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?
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.
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.
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.
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.