Now that I’ve got a tarantula, how do I go about feeding it?
Whether you have a dog, a cat, a hamster, or a pot-bellied pig, if you’re a pet owner, you’ve become accustomed to certain standards of care for your wards. For those of us who have kept these more domesticated pets, we are very used to feeding and providing fresh water to our pets daily, often more than once, and having a variety of conveniently-packaged foods available for their consumption. Most of these pet foods come with handy instructions on just how much to feed your pet, dependent upon the size of the animal. When our furry little friend doesn’t eat for a couple days, we take it as an immediate sign that something is very wrong and seek veterinary care.
Well, now you own a tarantula, and suddenly, all of the rules you’ve learned about pet care go right out the window.
No one sells “Tarantula Chow”, and there are a plethora of feeder insect that would make a good meal for your new pet. There are no “portions”, and determining what size item to drop in with your hungry spider can be cause for stress. As for a feeding schedule, some healthy adult species only need to be fed once a week. And if your T doesn’t eat for a while, it is no cause for immediately alarm. This is an animal that can go months at a time without eating and still stay healthy.
Tarantulas don’t come with instructions, and learning some of the rules and tricks around feeding them can be a stressful and tricky endeavor that involves experience and research. The message boards are often full of posts by newbies asking feeding-related questions like, “How often should I feed?” or “What size item should I offer?” Here, I hope to answer some of the most asked questions and give those new to the hobby one less thing to stress about.
I. Frequency of feedings:
There are a few important points to consider when coming up with a feeding schedule. The life stage of the tarantula, the size of the prey you are feeding it, and the species you are feeding should all be carefully considered when devising any sort of feeding schedule.
Sling? Juvenile? Adult?
Younger tarantulas, like slings and juveniles, are doing a lot of growing and are much more vulnerable than their adult counterparts. Slings are particularly fragile, and keepers report more sudden and unexplained deaths in the sling stage than in adults. In the wild, a spiderling is particularly vulnerable to predators early in life, so it behooves the young T to eat as much as possible as often as possible so it can quickly grow out of this precarious stage. Therefore, most keepers choose to feed their slings as often as they’ll eat. For many, a feeding schedule of every two or three days for slings is perfect. However, if they are being offered a large prey item, once a week will certainly work.
A lot of folks express concern that they can overfeed a sling. Although some have insisted that a tarantula can become too fat, resulting in organ failure and molting issues, there has been no scientific proof of this, and most keepers believe it to be a myth. Most slings will chow down until they are ready to enter premolt, then they will stop. They will NOT eat until they explode. The only danger posed to a fat T is a possible abdomen rupture from a fall.
Once the tarantula reaches the “juvenile” stage at around 1.5-2″ or so, most keepers ease off on the feeding a bit. A spider of this size is usually out of its fragile sling stage, and growth at this point will slow down a bit. Although you can certainly continue with a more aggressive feeding schedule at this point (see “power feeding” below), it is no longer necessary. At this stage, I usually feed my animals a larger prey item once or twice a week.
For adult tarantulas, you need to also consider the species before settling on frequency. An adult Grammostola porterie/rosea needs only four or five crickets a month to be healthy. Conversely, an adult Therophosa or Pamphobeteus species would eat that in a single meal a couple times a week. Generally, the feisty tropical genera (Therophosa, Phormictopus, Pamphobeteus, Acanthoscurria, Nhandu, etc.) will need larger and more frequent meals.
As an example, my 6″ Pamphobeteus antinous female eats five crickets and one 1.5″ dubia roach in a single week. My 6″ female G. porteri, on the other hand, eats four crickets a month. Both species are healthy and plump, but the feeding schedule for one would definitely not work for the other.
Know the species of T you keep and listen to other keepers about its appetite. If you have questions, ask. Observe the feeding responses and growth rates to determine if more or less is needed.
A word about “power feeding”.
If you’re around the hobby long enough, you’ll hear folks talk about “power feeding” their tarantulas. Power feeding is when the keeper jacks up the heat and feeds his tarantulas as much as they will eat in order to grow them to maturity faster. This is usually done in an effort to get breedable adults as quickly as possible. Although this could shorten a tarantula’s lifespan as it is rushed through various instars (some males may mature in less than a year), there is no proof that this is harmful for the T.
II. What size feeders to use?
The size of the feeder being given to the tarantula can certainly impact the frequency that you feed the animal. Some keepers choose to feed their specimens smaller prey items more often. Others will offer their Ts much larger insects, then feed them only once a week or so. There is really not any right or wrong way, and the size and schedule comes down to the keeper’s discretion. Personally, I tend to feed medium-sized items a couple times a week.
