Of all the questions we get asked about snakes, this has got to be one of the commonest! Any quick search of the internet throws this up as a common problem, and the advice given ranges from useful to downright dangerous.
So what is it about royal pythons that makes them so prone to these long fasts? The loss of appetite and the inability to eat are correctly known as anorexia, which is a term that most of us only know because of the human eating disorder. The anorexia is the symptom; we need to get to the bottom of the cause.
This will surprise a lot of people, as it’s not usually mentioned in online discussions! Royals are a tropical species, and are very sensitive to temperature; if your python goes off its food, the first thing to do is to check the temperatures within the enclosure with an accurate digital thermometer. Make sure that the thermometer probe is placed just above (or resting lightly on) the substrate; you need to be measuring temperature in the areas where the snake is actually moving around. Don’t have the probes up near the roof where the temperature is slightly higher, or buried in the substrate where it will be lower. Check:
- Hot spot (directly under the basking spot)
- Ambient warm end temperature
- Ambient cool end temperature
- Night time temperature in both warm and cool end
Although it isn’t often mentioned royals do seem to appreciate a night time temperature drop. If you only have a dimming thermostat that can’t be set to a different temperature overnight then it’s worth putting a timer switch in, set to turn the heating off for a few hours each night. With some royals that’s all it takes.
Look at how you are heating your pets enclosure. Heat mats might be functional for a baby (although we don’t recommend them for royals at all, a lot of people do) but as your snake grows they can’t provide the correct amount of heat. Deep heat projectors or ceramic heaters are much more effective – always run through a thermostat, of course. If you don’t have a digital thermometer or yours is several years old, then consider buying one or replacing it.
One of the appeal of royal pythons is their relaxed demeanour. Even when they’re worried they roll up into a ball rather than thrash around frantically trying to escape; it’s often this very inactivity that makes people think that their snake is happy when in fact it isn’t. The biggest mistake that people make when they buy a new snake is they don’t let it settle; this is vitally important, and it’s an absolutely necessary part of the snake keeping process! The snake, when collected, is having a trying day and it must be allowed to decompress and realise it isn’t in immediate danger, and then it must be allowed the time to learn about its new surroundings without being pressured.
Keep handling to a minimum until you are sure that the snake is happy to come out of its ‘safe zone’ – its house. The most obvious sign that your snake has relaxed in its new home is when it eats – if it’s not eating and your temperatures and decor are good, then the chances are high that it’s stressed. Spending all its time rubbing against the front glass trying to get out isn’t a sign that the snake wants to come out and be sociable – usually just the opposite! Constant, frantic attempts to push out of the vivarium usually mean that the snake does not feel safe, and is trying to escape in order to find a place to hide where it feels safe and comfortable.
Look at the decor in your vivarium. What substrate are you using? Dry, light coloured substrates such as lignocel, aspen or beech chip can make a lot of royals uncomfortable, so change to a darker, more moist substrate that holds humidity well. Does your snake have enough places to hide? The old fashioned advice of one hide in the cool and one in the warm end simply isn’t enough for most royals. Make sure that there is plenty of clutter for the snake to hide in, around and under; they like a hide that they can curl up under and touch all the sides, so make sure that hides are small enough. Fake plants, piles of cork bark – get creative, your snake will thank you for it!
Being In Shed
A lot of snakes won’t eat when they’re about to shed – and some extend this period to just before they go into shed, and even a week or so after they have actually shed their skin! This is where keeping a record of how often your snake sheds can come in very handy, as you can look back over previous months and see if your snake is one that feeds whilst going through the shedding process. There are several tell tale signs to look out for:
- Dull, cloudy eyes. Known as being ‘in blue’ by snake keepers, this is when your snake pumps fluid between the old and the new skin, and at its peak your snake is effectively blind. This can make some snakes very nervous, so best to avoid handling during the blue period.
- Dusty looking skin. The skin colour changes as the snake gets ready to shed, and although it’s clearer in dark skinned animals, even albinos will appear duller and almost dusty. This is usually a good indicator that the snake is about to shed.
- Pink belly scales. It’s not unusual for royals to get a pink belly when they’re preparing to shed. This seems to be because they are pumping more blood nearer to the surface to help prepare the new skin, and where the scales are pale (or white) this shows through as a pink hue. Don’t confuse this with the redness of infection!
- Not coming out for nightly exercise, remaining in their moist hide – or just the one where they feel safest! Not being able to see can make your snake very nervous, and they might prefer to stay tucked away nice and safe until they have completed their shed cycle.
If your snake has had a bad shed they may well be feeling uncomfortable, and this can stop them from eating. Give them a warm bath for twenty minutes, then let them wriggle through a damp hand towel and that should have them feeling more comfortable. Make sure that you correct their environmental conditions so that they shed properly next time, and if they can’t shed their eye caps then don’t hang about – go and see a vet. Don’t risk your snake’s eyesight.
Time Of Day
Especially relevant with newly homed or nervous snakes. Royal pythons are generally crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) or nocturnal (active at night), and some of them will only accept food if it is offered just before or after lights out. Try changing the time that you offer them their meals.
Time Of Year
Fully mature animals will often respond to a combination of day length, air pressure and ambient air temperature by becoming ready to breed. The breeding season in captivity for this species is usually from November to March, although there are always some that react outside of this time. Generally males will become restless and refuse food for several weeks, and females may ovulate – the last third of their body appears swollen as they release follicles ready to lay. These signs are fairly obvious, so if you’ve got a sexually mature snake that’s behaving like this then don’t worry – although it’s a good excuse to check all the parameters of your enclosure to make sure that it’s definitely hormonal, rather than anything else.
Generally, our reptile pets are hardy and healthy, and as long as their setup is correct then there are very few problems. It is, however, something to bear in mind if your python is refusing food as well as behaving abnormally. If your snake is comfortable with being handled, then gently but firmly run your hands along their body. Can you feel any lumps or bumps, are there any discoloured patches, any wounds, swollen areas, or does your snake flinch when you reach a certain place? Any of these signs mean that you should take your snake to see a vet. Just like us, if they are feeling unwell or are in pain they aren’t going to want to eat.
If they appear otherwise normal and your environment is good, then consider getting a fecal sample tested. Although these days our royals are usually captive bred, there are some parasites that they can pick up either in the breeders’ care or from contaminated food. Again, this will make them feel off colour, and that can stop them feeding.
No, really! Some pythons prefer rats to mice, chicks to rats, or will only eat gerbils or multimammate mice (also known as African soft furred rats, or multis). There are some individuals that steadfastly refuse coloured or patterned rats but cheerfully consume white ones, and vice versa. None of this (especially the colour) should make the slightest bit of difference, but all snakes are individuals – and some have very particular tastes. Don’t immediately assume that your snake just doesn’t like the food you are trying to offer them; just like us, if they’re unhappy, stressed or unwell then they might not be hungry. If that’s the case, then it’s going to take something especially tasty in order to tempt them to eat – and that’s just masking the symptoms, not treating the root cause of the problem. Yes, they are allowed likes and dislikes, but if your snake is extremely picky then you need to look deeper.
So if your snake won’t eat, remember:
- Check temperature
- Check shed status
- Examine the whole environment – hides, lighting etc
- Consider time of year/weather
- Check your snake for physical problems
- Make sure that your pet is familiar with the prey you are offering
Good luck, and don’t panic!