Grey rat snakes (Pantherophis spiloides) are handsome, medium-sized snakes that thrive in captivity and make rewarding pets. Though hatchlings can sometimes present challenges, once they start eating, rat snakes are very easy to feed. Wild rat snakes consume birds, eggs, rodents and lizards, but captive grey rat snakes should be fed frozen-thawed rodents on a regular schedule.
Hatchlings and Juveniles
In their natural habitat, young grey rat snakes prey on lizards and frogs. This is not recommended for captive snakes, as feeder frogs and lizards are often highly parasitized, and can make your snake sick. Feeding a rat snake a frozen-thawed rodent may require transferring the scent of a lizard or frog to the rodent being offered. Over time, scenting the rodents won't be necessary, and your snake will learn to accept unscented rodents. Hatchlings and juveniles should be fed one rodent every four to five days. Young snakes aren't as capable of handling large prey as adults are, so provide your snake with a mouse fuzzy or small mouse hopper equal to, or only slightly larger than, your snake's mid-body diameter.
Rat snakes shift from eating lizards and frogs while young to eating birds and rodents as they mature. Adult rat snakes should be fed larger items, less frequently than young snakes. A schedule of one meal every seven to ten days will keep your adult rat snake healthy. Care should be exercised when feeding adults; captive snakes eat more and exercise less than their wild counterparts, and as such, are prone to obesity. This is especially true of adult males and non-breeding females, either of which may consume more food than is necessary.
Feeding During Breeding Cycles
The dietary habits of snakes often change when they enter a breeding cycle. Adult male snakes frequently refuse food leading up to, or during, the breeding season. This trend can be exacerbated if the male can smell other rat snakes in the room. Adult females that are slated for breeding should have good body weight and be in excellent health. Many breeders increase the feeding frequency of female rat snakes prior to allowing them to breed.
Feeding and Winter Dormancy
Rat snakes in the wild undergo seasonal dormancy during the winter. Pet owners should maintain reasonably constant temperatures all year, and if this is done, many grey rat snakes will continue to remain active and eat. If, however, your snake begins refusing food in the fall, it is not cause for concern. This is a natural behavior, and as long as your snake is healthy, it should resume feeding in the spring. Consult your veterinarian and consider reducing the cage temperatures slightly if your snake shows signs of dormancy.
- Ratsnake.org: Bites, Sub-species, Predation, Combat dance, Encounters and Life-cycle
- Savannah River Ecology Laboratory: Rat Snake
- US Forest Service: Ontogenetic Changes in the Foraging Behavior, Habitat Use and Food Habits of the Western Aquatic Garter Snake, Thamnophis couchii, at Hurdygurdy Creek, Del Norte County, California
- Long Island Herpetological Society: Corn Snakes / Rat Snakes