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Best Substrate for Ball Pythons

The best substrate for Ball Pythons often depends on what kind of enclosure you use. Let’s look at our options so you can make an informed choice…

The best substrate for Ball Pythons often depends on what kind of enclosure you use. Let’s look at our options so you can make an informed choice…

Best Ball Python substrate for humidity

First of all, you need to be aware that humidity can be greatly affected by two things: the enclosure you use, and the substrate. If you’ve read many of my articles on here, you’ll know that humidity is extremely important for proper hydration, shedding and defecation in Ball Pythons. This is why it’s important to choose a substrate that won’t get too dry in your pet’s enclosure.

Large open enclosures like wooden vivariums, larger glass tanks and PVC setups have increased air volume which leads to increased desiccation and lower humidity. These enclosures need a substrate that holds humidity well! So far, I have found that Coco chips are the best substrate for consistently maintaining humidity.

Plastic tubs and rack systems, on the other hand, have lower air volume, and less ventilation. This helps them maintain higher humidity and means they rely less on substrate to do so.  For these enclosures, you can maintain satisfactory humidity levels with literally any of the substrates I discuss in the next section.

Throughout this article, we’re going to look at my favourite substrate choices and discuss how well they retain humidity. We’ll also look at how safe they are, how hygienic they are, and whether you should consider a DIY substrate.

Coral Glow Cinnamon Ball Python hatchling.

What is the best substrate for Ball Pythons? (My opinion)

The top substrates are:

  • Coco Chips
  • Newspaper
  • Coco fibre (Eco Earth, for example) – as a component, not on its own
  • Cypress mulch
  • Lignocel is good but still not widely available, may catch on soon
  • Aspen should be in chip form
  • Paper towels for babies up to 3 or 4 months, depending on size
  • Orchid bark is very good, but expensive

In my opinion the two best substrates for Ball Pythons are Coco chips (also called Coconut husk) and newspaper. As I mention earlier, coco chips are great for maintaining humidity. They also have a slight antimicrobial effect that helps prevent mould. Overall, it is easy to maintain great hygiene with the occasional spot cleaning and a complete change once a month.

Newspaper, in my opinion at least, is the easiest, cheapest, most convenient, and most hygienic substrate available. You can easily replace it completely each time the snake makes a mess. This hugely reduces the microbial load of the enclosure, especially if you have a quick wipe round with some diluted veterinary disinfectant at the same.

Personally, I always provide paper towels for baby ball pythons. Why… because you can moisten them to maintain high humidity, and because they work out even cheaper than newspaper!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to pay for whatever is best for my animals. But baby Ball Pythons pee every other day and are more delicate than adults. They need high hygiene standards, and a cheap, easily disposable substrate makes the most sense for them.

In the video below, you can see how to prepare Reptichip, one of several coco chip products available for reptiles.

What substrates are bad for Ball Pythons?

There are some substrates that are dangerous for snakes and must be avoided at all cost. Unfortunately, they are still widely available in pet stores and it is easy to make a mistake if you’re new to the hobby.

Cedar chips and shavings, for example, are highly toxic to snakes. Pine shavings are an irritant and also probably toxic. Check out the table in my snake enclosure article for more information on materials that are toxic to snakes.

Sand is also widely sold for enclosures but can be very dangerous to Ball Pythons. This is because it sticks to their food and slowly blocks their digestive tract, a phenomenon known as impaction. Strangely, it seems snakes can ingest and pass bits of substrate that are reasonably large, like a small coco chips, but sand and fine particles clump together and build up.

Another truly terrible substrate choice is reptile carpet. This looks like miniature AstroTurf and is meant to be long-term bedding. It is unhygienic, hard to clean, and also looks incredibly uncomfortable for a snake to sit on. In fact, if you walk into a pet store that uses reptile carpet, I recommend spinning around and walking straight back out.

Best substrate for Ball Pythons

Is potting soil safe for Ball Pythons?

Potting soil is safe for Ball Pythons if it has been sterilised, usually through baking. This is the best way to make sure it doesn’t contain mites, parasitic worm ova, or other pests and fungi. This kind of precaution is particularly important with potting soil that was sourced from an area that has native snakes. This might sound over the top, but it’s better to be safe than sorry!

How deep should Ball Python substrate be?

If you’re using a substrate to maintain humidity it needs to be around 2in (5cm) deep to hold any real moisture. This depth is suitable for enclosures that use heat mats, such as racks and tubs. For larger enclosures that use heat lamps, emitters, panels, or other overhead sources you can make the substrate deeper if you like.

