Captive Care for Ball Pythons
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Captive Care for Ball Pythons (Royal Python)

(Python r. regius)
By Edward M. Craft


The Royal Python, whose name is more closely linked to the scientific Latin name for this species (Python r. regius) is the name most commonly used in Europe to describe the snake that we here in the United States commonly refer to as the Ball Python. This snake derives its common name from the fact that it is a fairly docile snake that will curl itself in a ball with its head underneath its body when it feels threatened. This snake is one of the most popular species of large constrictor currently sold as pets. It is the smallest of the large constrictors with an adult length averaging between three to five feet. Aside from being the smallest of the large constrictors with an average CAPTIVE lifespan of 5-8 years, it is also the least expensive which makes this snake very attractive to the first time buyer. They require less room to house than most constrictors and tend to tolerate human handling very well. As a rule these snakes would rather curl up in a ball than bite. Because of their relatively small size, low cost and calm nature these snakes have been exploited by the pet industry for many years. These snakes are also very likely to cause their owners a lot of trouble regarding their care, which is one of the main reasons for such a short CAPTIVE lifespan. Most first time owners often find themselves asking the same question, " What can I do to get my ball python to eat". Aside from other problems such as internal and external parasites and failure to eat is the number one complaint involving this species. The key to keeping a healthy ball python is to begin with the proper selection from the start. This species is native to the grasslands of the Sudan, West Africa and parts of Central Africa with the majority of imported specimens coming in from Togo and Ghana. It lives in grasslands and open forests and there are many patterns variations currently available as a result of captive breeding efforts.


The single most important factor in keeping any healthy reptile is to start off by selecting a healthy specimen from the beginning. The first step is to select a young well-established CAPTIVE bred animal that appears alert and active. The next step is to pick up the snake; it should curl up into a ball and have good muscle tone while doing so. After you have done this you should check the vent of the snake for any build up of dried fecal matter, if none is present you should then use a small rubber tip-cooking spatula to gently open the snake's mouth. Look for signs of bleeding, missing teeth, any white matter around the gums, and excess mucus in the throat. If all of this appears normal the next thing you should do is rub your finger in an upwardly direction along the snakes throat toward its nose and look for any bubbling of fluid coming out of the nostrils. At this point, if all of these test prove normal, you have selected a healthy ball python and have only one remaining test. The final test for selection is to ask the store or breeder to feed the animal for you so that you may observe the fact that it is eating. If the store or breeder refuses to do this or comes up with any number of excuses as to why it will not eat AVOID PURCHASING THE SNAKE AT ALL COSTS. If a ball python will eat following the stress of shipment it is a good bet that it will remain a healthy eater. If you are purchasing your snake from a breeder do not purchase it vial mail order. Only purchase a ball python in person so that you can see before you buy that it will eat. If a breeder refuses to feed the snake for you, stating that the snake has just eaten you should avoid buying the snake and tell the breeder that you will return to purchase the snake when it is ready to eat. If the breeder will not hold the snake until that time do not be pressured into forgoing the feed test. If the breeder is in that much of a hurry to sell the snake their is a good reason that he or she is trying to get rid of it before they run into problems and can no longer sell the snake. Often times we as humans like to select the one snake that looks sick, thinking that if we take it home we can make it better. This is NOT the case with a ball python. If it looks sick it is sick and chances are that it is not eating which can only complicate matters. The survival rate of a snake like this is very little and most often an effort in futility. You should avoid this trap at all costs. Take your time and shop around there are plenty of pet stores and plenty of breeders, do not feel that you have to buy from the first one you come to.


