Three Reasons your Reptile Won’t Eat! 7

Why Your Reptile isn’t Eating

Every week I receive numerous emails regarding various species of reptile. One question that keeps popping up is the owner’s (insert favorite species here) has ‘suddenly’ stopped eating or has not begun to eat after being purchased. Understandably this behavior might be very unnerving to new owners who are unfamiliar with the cycles of their new reptile companions. Now then before getting into three Reasons Your Reptile Won’t Eat; there’s technically four.

No Comfort Food

Many people who purchase reptiles for the first time are under the impression that the reptile must be hungry after such a stressful event as being purchased and then placed in a new home.

STOP! Humans have ‘comfort food’ reptiles do not.

Reptiles consume what they need and have fat reserves and therefore don’t need to eat often. People are under this concept of reptile dietary needs. It’s an illusion brought on by anthropomorphism. For example reptiles getting lost in large enclosures searching for food; really?

Boa Constrictor

I never knew in the wild that reptiles had humans bringing them dishes of mealworms every other day. Anyway, that’s for another article.

Numerous people I have spoken to regarding their pet going off feed all have had very similar issues that were easily rectified. Given these patterns of reptile husbandry or rather the lack of proper reptile care I decided to address the 3 most common reasons your reptile won’t eat. As a reptile keeper with over a decade of experience during which time, I worked with hundreds of species, I have come to learn the three major factors having a direct effect on reptile food consumption are heat, health, and hide.

Given those 3 elements are properly set or in place, most reptiles will have no issues feeding.

Using anthropomorphism is something I don’t like to do. I am making an exception here which will become apparent soon. The first aspect of reptiles not eating is one of health. Just as when we are sick whether it’s a cold or flu virus we are not operating at 100% and sometimes we lose weight when sick as food doesn’t sound nor have any appeal to us when we are ill. In my experience it has been seen to be the same with reptiles. If say, they have a respiratory infection or maybe a parasite living in the gut, then food might not be very attractive. So as we can see the general overall health can have a direct relation to feeding response.


Red Heat Bulb

Red Light

Heat is not only connected to the overall health of reptiles but also influences food intake. Heat can be provided in different ways depending on the species of reptile we are working with. Some heating devices are better than others and in my earlier piece Colored Lights & Reptiles: Myths the pet store told me I talk about this phenomenon in specific detail. In synopsis, I show that colored lights may disrupt the normal circadian rhythm of reptiles.
I only recommend ceramic heating elements and Under Tank Heaters as a means to heat a reptile enclosure. There are many mistakes made when it comes to controlling temperature in a reptile enclosure. One of the major mistakes when it comes to heating is using thermometers that are stuck to the enclosure itself. These are sold in digital sticker types or analog dials which are affixed to the enclosure supposedly strategically. The issue of these devices is that the temperature being measured is not the actual basking spot but actually some distance away from it. Think of it this way, the gauge is stuck to glass of the enclosure and unless the heating element is directly placed in the center of the heating element then you are not getting a true reading but an approximation.

The basking areas in enclosures is usually set to heat one piece of decor in the enclosure where the reptile may bask. You cannot get an accurate reading of the temperature unless the thermometer is placed on that piece of decor.

To overcome this issue, I recommend you invest in an infrared reptile thermometer which can be pointed directly at the basking spot and take an accurate reading without even having to come into contact with the basking area. This will insure your temperatures will always be accurate. With this device as well, you can measure the ambient temperatures within the enclosure to make sure you have an actual gradient of temperature that the reptile can choose from. Reptiles being ectothermic or more properly poikilothermic require a basking spot as reptiles keepers understand, in enclosures it is necessary to provide an actual gradient from the basking area to the cool side of the enclosure.

In order to create a proper basking area depending on the species I am keeping I use as I said either a ceramic heating element of appropriate size suspended above the enclosure, an Under Tank Heater, or a combination of the two. Fossorial dwelling reptiles will do better with Undertank Heaters which will closely resemble the ground warmth which they would use to digest meals. Under Tank Heaters are known to only increase the ambient temperature of the substrate only about 10-20 degrees so this in itself might not be enough for a reptile to achieve its proper core temperature. We need to supplement this heat with an overhead basking element in the form of a properly sized ceramic heating element. This is yet another reason for using a temperature gun to read the basking area temperatures. Without the ability to properly regulate their core body temperatures reptiles can potentially incur very serious issues which will eventually lead to the reptile not eating.

reptile cages

R.A.G. Store

The next item at hand is somewhat still misunderstood. I say misunderstood as with all my snakes, I remove them from their enclosure and place them into a different location to feed them. Many other keepers do this as well. The reason for this is that snakes in many people’s experience snakes have tendency to ‘learn’ the enclosure opening is associated with feeding and will possibly snap at you mistaking you for food. I know there are many who have had different experiences and will argue that I am wrong and that’s fine. I am speaking in my personal experience and the experience of people with many years beyond my decade plus of experience.

