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Feeding Your Snake Outside the Cage?


I'm sure, if you frequent herp related forums or message boards very much at all, you have seen someone posting how you simply must remove your snake from it's normal enclosure and put it in a separate container for feeding.
Some people seem to treat this issue as if it's a non-negotiable requirement of snake keeping, and preach it with vehemence at every opportunity.
I wish I knew who exactly started this idea. I've heard this rhetoric harped on so many times in many forums that I grew weary of it a very long time ago, and thought I'd publish my own thoughts on this over hyped and unnecessary practice.

First let's consider the argument used to support this method of feeding. It is based on the idea that if you feed your snake inside its cage, that it will develop an association with your opening the door with feeding and this will result in an increased possibility of the keeper experiencing a bite when reaching his or her hand inside the cage.
Upon first hearing it, the theory appears to have genuine merit, and apparently makes a lot of sense to many, since more and more people are joining the ranks of those who insist this is the only "safe" way to feed your snakes. Let's look at the practice a little closer to understand exactly what is happening.

First let's assume that you're going to move the snake to the feeding container before you handle the rodents at all. To reach into a hungry snake's cage with your hands smelling like a rat is in itself asking for a bite.
OK, so you've got the snake moved into a tub you keep for the purpose of feeding, let's pause here for a second and examine the possible results of this initial step. Many snakes are well acclimated, and possess such a strong feeding response that they will eat virtually any time food is offered regardless of anything else that might be going on. For those snakes, moving them prior to feeding is not an issue.
Some species of snakes are naturally shy and more reclusive than others. At the same time there are individuals of otherwise confident species that are easily frightened and become defensive. In these such cases, the mere act of picking them up and transferring them to a separate container can easily upset them to the point that they will flatly refuse to feed. Snakes which are scared, or otherwise perceive an imminent threat are not going to put themselves in a vulnerable position by eating a meal.
In the case of other species, such as Amazon Tree Boas, or other nearly exclusively arboreal species, removing them from the cage is an endeavor in and of itself. Getting them to turn loose of a perch can often take some time. Additionally many of these species prefer, if not require, that they be able to hunt from an elevated position, striking down on their prey from the safety of an arboreal perch. You can see the impracticality of trying to feed these species outside of their normal cage.
Let's move on.

You've got the snake in the tub. You thaw the rat, and the snake eats. All is well right? Hmmm, now you've got to return the snake to it's enclosure where it will have access to the heat and security it needs to digest it's meal. It's either that or make the feeding tub into a second cage complete with heat that you'll only use once a week. This brings us to problem #2.
Anyone who has kept snakes for any length of time and is even marginally observant knows what "feeding mode" is. You can visually tell, based on the sometimes small but yet significant behaviors and movements, when a snake is hunting. The posture, tongue flicking, and even breathing rates change when the snake begins hunting behavior.
As is also commonly known, many snakes will remain in this feeding mode for a variable amount of time after eating. So at this point you now risk being bitten trying to move the snake back to the enclosure. I have several snakes in my collection that I don't even consider attempting to bother for the rest of the evening after feeding. Their feeding response is so strong that right after eating a rat anything in the vicinity that moves is in danger of being struck.

That covers the basic problems with the practice, but further complications develop as your collection grows.
I have noticed that the vast majority of proponents of this philosophy are the proud owners of 2 or 3 snakes. Quite often they have been those proud owners for all of a year or so, but that is essentially irrelevant. The point is, you will very rarely find anyone with a considerable collection of snakes who utilizes this method of feeding. The reason is the sheer inconvenience of it.
Even if you only have 2 or 3 snakes, it becomes more trouble because you either have to A. feed one snake at a time or B. buy multiple "feeding tubs" so each snake has its own. If you choose option A then you have the further issue of cleaning and disinfecting the feeding tub between snakes in many cases to avoid cross contamination.

Only having to do it with a few snakes though can still be accomplished. Imagine doing it for 20, or 50, or more than a hundred snakes. When you get to that level, it becomes entirely impractical due to the huge amount of added time and work it requires to move every snake back and forth. If some of those snakes are larger constrictors, even adult boas, the situation is more difficult still.

So far I've only discussed the inherent problems with the application this practice. Let me address the core reason for the philosophy, not letting your snake develop any direct association with the opening of the cage door and being fed.
There is a very simple way to avoid this problem without having to resort to feeding in a separate container. Just don't limit opening the cage door to feeding time only. Reach in the cage on a regular basis on non feeding days. Change the water bowl, spot clean, take the snake out for a few minutes. If you do this as part of your routine, then how can any specific association develop in the first place? Fairly simple isn't it?

What it boils down to is if it makes you happy to feed your snake outside its enclosure, and the snake feeds well under those conditions, then do it, it makes no difference. But to proclaim that you HAVE to feed snakes like that and it's the only safe way to do it is utter nonsense.
I've seen keepers who were actually apologetic for feeding their snake inside the cage, as if they had committed some act of cruelty. This perpetuation of misinformation that's causing especially newer keepers to feel like they are committing some sin for breaking the rule has to stop.

There's a lot of useless advice and information all over the internet concerning snake keeping. Not necessarily wrong information that is dangerous to the keeper or the snake, just misguided information which serves no purpose but to over complicate the whole issue of keeping snakes in captivity. That is a topic for another day though, The (Mis)information Age of Herp Keeping, yeah that has a ring to it.




2001-2010
Clay Davenport
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