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Even a Corn Snake Needs a Vet

By Kim Everson, DVM

This week’s veterinary adventure involved Snakey, a young corn snake who wouldn’t eat. Only 12″ long, little Snakey’s last meal was over 6 weeks ago. A baby corn snake this size should eat once a week or so. Interestingly, baby corn snakes can be notoriously stubborn about eating and some must be trained how to eat. Yes, I said the snake must be trained. Here’s how my assistant Tim and I got Snakey eating again. WARNING: Some of the photos and descriptions that follow are a bit graphic.

Snakey was visibly thin from prolonged anorexia.
If you’re wondering how a snake can look thin,
you’d have to see it to believe it,
but Snakey’s epaxial (back) muscles
were noticeably atrophied or shrunken.
Corn snakes are carnivores eating rodents, small amphibians
or other reptiles in the wild. Most pet corn snakes are bred
in captivity, and are typically fed fresh or frozen rodents.
My assistant Tim thaws a frozen pinkie in preparation for
feeding Snakey. A pinkie is a tiny, newborn mouse bred for
this purpose.  While the pinkie appeared much too large for
Snakey’s tiny mouth, the owner reported Snakey had eaten
a whole pinkie over 6 weeks earlier.
Our first attempt at enticing Snakey with the plain thawed
pinkie was met with disinterest. In fact, Snakey seemed
a little frightened of the offering, so I proceeded
to “brain” the dead mouse. I cut into the skull to
expose the tasty brain juices. If this didn’t interest
Snakey, we planned to cut up the pinkie into small pieces.
Our last ditch effort at meeting Snakey’s nutritional needs
would be “gavage” or force feeding through a stomach tube.
Tim holds the pinkie mouse with a forceps and “teases”
the baby corn to stimulate its reptilian appetite. We watched in
anticipation and amazement as Snakey tasted the brain juice.
Snakey’s nose never left the pinkie after that first taste,
and the little snake began to methodically feed.
Snakey’s seemingly too small jaw unhinges to allow for ingestion
of the pinkie mouse. We waited with baited breath unsure if the corn
snake might change its mind at any point. We are feeding the snake
outside its enclosure to avoid accidental ingestion of bedding material.
Tim and I quietly cheer as Snakey committed
to eating the pinkie mouse.
Notice the bulge just behind Snakey’s head. Digestion of the pinkie meal
will take 2-3 days. Snakey’s owner will need to learn how to “brain”
pinkies until the baby snake willingly and consistently eats these offered meals on its own.

While baby corn snakes frequently need lessons on how to eat, the problem can be made worse from stress. Husbandry issues and over-handling are common causes of stress. Before acquiring a corn snake or other non-traditional pet (including mammals like Guinea pigs, chinchillas, etc.) thorough research into the housing, veterinary, legal and nutritional needs of your desired pet is essential. A tiny corn snake like Snakey may grow to be 5 feet long and may live more than 20 years! That is a huge commitment to make in the proper care of another living being, but as those with “exotic” pets will attest it can be a rewarding, enjoyable experience.

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