Not many people can say they know a lot about the excretive routines of snakes. For example, did you know that snakes’ digestive systems are so efficient that they sometimes wait a whole year between toilet breaks? Well, read on to find out more!
How does a snake go to the toilet? Snakes possess an organ called a cloaca, which controls basically all of their down-there functions: eggs, mating and, yes, poop and wee. Like birds, they excrete a poop-wee mixture, rather than separating them.
You might be thinking: surely, if a snake doesn’t go to the toilet for a year, it can’t be eating very often. Well, that’s partly true. Much like humans, snakes excrete more or less depending on how much, and how often, they eat. Diet plays a part too.
The first fundamental thing to note, besides the infrequency of their excretions, is that snakes do not have the same digestive anatomy as humans. Instead of separate organs for mating, laying eggs, excreting liquid and solid waste, snakes have only one organ—the cloaca. This is the Latin word for ‘sewer’. This magical organ is concealed from view until it needs to be used.
I’ll go into more detail about the cloaca later. First, let me run through what I will talk about in this guide.
If you have any questions about how a snake produces, and excretes, poop and pee—for example:
- How does snake digestion and excretion work?
- Where does it come out?
- What does snake poop look like?
- What is the color of snake poop?
- What is the difference between healthy snake poop and unhealthy snake poop?
- How often do snakes poop?
- How long after eating do snakes poop?
- What does snake poop smell like?
- How can you tell normal poop from abnormal poop?
- What should you do if your pet snake’s poop is not normal?
- What should you do if your pet snake won’t poop?
If you have any of these questions, then you’ve come to the right place. I will be going into smelly detail on all of the above.
1. The basics: How does a snake poop?
First things first, let’s talk about how a snake’s digestive system is set up. Mostly, it functions in the same way as a human’s digestive system:
- Snakes eat with their mouths, just like humans, except they don’t chew their food. Instead, they swallow it whole and digest it for a long, long time. Many snakes also dislocate their jaws in order to get bigger meals down in one.
- Snakes have an esophagus and a windpipe, which are separate pipes for eating and breathing, which is the same in humans.
- Snakes digest their food in stomachs, using stomach acid. The main difference here is in the length of time the food spends in a snake’s stomach—much longer!
- As well as a stomach, snakes have intestines which wring all the nutrients out of their food, just like we do.
And, just like humans, snakes experience muscular contractions before excreting. These tensions move the digested food, much reduced in size, along the tract and out the cloaca.
That covers digestive waste. But what about urinary waste? Good question.
2. How do snakes pee?
Humans produce urea, which is a liquid. Snakes, however, do not have a urinary bladder. As a result, their pee is not liquid. In order to conserve bodily fluids, they instead produce and expel uric acid, which is a semisolid.
This uric acid fragment is a snake equivalent of human pee, and contains excess nitrogen, as well as some other biological waste substances.
When a snake excretes its waste, it is actually expelling a mixture of these two substances, the uric acid along with fecal matter. And yes, it all comes out of something called a cloaca.
3. A cloaca? Is that the same as an anus?
Similar, certainly, but not the same. Well, actually, it’s very different. The cloaca is responsible for excreting solid and liquid waste (in snakes, these get mixed together), giving birth to eggs, and mating. Turtles can even breathe through their cloaca. So, this magical organ is pretty special. But what does it look like?
On the snakeskin surface, the cloaca is nearly invisible. This is because it is covered by a small flap, which opens up when the snake needs to perform one of its functions. Inside, the cloaca is split into three sections. These are called the coprodeum, the urodeum and the proctodeum. The three parts of the cloaca are separated from each other by a strong muscle, which prevents contamination.
- The coprodeum is the largest part, and closest to the head. It is fed solid waste, i.e. poop, from the digestive system.
- The urodeum is in the middle, and collects liquid waste, i.e. pee, from the kidneys. It is the smallest part.
- Slightly larger than the urodeum, and furthest from the head, the proctodeum is where it all comes out. Solid and liquid waste mix together here and are excreted together.
OK, now let’s get into the nitty gritty stuff.
