older the snake gets, the longer it can fast, to a point.
- Species – Some snake species can fast for longer than others. Usually, larger snakes can fast for longer than smaller ones because they can store more fat and nutrients.
- Health – Healthy snakes can fast for longer without experiencing health problems. Sick snakes cannot, which is why it’s not recommended to force your sick snake to skip meals.
- Environment – Environmental parameters influence a snake’s ability to fast considerably. If the temperature is too low, the snake’s metabolism will slow down, causing the reptile to no longer eat. Some snakes even enter torpor, which is a hibernation-like state, for months if temperatures drop and stay below 65 F.
- Feeding schedule – Feeding your snake less frequently can result in longer fasting periods because the snake’s body begins to adapt to the feeding routine. However, I wouldn’t recommend testing this theory. The risk of nutritional deficiencies is too great.
- Hibernation – Hibernation is a great way for snakes to practice their fasting skills. Not all snakes possess the ability to hibernate, as this is only specific to reptiles living in geographical areas with clearly delimited seasons. This forces the snake to hibernate during the cold season to conserve energy and slow down its vital signs to survive the coming cold. This allows some snake species to fast for months.
Based on these factors, snakes can fast to extreme periods, with some beating actual records. There’s no clear winner in terms of the longest fasting period, but there are some clear contenders.
Burmese pythons are known to reach 6 months without food in the wild, and some have even doubled that in captivity.
Green anacondas can also fast for up to 6 months to a year in the wild, which is generally due to the snake’s enormous size (up to 30 feet and 550 pounds) and the massive prey it’s consuming.
These take up a lot of effort to digest, during which the snake doesn’t need any other meal.
The notorious ball pythons also fit this list, with their fasting record being slightly over a year in captivity.
So, while there is no clear winner, a variety of snakes have proven amazing resilience in this sense.
Reasons Pet Snake is Not Eating
Whether the reason your snake isn’t eating is normal or abnormal, all depends on the situation.
So, let’s consider the most common reasons why snakes would refuse food in captivity:
- New home – Snakes tend to abstain from eating for the first several days or even weeks following their arrival at their new home. The reptile isn’t yet familiar with the setup, so it will most likely spend time in its hiding spot for a while to recollect its thoughts and courage. Don’t worry, your snake will eat eventually when hunger gets the best of it. You just need patience.
- Poor temperature and humidity – Snakes won’t eat if the environmental temperature is too low or too high. If it’s too low, the snake’s metabolism will drop, causing the digestive system to slow down dramatically. So, the snake’s appetite will go away. If it’s too high, the snake will become stressed, so it won’t eat anymore. The same concept applies to humidity as well, especially if humidity levels are too low. In that case, the snake will become dehydrated and stop eating because their digestive system will shut down. If they already have food in their stomach, this can create digestive problems, impaction being one of them.
- Stress – A stressed reptile will refuse food until the situation is resolved. Snakes can stress out for a variety of reasons, including a new home, improper handling, cluttered layout, small tank, sickness, improper food, etc.
- Not sticking to the feeding schedule – If your snake is used to eating every 2 months, but you try to feed it one month after the last meal, it may refuse the food. Snakes are rather pretentious about their meal times and will ignore their food if that’s not the right feeding time. Learn your snake’s feeding behavior and stick to it over the years. You may also need to adjust the pet’s feeding plan as it grows older, but this is another topic.
- Normal fasting – Some snakes require to enter hibernation, even in captivity, to regulate their physiological functioning and stay healthy. In this case, them fasting is absolutely normal, as snakes stop eating 2-3 weeks before entering hibernation and will fast throughout the entire period (usually 2-3 months.)
So, snakes can fast or stop eating for a variety of reasons. It’s important to figure out the cause as early as possible to correct it if it requires such an intervention.
Preparing Your Snake for Vacation
So, what should you do if you need to leave on vacation and you’re forced to leave your pet snake behind?
Here are some good tips:
- Find a responsible caregiver – If you’re only gone for a couple of days, the caregiver’s presence may not be needed. The situation is vastly different if you’re going out for a week or more. In this case, you need a trustworthy person to check on your snake regularly, replace its water bowl, remove feces, maybe feed it, etc. You need someone to perform basic maintenance work until you’re back.
- Offer detailed instructions – Make sure that the caregiver, whether a friend, family member, or someone you’ve hired, knows the basics regarding your pet snake. This includes information on diet, humidity, temperature, and overall care, depending on the snake species itself.
- Test run – If you have the time, test the caregiver’s abilities before leaving. A 2-3-session test should be enough to gauge the person’s abilities and expertise. If we’re talking about a family member or friend, put them up-to-date with your pet’s needs and how they can meet them safely and effectively.
- Automated lighting and humidity – It would help to have an automatic lighting system in place that you can set up to operate on a given cycle. The same goes for a humidifier that you can adjust for certain values depending on your reptile’s needs.
- Secure the enclosure – Make sure your snake cannot escape the enclosure, but also see that you don’t close the tank shut. Doing so will create a suffocating ecosystem with no ventilation, which will increase the temperature and humidity to dangerous levels.
Plus, have a way of monitoring and verifying the caregiver, whether you have a set of interior cameras installed or you have someone close to you check on them regularly.
It never hurts to have an extra protection layer to make sure everything goes buttery-smooth.
Snakes are hardy and adaptable animals, but they’re also sensitive and vulnerable in some aspects.
They can withstand vast amounts of time without food, but they can also experience nutritional deficiencies and fall sick because of it.
Only allow your snake to fast if the reptile is up to it and it actually needs to fast. Other than that, feed your snake properly to keep it in top physical and mental shape over the years.