The most commonly available exotic fish eating snake in South Africa is the American Garter Snake. Other fish eating snake species include: Ribbon Snakes, American Water Snakes and European Grass Snakes. Snakes that eat fish are among the easiest non-rodent eaters to feed, as suitable prey is available in almost every pet shop in the form of goldfish and guppies. Goldfish and guppies are more expensive than mice and the price of a goldfish the size that an adult Garter Snake will require is currently around R20.00-R30.00.
Most fish eating snakes are active hunters with high metabolisms and will need to eat a suitability sized fish two to three times a week. This soon becomes a big expense for a snake that is under a meter in length. As is human nature, people start to skimp and start feeding whitebait or hake pieces. White bait and other oily fish contain an enzyme called thiaminase which causes a vitamin B1 or thiamine deficiency. This deficiency results in a nervous system disorder which causes the snake to lose muscle control and the snake will usually die. This enzyme is also present in dried fish, so hake fillet must be sprinkled with a vitamin supplement that contains vitamin B1. When a snake eats a whole fish it digests the bones, internal organs and gut contents which provide calcium and vitamins; a hake fillet lacks this and does not provide enough nutrition.
A better alternative to hake is to purchase flat fish such as sole and cut a slice which contains bone and some skin. Whole fish of the right size make the best food item for fish eating snakes. Live fish such as goldfish can be placed in the snake’s water bowl; the snake will see the fish moving about in the bowl and move in for the kill. For fussy eaters place the fish in a shallow water bowl, this will cause the fish to flap around which makes it more visible to the snake and will result in a quicker feeding response. Fish are usually swallowed live, as once grasped by the snake they have no chance of escape and will suffocate if eaten on land. That said, Garter Snakes have very weakly toxic saliva which would help to subdue the fish while swallowing.
Do not feed your fish eater huge meals like you would a rodent eater, a 5-6cm goldfish is the perfect size meal for an adult Garter Snake. Adult American Water Snakes and European Grass Snakes can take goldfish that are 10-12cm in length. Juveniles of all these species can be fed guppies. However, some Garter Snake species give birth to large litters of extremely small young which may need to be fed on earthworms until they are large enough to eat guppies. As mentioned, feed these snakes two to three times a week. Fish eating snakes defecate more frequently than rodent eaters and must be cleaned more often. All the above mentioned species will also eat frogs, although fish are a better choice as they have fewer parasites. Chequered Garter Snakes can be trained to eat mice by scenting them with fish, but there is no certainty that the snake will eat the mouse.
Pet snakes that eat Frog and Toad
The most commonly available frog and toad eating species are American Hognose Snakes, Madagascan Hognose Snakes, Night Adders and Red-Lipped Snakes. Western Hognose snakes will accept mice and do well on a diet of small rodents but some hatchlings may need to be persuaded to eat pinkies by scenting them with frogs. Eastern and Southern Hognose Snakes are not so cooperative when it comes to eating mice and may have to be fed on a diet of frogs.
The natural diet of Madagascan Hognose Snakes consists largely of frogs and toads. Since the majority of these snakes in the pet trade are wild caught and used to eating their natural prey, you may have to feed them frogs initially and then move onto scented mice. Night Adders and Red-Lips are unlikely to accept mice and will need to be supplied with a weekly meal of frogs or toads. You will only be able to catch frogs for your snake during the wet summer months, so either feed your snakes heavily during this period and hibernate your snakes in winter (temperate or local species only) or stock pile humanely killed frogs in your freezer for the winter months. Feeder frogs are not available in pet stores, so they will have to be captured from the wild. Wild frogs harbour internal parasites that can get passed on to your snake, so take your pet to the vet every six months to a year to be de-wormed. Consult a field guide to identify the frogs or toads that you are going to feed to your snakes to make sure that they do not have toxic skin secretions and to confirm the conservation status of the frogs: you do not want your pet to be part of the reason a species goes extinct!
Feed adult Night Adders, Red-Lips and American Hognose Snakes a frog equal in size to a small mouse once a week. Madagascan Hognose Snakes are large and will eat a frog equal in size to weaner rats once per week. Hatchlings and juveniles will eat newly metamorphosized froglets and sometimes tadpoles will be accepted. Frogs and toads are subdued by mild venom produced in a modified saliva gland in the case of American and Madagascan Hognose Snakes and Red -Lips, which can cause allergic reactions in humans. Night Adders have mildly cytotoxic venom which causes swelling, pain and local tissue necrosis in humans; this species should only be kept by experienced keepers. If you can get your snakes to eat mice it will make your life much easier, however sometimes instinct over rides your efforts and to prevent the snake starving to death its natural prey must be given.
Pet snakes that eat Invertebrates
A variety of invertebrates are eaten by snakes, ranging from earthworms, slugs and snails to termites and centipedes. There are not many invertebrate eating snakes available for sale due to lack of interest and the fact that these snakes often only feed on one or two types of invertebrates, which makes sourcing food difficult.
An example of a picky eater is the Black-headed Centipede-eater which feeds exclusively on centipedes, and since these insects are secretive it is impossible to find enough of them to provide a regular supply of food, resulting in the snake starving to death. The Common Slug Eater and its cousin the Variegated Slug Eater are small snakes which feed on slugs and snails. Slugs and snails are plentiful during the wet summer months and are most numerous at night after rain, so collect as many as you can and keep them in plastic tubs with moist sphagnum moss as a substrate, feeding them on lettuce leaves, carrots and apple slices. Make sure that the snails or slugs are collected from a pesticide free area. Slug Eaters may eat the tinned snails offered by reptile food manufactures. Feed your Slug Eater several slugs or snails per week: slugs will be swallowed whole and snails will be pulled out of their shells by the snake before being eaten.
The Rough Green Snake is a North American insect eating snake which is kept in limited numbers by snake keepers overseas, but I do not know if this snake is available in South Africa. This is a small active snake that needs to be fed three to four times a week on crickets dusted with calcium powder. Exotic snakes that feed on earthworms include the attractive Ringneck Snake and the tiny DeKay’s Snake. Earthworms can be found in moist soil, purchased from fishing shops or pet shops or you can set up an earthworm farm.
Pet snakes that eat Eggs
There are several snake species with a specialised egg diet. The Central American Cat-Eyed Snake feeds on frogs’ eggs, Shovel Snout snakes eat reptile eggs and Egg Eaters only eat unfertilised birds’ eggs. Although the first two species cannot be successfully kept in captivity as finding the correct food is impossible, Egg Eaters do well in captivity and make very interesting pets.
The only problem with Egg Eaters is finding suitable size eggs for hatchlings. Hatchlings need to be fed finch eggs, which are difficult to obtain. Hatchlings can be fed beaten hens’ eggs using a syringe and feeding tube until they are large enough to eat quail eggs. Quails eggs can be purchased from grocery stores but are expensive, a better idea is to either find someone who keeps quails and purchase the eggs directly, or keep your own quails. An adult Egg Eater is capable of eating a small hen’s egg. Feed Egg Eaters a single egg once a week.
Burmese Pythons, Reticulated Pythons, African Rock Pythons and Boa Constrictors will eat chickens. Juveniles will eat day old chicks and adults will eat full grown chickens. They are not the ideal food and it has been shown that hatchlings fed only on chicks grow into adults with poor muscle tone.
These snakes should therefore eat rodents as a staple diet with only the occasional chicken. Juvenile Green Tree Pythons, Emerald Tree Boas, Amazon Tree Boas and Carpet Pythons may prefer to eat quail chicks rather than mice, but they should eat mice as they grow older. Wild caught Boomslangs prefer to eat birds and they can be fed on day old chicks.