Overview: Prey selection; feeding techniques and frequency for hatchlings to adults; troubleshooting problem feeders.
Feeding blood and short-tailed pythons can be one of the more interesting aspects of caring for them. Normally they are eager feeders with great appetites and strong feeding responses. They're not finicky as ball pythons often are, nor do they eat big prey items like adult reticulated pythons do. They get great "gas mileage" out of their food, and don't need frequent feedings or extra large meals in order to maintain healthy weight. Bloods and short-tails can also be conditioned to take pre-killed or frozen-thawed prey, and don't require unusual prey items or feeding techniques. All in all, they're easy snakes when it comes to feeding, and that's just one more thing we love about them. Throughout this section, we'll discuss what and how to feed blood pythons, as well as how to address and overcome feeding issues.
Rat: It's What's for Dinner!
As far as we're concerned, rats are the perfect prey for bloods & short-tails. Rats are commonly available from local pet stores or reptile-specific feeder suppliers, and feed they're very straightforward to breed should you decide to start your own colony...smelly and a lot of work, but straightforward. Blood pythons and short-tailed pythons thrive on rats from the time they are juveniles all the way into adulthood. Most of our hatchling bloods and STPs are started on fuzzy rats. While we do encounter a few babies each year that prefer hopper mice for their first meals, within two or three feedings they're switched over to rats for good. As far as prey size selection, we'll feed juveniles and even some sub-adults meals large enough to leave a slight bulge, but it's not our rule of thumb when it comes to feeding big adults. Our very biggest pythons eat large rats, and only occasionally get retired breeder rats from our rodent colony. These snakes simply don't need huge prey items to maintain healthy body weight as adults, even at close to seven feet in length and weighing 25+ pounds.
So now that we know what to feed our blood pythons, the next logical question is "how often?" For the most part, weekly feeding schedules work extremely well for these snakes, but this can easily be adjusted depending on the time of year, the age of your snake, and the size of prey items you have availalble.
In our collection, hatchlings and juveniles are fed once a week. Hatchlings are offered fuzzy rats off tongs, and we increase the size of feeder rodents they receive as the snakes grow. Juveniles graduate quickly onto rat pups, and by the time they move up into the next tub size in our rack systems, our juvies are easily eating weaned rats or even small rats. We continue to offer appropriately-sized rats on a weekly basis as our snakes mature, and once our snakes have moved into their adult tubs (covered in the Captive Environment section), we scale back on feeding frequency just a bit.
By the time our pythons turn three years old they've moved to a bi-weekly feeding schedule. For perspective, every two weeks we feed medium or large rats to snakes that are four to five feet in length, and weigh between ten and fifteen pounds. Snakes prone to gaining too much weight are given smaller meals, or else fed every 21 days. We take notes every time we feed our collection so that schedules and prey items can be tailored to a snake's individual needs, as dictated by body condition and feeding frequency. Record keeping comes in especially handy when feeding, and can provide necessary details when addressing feeding problems or other husbandry issues.
Bloods and STPs tend to be fantastic feeders, and when you combine that with their slow metabolisms it's very easy to make these snakes fat. Obese female pythons very frequently throw slugs or bad eggs, and overweight snakes also have a harder time recovering from illnesses such as respiratory infections. While these are robust, heavy-bodied snakes they should not look like overinflated inner tubes; keep this in mind when making regular assessments of your blood python's body condition.
Live, Pre-killed, or Frozen-thawed?
Whether you feed your blood python live, pre-killed or frozen-thawed rats will likely depend upon what is most readily available to you. If you choose to feed live, or if your python refuses to accept PK or FT prey, remember that it is essential to supervise every feeding event. Live rodents left unattended can potentially harm or kill a snake. Don't allow yourself to become distracted and forget that there's a live rat in with your short-tailed python. You may return several hours later to find that the rat has gnawed off scales over large areas of your snake's body, chewed off the end of the snake's tail or even killed it outright. It sounds gruesome because it is...please take care and don't let this happen to your python.
Blood & short-tailed pythons can be conditioned to take pre-killed or frozen-thawed prey. If you opt to feed pre-killed and have several pythons or routinely feed large rats, we suggest building a small CO2 chamber for easily euthanizing your feeder rodents. Otherwise, have an experienced herpetoculturist teach you how to humanely euthanize your feeders via cervical dislocation if you are not already familiar with this process.
Once your rodents have been humanely dispatched it is simple to offer them to your blood python using a long pair of forceps or hemostats. You can also leave the PK rodent in your snake's cage if you have a shy feeder, or have other snakes to feed. We prefer to use hemostats because it allows us to quickly offer the rat without additional distraction or interference, and makes it easy for our pythons to grab their dinner. Nearly all of our snakes are fed CO2-euthanized rats, and they eagerly snatch these meals right off of 18" hemostats. Long feeding hemostats or tongs can be ordered online or purchased at reptile expos.
