How often you should feed a garter snake is a frequently asked question. Especially by inexperienced holders. A common mistake is to compare reptiles with mammals. The latter eat once or several times per day. Reptiles are much more efficient with their food and eat less often. For most reptiles is eating once or twice per week quite normal. There are cases known of large boas and pythons that did not eat for a whole year, than they ate one prey and then fast again for several months to a year. This has everything to do with the fact that reptiles are ectotherm (or “cold-blooded”). But knowing this, how often do you feed your garter snakes? There is no “black or white” answer too this questions. There are no hard and fast rules to give. But… I can tell you how I do it! Juvenile (newborn) snakes get every second or third day as much food as they can eat. I keep doing this for a few months. In the third month after they are born I start feeding them every third or fourth day and again as much as they can eat. After the brumation, in their second year, I still feed them every third or fourth day for a few months. And again they can eat as much as they like.
In their second year I gradually make the intervals longer. Around September they get food once a week and still as much as they can eat. From the third year the intervals are about a week – eight days between every feeding. They still get as much as they want. You will notice that some animals eat only 1 or 2 food-items per feeding (often the males) while others eat till they almost “explode”. I try to feed the most voracious eaters with a pair of tweezers.When you are patient, they will learn this very fast. I give them the bigger parts/fish so they are busy for a longer time to swallow it. When they do eat very fast, I take them out of the terrarium for a while and place it in an empty one.
When you have only a few snakes, you can think about feeding them, separated from each other, in “Curver containers” or something similar. Most specimen learn this very fast. The greatest advantage is that the snakes don’t try to eat each other, but you also have no raw food in the terrarium. And you know exactly how much each snake has eaten.
You can also consider to feed them with a pair of tweezers. Most species accept this; only the nervous species/specimen refuse this.This gives the same advantages as mentioned above. When I had not that many garter snakes I fed alwys with tweezers, but now I have too many specimen to keep doing this. It just takes to much time.
Until a few years ago I fed all my snakes at the same time. This took quite some time, time i didn’t always have. Wisdom comes with age and I decided to feed them twice or three times per week. Not all together, but just a selected number of them. This takes much less time and produces lee stress. As we all know, some species/specimen need a permanent control during the feeding. Otherwise there is a big chance they will eat each other. These troublemakers are all fed at the same session. The other ones (those who only need permanent control during the first 5 à 10 minutes are fed during the other session(-s). After they all calmed down a bit, I can hang the laundry on the attick or change some water bowls. A specimen that does not want to eat and is not in shedding modus gets an annotation. I write on a piece of paper the snakes that did not eat. Next feeding session I look at it. When the same snake(-s) again do not eat I pay more attention to them. If necessary I place it in a separate terrarium and feed it something else to get it started again. This is almost never necessary for adult snakes and every now and then for newborn snakes.
I try to buy all the accessories (chicken heart, fish filet, etc) as much as possible at the same time. I make portions of it and freeze it. The smelt I buy 3 or 4 times per year in portions of 4 – 5 kilo. The day I am going to feed the snakes I take a portion, add some smelt (and if necessary some pinkies). Sometimes I defrost it in warm water and other times i leave it in the plastic bag and let it defrost the natural way.
Always stay near the terrarium and be alert during feeding. Garter snakes tend to steel the food out of the mouth of each other. This can result in one eating the other (accidentally).
What do you see on the picture? Yvon from the Garter- and Ribbon-Forum van Kingsnake.com I got permission to use this picture. Here you see how things can terribly go wrong. See it as a reminder and / or warning. This is what Yvon told about this situation… “Are your garter snakes housed together and they also get their food when they are together? When the answer is yes, than think about separating them when the sizes start to differ much. I namely lost one through cannibalism, caused by inattention. They always fought for their preys. One catches the fish and the other tries to take it (they are opportunistic animals). When the one grew bigger than the other it lead to this. On the picture you can see how I found them the next morning. Personal note from me: this is not really cannibalism, but accidentally eating a member of the same species. Cannibalism is the conscious/instinctively eating of a member of the same species.
