There are very few, if any, vertebrate-eating reptile species who will not eat anything other than live food in captivity. Where reptiles require a diet of whole vertebrate animals, such as mice, it is recommended to provide prey that has been humanely killed. Steps should be taken to increase the likelihood that the reptile will accept pre-killed prey, for example, ensuring a mouse carcass is adequately heated prior to offering it to a reptile.
Feeding live prey should only ever be considered when a reptile will not accept pre-killed prey and is expected to die from starvation if not offered live prey. The feeding of live prey is not necessary if general husbandry is appropriate to ensure the good health and wellbeing of your reptile, and many veterinary associations and societies strongly recommend against or are opposed to feeding of live mammals. Snakes are the most common species requiring whole vertebrate animals in their diet.
Is feeding live prey legal?
Laws relating to the feeding of live prey to reptiles vary in different states and territories. For example, in some jurisdictions, the relevant welfare code of practice recommends that reptiles should not be fed live food for their own protection and all vertebrate-eating reptiles must be encouraged to take dead food [1, 2]. Under the Victorian welfare code for reptiles, it is recommended that: live vertebrates are not used as a food unless they are required absolutely as a food source by a species or individual animal; live rodents should not be left in a reptile enclosure overnight or for an extended period; and wild-caught rodents should not be used . In New South Wales, the Code of Practice for the Private Keeping of Reptiles prohibits live vertebrate feeding in reference to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 . The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 applies to all vertebrate animals where ‘A person in charge of an animal shall not fail at any time – where pain is being inflicted upon the animal, to take reasonable steps as are necessary to alleviate the pain’ . The feeding of live prey could be considered an act of cruelty if they were offered in a manner that is not compliant to the code, such as if the prey animal is not consumed quickly and whole, resulting in an unnecessarily elongated state of fear, pain and distress .
Why shouldn’t I feed live prey?
Many snakes have been injured or even killed by live prey or sustained injuries which require euthanasia . There is an argument that feeding live prey is more ‘natural’ and can be used as a form of enrichment for wild animals in captivity. However, in captivity, escape is not possible and so the prey animal has no other option but to fight for survival, which can result in excessive stress for the prey and your reptile, leading to possible injuries inflicted upon your reptile by the prey animal . The Five Domains model has been a pillar of animal welfare for over 25 years. If live prey is fed in captivity, this may be in direct opposition to these, including the ‘physical’ and ‘behavioural’ domains affecting the ‘mental state’ domain, where the exposure to unpredictable events and interactions with a predator results in fear, anxiety, anger and panic . The ethical implications of feeding live prey have been discussed in relation to zoos, aquariums and exotic companion animals. In the feeding of exotic animals, it is suggested to assess the true need to feed live prey. In circumstances where there is no alternative, the needs of the prey need to be considered to alleviate their suffering as much as possible, such as providing shelter and nutrition for the prey animal and not leaving them confined with predators for extended periods of time, i.e., trying to meet their needs in accordance with the Five Domains as best as possible. Many zoos now feed killed prey to their animals where no significant benefit could be shown in feeding live prey compared to other options. There are other forms of enrichment that can meet behavioural needs [7, 8]; for example, use of a cheetah run where a luring device is used to simulate hunting .
Troubleshooting feeding problems in snakes
It is very rare for a snake not to accept killed prey, especially if killed prey is offered from the time of the snake’s birth, unless there are other issues that need to be addressed . If your snake refuses food, this may be due to an underlying health condition or may be related to their environment. For example, a snake may need a week or two to settle into a new environment, so it is recommended to delay offering food after arrival for at least two weeks. Ensure the temperature is appropriate for your snake, as this can affect their appetite and digestion. Overhandling can also deter some snakes from eating – this can be avoided by not handling reptiles until at least their fourth feeding after they have arrived in their new home . Some snakes are nocturnal, so food may need to be offered at night. Dead prey should be warmed, and your snake should be left in a feeding box with the prey in a quiet room and not be disturbed to encourage feeding .
Although captive reptiles may prefer live prey, by ensuring their environment meets their physical and mental needs, they will adapt to consuming whole, warm, dead prey. This helps provide appropriate nutrition whilst avoiding suffering of prey animals being used as live food.
 Animal Welfare Victoria (2022) Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals — Private Keeping of Reptiles (accessed Jul 27, 2022)
 Mellor D et al (2020) The 2020 Five Domains Model: Including human-animal interactions in assessments of animal welfare. Animals 10:1870, doi:10.3390/ani10101870
 Marshal L et al (2019) Perception of the ethical acceptability of live prey feeding to aquatic species kept in captivity. PLOS ONE 36: 316-322.
 Cooper JE et al (2014) The feeding of live food to exotic pets: issues of welfare and ethics. Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine 23:244-249.
 Kischinovsky M et al (2018) Husbandry and nutrition. Reptile Medicine and Surgery in Clinical Practice. John Wiley and Sons Incorporated; Doneley, B., Monks, D., Johnson, R., Carmel, B., Eds.; Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford; pp. 45-60 ISBN 9781118977682