4. How do you know it is snake feces?
Fresh snake poop is usually dark brown, but it turns chalky as it dries out. Because they defecate relatively infrequently, their droppings are large and thick, and often mushy and slimy. This might run against popular belief, but snake poops are not snake-shaped!
The mushiness and sliminess of snake poop is because of their carnivorous diet. Plant fibers hold feces together, so an entirely non-herbivorous diet makes for less well-contained poop.
Because snakes subsist on a variety of diets, their feces vary a lot. The smallest snakes eat only insects; larger snakes eat frogs, fish, or other snakes; the largest snakes consume whole mammals; and some snakes eat only eggs!
Insect-eating snakes might leave a trace of chitin in their poop. Snakes on rodent-rich diets produce an oblong, liquid excretion with a white cap of urea. That white cap, or smear, may sound familiar—birds!
5. How can you tell snake droppings from bird droppings?
Snake droppings are often mistaken for bird droppings. That’s because, like birds, snakes mix their digestive waste and urinal waste together, to form an often white-brown gooey substance. This combination of two substances is called urate, or solid urine.
A key difference is that bird waste has a much higher proportion of urea, so it will appear either lighter, or the white part will be bigger than in snake feces.
Another telltale sign are bits of hair, scales, bones or other solid bits of animal left over from the ingestion of the entire body of a prey animal. Remember, snakes swallow whole, leaving nothing out. Birds are unable to do so, and would find it tricky to fly if they did! Very few other animals do this, so bits of leftover beak, claw, bone, hair or scale could easily point towards a serpentine culprit.
Once you’ve come to the conclusion that you’re dealing with snake droppings, the size can be a pretty good indicator of what kind of snake produced them. Snake droppings are usually not much smaller than the width of the snake. Arboreal snakes defecate soon after eating, to maximize mobility and nimbleness.
Terrestrial snakes produce much larger droppings. Copperheads leave much bigger droppings than garter snakes. Scale-flecked droppings come from snake-eating snakes, like coral snakes or kingsnakes. Feathers indicate a medium-sized snake—i.e., one that can take on birds.
Besides genetic testing, there is no easy way to definitively determine what type of snake is responsible for the poop you’re trying to identify.
6. What color are snake feces?
Short answer: brown, with white stuff on the side.
Like the feces of most mammals, snake poop comes in various shades of brown. Healthy snake poop is mushy and slimy, but not too soft. Its width indicates the width of the snake which produced it. A better giveaway is the combination of brown poop with whitish urate. Expelled in tandem, these two together are indicative of a snake.
7. My snake just ate. How long until it poops?
Colubridae – rat snakes, kingsnakes, etc. – tend to take just a couple of days to digest their food and prepare feces for expulsion. Vipers, on the other hand, can take 3 to 7 days. Tree pythons typically take around 6 days to digest and poop. The slim-line Hispaniolan Pointed-nosed snake has an average fecal retention period of just 23 hours!
8. Snake poop frequency
Many heavy-bodied snakes hold onto their feces for a lot longer. Maximum values for fecal retention are certainly impressive, if not downright ludicrous. For example, emerald tree boas have been known to retain for up to 76 days, Burmese pythons for 174 days. Researchers recently identified a blood python which hadn’t pooped for 386 days.
Vipers take the game to a whole other level: 116 days for a puff adder, 286 days for a rhinoceros viper, and finally, one dataset identifies a gaboon viper which didn’t poop for 420 days! This may seem counterintuitive, and counterproductive. Why would a snake want to keep hold of its feces for so long?
9. How come wild snakes retain their feces?
Explanations as to why these heavy-bodied snakes would hold onto their waste matter for so long are not definitive. Some scientists believe that it is a defense mechanism, performed on the basis that very large, very heavy snakes are simply less likely to be predated upon. The bigger the snake, the harder to handle.
Others have suggested that the added weight at the back of the body provides a better counterweight, giving them more anchorage and allowing them to strike out at their prey more effectively. This is called the ballast hypothesis.