In some (sub-) species you can really have no inattentive moment, otherwise things like this happen. Notorious are, amongst others T. sirtalis pickeringii, T. hammondii, T. sirtalis dorsalis, but also T. a. atratus (especially the juveniles) are sometimes “disastrous”. They seem to think that the prey that was taken by the other is better than the food that is in the food bowl. But realize that every species has individuals that cannot be trusted during the eating. And also there are specimen of the above mentioned (sub-)species that never try to steal food from the other. So, always observe your snakes during the feeding. Or feed every individual snake separated in “Curver boxes”.
What can you feed a garter snake?
# Dead fish
You can feed all kinds of (frozen) species. I mainly feed smelt that I buy at Ronalds Diervoeders. I pay about 9 euro for 1 kilo separately frozen smelt; quality is almost always perfect. He delivers it for a few euro in the Netherlands and Belgium. A few times, when I ordered the smelt, I also ordered some Dillies. This are small (1 – 4 cm), frozen deep sea fishes. A very nice size for juvenile garter snakes.
Not all the juveniles are enthusiast about these small fishes, but combined with some pieces of smelt they all eat it. Every now and then I feed also fillet of pollock, salmon, cod and whiting, but almost always in combination with smelt. This is just supplementary feeding. In the eighties I fed almost nothing else than fish fillet (combined with some chicken heart) because smelt was poorly available in those days and when it was available it was very expensive. I am glad I can feed smelt nowadays because this are whole fishes with
everything still in it; more nutritional value. Since 2007 I every now and then ( 2-4 times per year) feed (supplementary), as a part of the total diet, some Pangasius ypothalmus fillet and Clarias lazerna fillet that are sold in the local supermarket (frozen). Both species are bred in Europe as far as I know. Both are a kind of catfish. The major advantage of the use of such fillets is that poor eaters or food refuser’s start eating well. And when you see that they eat well, you increase the amount of smelt in relation to the fish fillet.
So I once got a see needle (Belone belone) from a brother of mine (an avid fisherman) that he caught in the Westerschelde. The notorious food refuser’s started eating fanatically. After they had eaten this a few times, I reduced the amount of see needle and added more smelt. After some feeding’s they ate smelt without adding see needle. Also I had some sluggish eaters that turned into “beasts” when they got see needle. This fish smells very strong and I think this scent triggers them to eat. The occasionally feeding of salt-water fish is sometimes discouraged because of the salt, but that’s nonsense. Not all salt-water fish contains much salt. And when it does it won’t hurt them when you feed this every now and then. Salt is a normal mineral that every living creature needs. When you only feed fish that contains much salt, then you might get problems. Experimenting with different types of fish can give fine results. The same effect as above had provided salmon fillet (from the freezer).
# Living fish
In pet shops there are often cheap gold fish etc sold. They also sometimes sell “damaged” aquarium fish. All kinds of aquarium fish can be fed to Thamnophis. But the quality is not always good in pet shops. Best is, when you want to feed living fish, to start breeding them yourself. For example guppy’s (Poecilia reticulata) or another species that is easy to breed. Than the quality of the fish in in your hands instead of the pet shop owner. You can also make contact with aquarium keepers or the local aquarium club. They might sell you some cheap surplus fish. Personally I never feed living fish. It is simply to expensive when you have many garter snakes. And I do not want to spend lots of time on breeding fish. Always keep in mind that fishes that are sold for the aquarium are not meant for consumption and so you never really know what has happened to them. Feeding fish, living or dead, can cause a problem… This depends on whether or not there is thiaminase present in the fish. Follow the link to get more info about preventing or curing this illness. I kept (and still keep) many species of garter snakes during many years and I have never had one garter snake that suffered from thiaminase. But I add every now and then some thiamine (vitamin B1) to the fish I feed.
# Chicken fillet of chicken breast
Very occasionally, when I remember to keep some chicken meat apart when I’m baking it for ourselves, I give some of the snakes a little chicken fillet. This are most of the times the snakes that are housed in the kitchen. I cut it into strips of the proper thickness of about 1 to 2 cm long. Only chicken fillet is not eagerly eaten, but if you put some small pieces between the fish, the snakes often grab the chicken meat the first. I maybe give this 2 – 4 times per year. In the Netherlands chicken meat is free of salmonella! This is not so in every country. So make sure to feed chicken meat that is free of salmonella. Or, don’t feed it at all! Chicken meat is not necessary for garter snakes!
