Feeding the Collection

(view photos to accompany this article)

What do I feed?
All of my animals are fed frozen/thawed rats. I have an upright freezer where I keep vacuum-packed frozen rats from pinky size up to large size.

Where do I get my rats?
I now use Big Cheese Rodents as my supplier of rats. I've tried different suppliers and these guys have won my confidence and my business.

How often do I feed? How much do I feed?
Here is one of those areas where you will find a wide range of opinions and practices within the hobby. Therefore, it tends to be an area that lends itself to controversy. I can say with confidence that I fall on the conservative side of the scale in regards to the rate at which I feed my animals. There are several reasons why I tend to feed my animals less than the average hobbyist:

  1. The long-term health of the animal.
    I think it is well documented that humans, dogs, cats, horses, etc. etc. will eat more than they need if given the opportunity. Most boas will do the same. Young boas, especially BCI, will show fantastic growth rather than obesity. This tends to fool owners into believing that "power feeding" is acceptable practice. However, there is more to maturity than just sheer size. If an 8 year old boy is power fed and becomes the size of a man at 11 years old, will he have the mental and sexual maturity of a man? Will the demands on his major organs during this unnatural growth phase serve him well when he is 40 years old? It is clear that we would be better served if we knew more about the feeding and growth habits of young boas in the wild but we just don't have that data. If only Jane Goodall had been interested in boas rather than chimpanzees.
  2. I personally don't want a collection of 10-12', 25-40 lb boas. They will need larger cages, larger amounts of food, and a strong back to lift and move them since they will hardly move on their own. Of course, one argument is that larger females will produce larger litters. There is some truth to that assuming the large female is healthy. However, I would rather have litters of 10-15 if that means that my females are 6-7', 12-18 lbs., and still active & agile.
  3. Rats are expensive!
    Here is a rough estimate of my expenses for a given boa (assuming 30-50 meals a year of appropriate size):
    First year of life: $20-25/yr
    Sub-adult: $35-50/yr
    Adult: $70-90/yr
    The more you feed them, the faster they grow, and the more they need to eat. I spent $1252 on rats in 2002. I spent $1,922 in 2003. I spent $2,247 in 2004. I spent $2,890 in 2005. I spent $2,608 in 2006.

Feeding night at my house is Sunday night. Most of my animals are now on a 14 day cycle and eat every other Sunday night. Notable exceptions to this are young boas (first 9 months or so) and adult females that are participating in breeding trials. My young BCC are definitely on a 14 day cycle (more on this below). Optimally, I would rather feed on a 10 day cycle but once my school year begins, it is just too difficult to be feeding on weeknights. In most cases, you would be challenged to discern that one of my animals consumed a meal within 10 minutes after the meal. I feed my males smaller meals than a female of similar age. I would prefer that my males reach a mature length of 5-5.5' and females 6-7' with the females having considerably more girth.

In the final analysis, one of the sadder sights in the hobby is an adult boa who is obviously obese and will live out its last days by remaining in the same corner month after month, unmotivated even to crawl away from its own excrement.

(view photos to accompany this article)

How do I thaw my rats?
I maintain a spreadsheet on the computer that tracks each animal and what it is eating. The spreadsheet provides me with the total number of rats of each size that I must thaw each week. On Saturday, I will use the spreadsheet to get out the correct number and sizes of rats and place them in plastic containers. These containers are sealed and placed in the refrigerator overnight to begin the thawing process. On Sunday evening before dinner, I will fill a plastic tub with hot tap water. I place the plastic containers with rats into the tub so that the containers float on the hot water. After an hour, I replace the cooled water with new hot water, shake the containers to flip the rats, and float them for another hour. They are now warmer than room temperature and ready to be offered to my hungry boas. I do not do this with pinky rats (and, in some cases, fuzzy rats). The smallest rats do not need this much time and heat to thaw out. In fact, you want to be careful not to have a rat thawed out and maintained for a period of time at warm temperatures. At the right conditions, microorganisms will flourish and multiply rapidly. Although a boa is probably less prone to food poisoning than ourselves, I would rather play it safe. I take out my pinky and fuzzy rats in the last 10 minutes and place them directly in a plastic container of hot tap water. These will warm quickly and be ready to go.

Why do I offer only pre-killed prey?

  1. I will first readily admit that it is far more interesting to watch a boa hunt, kill, and consume live prey as they do naturally.
  2. In a life & death struggle, rodents certainly have some tools with which to fight back. A live rodent may have little chance of winning the war but it can easily extract a painful cost.
  3. Feeding live means you either have to raise your own rodent supply or you have to drive somewhere to obtain it. Raising your own rodents presents you with another colony of animals with caging, feeding, and cleaning needs. Obtaining live rodents locally is time consuming, expensive, and risky. Pet store rodents will typically cost 4-5 times that of a frozen rat. The risk arises because you typically have no knowledge of the true source of this animal and its history. What has it been fed? What other animals has it been exposed to? Does it carry parasites?

How do I offer the prey?
I feed my boas in their enclosures. When they are young, I will offer the rat using tongs ("hemostats"). As they get older, I begin to just lay the prey item on the newspaper and have them get used to finding and consuming the prey without a strike and constriction. Why do I do this?  I handle my animals a lot (and my children handle them). Many boas will lose their aggressive "kill response" and are more manageable in and around their cages. They also have an easier time distinguishing feeding time from handling time. Nonetheless, when I handle them, I always use a snake hook to initially move them to the front of the cage and to my hand. This simple step always seems to convince them that it is not feeding time.

Do I feed my animals during shed?
Yes, I offer my boas food during their shed cycles. Most of my boas will readily accept food during this time.

How do I decide the size of rat to feed my boas?
Again, I am conservative in regards to quantity of food. Typically, the prey item will be smaller in diameter than the boa at its widest girth. Therefore, when the rat reaches the snake's belly, there is usually little or no outward sign that it is there.

The freezer
I bought an upright, frost-free 11.3 cubic foot Frigidaire freezer at Sears. It has performed flawlessly. I generally use about 1/2 the space for rats and the other 1/2 goes to human food. The top of the freezer also provides a relatively continuous warm surface which I have used for defrosting rats, drying things, quarantining young boas, and maintaining warm soapy water baths for drowning mites. When you receive a new shipment of rats, it is a good idea to date the packages with a permanent marker so you can be sure to use the oldest rats first. I have purchased a second "chest" freezer that sits in the corner of the garage.

Feeding Young BCC
Feeding young Boa Constrictor constrictor can be a challenge. During the first year of life, I have found that many BCC just don't seem to have well developed gastrointestinal systems. They seem to have a delicate balance of microflora that is easily disrupted. The outward sign of these problems is regurgitation. Some young BCC will regurgitate their meals or partially digested meals. In some cases, this will be a wild caught specimen or a foreign born specimen that has internal parasites. However, I have had plenty of captive born, parasite-free animals that struggled with regurgitation. With most of these animals, the solution is rather simple....feed them less. Smaller meals and less frequently. In the first year of life, I feed my BCC every 14 days and comparably smaller meals. This has led to a tremendous decrease in the amount of regurgitation that I have observed. They simply can't handle the digestive demands that a young BCI can handle with ease. However, as they approach yearling status, the BCC will begin to develop stronger appetites and have the digestive system to keep up with the processing of greater amounts of food.

(view photos to accompany this article)