Once past a few months in age, 99% of Ball Pythons simply do not bite. But if you keep snakes there’s always the possibility of being bitten. Let’s find out how bad a Ball Python bite is and how to avoid it.
Are Ball Pythons aggressive?
Ball Pythons are not an aggressive species. They are in fact one of the calmest, most peaceful snakes available in the pet trade. As I mention in my Ball Python Care Sheet, I even have Ball Pythons I’m comfortable letting children handle.
The reluctance that most Ball Pythons have to bite is probably due to the fact they have another, more pacifistic defence mechanism called “balling”. Balling is of course where the species gets its name and consists of simply rolling into a ball with the head protected in the centre.
This is a great way for a snake to protect itself, as the head is their only real weak spot. Also, let’s face it, you probably won’t bite an enemy to death without any venom! Better to just hide and wait out the attack.
The behaviour is so ingrained that captive Ball Pythons still have a strong instinctive urge to do it, with shy animals suddenly retracting into a ball when you disturb them – even after years in your company.
Balling is in fact such a successful a defence mechanism that several other snake species have adopted it. The Calabar Python/Boa (Calabaria reinhardtii) and the American Snail Eater (Dipsas articulata) both employ it, despite being completely unrelated.
All in all, Ball Pythons are not aggressive, and 99 times out of 100 will choose this highly effective balling tactic over biting.
This Mochi Ball Python is balling fairely loosely. Some very nervous or wild snakes will ball so tightly you can literally roll them accross the ground (not recommended!).
There are exceptions to every rule…
What about that 1 time out of 100? Well, there are always exceptions, and with Ball Pythons there are a few highly specific circumstances where they can become aggressive.
They are the following:
- As a hatchling. Some baby Ball Pythons will nip, not many, but some. This is probably due to the fact balling may not be enough to protect them. A large rat could easily eat a baby snake, but defensive striking may be enough to scare one off. These babies quickly grow out of nipping with gentle handling for 5-10 minutes twice a week. Use glove to get them out and problem solved!
- When protecting eggs. Mummy Ball Python doesn’t want you to take her eggs, so yes, she might bite!
- When they first arrive. Whether you’ve just picked them up at the pet store, or they’ve been shipped to you, some Ball Pythons hate being transported. These ones do become agitated and may strike when you take them out. This is still a low proportion of animals, however.
Ball Python Teeth
We’re going to discuss Ball Python bites and aggression in a moment, but first let’s look at the hardware involved…
A snake’s teeth always reflect their function, having a size and form that allow them to carry it out.
The teeth of Pythons and other non-venomous snakes are aglyphous, meaning they lack a groove and are not used for venom delivery. In these species, the teeth have solely a gripping function. This doesn’t mean they don’t vary between species, however. Generally, they are adapted to grip prey appropriately, and will be as big as they need to be for this.
In small, invertebrate-eating colubrids like the DeKay’s Snake (Storeria dekayi), the teeth are about as dangerous as you would imagine. A bite from this species feels like almost nothing – if you can get them to bite at all.
In species like the Emerald Tree Boa (Corallus caninus), which eat arboreal rodents and birds, the teeth are HUGE! They obviously need to latch on extremely well to avoid dropping a prey item or letting an agile one get away. I haven’t been bitten by an Emerald Tree Boa, but what I’ve been told is that it’s a bite you won’t be forgetting…
The Emerald Tree Boa is an incredibly beautiful snake, but also has incredibly big teeth. They used to have a reputation for being irritable, but more and more people are now saying captive bred Tree Boas can become tame and relaxed.
So, how big are Ball Python teeth?
Ball pythons, on the other hand, are rodent specialists, and this means that their teeth are in-between that of the little DeKay’s Snake and the Emerald Tree Boa. To grip rodents, the teeth must pierce a layer of fur and hold them tight to prevent fighting back during constriction. Ball Python teeth have evolved to be big enough to do this, no larger.
All-in-all, this adds up to medium sized teeth. Nothing too scary, but not as puny as those of most colubrid species.
How painful are Ball Python bites?
Ah, and now the question we’ve all been waiting for! And the answer is… it depends. Overall Ball Python bites aren’t painful, but there are two types of bite.
The first type is the defensive or aggressive bite. This is a light tap, almost like a high five. It lasts a second and feels like very quick pin pricks.