Housing a ball python is a relatively simple task. They require an enclosure about the size of a 30-gallon aquarium. This is suitable to house a full grown adult. It is best to go a head and invest in an enclosure of this size from the start to avoid the cost of having to replace the enclosure every time the snake outgrows it. Ball pythons are very strong and make good escape artists. Be sure that the enclosure that you use is purpose made to house reptiles since these snakes have been known to escape from glass aquariums covered will the commercially sold screen mesh lids. Always think Murphy's Law when housing a reptile, "If anything can go wrong it will". The enclosure should contain a drinking bowl large enough for the snake to soak its entire body in. Do not fill the bowl to the top since the water will be displaced every time the snake soaks in it. This will create a moist bedding that is a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. It also carries the risk of exposing the snake's ventral body surface to the potential of a moist dermatitis as a result of having to lay on moist bedding. The water bowl should be placed under the side of the enclosure where the light is to help maintain humidity. A hide box should always be provided for a ball python to reduce the stress on the animal. Often times stress alone is enough to cause one of these animals to stop feeding, so be sure to make every attempt to provide the snake with privacy. Placing a strip of duct tape around the outside bottom edge of the enclosure will also help to provide security for the snake. Bedding should consist of newspaper, astro-turf, or even vinyl tile, (which will retain heat). All bark should be avoided because it can be ingested which can lead to intestinal blockages, which in turn can lead to a secondary prolapse. Pieces of bark that get stuck in the mouth can lead to an oral infection known as stomatitis or more commonly as mouthrot.


Since ball pythons are mostly nocturnal animals they will move around and prefer to eat at night no special lighting is required. The bones in the prey animals that they eat supply their need for calcium. A normal 40-60 watt incandescent bulb placed in an inexpensive clamp style lamp is sufficient light. Be sure when placing the light that it is located outside the enclosure and that the snake does not have access to it. This will help to prevent thermal burns from direct contact with the bulb. This method of lighting is also sufficient enough to provide heat and should be placed over one end of the enclosure to provide a heat gradient. A log or piece of wood placed at a 45 degree angle with the highest end under the light will allow the snake to bask and thus thermoregulate its body temperature. This method will also provide a cool end of the enclosure. A healthy snake should move about between the two ends of the enclosure regulating its body temperature freely. If a snake is spending all of its time in the hot end of the enclosure the temperature should be raised, as this is an indicator that the ambient enclosure temperature is too cool. The reverse is true if the snake is spending most of its time in the cool end of the enclosure. Heat pads and "Hot Rocks" should be avoided since all reptiles have a Preferred Optimum Temperature Zone (POTZ). In order for a reptile to reach its POTZ it must be 10 degrees F. above the ambient temperature this can not be accomplished by lying on a hot object. If the snake lies on a heat pad it can only get as hot as the pad. It is impossible for the snake to raise its temperature to 10 degrees above the object that it is laying on. Providing an overhead heat source is the best and most effective way to allow a reptile to do this. The most important factor involving lighting and heat is to be sure and to provide a heat/light cycle of 12-14 hours per day. This will allow the animal time to cool off at night. Constant light has been shown to effect thyroid production in some species of reptiles. Since ball pythons are nocturnal eaters providing constant light may effect eating habits, thus making a problem eater even more of a problem.


Diet should consist of PRE-KILLED prey items only. Feeding live prey animals can be dangerous for your snake. Small rodents still have their teeth and claws and will fight for their life if fed live. They are capable of inflicting serious injury to a snake and if the snake does not eat the prey animal right away the prey animal can become hungry thus turning the tables on the predator. The best method for doing this is to have the pet store pre-kill the prey for you. If they will not do this than a swift blow to the base of the back of the skull against the edge of the enclosure or a counter top. This may sound cruel, but the fact remains that it is safer for the snake and it is more humane for the prey animal whose demise is swifter and less painful. Once you have obtained pre-killed prey it may be frozen and then thawed out prior to feeding to your snake. The freezing process will also help to prevent the spread of internal and external parasites from prey to your snake. Be sure that the prey item is thoroughly thawed before feed it to your snake. Once the prey has been frozen it can remain frozen for 30 days after which time the nutrients will begin to break down. This will allow you to maintain a ready supply of food items if they become unavailable in your area for a while. Feeding should be done on a random basis since all snakes are opportunistic feeders in the wild. The amount and size of prey should vary as well to help to fulfill the snakes' opportunistic feeding habits. Most breeders will recommend regular feedings and specific size prey animals, but remember their goals are to raise and animal fast so that it reaches sexual maturity in a hurry, not to provide the best possible captive long-term environment. There is nothing wrong with this method either it is just geared toward rapid growth for the purposes of breeding since a snake's growth is related to the amount it eats. The only problem with a constant set diet appears to be that it shortens the over all life span of the animal. Random feeders seem to live longer according to most veterinary studies. Since ball pythons are notorious for NOT eating or going off food I will not be covering that here. This would entail an entire care sheet of its own. What I will tell you is that there are many methods that you can try to get your ball python to eat. The only problem with them all is that it takes time and an anorexic snake does not have time. A ball python can survive for up to a year without eating, however problems may occur as a result. Long-term anorexia can lead to dehydration which in turn can lead to kidney problems. The best method for dealing with this problem is to see a qualified reptile veterinarian if the animal fails to eat after 60 days. There are drugs available now that have been proven to stimulate appetite in reptiles when given in small dosages.


