The information contained in this article is based on our own experience, and while we are sure others do things differently, we are pretty sure that this will at least get you started in the right direction with your Rhino Ratsnakes.
I would like to start off by saying that hatchling and juvenile Rhino Ratsnakes can be difficult to get established feeding on frozen thawed pink mice. We have tried a few different strategies to get them started, and the information in this care sheet is the method we have found most effective. First off, every baby is an individual, and what works for one may not work for others, even others from the same clutch. The critical thing to keep in mind is patience; allow yourself time to give each specimen a chance to get started.
After raising more than a handful of clutches, I’ve started feeding babies small pinky heads. There have been a lot attempts by others to raise them on live guppies fed out in the water bowl, or live frogs, anoles, or geckos released in the enclosure. I don’t use these other foods as starter prey; switching them to a rodent diet once they are established feeding will present as much, if not even more, a challenge than starting them on a rodent diet from birth. Considering the increased nutritional value of rodents relative to the other prey items we have heard of folks trying with their baby Rhinos, and the potential parasite transfer that non-rodent prey items offer, it’s an easy decision we don’t regret.
Baby Rhino’s can be spastic and flighty, which can make feeding very difficult. Babies that do not flee and will stand their ground and strike back are the easiest to get started. Most that react this way will strike a few times and then try to flee. Baby snake behavior does vary; there is a distinct difference between defensive bites/ posture and gaping than hunger reactions. In either case, a striking snake will be easier to feed than one that cowers, flees, or will not open its mouth.
To get started I will start out with a small pinky head. Use small to medium hemostats (less than 12 inches), take the pinky head, and dip it into some water. This will lubricate the food item and make swallowing easier on the baby. Without this lubrication, the food will be dry, sticky, and generally more resistant to consumption-none of which is desirable when trying to feed stubborn babies.
I pick up the baby, and let it slither through your fingers and clamp down your fingers, forcing the snake to stop and rear up into a strike position. Remain still and offer the pinky head nose first. Have the snake strike and hold onto the head.
It is best offered so that the snake has the least amount of trouble trying to swallow it. As soon as the snake bites the pinky head and holds on, you have to remain still and let the snake take its time. As babies get food in their mouth they will probably stop moving and go into a feeding mode. During this time it is important that you allow the baby to swallow the prey item and be as still as possible. This process may take five or more minutes, and multiple attempts, before the animal eats. A large part of this process seems to be wearing out the animal so that the desire to feed outweighs the desire to flee. This feeding behavior is quite similar to baby Green Tree Pythons (Morelia viridis) and various arboreal tree vipers, though holding tree vipers for this method is definitely not recommended. Getting bitten by the baby is possible, but the bite is typically inconsequential, and if anything, provides an incentive to get your baby going strong that much more quickly.
The snakes are very sensitive to movement around them at this time; you should keep movement to a minimum. It also seems that if you offer them a prey item that is too large they will give up on it and spit it out. If you have the time and patience, we recommend that you try and repeat this procedure two or three times per feeding attempt. Once your animal does this on a regular basis, you can try feeding larger prey. Eventually your animal should be accustomed to feeding, and require less and less effort to entice. From this point, the next step is to offer the animal food while not picking it up. This is best done as soon as you open the cage without hesitation. Do not give the animal an opportunity to run and hide.
The set up for your baby Rhino is very important. The main theory behind setting up any Asian Ratsnake species is to offer them small, dark, confined, habitats. We have learned that you need to think like a snake and not a mammal. Large open habitats might work for some animals, but a lot of Ratsnake species, especially wild caught specimens, prefer secretive habitats. Once they are established, eating and doing well, you can move them to exhibits or larger habitats. We start babies in shoe box type rack systems. We use newspaper for substrate, a ceramic hide box, and water bowl. It is important to use a substrate that will not dehydrate the baby. I have used paper towels in the past, but these tend to dehydrate young Ratsnakes. These are simple set-ups that are easy to keep clean. The rack area of our facility is not exposed to direct drafts or heat sources. These can dehydrate enclosures very quickly; enclosures can dry out over night in this situation. Your temps should be around 82 degrees during the daytime, and feature a night time drop of about 5 degrees, to around 77. In addition to avoiding drafts and heat, I like to put them in a dark area that does not have a lot of traffic around it.
