Pet Talk: Live prey for snakes carries risk

Pet Talk: Live prey for snakes carries risk

UI College of Veterinary Medicine

In the wild, snakes can't just order carry-in; they have to hunt for their next meal. So it's not surprising that owners of pet snakes may believe their pets need the thrill of the chase to satisfy natural instincts.

However, Dr. Krista Keller, a veterinarian at the UI Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana who specializes in zoological medicine, strongly advises snake owners to feed their pets a pre-killed diet and warns of risks associated with feeding live prey.

All snakes are carnivorous, meaning they eat other animals.

"In the wild, snakes may eat vertebrate prey, such as rodents, lizards or fish, or invertebrate prey, such as crickets and grasshoppers," Keller said. "Most captive snakes are fed a diet of rodent prey, which can be purchased live or pre-killed."

Prey fights back

You may be surprised to learn that one of the risks of giving a live rodent to a pet snake for dinner is the possibility that the snake will wind up getting bitten. Rodent bites range from small and superficial to severe, deep punctures. These bites can damage the snake's eyes, tongue, mouth and even internal organs and spine. They also have the potential to introduce harmful bacteria into the snake's system.

Whether superficial or severe, a bite from prey means a visit to the veterinarian for the snake.

"Superficial wounds are treated with supportive measures, antibiotics and pain medications. However, deep wounds may require surgery to correct and can even lead to the death of the snake," Keller said.

Keller debunks the idea that feeding live prey is innately healthier for the animal.

"Because snakes are eating the same tissues, whether the rodent is alive or dead, the snakes are receiving the same nutrition and a balanced diet," she said. "Snakes in captivity are able to gain appropriate enrichment from a well-organized and periodically changed enclosure and do not need interaction with prey to have good welfare."

Humane treatment

Keller also asks owners to consider the plight of the other party: the prey.

"Veterinarians always recommend that both the predator and the prey are treated humanely," Keller said. "All purchased killed mice and rats are humanely euthanized at the facility that sells them. Typically, the euthanasia is with inhalation of CO2, which is recognized as a humane and rapid method by the American Veterinary Medical Association."

Snakes simply cannot offer the same guarantee of a humane death that the trained professionals at feed supply companies can.

Make the switch

Keller assures owners that they can safely switch their pet snakes from a primarily live-prey diet to a diet that is pre-killed, regardless of the snake's age. However, a snake that is particularly accustomed to a live diet may require some training, so initiating changes as early as possible is prudent.

"Pet snakes that have been eating a live-prey diet their whole life may be resistant to change and may require an extended training period," Keller said. "Speak to your veterinarian or look for online sources of tips and tricks to teach your snake to eat this new food source. Because of the risks of feeding live prey, exotic-pet veterinarians recommend feeding killed prey to all snakes. Pre-killed rodent prey is readily available through online sources and even at most local pet shops."

An archive of pet columns from the UI College of Veterinary Medicine is available at Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy at

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