Don’t give muck-worms; the garter snakes don’t like them and I red once they can be poisonous. Collect your earthworms in clean ground where you are sure no insecticides have been used. You can often buy earthworms in anglings shop. My personal experience with them are not good. Often the snakes refuse them. I also do not trust these worms cause it is not clear what has happened with these worms. They are not intended as consumption animal. Earthworms often are used to help to start the eating of juvenile snakes. My personal experiences with this were sometimes good, often without result. I get better results with salmon- or some other fish fillet. But somtimes earthworms do the trick.
Regularly I give, as part of a varied diet, chicken heart to the garter snakes. Up to now I have not met one garter snake that refused this food. Often they pick the pieces of heart out first.
I buy my chicken hearts in a local supermarket where they are sold as cat food. I buy fresh hearts and deep freeze them in portions. After I defrost them before feeding I cut them, with scissors, in pieces of the right size . You can also use beef heart, but I personally don’t do that any more. There is no specific reason for that. I just love the size of the chicken hearts. Since most garter snakes in nature also eat frogs and such, I consider these chicken hearts as an alternative for them. Every now and then I give the snakes chicken-stomach in stead of chicken-hearts. And a few times per year chicken-liver.
As soon as the juvenile snakes are big enough to eat a pinkie, you can start with this. You can also cut pinkies in small pieces for the right size. Not every specimen will accept them right away, but when you defrost the pinkies in a bowl with the normal food of the snakes, they usually accept them. Up to now I have not seen a garter snakes that refused a pinkie. Personally I only feed pinkies to pregnant females (about once a month). Occasionally I cut some (dead!) pinkies in small pieces and give this to the juveniles of that year. Further I give no mice to my garter snakes. I do this to prevent that they grow too fast and get to fat. Most garter snakes will not eat much mice in the wild. Proponents of feeding many mice to their garter snakes often say that a mouse is a complete prey animal and has all the nutritive values that a garter snake needs. But… I have never seen a list with all these values. Or a list of values that are necessary for a garter snake. In other words… everyone does what he thinks is best, but please, do not get to scientific! And by the way, whole smelt (for example) is also a complete prey animal. And maybe they “also have all the nutritive values for a garter snake”. My approach is to feed as many different food items as I can. Advice! When you solely want to feed mice to your garter snakes, feed less often. As snakes grow, you can also resize the mice. Large individuals of, for example Thamnophis sirtalis or Thamnophis eques even eat adult mice. Pinkies of rats, hamsters, etc. you can also feed.
Personally I never give amphibians to my garter snakes and this for the following reasons: All amphibians that are native in the Netherlands and Belgium are protected by law! This is a good thing because our amphibians need this protection. This means that you are not allowed to disturb or catch them. This makes that feeding amphibians to the garter snakes is expensive! Secondly, when you feed wild caught amphibians to the snakes, you risk transferring internal parasites to your garter snakes. In the wild the snakes can deal with these parasites, I presume, but is this also for parasites in amphibians from other parts of the world? I never had problems with infected garter snakes and I really would like to keep it like this. Thirdly, you risk that the snakes don’t want anything else after you fed frogs to you garter snakes. And when the supply of frogs is not that easy at a certain moment, you have a problem! Fourthly (and for me a very important reason why I do not want to give my garter snakes frogs and/or salamanders/newts) there is a subjective reason. I love amphibians too much to use them as food. The fifth and last reason why you do not have to give amphibians to your garter snakes is: they do well without them! There are many alternatives! But… when you find a fresh road-killed frog you could consider to take it with you and deep freeze it. Sometimes garter snakes that refuse to eat can be “started” with a prey that has been rubbed to that frozen frog. Consider this as a very last attempt to get the snake eating. There is always the risk you transfer a parasitic infection, for deep freezing does not necessarily kill all parasites. Of course… you can start breeding amphibians with the intention to give the offspring to your snakes. When you do, don’t use poisonous species like the Cane toad (Rhinella marina) or poison dart frogs (Dendrobatidae). Amphibian species that are relatively easy to breed in large amounts are, amongst others, the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), the African dwarf frog (Hymenochirus boettgeri), the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) and the Iberian ribbed newt (Pleurodeles waltl). But keep in mind that you’re probably spending more time with your “food culture” than with your snakes. Of course, breeding amphibians can be (or become) a second hobby. But than thee is a chance that you hate to give your young frogs to the snakes. And when the amphibians are not breeding that good in a certain moment and your snakes refuse all other preys, you have a problem. So in my view … forget amphibians as a food item!!