Many keepers stress about the size of prey they should offer to their spiders. A rule of thumb many keepers use is that the prey item should be no larger than the abdomen of the tarantula. So, a juvenile with a abdomen length of about 5 mm would likely be comfortable with a pinhead cricket. Personally, I feed my slings and juveniles prey items slightly smaller than the total length of their bodies, and adults I feed items no larger than their abdomens. I’ve found that this works very well for me, although it is by no means law. Again, it comes down to the personal preference of the keeper. When in doubt, it makes sense to err on the side of caution and give your T smaller, more manageable prey.
Use your discretion.
Now, these are just guidelines, and it is okay for keepers to deviate from them. Case in point, some species of Ts will actually only attack smaller prey items. My M. balfouri and H. incei gold juveniles, for example, would only take much smaller prey for the longest time. Even when my balfouri juvies were about 1.75 inches, they would only attack small crickets. Conversely, my P. cancerides juveniles would easily take down sub-adult crickets at that size. Observe your Ts and their feeding habits, and feel free to go up or down a prey size as needed.
What to do for tiny slings?
For very small slings (1/4-3/8″ or so) small food can be very difficult to come by. Although B. lateralis roach nymphs can be a good alternative due to their small size, they are not always easy to come by. In these instances, it may be necessary to pre-kill and cut up a larger prey item into a more appropriate size. Spiderlings will scavenge feed, so this is a great way to make sure that they can eat as much as they want while not putting them in danger by dropping in an overly-large prey item.
Although this may sound a bit gross (and, well, it really is!), cutting the leg off of a larger cricket, or cutting a meal worm into smaller pieces is a perfect way to feed your tiny sling. Just carefully place the food chunk in the enclosure and, if the sling is hungry, it will find it. Just be sure to remove any excess the next day, as they may not consume the whole piece. If they don’t finish the item, you might want to wait several days before offering another item.
III. How many items should I feed at a time?
In the cases of slings and juveniles, I would say one prey item per feeding is completely appropriate. At this size, they usually have their hands full with an appropriately-sized food item, and adding a second would only serve to stress the animal.
For some adults, dropping in a more than one item can be an appropriate option. Personally, I tend to use larger insects, like dubia roaches, rather than bombard my tarantulas with a half-dozen spastic crickets. I’ve also seen animals become visibly agitated when more than one item is dropped in.
If you do drop in multiples, be sure anything that isn’t eaten is removed in a timely manner and that animal seems comfortable with taking down multiple feeders.
IV. What are my feeder options?
There are many possibilities when deciding what to feed your Ts. Personally, I find the many inverts available as feeders to be quite convenient, and I will often mix up what I feed my spiders to create a more diverse diet. Here are some of the more common feeder insects available as well as some pros and cons for each.
NOTE: Some folks supplement their larger tarantulas’ diets with vertebrates such as mice, geckos, and snakes. Personally, I’m not a fan of this. Besides being a rough death for the vertebrates, the mess left behind after the tarantula feeds can be a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and pests.
Crickets: Crickets have long been the go-to feeder insect in the hobby. They are sold at most pet stores in several sizes that make them a convenient feeder insect for almost any size T, and they can be purchased in bulk for those with large collections. They can also be relatively inexpensive if purchased in large quantities. TIP: To keep extras alive, use a large critter keeper or modified plastic storage container, provide egg cartons for a hide, and feed dry oats or fish food. Humidity kills them, so I supply slices of potato for moisture.
- Available in every pet store
- Convenient pinhead, small, medium, large sizes
- Non-invasive if they escape
- They can smell quite horrible
- Can be difficult to keep alive
- Can eat a molting T
- Can be pricey when purchased in small quantities
Mealworms: Another readily-available food source for tarantulas. Not only can mealworms be purchased in many different sizes, but they can also be raised rather easily. Unlike other prey items on this list, they can be kept in a refrigerator, meaning you can keep some on hand for when you need them. They are also very easy to reproduce and raise (for a tutorial on how to start a colony, click away!). TIP: These are a prey item that will dig (often to return later as a black beetle that the T won’t eat), so I will often crush the heads before dropping them in to keep them from burrowing.
- Sold at most pet stores
- Can be stored in a refrigerator for future use
- No odor
- Very easy to raise
- A bit small for some of the larger Ts
- Can burrow and disappear if given the chance.
Superworms: Like mealworms, superworms are another beetle larvae that can make for a good tarantula feeder. They are relatively inexpensive, and their larger sizes make them a better choice for larger Ts. They can also be raised and bred in colonies for those interested in always keeping some on hand. However, it needs to be mentioned that these worms WILL bite and eat a tarantula. TIP: To prevent a superworm from injuring or killing a T, either cut off or crush its head before offering it.
