Why Does My Ball Python Miss His Food?

Feeding time is always exciting to watch when you have a ball python! Seeing your pet “hunt” its prey and enjoy its meal is entertaining and can also be a chance to bond with your snake. But sometimes your ball python might miss its prey when it strikes, even if it’s never had any issues before. 

So why does my ball python miss his food? The most likely answer is that the prey simply isn’t warm enough for your snake to correctly identify its location. Since ball pythons locate prey using its scent and body heat, it’s necessary to warm up frozen prey before giving it to your pet.

Below, learn more about how ball pythons sense their prey. You’ll also find plenty of information detailing the correct way to prepare your snake’s meals, and exactly what to do when your ball python strikes and misses. We briefly explain how to force feed your snake, as well as talking about some other common feeding problems and their solutions.

How Ball Pythons Sense Prey

photo provided by AceMackin Photography

Ball pythons have heat sensors called labial pits. These are located below the nose on both sides of the head, and they allow ball pythons to sense their prey using infrared radiation. In other words, ball pythons can sense the heat coming from potential prey, and they use that information to determine where to strike.

These snakes also rely heavily on their strong sense of smell to locate prey. In the wild, ball pythons are mainly from Africa. In their natural habitat, they eat animals like gerbils and other small animals. However, ball pythons in captivity typically have a diet that consists of mice and rats. 

Because they locate their prey using its scent and the body heat it gives off, it makes sense that it’s harder for ball pythons to strike accurately when their prey isn’t warmed up enough. The smell of the prey also isn’t as strong when its temperature is cooler. Your snake may strike and miss because it simply can’t pinpoint the exact location of the prey that is being offered. 

How to Successfully Prepare Your Ball Python’s Meals

First, make sure that you’re feeding your ball python the proper size of mice or rats. A good rule of thumb is to choose prey that is only as wide as the widest part of your snake. This ensures that the food won’t be too large, and helps to prevent regurgitation.

Feeding Frequency

Also remember that ball pythons don’t need to eat constantly! Full-grown adults may only eat every month or two. This type of snake is also known for going on “hunger strike” for months at a time. As long as your pet continues to shed successfully and its weight doesn’t fluctuate by more than a few grams, this shouldn’t be an issue that affects its health.

Live or Frozen Prey

It’s recommended to feed your ball python frozen prey rather than live prey. This is because live prey can actually injure your pet! Frozen prey is also a much more humane option, and you can find it in pet stores and online.

But never try to feed your ball python frozen prey without dethawing it first! You can do this by putting it in the refrigerator overnight, or placing it in room temperature water, contained inside a tightly sealed Ziploc bag.

It’s quicker to thaw out prey in water, but much more convenient to do so in the refrigerator. The best course of action is to plan for the day you want to feed your snake, and put its meal in the fridge the night before. 

Next it will be essential to place the prey in warm water (once again, sealed in a Ziploc bag) until it reaches the temperature of live prey. This is about 98 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and you can verify the temperature with a temp gun. Remember never to use a microwave to warm up prey!

What to Do When Your Ball Python Misses His Food

Usually the simple solution is to warm up your ball python’s prey to a higher temperature! Many snake owners report that after their pet had been striking and missing its food, increasing the meal’s temperature by just a few degrees got everything back on track.

But if that doesn’t seem to be working for you, there are some other options you can try to ensure your ball python is getting the nutrients it needs. 

It’s actually not essential for your snake to “hunt” its prey before eating; as long as it’s eating and staying healthy in general, the way it consumes prey isn’t too important. So if your ball python is struggling to strike its prey, try helping your pet self-feed instead.

This essentially means that you’ll leave the prey in your snake’s tank for it to find and feed on without your supervision or assistance. 

One way to do this is by first removing your ball python from its tank and then placing the prey inside one of its hides. It’s best to do this during the late afternoon or evening.

In nature, ball pythons come out to hunt at night, so they have a natural predisposition to eating during the later hours. Leave the prey there and check back in the morning to see if your snake ate it. If not, try again in a week. 

It’s also been suggested to try dipping thawed-out frozen prey into warm chicken broth to intensify its scent. This stronger smell will likely entice your ball python into eating. You can also wiggle the prey around with tongs during feeding time, making sure your snake doesn’t see you. 

When to Force Feed Your Ball Python

Sometimes striking and missing its prey is a bigger issue. It’s possible that your ball python is striking in a defensive manner rather than trying to attack its prey. This can mean that your snake is feeling uncomfortable, stressed, or threatened during feeding time.

Make sure the conditions in its environment are suitable and aren’t inducing stress, and avoid letting other pets into the room where you keep your snake. 

After ridding the environment of any stressors, you may find that the self-feeding techniques above still aren’t helping. If your pet is starting to lose weight (more than just a few grams), it may be necessary to force-feed your pet–but keep in mind that this technique is a last resort.

Before you make the decision to force-feed, take your ball python to the vet. They’ll be able to tell you if force-feeding is necessary and how to go about it properly. Generally, you’ll need to put together a mixture with one part water and one part Pedialyte or Gatorade (any electrolyte supplement will do). 

Put this mixture into a steel syringe; your vet will tell you if this needs to be administered by mouth or by injection. You should aim to feed your ball python an amount that’s about two percent of its body weight, and repeat every one to two days as suggested by your veterinarian.

Other Common Feeding Problems

Here are solutions to a few other feeding issues you may run into with your ball python!

  • Regurgitation. This is usually a sign that your pet’s prey is too large. After regurgitation, wait a couple of days and then try to feed your snake prey that is slightly smaller in size. 

 

  • Stress and Discomfort. High levels of stress or being too cold can keep your ball python from eating. Make sure temperatures range from 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit on the cold end of the tank and 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit on the warm end. You’ll also want to provide two hides, one at each end of the tank, to make your ball python feel safe and secure in its environment.

 

  • Illness. Many illnesses can cause a lack of appetite for snakes. If you suspect any health ailments, take your pet to the vet! One common culprit is parasites, which are easily treated with the correct medication.

Conclusion

If your ball python is striking at its meals and missing, this is usually a sign that its food isn’t warm enough. You should aim to thaw out and warm up frozen prey to about 98 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This way your snake is able to sense the heat and pick up on the prey’s scent enough to zero in on its location and strike effectively. 

If warming up the prey doesn’t make a difference, you can try self-feeding. This is when you leave prey in your ball python’s hide for it to eat on its own. In more dire situations, you may need to force-feed your snake in order to get it the nutrition it needs.

Overall, try not to stress if your snake is missing its food! Follow the guidelines in this article and you should be able to find an effective solution for your ball python.

Sources:

https://pets.stackexchange.com/questions/11031/why-would-my-royal-ball-python-strike-but-not-eat#:~:text=Losing%20interest%20in%20food%20is,1.5%20weeks%20like%20nothing%20happened.

https://ball-pythons.net/forums/showthread.php?95155-My-snakes-are-missing-strikes-on-dead-prey

http://www.anapsid.org/ballfeed.html

https://www.exoticdirect.co.uk/news/feeding-royal-ball-pythons