Feeding frozen-thawed rats to blood pythons is usually a no-fuss process, but the occasional picky python may turn its nose up at first. Keep in mind that these snakes rely heavily on their supralabial (upper) and infralabial (lower) heat pits – the “holes” in their lips that are specialized, heat-receptive scales. A dead rodent at room temperature isn’t much of a target for a blood python’s heat pits. To overcome this issue, warm up the fully-thawed rodent just before feeding it to your snake. Do this by placing the rodent on a heating pad or beneath a heat lamp for a few minutes, or soaking the rat in hot water (either directly, or enclosed in a plastic bag). Even a hair dryer aimed at the rat's head will work in a pinch. Make sure the rat is not uncomfortably hot to the touch before feeding your snake. Use a temp gun to take the surface temperature of the rat; 100-105 degrees Fahrenheit seems to be an ideal range for enticing these pythons to grab FT prey. This is also where feeding off tongs comes in handy, as the snake is able to focus on the rat instead of you.
Caveat: Don’t leave a rat belly-down on a heating pad for too long. This can weaken the rodent’s abdominal skin, causing a messy “exploding rat” upon constriction.
Sometimes it takes two or three tries before successfully converting a python from live or PK prey to FT feeders. If you find this is the case with your short-tailed python, we recommend the "tough love" approach. Skipping a meal or two will help to whet your python's appetite. Thawing your feeders in your snake room or near your snake's enclosure will slowly release the rodent's scent into the air, especially if you're using a heating pad or heat lamp, and this may also entice your snake to feed more readily.
When presenting a FT rat to a python that seems interested but hasn't "turned on" to this type of prey, it may help to gently bump or nudge the snake with the rat. The "hot button" you're aiming for here is right where the head meets the neck - this area seems to help trigger a feeding response in short-tailed pythons that appear interested in food, but not exactly eager to eat a dead rat. It's not necessary to tease or slap feed when attempting this method; you don't want to smack the snake about the head with the rat. Just a gentle nudge at the base of the neck will usually do the trick. While it may seem frustrating to switch to FT at first, the transition is usually a simple one for most bloods & STPs, and even those that seem determined to hold out usually convert within a few more attempts.
Where to Feed?
From time to time we receive questions about feeding these pythons in a separate tub or container, as opposed to feeding them within their normal enclosure. Some keepers opt to use a different tub for feeding because they feel it reduces the snake's feeding response. Bloods and short-tails can have very strong feeding responses, and excited, overstimulated snakes may eagerly lunge towards a rat. We feel that using hemostats or tongs and standing to the side when offering a rat to a blood python equally reduces the possibility of an accidental bite during feeding.
We also feel that the practice of moving snakes to separate tubs for feeding is an unecessary one. Taking a python out of its normal enclosure and environment and putting it in an empty tub may be stressful to some (especially younger animals), and can prompt a snake to stop feeding instead of readily accepting prey. We feel it is better to feed your blood python in its enclosure and learn to understand that individual snake's body language, i.e. the difference between calm, relaxed behavior & a potential feeding response.
It's not often that healthy, properly-maintained bloods and STPs fail to feed. If they do, it is usually in response to seasonal changes or breeding activity (or both), depending on the time of year and the sexual maturity of the snake in question. When we do encounter keepers who are experiencing feeding issues with their pythons, it is almost always due to environmental stress, and most often the cage is too big or the snake is too warm. Moving the python to a smaller enclosure, providing additional hides, or lowering the temperature (whichever is appropriate) will usually remedy these problems. If you find it necessary to make such corrections, allow your snake 10-14 days to settle in and get adjusted before offering food again.
Another factor we hear about somewhat frequently is what we call the "fiddle with" issue. Some keepers feel the need to constantly tweak their blood python's cage, whether changing substrates, hides, water bowls and other cage furniture, and sometimes even switching to a new enclosure unnecessarily. Blood and short-tailed pythons thrive in consistently correct captive environments, and making constant changes to a snake's enclosure can stress the animal to the point of feeding failure. Even checking on the snake obsessively can factor into this...if you're constantly in your snake's cage changing something around or messing with the snake, it's not going to settle down and feel comfortable. Giving your python time to settle in after any changes are made will help to avoid this problem.
What Goes In Must Come Out…Eventually!
A common concern among newer short-tailed python keepers is the infrequency with which these snakes defecate. It is not unusual for them to go four months or longer without defecating, yet they’ll continue to feed regularly. We think this is another great characteristic of these snakes – we spend less time cleaning python poop and more time enjoying our pythons! Nevertheless, this may be unsettling if you’re just starting out with these species. We recommend that you keep accurate husbandry records on feeding, shedding and defecation to better understand your blood python’s normal behavior.
In our experience, hatchling & juveniles may defecate as frequently as once a week. Sub-adults & adults fed on a 10-14 day schedule will defecate every 30-45 days on average, but may easily go longer without raising concerns. In the very few stories we’ve heard of “constipated” bloods, there were other contributing factors such as dehydration, incorrect temperatures, overfeeding, or a combination thereof. When these snakes are kept in enclosures that are too small, too hot, and then fed too much and handled too infrequently, it's really not that surprising to hear of problems of this nature. Healthy bloods & short-tails that are kept correctly do not normally encounter defecation issues.
Feeding your blood python should be one of the easiest aspects of caring for your snake. Using the right tools and understanding your short-tailed python's behavior and needs go a long way toward making this husbandry task even easier. For ongoing discussion on feeding bloods and short-tails, please visit the husbandry subforum dedicated to this subject on our message boards.