Dietary vitamin and mineral supplementation is not necessary in snakes that eat a diet of small mammals. This is a result of the fact that all of the vitamins and minerals are in the prey animal to include calcium which is absorbed from the bones of the prey item. The majority of vitamin and mineral related problems seem by veterinarians are related to the fact that the animal was provided with OVER-SUPPLEMENTATION. Since most supplements come in one of three forms: powder, liquid and spray, it is hard to judge the amount of each vitamin or mineral contained in each dose of either form. The one type of supplement that has no effect at all is the spray. No snake is physically capable of absorbing vitamins or minerals through its skin. If this were the case they would also be able to absorb water as well and would not have the need to drink. Their scales and skin are designed to keep things out not to let them in.


This section should be paid very close attention to especially where young children, children and adult with compromised immune systems, the elderly and pregnant or nursing mothers are concerned. ALL REPTILES CAN CARRY SALMONELLA. It is possible to have your veterinarian screen for salmonella by doing several fecal screenings for it. This requires three separate screening performed three weeks apart. The only problem with this method is that salmonella is shed periodically and even this strict protocol will not guarantee the detection of salmonella. The best method for dealing with the potential for salmonella is to simply help to prevent its spread by always WASHING YOUR HANDS AFTER HANDLING YOUR SNAKE, CLEANING ITS ENCLOSURE OR CLEANING ENCLOSURE FURNISHINGS. NEVER CLEAN THE ENCLOSURE IN FOOD PREPARATION AREAS OR EAT, DRINK OR SMOKE WHILE CLEANING AND NEVER LET CHILDREN HELP WITH THE CLEANING PROCESS. If you suspect that you or any member of your family has been exposed to salmonella you should not waste time and contact your family physician right away. THE SPREAD OF SALMONELLA CAN BE PREVENTED THROUGH PROPER HUSBANDRY AND REGULAR VETERINARY SCREENINGS OF ALL NEW REPTILES. If you are concerned about the spread of this disease and would like to learn more about what you can do to prevent its spread I urge you to contact your family physician and/or your State Public Health Veterinarian's office for more information on reptiles and salmonella.

Cage Mates:

It is recommended that ball pythons be housed separately since all snakes are solitary animals. In the case of a ball python a cage mate may be stressful enough to cause the snake to go off feed. Separating animals also helps to prevent the spread of illnesses between snakes in the same enclosure. Being sure that you have the room to house more than one snake is part of being a responsible owner. Proper housing should not be look at from our standpoint in terms of space available, but in terms of what is best for the snake.


In conclusion, owning a ball python can be a very rewarding and pleasant experience if one take the time to learn a few simple facts BEFORE purchasing an animal. Unfortunately these snakes are NOT FOR THE BEGINNER and are better left to the experienced keeper. There are many herpetological societies all across the country, which are dedicated to keeping up with all of the new information available and to providing that information to its members, so I would highly recommend joined a herpetological society in your area or nationally if one is not located near you. More information is also available through ReptiCare Services.

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Copyright 1997. All rights reserved by Edward M. Craft. Printed in the United States of America. Original Edition 1997