Hide Boxes

Now then back to the hide box thing, I think it is pretty well-known, if a reptile does not feel secure in captivity it will have feeding issues. When reptiles feed in the wild they search out an area where they can digest which is warm. I am not sure there are any studies within herpetology which have been done that show that there is definitive psychological impact of reptiles not being able to hide and their ability to survive or operate normally in a captive environment when not given proper hiding areas. I do know, that too many professionals to count have observed that without a proper hide area that reptiles especially snakes will show signs of discomfort and many times die without a proper hide area.

Given these observations, I am inclined to provide two hide areas for my snakes. This allows the reptiles to choose whether they want to bask or cool off. Watching your reptile pets will provide an incredible amount of information simply from their behavior; such as are they are spending all their time on the cool side they are probably too hot and vice versa. If the reptile is spending most of its time in the water then there may be reptile mites or some other skin irritation happening.
Spend some time observing your reptiles and they will tell you many things about themselves. With that said, the major three factors after a reptile is settled in a new environment (about a week or so) are really easy to remember as the three H’s. Heat, Hide, and Health if you have these things then your reptile will eat, some of our charges though don’t read the works we do and therefore do their own thing.

7 thoughts on “Three Reasons your Reptile Won’t Eat!

  • John F Taylor Post author

    Kyle, that’s not a bad idea at all. Maybe a reptile handling 101 or something like that? Have to put that on the to do list. We may have that up by end of the week. Thanks again very much for the comments and reading our work. We very much appreciate it. Have you dropped by which is our magazine we produce? 99% content and one page of advertisement for our writers only. Lots of great information.

  • Kyle Miller

    Very good, it would seem that common sense is not so common nowadays and I simply strive to keep people from making a mistake that would hurt their pet, them self, and this hobby that we all love.

    As I mentioned above, you are far more experienced than I, perhaps proper approach to entering a snakes enclosure would be a good topic for a future article. I know what works for me, but its also the same thing I’ve done since I started. I would be greatly interested in hearing what you’ve tried and found to work.

  • John F Taylor Post author

    Well, you have made some valid points. I dare say that there is a point when ‘common sense’ would come into play here though when handling the so called giant species. I don’t think many giant species owners take their pets out a regular basis as this in itself is very problematic when handling a 200lb animal. As far as differentiating between a food strike and a defensive one this type of reading the animal comes with experience and spending time with the animal whether it be a reptile or not. In my opinion if a snake is threatened in its enclosure or feels that way there is something amiss with the way the snakes enclosure is set up. What I mean is that when you enter the enclosure we should always let the snake know we are there so to speak.
    In closing we do recommend only one forum which can be found in the Reptile Apartment Group Header. Too many forums we have seen mislead their readers as unqualified persons are giving advice after reading one book and suddenly they are an expert. I do appreciate the commentary and will look forward to more of your input. I will also start making clear that some ‘rules’ don’t apply to all species.

  • Kyle Miller

    A very well written article. I do however wish to make note that removing some snakes from their enclosures to feed is problematic and potentially dangerous to the keeper and snake’s health. If you’re going to discuss this you need to acknowledge the other side of the argument. The stress of moving back to its own enclosure can potentially cause the snake to regurgitate its meal, never fun. Furthermore, some snakes (the more slender pythons such as retics, carpets, and macklots seem to be guilty of this with greater frequency) seem to always associate opening the enclosure with food whether they’re fed in there or not. Its very difficult to differentiate between a food mode strike and defensive strike, something that many other species do when they feel threatened in their enclosure. Finally, under no circumstances should anything bigger than say, a ball python, be fed out of its enclosure. The potential harm to the keeper of a snake staying in feed mode grows exponentially as snakes grow. I know I’m talking about more advanced species here, but it is with regrettable frequency that young keepers purchase reticulated and burmese pythons that can grow to nearly 10 feet in their first year. Even some boas constrictor (Boa constrictor constrictor and Boa constrictor imperator) localities, some of the most common first snakes, can reach massive proportions in under 2 years. These snakes in my experience (not rivaling your own by a long shot, but I degress) have a tendency to remain in food mode after eating. A ball python in food mode is one thing, but trying to deal with a snake that should be handled with at least 2 people to begin with while in food mode is a tricky proposition at best. The last thing this hobby needs is another nightmare story of someone ending up in the hospital because they tried to feed their 12 foot retic out of its enclosure.

    Hopefully your advice regarding health (generally a by-product of) husbandry and hides can reach many new keepers. It might be a good idea to direct readers of your blog to one of the many quality reptile forums out there.

  • John F Taylor Post author

    Kevin, thank you very much. It has been awhile and I look forward to writing more often. Have had a lot going on as of late and we are launching a couple new sites etc. Thanks very much for being such an avid fan it’s folks like you that make what we are doing so worth it.

  • Kevin "The Ball Python" Steel

    Finally an update! I’ve been checking this page all too I had no idea that stress was that big of an issue for reptiles. Thanks for the great article. ~KS

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