Another possibility is that they expel feces infrequently in order to better conceal themselves to the olfactory sense of would-be prey animals. Snake poop can be pungent, and linger for a long time. The smell of it would give away their location. Many snakes are ambush hunters and rely on the element of surprise. As you can imagine, producing a smelly poop is a tactical blunder!
One thing is for sure. Most snakes, in the wild, eat very large meals – relative to their body mass. They eat them all in one go. As a result, a snake’s body mass can more than double during the course of a feed. This makes it harder to move around. What’s more, without chewing, the snake’s digestive system has no choice but to digest its meal from the outside in.
Think about it, when you chew your food, you dramatically increase its surface area. That allows your stomach acid, when you swallow your mouthful, to work on many parts of it at once. Snakes work very differently. This means it can take weeks for a snake to fully digest a meal!
Some snakes actually switch off their digestive tracts between meals, because they know that they won’t need them again for a month or more.
10. Snake feces: What does it smell like
Snake poop smells similar to most other poop, i.e, not particularly pleasant. Runny poop smells worse than solid poop, but either way, you’ll know when your pet snake goes to the bathroom. It stinks, especially if left to build up.
To ward off the worst of the smell, clean out your snake’s enclosure regularly, and properly. As a rule, paper bedding for a substrate will not hold onto the smell, which will be unpleasant for you and the snake. On the other hand, shavings can contain it for a bit longer. Even then, it’s only for a couple of days.
11. What if I’m not a snake owner, but I think I have snakes in my garden?
If you have a snake problem in your property, its fecal output might be the first thing you pick up on.
Another important thing to note here is that snake droppings contain salmonella bacteria, which causes salmonellosis. This is a type of poisoning which leads to serious health issues in humans, among them gastrointestinal distress.
Bearing this in mind, if you see signs of snake presence in your garden or home, exercise caution. Even a harmless snake can produce harmful feces.
If you are a pet owner, wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning your snake’s enclosure. Gardeners should wear gloves and shoes while digging and working in soil frequented by snakes. Likewise, children playing outside in areas with high snake populations should cover their feet to prevent accidental exposure. Snakes defecate wherever they travel, so if one has passed through, it may have left something unwanted behind.
12. Pets: Normal poop vs. abnormal poop
As with any pet, it’s important to keep track of its health, identify issues, and make changes accordingly. If your pet snake is producing definitively abnormal feces, collect a sample and take it to a veterinarian for examination. They can check it for parasites and other diseases. You never know, getting hands-on with a bit of poop could save your snake’s life!
I’ve already said that snake poop varies quite a lot. However, the constants are easily identifiable. In kingsnake droppings, for example, as with many other snakes, you should be able to clearly identify two (or three) distinct substances:
- Urates – that’s the white, toothpaste-like, viscous semi-solid snakes produce in place of liquid urine.
- Brown feces – the part which comes from the intestine is dark in color, smooth and often rounded, similar to the fecal matter of many other animals.
- Mucus – this is normal in small amounts.
If your snake’s feces can be described by any of the following, then there could be an issue:
- Soft or water, rather than fully formed
- Very foul smelling
- Partially undigested
- More than 50% mucus
The best way to examine snake poop up close is through a microscope. Some parasites are visible to the naked eye, but not all.
13. My pet snake poops weird. What should I do?
Take a sample into a vet.
- In the case of soft or watery droppings, dab some onto a damp paper towel and seal it in a plastic bag. Keep this at room temperature and take it to your veterinarian within 24 hours for an examination.
- If you can see bloody spots or streaks in the droppings, it has a very foul odor or is partially undigested, a parasite exam is vital. Again, take a sample to a veterinarian and they will provide a diagnosis.
- If there is a disproportionately large quantity of mucus, include it along with any feces you take to be examined.
- Finally, if your snake is expelling urates which are dark yellow, orange, green or blue in color, collect some and take it in for examination.
The veterinarian will examine your snake’s feces under a microscope. If they find any parasites, they administer the appropriate de-wormer based on the parasites present. Many of these parasites come from mice or rats eaten by the snake.
