Trends in Feeding Exotic Pets

As I write this month’s column, we are in the midst of one of the worst health crises our world has seen in decades. Locally, we are under "shelter in place" rules, but, luckily, our particular store is on the short list of businesses allowed to stay open, as we provide essential pet supplies. Those supplies? Food for herps!

So, let’s talk about the trends in feeding exotics. I almost always approach this subject with an attitude of, "What’s new? Nothin!’". After all, these animals have evolved over millions of years to subsist on specific, well understood and accommodated diets. Change is uncommon, but the last year saw a few upheavals in the way we feed these pets.

What has been building as a trend for over a decade finally reached a tipping point last year: we now sell more frozen rodents than live. It has always been a myth that snakes demand live food, but we still encounter some stubborn little creeps who turn up their noses at dead prey. For the most part, though, rodent feeders are perfectly fine with thawed out pre-frozen meals (I am always tempted to call them TV dinners, but that just shows my age!).

To this end, we have invested in several behind-the-scenes freezers and one corner-store style display freezer. That is a material investment WELL offset by the reduction in live stock and the attendant costs of cleaning and maintaining rodents. I cannot foresee a time when we can abandon commerce in live feeder rodents altogether, but we used to struggle to keep feeders in stock. We now have an excellent relationship with a few specialists in the production of frozen rats and mice, and the pressure is greatly diminished.

I should take a moment here to talk about the proper way to feed a pre-frozen food item. If you feed a mouse to a snake that is only partially thawed, you run the risk of having your snake regurgitate, and that leads to a world of problems. When you take a rodent out of the freezer, make sure to let it thaw an appropriate amount of time at room temperature. To make sure it is completely thawed, take it in both hands and gently bend it. It you feel or hear a crunch, it is still partially frozen. Some people will try using a microwave to thaw them; the problem is that the microwave ends up unevenly cooking the rodent, rendering it partially too hot, which could create equally bad results for the snake.

Once the food item is completely thawed, put it in a plastic bag and run it under hot tap water. This will raise the temperature just enough to make it really enticing to a snake. Quickly take it out of the bag and present it to the snake on tongs, gently shaking it so that the movement will also be an inducement to eat. This system usually works like a charm.


Different Livestock

Last year, California saw a new state law that banned the sale of live rabbits (my bet is it’s coming your way soon enough). This has hit rabbit breeders hard but is a boon to us. We used to buy only the bunnies that didn’t meet pet quality standards; now we have access to as many as we could possibly use. It does mean that we have to dispatch the rabbit before sending it home.

We sometimes use chicks as feed in the store for economic reasons and sell them for snake owners with pets reluctant to eat rodents. This can be particularly true of arboreal snakes, as well as the occasional picky eater of an otherwise rodent-oriented species. However, as a rule of thumb, I generally try to dissuade my customers from relying on chickens. I have anecdotally found (especially in colubrid snakes) that over-reliance on chicks can lead to digestive issues. Rodents just seem like a more easily-handled food.

The past year has also seen an extraordinary explosion in the variety of invertebrate feeders. We traditionally have carried crickets (Chinese and Jamaican species), waxworms, meal worms (regular and king) and fruit flies (two species). But in the past few years, we have been getting more and more frequent requests for isopods and springtails.

Springtails are a tiny, insect-like creature that likes temperate and humid soil conditions. They are gill breathers; let them get dry and they are goners. They are favored prey of dart frogs, and once a terrarium is seeded with them, they tend to self propagate, but do seem to need to be replenished on a regular basis.

Isopods, more commonly called pillbugs, are also quite in demand. I have been in this business a mere 41 years, so I don’t know everything. Color me surprised that so many small amphibians and lizards will eat them; I always assumed that they must taste bitter (I know, I have no firsthand reason to assume that, but I did). But here’s the thing: just as we sell rats primarily as feeders but also do a solid business with rats as pets, so too with isopods. My isopod breeder has a wide variety of species he works with, and some are quite colorful and demand some serious money! I have caught my own employees fawning over particularly adorable pill bug colonies. It happens.


The Rising Star

Of course, the very big news in live herp foods is the Dubia roach. This is a medium-sized roach native to Central and South America, and it is quickly becoming the in-demand arthropod feeder animal. They have a few advantages over crickets: they are silent (BIG advantage!); they cannot climb glass or fly, so escape is not much of an issue; and they are odorless. The big disadvantage: they are nowhere near as inexpensive as crickets… so far. In my store, they are quickly becoming the staple for most of my clients’ insectivore pets.

The big problem with the Dubia can be boiled down to one word: roach. There is still a substantial number of people out there for whom the first question is, "You are asking me to bring roaches INTO my house? On purpose?". I get that. We have a deeply ingrained cultural revulsion to roaches. They are filthy! (Not really). They spread disease! (Maybe the German roach a bit, but otherwise, no). They are nasty! (Matter of taste, really. I never got that, and I grew up in Florida, where they approach the size of house cats).

So, why don’t we just call them Dubias? Or Dubia Bugs? Or Dubia Hamsters? Get creative, people. That way customers will be less… dubious. PB

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.