- Sold at many pet stores
- Larger sizes are great for large Ts
- Can be bred in colonies
- Not all pet stores carry them
- They bite and injure/kill a T
- Are a little more involved to raise
- Can’t be refrigerated for storage
B. lateralis roaches: Also known as “rusty reds” or “red racers”, these roaches make a wonderful alternative to crickets. They are fast moving, bold little bugs that will stay out in the open rather than dig. Their propensity to explore and move around when dropped into an enclosure makes them a very attractive prey item for Ts. Adults are also a bit larger than crickets, making them a little better for larger Ts. These can be purchased online in bulk, or kept in colonies. TIP: These are fast little roaches who are quite good at escaping when given the chance. Unlike the next roach on this list, given the right conditions, this one could thrive and be a pest in the home.
- Readily available online
- Don’t burrow
- Fast movements seem to attract Ts
- Can be raised in colonies
- Nymphs are great for small slings
- Not normally available in pet stores
- If they escape, they can breed in the home
- Fast and tricky to catch
B. dubia roaches: This tropic roach species can hit sizes of 1.5-2″ making them a great feeder choice for larger tarantulas (I feed most of my large tropical species with B. dubia). They can be purchased as colonies (about $30 shipped), which will produce nymphs of many sizes, providing a food source for slings, juvies, and adults. The one main drawback to this species is that some tarantulas won’t take them. TIP: This roach will freeze and “play dead” when a tarantula approaches, often leading to the T passing it up. They can also dig and hide (I’ve had ones I thought were eaten reappear months later). To prevent either of these scenarios, crush their heads before dropping them in. This will cause them to wander aimlessly keep them from burrowing and playing dead.
- Easy and cheap to raise
- Adults are large and great for big Ts
- No odors
- Won’t breed in most homes if they escape
- Some tarantulas won’t eat them
- They can burrow and hide
- They play dead when a T approaches
- Not usually found in pet stores
These are just a handful of the feeder options available, and some ones that I have experience with. I know hobbyists in the UK often use locusts, which sound like a fantastic food source. There are also waxworms, earthworms, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and lobster roaches. Feel free to experiment with any or all of the available feeders; a diverse diet is always a good thing.
For a wonderful article about some pros and cons of crickets, B. dubia, and B. lateralis roaches, check out A Roach in a Coach is Still … Food !
V. How to feed your tarantula in three easy steps!
I often read about the strange, complicated, and often totally unnecessary rituals some keepers go through when they feed their Ts. Now, I’m not judging, and if it works for you, great. However, I do think that some folks make this process a lot more complicated then it needs to be. In most situations, a tarantula can be feed in three easy steps…
- OPEN the enclosure – Be sure to know where your T is when you take this step, and only open the enclosure as much as you have to.
- Drop in the prey item – You don’t have to hold it in front of the T or make it dance with tongs. Just drop it in!
- CLOSE the enclosure – Make sure the cage in securely latched and closed.
Congratulations, your tarantula has been fed!
All joking aside, there is no need to do anything other than what is described above. This is an animal that has evolved over millions of years; they wouldn’t have made it this far if they couldn’t figure out how to eat. Tarantulas are excellent hunters and, in most circumstances, they will have no problems detecting and snatching prey. Don’t worry about dropping the feeder right next to the spider either, as you will chance startling the T. I like to drop it across the enclosure from the tarantula to give it a chance to detect the prey animal and to get a chance to hunt. It is quite fascinating to see how the different species go about capturing their food.
It worth it to note that many tarantulas are nocturnal, so you may want to do your feedings at night before bed. If the feeder hasn’t been consumed by the next morning, remove it. That being said, I feed the majority of mine in the afternoon, and I’ve seen the majority of them, even the “pet holes”, eat.
VI. But what if it doesn’t eat?
If your specimen starts refusing meals, don’t panic. Tarantulas will often refuse food during premolt (read about premolt here), and some species will fast for long periods of time. This is an animal that can go months without eating and still remain healthy, so missed meals are no reason to freak out.
When a T isn’t eating, don’t keep dropping bugs in with it every day. Instead, wait a week or two, drop in a prey item, and watch to see if there is any interest. If the T doesn’t eat, take the item out and try again in another week. Always make sure that fresh water is available.
VII. Tongs are for maintenance!
Finally, in most instances, there is no need to tong-feed your tarantula. I hear so many people new to the hobby using tongs to essentially hand-feed their animals. In most cases, this is completely unnecessary and serves only to put the keeper and the T in danger. Not only can a spider injure a fang if it attacks the tongs, but they’ve been known to run up tongs to escape or bite their owners. And, as someone who keeps feisty and fast Old World tarantulas, trust me when I tell you that you don’t want to try tong feeding an OBT or a pokie!
When in doubt, ask!
This is a hobby in which research and, more importantly, experience brings confidence. Although many of the issues one might encounter when feeding have been addressed above, there are always situations that pop up that might be unusual or rare. Luckily, there are forums and sites like this one that you can go to for help and guidance. Before you panic, though, always remember that tarantulas are tough, adaptive animals that have survived millions of years of evolution and, sometimes, questionable husbandry.