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Feeding Picky Hatchling alterna

by Joseph E. Forks

revised 11/15/07 - (edited by T. Corley 11-14-07)

Gray-banded Kingsnakes feed primarily on lizards and rodents in the wild, but it is not uncommon for some wild caught specimens or hatchlings to refuse domestic mice as food. When this happens, you can try several tricks in order make them feed on mice. For adult specimens that refuse to eat mice, sometimes it is just a matter of offering the right-sized food item. Small live pinky or fuzzy mice usually will entice a finicky adult to feed. It is very important to initiate a feeding response in hatchlings as soon as possible. Presentation is key. Remember these are crevice dwellers and it always helps to offer meals in tight quarters, because that's where they feed in the wild. Crumpled up newspaper with a board on top is an excellent choice for reproducing these conditions. Some of the methods used to entice hatchling and juvenile snakes to feed voluntarily on newborn mice are listed below:

  • Repeat the presentation of newborn mice on a regular basis even if the snake has refused your last offering. Sometimes it will decide to take a food item offered in this manner on the fourth or fifth presentation.

  • Wash a newborn mouse with plain water and then offer it to the snake.

  • Peel back the skin from the snout of a new-born to expose blood, and then place the snake in small quarters with the food item overnight.

  • Cut open the top of the head of a dead newborn mouse, mush the brain material around, rub a drop of this brain material on the mouse’s nose, then place this mouse in the hiding place of the snake. Surprisingly, this technique works very often.

  • The practice of scenting, which is rubbing a lizard on a mouse, usually will entice reluctant hatchlings to take newborn mice. Also, you can cover the nose of the mouse with a small piece of the lizard's skin.

  • Lizard soup - grind up lizards in a jar with a small amount of water and keep them in the freezer. 15 - 20 seconds in a microwave causes the lizard oil to float to the top of the "soup". It's a simple matter to dip the pinkie’s nose into the "soup" for scenting.

  • Insert a newborn into the mouth of the snake until the snake bites down, gently put the snake back into its cage and wait for the snake to swallow. You may have to repeat this procedure a couple of times until it works (Mattison 1991).

  • Give the hatchlings the opportunity to brumate ("hibernate") for a month. Some specimens are willing to feed by themselves after they have been warmed up after such a cool period.

  • EIDBO (1996a) also described another technique that has worked many times:. He induced problem feeders to feed by depriving them of water for 3 to 4 days. After this period he offered a newborn mouse dipped in water and when a snake started to drink the water drops from the nose of the mouse, it would end up eating the mouse.

  • Live lizards are almost always accepted, causing juvenile specimens to feed voraciously. Snakes that have fed upon live lizards, should be monitored closely for parasites, including (but not limited to) tapeworms, mites and Cryptosporidium. If you feed Mediterranean Geckos, beware of tapeworms. Live mice may also harbor similar pathogens. For this reason you should consider feeding your animals pre-frozen food items properly thawed to room temperature. Some favorite lizard species of alterna are; Sceleporus, Eumeces, Anolis, Uta, Urosaurus, Coleonyx, Hemidactylus, Holbrookia, and Cnemidophorus. Keep trying different species until you find one your hatchling likes.

  • "Sight" or "movement" feeding response. One thing that keys a response in "picky" snakes is movement. The specific movement of the lizard running by, as opposed to the movement of a pinky laying on it's back, wiggling, may do the trick. These same "picky" feeders would turn their noses at frozen thawed lizards of the same species. Sometimes holding a food item in front of a reluctant feeder then quickly dragging it past its head lightly brushing the neck and forward part of the snakes body will initiate a feeding response. It is likely that this response is a reflex, or automatic reaction.

  • "Bait and Switch" tactic. Hold a lizard in front of a reluctant feeder, wriggle it a little and, when you have the snake’s attention, quickly switch to a F/T pinky using the "movement and brushing" technique. This technique works fairly often.

  • After all other attempts to allow hatchling kingsnakes to feed voluntarily, you may finally resort to a device called the Pinky Pump. This device is a large, stainless steel syringe with a glass or Plexiglas barrel and a modified end, which is inserted into the snake's mouth and down its throat. Newborn mice are then gently forced into the snake's stomach through the Pinky Pump. The pump has an adjustment to control how much food is forced into the snake. It is very important to use this control properly. If too much volume is inserted into the snake very abruptly, injury or death may result. The use of this device is very stressful for hatchling snakes, and should be used only as a last resort.

  • After several meals, hatchlings usually take F/T pinkies voluntarily. Always try unscented mice first at every feeding. Usually the voluntary feeding response will be present in all hatchlings at a weight of approximately 16-18 grams.