Despite intense effort, some babies simply will not feed off of hemostats or of their own volition. These require assist (NOT FORCE) feeding. This is a course of last resort; however, it must be started when babies are still in suitable condition to take food. If you take to long to get food into them, as with all baby snakes, you run the risk losing the baby; there is a point at which snakes become too weak to process food, and die as the food rots, rather than digests, inside the baby. Assist feeding is different from force feeding. Force feeding is an attempt to get food down an animal only for the purpose of keeping them alive and healthy. This process does not teach the snake how to consume food, while assist feeding does exactly that. There are many behaviors that a baby snake needs to learn to completely consume their prey. These behaviors seem to be learned through trial and error, rather than innate knowledge; it seems to take a couple “chance” feeding encounters for babies to learn the eating process. Again, we must ask ourselves, “How do these things survive in the wild”? Well, the answer may well be that a lot of them do not survive. Clutch survival rate in the wild is very low. It makes more sense when you’re spending so much time on each individual.
Assist feeding is a stressful process on a baby, so any attempts to assist feed must be quick and easy. The longer you handle the baby the less likely the process is going to work. This process is basically similar to what you do when you are attempting to feed, just one step further. Pick up the baby and gently hold the head with your thumb and middle and index finger (as the picture shows). Place the pinky head in the mouth of the baby and push it into the back of the throat so that it is still in the mouth and then let go of the animal and freeze while the baby has to eat. There will be attempts by the baby to shake out the food item and they may succeed. If so, start this process over again. If the baby still shakes the pinky head out you might want lightly squeeze its mouth shut on the pinky head and this will make the baby sink its teeth into the pinky head and get it stuck in the mouth. A Leaf Nosed Ratsnakes dentition is designed to catch prey and hold on. After letting go of the snake I think there is a process where the animal is in shock and will freeze up. Give it a moment and what you can hope for is that the animal will click into feeding mode and continue to swallow the prey.
This does nothing for teaching the snake to strike, coil up, and find the head of the prey and start to swallow it. Although, when you are dealing with a trouble feeder your goal should be to get food in it and these other behaviors will fall into place as the baby grows and becomes hungrier. As hatchlings are starting out I like to attempt feeding at least twice a week. I always start out with attempting to feed off hemostats while the baby is in a strike position on the bottom of the shoe box. If this fails, then pick up the animal and try the hand feeding procedure.
If this fails, you should go to the assist feeding procedure. If the animal has good weight, and looks healthy stop, come back later and try again. If the animal looks thin and need nourishment I would go ahead and force feed it to the point of pushing the prey item down into its stomach. I would like to re-emphasize the importance of being prepared and making this a quick process. The last thing you want is a baby that gets into the habit into regurgitating the food item. This is a behavior where the animal will twist and kink its body to force the food item out. When a baby starts this, it is very difficult to stop this behavior. If you see this, I think the best thing is to go ahead and force feed the baby. Get the food item as far down the animal as possible and tease the baby into forgetting what just happened. Hopefully the baby will start to give you warning strikes and forget all about what just happened. Usually, if the baby has got food in it throat and is has moved on to finding a place to hide or is striking at you, the movement of the food item down the esophagus is natural, and the snake will go through these motions without a thinking.
The most important thing to consider when getting any tough feeder established, is that if you have success with any method, whether it be feeding live pinkies in a deli cup or hand feeding off hemostats, it is essential that you remember what worked for that specimen and repeat that same technique the next time you feed. This might force you out of your ordinary routine, but the most important thing is getting that individual baby established. Once the animal had proven itself to be a strong feeder, then you can consider changing your strategy to make it more convenient for your routine. Tough feeders can be frustrating and time consuming; a lot of babies probably do not survive because their keepers have become frustrated with or lose interest in the animal. It is not uncommon to take one step forward and two steps back when getting babies established. Any change in enclosure or maintenance techniques can modify the feeding response you are get. We like to get our babies well established before we send them out to a client, but be please be aware that a baby feeding on frozen thawed pinkies here, at our facility, may have to go back to pinky heads or assist feeding to get going again after being shipped. Establishing babies may be a long process, and just when you think you are over the hump you may in fact have multiple months of effort ahead.
These are amazing snakes, and even though the babies are for the most part difficult feeders, it is well worth the effort spent to see a little gray baby thrive and turn into a beautiful blue or green specimen. It is important to remember that even though these steps have worked for us, they are only suggestions and it is important to keep an open mind. Sharing new and different strategies with other keepers and enthusiasts can only help in the success of any species in captivity.