Because cat food is a complete food with calcium, vitamins and minerals in it, this can be a part of the diet for your garter snakes. Always check on the label what exactly is in it! You can use canned cat food, but also the dry cat food is usable. The jelly on the canned food can best be rinsed off with warm water, so you have small pieces or balls left over. They can easily be cut in pieces of the right size. In this way you diminish the risk of two snakes fighting for the same piece of food. What brand you use is up to you. I often heard that the snakes prefer the cheaper brands. Dry cat food also sometimes is eaten. Leave these soaking in warm water for a while or throw them in the water bowl. Again, the brand is not that important. Read the label/box for its content. Sometimes cat food can help to get juvenile snakes to eat. Don’t only give cat food! Use it as part of their diet. Big benefit is that it is readily available, inexpensive and has a long shelf life. In the past I have given some of my garter snakes canned cat food (even further in the past my Nerodia species too). But I have not fed it for years now. I find it a messy way of feeding. But maybe I will try it again this year (2013). It is recommended to use cat food that is made for old cats or cats that are on a diet. This is mainly because there is less salt present in it. Read the labels! Or ask your vet for advice. Although I have never tried it, I think that dog food also can be a part of the diet for garter snakes. If you want to try it, first take a good look at the composition of the contents. Perhaps needless to say, but it should consist mainly meat.
Some species seem to be happy to eat these, according to some literature. You can always give it a try. Personally I do not have much experience with the. I’ve tried it a few times: the snakes (T. s. sirtalis) were interested, but did not eat them. It were small slugs from my garden. It is also a slimy, dirty mess to feed them and that alone is a good reason for ignoring this food…
In the past I occasionally fed my snakes : bovine spleen and lean meat for the soup. They all liked it. Nowadays the menu mainly consists of smelt, chicken-heart, fish fillets and (seldom) worms and pinkies.
# Vitamin supplements
Every third or fourth feeding I add some supplements to the smelt, chicken-heart, etc. I use Minerall indoor, Vita-Totaal (Repco). I also add a small amount of thiamine (vitamin B1).
I don’t think it is that important which brand of multi-vitamins you use, as long as it is specific for carnivorous reptiles.
Multi-vitamins can be bought in specialized pet shops or on expo’s. Thiamine (Vitamin B1) can be bought in your local drug store. You need no recipe and it is quite cheap.
# During the holidays
During our holidays (when we go away for a few weeks) the snakes get no food. One week before we leave I feed the snakes for the last time. On the day that we leave I set the timers on a half hour in the morning and an hour at the end of the evening. In total the lamps burn 1,5 hours per day. Once a week the water is changed by someone. We usually go away for two weeks and during this period, including the week before we leave, the snakes get no food. This goes perfectly and it doesn’t seem to bother the animals. In fact, when I try to give them food again a day after we came back (the lamps are back on their normal time scheme) they do not eat or hardly eat. It takes a few days before they start eating normally again. The snakes do not loose weight during this period and don’t become ill. I even am under the the impression (might be suggestion) that such a break benefits them. The thought behind this is the following. In the wild the weather is not always perfect. During periods of chilliness and rain the snakes will stay in their hiding places and will (or hardly) eat. Garter snakes “are built for this”. They adapt very easily. That is their strength. Also in very hot and dry periods they will not (or hardly) eat because the will stay in their hiding places. I simulate a summer rest in this way. It is important to diminish the day length like noted above or turn off the lamps completely (this works too). Never lost a snake in this way and there was never a snake that got ill.