A California Kingsnakes diet in the wild would include a list of different kinds of critters from small rodents, amphibians, and other small reptiles. However, if you are keeping a California kingsnake as a pet you will probably need to simplify its diet. So what should you feed your California kingsnake?
The best diet for a captive California kingsnake should include mostly small rodents such as mice. You do not need to overcomplicate the diet of your California kingsnake.
Captive California Kingsnakes are usually fed pre-killed mice. Some people will choose to feed their kingsnakes more variety that would mimic what they would eat in the wild. However, rodents will supply just about all the nutrition your California kingsnake will need. So you do not need to overcomplicate things.
If you want to expand your California kingsnakes diet, just make sure you pick foods approved by your veterinarian. Never feed your California kingsnakes wild caught prey. They can very likely carry diseases and be harmful to your snake.
California Kingsnakes Diet In The Wild
California Kingsnakes are most famous for preying on other snakes, including poisonous snakes like rattlesnakes. In the wild, California Kingsnakes are opportunistic ambush hunters who will catch, constrict, kill, and swallow any animal small enough to fit in their mouths.
In their native range, the prey of California Kingsnakes typically consists of the following:
- Small birds
- Bird eggs
- Smaller reptiles
Surprisingly, the California Kingsnake has a higher power of constriction in proportion to its body than larger, more notorious constrictors such as pythons and boa constrictors.
This is because the California Kingsnake eats a large percentage of cold-blooded prey, such as other snakes and lizards. Reptiles are more difficult to deprive of oxygen than mammals through a constricting death.
California Kingsnakes must be capable of squeezing even harder than their larger cousins to compensate. (Source: University of Louisiana)
What Should You Feed Your California Kingsnake?
In captivity, the best diet for a California kingsnake is pre-killed mice. Smaller kingsnakes are fed with pre-killed “pinkie” mice or mice that still haven’t grown fur. These smaller mice are easier for young kingsnakes to swallow and digest.
As the snakes grow larger, they graduate to full-sized mice. Most California Kingsnakes do not get large enough to need any prey larger than a dead mouse.
People who keep snakes as pets source California Kingsnake prey from several different places. These can include the following:
- Pet stores: Pet stores (both corporate chains and private pet stores) often have pre-killed mice available and frozen ahead for customer purchase to feed reptiles. Pre-killed prey is usually available in several sizes, from newborn pinky mice to full-sized mice and rats.
- Private advertisement: People who raise rodents or rabbits often sell off excess offspring to local reptile owners. This is done to both reduce stock and recoup some of the costs of raising the animals. This can be a good way for a California Kingsnake owner to find a source of fresh pre-killed mice rather than frozen ones.
- Home breeding operation: Some snake enthusiasts breed mice to feed their snakes. This allows the snake owner to choose between fresh or frozen killed mice and lets the owner control the diet of the mice more easily. This is safer and can result in a higher quality feed than depending on an outside source of prey.
No matter where the rodents are sourced, mice are the most popular food source for California Kingsnakes.
Mice that are euthanized for animal food are usually killed by gassing with an overdose of carbon dioxide. This is the same method used to euthanize mice in medical and laboratory applications.
Feeding Your California Kingsnake
If you plan to use frozen pre-killed mice to feed your California Kingsnake, be aware that these mice must be thawed and warmed up for the snake to be even remotely interested in eating them.
Remember that in the wild, California Kingsnakes detect their prey through the temperature of their bodies. They won’t be attracted to something cold.
The method for thawing and warming up pre-killed mice is important enough to take seriously. If the rodents are not thawed correctly, they can quickly develop deadly levels of bacteria associated with organic decay.
Once eaten, these rotten mice can cause food poisoning in a snake as easily as people can get sick from eating poorly thawed meat.
How to Offer Pre-Killed and Frozen Mice to a California Kingsnake:
- Put the frozen mouse in the refrigerator overnight in a plastic bag. This will give the mouse time to completely thaw without ever getting to room temperature. The meat can’t be allowed to become tepid since this can rapidly breed dangerous bacteria.
- The next morning, place the mouse in its plastic bag in a bowl of warm water. Place something on top of the mouse so that it is completely submerged in the water without floating. Leave the mouse in the warm water for 10-20 minutes. At this point, the mouse should be warm enough to offer to the snake.
- Offer the mouse without risking a bite. Use blunted feeding tongs. This will allow you to place the mouse near the kingsnake’s head to tempt it to strike without it accidentally striking and constricting your hand. Remember, your hand will likely be warmer and more tempting than the mouse.
- Once the kingsnake has taken the mouse off the tongs, remove the tongs and leave the kingsnake alone. It will take the California Kingsnake four to five days to completely digest its meal. During this period, handling should be avoided since this can increase the chances that the California Kingsnake will regurgitate.
Freezing mice for feeding California Kingsnakes is the easiest way to source food for them since the mice are easy to store and can be de-thawed individually as needed. Some individual California Kingsnakes may be stubborn about eating pre-frozen mice, however. These individuals may need to use fresh mice instead.
Can California Kingsnakes Be Fed Live Prey?
While it was popular for many years for pet snakes to be fed live mice (and in many circles, it still is), it is not recommended by many ( if any ) herpetologists for snakes to be fed live prey.
Feeding live mice to snakes greatly increases the chance that the snake will suffer a bite. Mice bites can cause deadly infections in snakes, and pre-killing prey is the easiest way to avoid them.
Just because it’s in a California Kingsnake’s nature to kill its prey brutally doesn’t mean it’s necessary to replicate that act in captivity.
Aside from the matter of ethics and efficiency, there is also a major practical reason why California Kingsnakes should not be fed live mice in captivity. Once a California Kingsnake gets used to being fed live prey, it becomes much more reactive to warm, moving objects being introduced to its enclosure.
This, in turn, makes the California Kingsnake more likely to be aggressive and strike at human hands.
Will California Kingsnakes Eat Other Snakes in Captivity?
One of the most unique things about the California Kingsnake (and the reason it is called a kingsnake) is that the California kingsnake’s diet consists not just of lizards and rodents but also of other snakes. Kingsnakes have been known to eat all kinds of snakes, including venomous snakes like cottonmouths and copperheads.
This means that a California Kingsnake should never be housed in the same enclosure as another snake. It’s only a matter of time before you come home to only one snake left otherwise. A California kingsnake will eat anything it can fit in its mouth, including another kingsnake.
Keep Your California Kingsnake’s Diet Simple
Compared to some other types of snakes, California Kingsnakes eat readily in captivity and don’t require prey that is difficult to source. The captive California kingsnake diet is pretty simple.
Even beginner snake handlers can easily feed a kingsnake once they know how to. Though in the wild the California kingsnake diet might be extensive, most pet snakes are simply fed appropriate-sized pre-killed mice.
Their easy feeding habits are just one reason why California Kingsnakes are such a popular snake to keep. For more on California kingsnakes as pets check out my Complete California Kingsnake Care Guide Here!