If you’re considering getting a garter snake as a pet, it’s important to understand their diet. Knowing what foods they prefer—as well as what they won’t eat—is essential in making a welcoming home for your new pet.

The health of your pet garter snake is also a concern. Knowing what foods may cause health problems, some serious, is crucial before you ever bring home your pet garter snake.

Also, keep in mind that most garter snakes have good appetites and often pose no challenges with mealtime. However, every snake is different, and some may require a little more coaxing than others.

A garter snake’s diet

Wild garter snakes prefer to eat frogs and toads. However, when being raised in captivity, these snakes won’t do well with this kind of a diet. First of all, frogs and toads are full of parasites, which wild garter snakes can handle, because they too have parasites! But as your pet, your garter snake’s body won’t have the immune system needed to fight off the parasites. So feeding them frogs and toads could be deadly.

Your best bet is to go with mice. They provide full nutrition for your garter snake. If, however, you choose to feed your snake another food, such as guppies or earthworms, you’ll need to add more than one food to its diet to give it the complete nutrition that a mouse would give.

Garter snakes love fish. If you feed them live fish, however, they will be exposed to potential health hazards, including parasites. Do your research to see what types of fish are best, usually frozen. And whatever you do, pass on the goldfish, because they have no nutritional value whatsoever for your snake. It’s like giving junk food to your snake.

A note about earthworms. This is the food that most pet garter snakes will usually eat, even finicky eaters, especially when they’re young. Keep in mind that they’ll have to eat a lot of them to get the full nutritional value, and that earthworms are calcium deficient—and may carry some parasites as well. You could supplement their diet with calcium-rich slugs. However, slugs are hard to obtain. Another reason why mice are the best option. But if you have a picky eater, it’s good to know you have other options as well.

What they won’t eat. Garter snakes are carnivores. They don’t just prefer meat; they must eat meat. In fact, their bodies can’t digest vegetables. Also, even though well-meaning pet store clerks will tell you that they’ll eat crickets, they won’t. In fact, many pet snake owners say that garter snakes rarely eat insects.

Feeding schedule. Again, it depends on the snake. There is no absolute right or wrong. Not all garter snakes are alike. Some will only eat earthworms and will be required to be fed more often. A baby garter snake may take up to 10 days before it eats, as it needs time to get used to its environment. A good rule of thumb is to be able to see a bulge, but not so big that the snake looks like it will explode.

How to feed them. Garter snakes only require a 10-gallon terrarium. If you’re feeding your snake mice, you can simply drop it into the cage if you’re using a towel as the substrate. If you feed your pet earthworms, never drop them into a cage lined with wood chips. Some of the wood chip particles may be eaten and can harm your snake’s digestion. Fish can be placed in a water-filled bowl. Here’s the tricky part: Garter snakes are visual creatures. They like to see their prey moving, so a frozen, lifeless mouse may not seem very appealing. You may have to get creative and do things to create the illusion that the food is moving, such as taking a pair of tongs, holding the mouse and moving it back and forth. Most garter snakes prefer to swallow their food whole, by the way. As you get to know your garter snake’s personality, you’ll figure out what works best.

As always, consult a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles if you have questions about your garter snake’s feeding habits.  

If you’d like to learn more about garter snakes, as well as different breeds of snakes and other reptiles, come and see some popular species up close at New England Reptile Shows.  We showcase ball pythons, garter snakes, corn snakes, boas and other exciting species. Learn more about each one, so you can choose the pet that’s right for you!