Snakes kill and consume their prey -- primarily rodents -- whole, without chewing. Their gastrointestinal systems' digestive enzymes and gastric juices break down the meals, including bones, skin, flesh and fur. Temperature plays a large role in how quickly a snake digests his food. Warmer temperatures allow for faster digestion.
If prey is too large for a snake or if he is handled too soon after eating, the snake will likely regurgitate his meal. Part of this is based on a snake’s wild instincts -- if he feels threatened and needs to make a quick getaway, an undigested meal will only slow him down, so he regurgitates it as a means of self-preservation. If a meal is already being broken down in the stomach and the snake expels it, this is considered vomiting rather than regurgitation and is often a sign of an underlying health problem.
Offer your snake appropriately sized prey. Snakes can typically handle rodents approximately 1 1/2 times the size of their body diameters. A snake given prey that is too large will either not attempt to eat it or partially eat it and regurgitate it at some point when he realizes he can't fully consume the meal. Oxygen intake is essential to the snake’s digestive process; a snake who isn’t getting enough air during the consumption phase may eject his meal rather than risk oxygen deprivation.
Get into a regular schedule of feeding your snake, and refrain from feeding him right before a shed or right before travel. Put your snake in a feeding tank rather than feed him in his home tank -- this will signal to the snake that it’s time for food, and it will help guard against striking if you place your hand in your snake’s regular enclosure. While it is common for snakes to go for long periods of time, even months, without eating, a change in your snake’s eating behavior is enough to prompt a visit to a vet who specializes in snakes and reptiles.
General Feeding Tips
Most captive snakes can be taught to accept both live prey or defrosted frozen prey. If you’re having a difficult time getting your snake to eat, switch from one to the other. When feeding defrosted frozen prey, make sure the rodent is room temperature. Feeding your snake a mouse or rat that’s too cold can be harmful to the snake’s digestive process.
Lisa McQuerrey has been a business writer since 1987. In 1994, she launched a full-service marketing and communications firm. McQuerrey's work has garnered awards from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the International Association of Business Communicators and the Associated Press. She is also the author of several nonfiction trade publications, and, in 2012, had her first young-adult novel published by Glass Page Books.