Such parasites include worms, among which roundworms, hookworms and pinworms are the most common.
Try to integrate a regular visit to the vet into your routine. Snakes defecate infrequently, so it might be the case that you can’t get a fresh sample on your monthly visit. If so, prophylactic de-worming might be the solution for you!
14. Snake constipation: My pet snake won’t poop at all! What should I do?
Humans are clinically constipated after just three days. As you can imagine, with some snakes not pooping for weeks, or even months, the bar is set a little higher!
The most common cause of constipation in snakes is dehydration. If your snake is consuming insufficient water, it is more likely to become constipated. A common trigger for this is if a pet snake is fed thawed frozen food, which contains less water than fresh food.
Snakes are not big drinkers. In fact, almost all snakes get their water purely from food. As a result, their digestive tracts get drier and drier, which makes their stool less easy to pass.
Low temperature or humidity can also lead to constipation. If a captive snake’s enclosure is too cool, or dry, the snake conserves its body heat by warming its core—its organs and digestive system. This makes the digestive tract lose excess water.
The problem is, snakes cannot self-diagnose. A constipated snake will continue to eat as if its digestive system is working perfectly. This will lead to a buildup of food mass inside its digestive tract, which can be very problematic. If it comes to this, take your snake to a veterinarian immediately, to avoid severe consequences.
15. Is there anything I can do at home to alleviate snake constipation?
There are certainly things you can try.
Increase tank humidity
- Raise or lower the humidity in the snake’s enclosure, in increments, according to what they prefer. Ball pythons like it between 45 and 55%, whereas corn snakes like a humidity level between 40 and 50%.
- Check what humidity your snake species prefers and adjust accordingly.
Increase time spent handling your snake
- Snakes are more likely to poop after, or during, handling. The mere warmth of your hands softens the solid waste, while putting a small amount of pressure on their gut and stomach can help to move the digestive content along the gut, and soften it at the same time.
- Handle your snake calmly and confidently, and do not make sudden jerky movements.
Give your snake a bath
- Similar to the effect of warm hands, warm water softens the stool, and bathing allows a snake to absorb water. You should follow these guidelines when bathing your snake:
- Match the temperature of its enclosure
- Don’t mess about with shampoos or soaps—water will do
- Use clean, filtered or spring water
- Do not force your snake into a bath—if it doesn’t want to, it will only damage your relationship with the snake if you force it into the water!
- Snakes can hold their breath for minutes at a time, so if it submerges itself for a while, don’t worry
- In fact, you should facilitate this—snakes like the opportunity to dunk—but don’t make it too deep
If none of the above is effective in getting your snake to poop, and you have fed it multiple times already, take it to see the vet. The vet will likely administer a mixture of magnesia milk and mineral oil, which softens the stool inside the snake and makes it easier to pass. This can be taken orally or as an enema. The latter works more quickly.
If your snake is averse to both options, you can also coat its prey in mineral oil. That way, it will get the necessary oil inadvertently, while feeding. The catch is, you might have to wait up to a week for this to take effect.
16. Can snake feces be used for any purpose?
Mammals and reptiles, and some other animals, have a ‘vomeronasal organ’, which assists the general olfactory system. In some animals, it helps by identifying particular chemicals and pheromones which aid survival in the wild. Snakes use this organ to pick up on pheromones produced by females.
Rats and mice have these organs too. When confronted by the smell of reptiles and snakes, mice and rats behave in a way which exhibits fear—they sniff and dig frequently, and with urgency.
The long and short of it is: snake feces do deter mice and rats, but not as effectively as the feces of other predators, like owls or cats. This is probably because, on the whole, snakes pose less of an existential threat to rodent populations than feline or avian predators do.
If in doubt—if your snake is exhibiting strange behavior, defecating infrequently, or producing unusual fecal matter—take your pet (or a sample of its feces) to a veterinarian for professional examination. Try to factor regular visits into your routine, in order to prevent any problems from really settling in.
If you have any experiences you’d like to share, please let us know in the comments below. As usual, like and share this article to any of your friends who might be curious about snake poop!