The second type is the feeding response bite. If you aren’t careful feeding a Ball Python, you can get bitten. When a bite occurs during feeding, the snake will often hang on and warp around your hand/arm for a few seconds until they realise their mistake. This type of bite feels like getting your finger caught on brambles and is more painful than an aggressive bite.
Personally, I’ve been bitten by a lot of creatures, from Boas to hamsters, and I don’t find Ball Python bites painful.
They’re no worse than a cat scratch. I still don’t like being bitten, but the worst bites I’ve ever sustained were from a dog and a large snapping turtle. Those bites really, really hurt. Ball Python bites have got nothing on them!
What to do if a Ball Python bites you
If a Ball Python bites and latches on, wait until it lets go of its own accord. I’ve seen lots of YouTube videos and advice about various methods for getting snakes off. None of them really work, they just increase the stress on the animal and yourself.
The truth is that if this species bites you, they will simply let go when they realise you’re not a tasty rodent. You just need to wait. Fortunately, this isn’t too common, and completely avoidable in the first place! Just read the next section for tips on how.
After any bite, not matter how quick, it’s important to wash the site with soap and water. Don’t cover the site with a band-aid or anything like that, just let it heal naturally like any small scratch.
Infections from small snake bites are exceedingly rare, but if itching, swelling, or redness occurs after several days then a trip to the doctor is advised.
For another opinion, why not check out this helpful post from PetMD: What to do if your pet snake bites you
How to avoid being bitten
To avoid bites it’s important to understand Ball Python body language so you can recognize the signs they give us. These snakes use a variety of cues to decide when to strike (if at all). Thermoreception (heat sense), vision and olfactory cues are all used together to determine when to strike at food or a threat. Often, Ball Pythons seem to be cautious strikers, needing some winding up before striking, kind of like a jack in the box.
Fortunately, this means that before they strike their posture will give you clues that they’re thinking about it. To strike, a Ball Python needs to wind its neck into an s-shaped curve, which will give it enough length to launch forwards with. When getting ready, it’ll wind its neck up steadily until poised with the number of coils it thinks it’ll need.
When not thinking about striking, Ball pythons adopt other body postures. Let’s look at some photos so we can see the difference:
This baby Pewter Spinner Ball Python is adopting a defensive/aggressive posture. She’s winding her neck up and raising the anterior portion of her body off the ground. This gives her the room and reach needed to strike.
The Lemonblast in this photo is clearly not aggressive. Her drawn in head is telling us that she’s nervous and getting ready to ball-up.
Here we can see an all-together different body posture. Ninja has his head close to the ground and is moving along slowly. He’s telling us “I’m not aggressive, I’m just exploring”
Other tips for avoiding bites
Apart from learning to understand their body language, there are some other top tips that can help avoid a bite:
- Always use tongs or forceps to feed your snake!
- For regular handling, make sure no rodents or feeding paraphernalia are in the room.
- Wash your hands before handling if you’ve been in contact with other animals.
- Handle your pet during the day – not after dark, when they are in feeding mode.
- If your pet lays eggs, get an experienced breeder to help remove them.
- Do NOT handle a new pet for a week. They need their space! This can help get them feeding sooner too.
- Cover the enclosure of a new pet with a towel or sheet, this will reduce stress and help them chill out.
- Remember that Ball Pythons are ambush predators. Never put your hand in front of the entrance to their hiding place.
- If you must handle an aggressive snake, drop a pillowcase or t-shirt on top of it. This usually scares them and switches them into “retreat mode”.
Prince here is in ambush mode, it’s 10PM and he’s waiting for a juicy rodent to stroll by. This is not a good time for handling!
Do Ball Pythons Bite? Not often, and it doesn’t really matter anyway!
Ball Pythons are not an aggressive species. They tend towards passive defences like the balling behaviour or plain retreat. This is partly why I like them so much, as do hundreds of thousands of other snake keepers around the world. They’re a calm, gentle, inquisitive species that can be a companion to you for 30 years or more.
What’s more, these snakes really aren’t capable of inflicting dangerous or painful wounds, they just don’t have the hardware!
Whether they bite should be at the bottom of your list of concerns when buying a Ball Python. Focus on learning how to care for them and understand them, instead. Once you start keeping them, you will see that the benefits far outweigh the very slight risk of one day being bitten!