A reptile that simply won’t feed is a real worry and once you’ve made sure that there’s no obvious cause, and checked that you’re offering it the right kind of food, it’s often difficult to know what to do next.
Fortunately, in many cases getting your pet to start eating just requires a minor tweak or two to what you’re already doing – and here are five of the top ways to do just that.
Some reptiles seem to be particularly affected by the colour and appearance of their food. There’s a lot of variation in how much of a factor this is both between different species, and between individual specimens of the same kind, but it’s often worth a try. Many rodent-eating snakes appear to prefer their rats or mice to be natural-looking, eating brown or black ones more readily than patterned or all-white ones, while hunger-striking insect eaters can often be tempted with green or pale coloured bugs.
Sometimes getting your pet feeding again can be as simple as picking what shows up best to reptile eyes against the substrate in your tank!
Think About the Smell
The smell of food can be an important trigger to feeding, so particularly if you are relying on frozen, pre-killed food, do make sure that it’s not just thoroughly defrosted, but has warmed up a bit too. This tends to make the original smell more evident and obviously can help the “prey” seem more life-like to your reptile. You can often help a reluctant snake start feeding by rubbing a rat around its tank to create a scent trail; with luck this will encourage the snake to hunt instinctively and then, when it finds the food, eat it.
Smells can work against you, too. Some reptile keepers have found that their pets will refuse food that has been handled after they have used a particular brand of soap or other scented product. It’s something to bear in mind, especially if a previously good feeder goes off its food and you’ve recently changed your aftershave!
Animals that feel insecure or vulnerable often won’t feed out of anxiety, so it’s worth trying to look at things from your pet’s perspective to see if that might be the cause of its anorexia. The obvious things to do are to make sure there are sufficient hiding places in the tank and check to see it’s not being bullied by any of the other inhabitants, if it’s a community vivarium. One of the most useful tips, however, can often be to leave a reluctant eater alone at meal times – just add the food and don’t keep watch, no matter how anxious you’re feeling – to avoid adding to the problem.
As every reptile keeper knows, environmental conditions exert a big influence on feeding and probably nothing does so more than temperature. Establishing and maintaining the optimum temperature in the vivarium is, of course, a fundamental part of maintaining reptiles in good health, but sometimes a bit of trickery can trigger a reluctant feeder to start eating again. Depending on the species concerned, cooling the tank down by a few degrees for a short while, and then warming it back up can sometimes fool the reptile into thinking it’s been through a “winter” and hunger returns now it’s “spring.”
For other species, warming up the vivarium above it’s normal temperature can do the trick – there are recorded cases of habitually anorexic rat snakes responding to being warmed well above what would be considered normal for short periods of around 30 minutes or so, once a week. It must be stressed, however, that this is an extreme example and should only be undertaken by experienced keepers and with adequate veterinary supervision – but it does make the point.
It’s All About Timing
Many of the reptiles that we keep have fairly well defined routines in the wild, and as a result, when they eat is often bound up in the time of day, or the season of the year – so it’s essential to do your research to find out when the species naturally feeds in the wild. If it’s a dusk or evening feeder, just dimming the lights at feeding time can often do the trick.
That said, there can also be a fair degree of variation between individual animals, so even if the text books all tell you that your pet should be feeding at a particular time, and despite your best efforts it still won’t eat, it’s worth trying to feed it during another part of the day. Another thing to be aware of is how the time of year affects not only the reptile, but your household; as the nights draw in, we tend to have lights on sooner and longer than at other times of the year, while unused rooms that were lit naturally during the summer often lie in darkness in the winter. Is your tank being affected by these changes? It’s easy to think of a vivarium as a little world of its own, but the environment outside can influence the reptiles inside – so it’s a good idea to investigate this possibility, especially if otherwise good feeders stop eating.
Clearly, if your reptile is lethargic, obviously ill, losing weight or its hunger-strike is going on too long, a trip to the vet is essential, but on the whole, with a few adjustments, most reluctant feeders can be encouraged to become eager eaters once again.