For bioactive enclosures I recommend making it at least 4in (10cm) deep with an additional drainage layer of rocks and charcoal (carbon) underneath.

DIY Ball Python substrate

The easiest and cheapest DIY substrates are of course newspaper and paper towels. Their drawback, however, is that they are best suited to tubs. They don’t look natural either, not in the slightest. If you’re making a bioactive enclosure, or a naturalistic one, you obviously want it to look natural. After all, that’s the point of going to so much effort!

Making your own DIY substrate is a good way to reduce the visual homogeneousness of a substrate. For example, you could mix 30% Cypress mulch, 30% Coco chips and 40% Orchid bark to give the enclosure a forest floor kind of vibe. To top it off, you could scatter sphagnum moss over the top and you would be approaching a very natural look indeed.

Coconut fibre substrate for Ball Pythons

There is a common myth that Ball Pythons live in rough soil like you’d find in your garden. With this myth goes the idea that you should buy them some Coconut fibre (Eco Earth) or another fine-particle substrate, so they feel at home! Really, this isn’t quite the case though…

From speaking to contacts who have caught Ball Pythons in the wild, the overwhelming evidence is that the majority of them hide in small mammal burrows most of the time. Some also use termite mounds or other hollows they can find.

If you’ve ever dug up and investigated small mammal burrows, you’ll have noticed that the floors of them tend to be well-trodden and smooth from all the scampering about that they do. In fact, some of them are downright hard to the touch. They aren’t like a freshly dug flowerbed.

In my opinion, Ball Pythons probably don’t like getting soil-like substrates such as coco fibre stuck in their labial pits! I for one will not be using it on its own, and never have. However, coco fibre does have its place as a component of DIY substrates and bioactive substrates.

Coco fibre for plant or animal bedding
Coco fibre is a good component for bioactive substrates, but not great on its own.

Does coco fibre cause impaction?

Overall, it’s unlikely a Ball Python will get impacted from coco fibre. I say this mainly because they don’t eat very often, and they are big enough to pass the odd lump of substrate.

In fact, coco fibre has even been found to be safe for small reptiles like leopard geckos, for example. 

Is Aspen good for Ball Pythons?

Though not the most widely used, Aspen is great for Ball Pythons. It can in fact be one of the best beddings for them. The problem is that it isn’t great at holding humidity, so it needs to be in the form of chips rather than shavings, and preferably used in tubs or racks rather than vivariums.

Aspen chip bedding for reptiles
Aspen chip bedding for reptiles. In chip form like this, aspen tends to mould less and maintain higher humidity.

Best bioactive substrate for Ball Pythons

As I’ve said many times before, a bioactive vivarium is a tricky option for Ball Pythons. That said, you can make a bioactive enclosure work. Just use common sense when it comes to hygiene. If someone tells you that you never have to clean them, you should be a little sceptical! You can read more about this in the hygiene section of my care sheet.

The best readymade bioactive substrate is probably Josh’s Frogs ABG Mix. This has been both a safe and popular choice for a few years now. Alternatively, you can make the substrate yourself. A good bioactive substrate needs have some sterilised soil content, some coco fibre, perhaps some orchid bark or coco chips and a little sand. The larger components will help stop if from getting too compact and limiting plant growth.

I would personally go with 40% soil, 30% coco fibre, 20% coco chips and 10% sand. Below this layer, you should also add some activated charcoal, and some lava rocks or something similar for drainage. On top the substrate, I would also cover it with magnolia leaves, moss, pieces of cork and similar things.

You wouldn’t have to follow this exactly though; you could add compost instead of the coco chips for example. It’s best to research it thoroughly before trying and make sure it will suit the plants you intend to use.

Ball Python substrates pros and cons

Turn your device to landscape setting if you can’t see the whole table.

Coco chips– holds humidity
– antimicrobial properties
– sometimes expensive
Newspaper– cheap
– hygienic
– always available
– ugly
– ink may discoulour white snakes
Coco fiber– holds humidity
– antimicrobial properties
– gets dusty
– can get in python labial pits
Cypress mulch– holds humidity
– looks goood
– may not be sustainably sourced
Lignocel– holds humidity
– hygienic
– can be expensive
– not as widely available
Paper towels– holds humidity
– cheap
– hygienic
– ugly
– too light for adult Ball Pythons, they just ball them up
Orchid bark– holds humidity
– looks good
– less hygienic
– expensive
Aspen– looks good
– cheap
– not great at holding humidity


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