This care sheet has been designed to give you all the information you will need to make informed decisions about your Ball Python’s care. My way is not the only way to keep Ball Pythons but I honestly believe it is a humane and scientifically sound approach. If you need reptile products, then check out the eBay feed that shows up to the right of this article on laptop, or below it on mobile devices (you will have to disable ad blocker to see it). Time and again, I’ve found better prices on eBay – for exactly the same products – than at specialist retailers, so it is worth a look!
1. Why choose a Ball Python?
The Ball or Royal Python (Python regius) is one of the most popular snake species for both beginner and advanced herpetoculturists around the world. In fact, if we could describe the good-old Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttatus) as the first domesticated snake, then the Ball Python is definitely the second. It exists now in stunning colour and pattern combinations (morphs) that would never have been seen in the wild – and which in great part have contributed to its success in the pet trade. Check out this Magpie Ball Python for example.
The “Magpie” Ball Python, above, is a new morph from NERD (New England Reptile Distributors). NERD are, and pretty much always have been, the leaders in creating new Ball Python morphs. They agreed to let me use this photo, but made it clear that the morph’s genetics are still under wraps! Photo courtesy of New England Reptile Distributors.
This male Acid Ball Python came with a hefty price tag, but given the potential of the morph he is more than worth it.
It isn’t just this snake’s appearance that makes it so popular, however. It has an incredibly gentle disposition, coupled with insatiable curiosity – something not often seen in reptiles. If you have friends or relatives who are nervous about meeting a snake – then the Ball Python is your best bet for winning them over! I actually have a few that I am happy to let small children handle, something best avoided with a lot of larger snakes, no matter how tame they seem. Along with their temperament, these snakes have a range of qualities that make them rewarding captives. They are long-lived (40yrs+ in some cases), hardy, and engage in fascinating behaviours such as “balling” and “periscoping”. Finally, they grow to a manageable size, averaging around 3-3.5ft (90-106cm) for males and 3.5-4.5ft (106-137cm) for females.
The common name Ball Python comes from the balling behaviour, whereas the common name Royal Python, which is more often used in Europe, comes from a widespread belief that members of some African royal families used to wear them as jewellery.
This wild-type is “Periscoping” – a good way to survey surroundings for predators or rivals. The Mochi Ball (Mojave and Enchi) in the second photo, is “balling” – the behaviour that gave these snakes their common name.
Back in the 90’s large numbers of wild-caught Ball Pythons were imported to the US and Europe, mainly from Ghana and Togo. These creatures were almost always dehydrated, severely stressed and laden with a heavy parasite burden by the time they made it to your local pet store. Many of them would succumb to necrotising dermatitis or respiratory infections, while others would only survive in captivity if subjected to months of veterinary treatment and force-feeding. Thankfully, some reptile enthusiasts and zoologists managed to establish healthy, breeding populations of captive Ball Pythons – largely ending the wild-caught trade. Thanks to these people you can now acquire healthy, captive-bred snakes, safe in the knowledge that they are acclimatised to captive life and will be happy as long as you know how to care for them correctly.
In this Ball Python care sheet I’m going to explain the basic tenets of their successful husbandry. I will also explain how their ecology and life history traits relate to their captive care.
2. Ball Python Basics: buying, temperature, humidity and shedding
This Sonnet Spider Ball Python is a very rare morph, produced here at Ballpythonbreeder.co.uk
A young Ball Python should be bright, alert and without stuck shed or other skin issues. This is a hatchling Sterling Pastel Ball Python produced here at Ballpythonbreeder.co.uk
Buying a Ball Python
Sadly, a few people are still selling wild-caught animals under the flimsy pretext of diversifying the captive gene pool (having a reasonable understanding of population genetics, I’ll go into why this pretext is BS in a future article!), so first and foremost be sure to check on the origin of any snake you buy. Remember, “captive-farmed” snakes are actually from clutches that were taken from the wild and then hatched in captivity, before being shipped to Europe or North America. The collection of reptiles should be reserved for species who are about to lose their last pocket of habitat and become extinct in the wild, or for highly aberrant morphs that tend not to flourish there anyway. Why, on the other hand, do I find it acceptable to keep captive bred Ball Pythons? Because as I said before, I consider them domesticated. And like dogs, cats and rabbits, there are so many of them in captivity that they are here to stay. We now need to give them the care, time and consideration that we would any other family companion.
Now that I’ve gotten the depressing bit out of the way, let’s get to the exciting part: choosing your snake!
These days you can easily check on the reputation of breeders or pet shops online, and once you’ve found a good one, that is your main piece of homework done. When buying look for an alert, reactive snake, without its back-bone sticking out and without sores, scabs or retained skin. If the snake is shy, curling into a ball and tenses or moves when you touch it – this is healthy behaviour for a juvenile. Ask for its feeding records and to see it eat – knowing that a young Ball Python is feeding is the be-all and end-all when it comes to determining if it is healthy. This is really all you need to know!
Ball Python Temperature
Maintaining the correct temperature is essential when it comes to encouraging the healthy functioning of a Ball Python’s immune system and metabolism. As I mentioned before, most of our captive snakes originated from Ghana and Togo, equatorial African countries whose climates undergo some seasonal change, but are generally very warm. If we look at Sokodé. Central Togo, average daytime temperatures range from 82F (28C) in July, to 95F (35C) in February. By looking at information like this across their geographic range, we can deduce that these animals have not evolved to deal with cold weather. In fact, I have known of Ball Pythons that have contracted sudden respiratory infections after being overnight shipped without proper insulation.
Now it is true that temperatures in parts of their range have been recorded above 104F (40C) during the day and below 68F (20C) at night, but we must remember that these animals generally live in rodent burrows or termite mounds, and occasionally large hollowed out logs. In fact, you may have noticed that they only constrict prey with the first third of their body, whereas snakes in the Boa constrictor group often use most of theirs. This is a direct adaptation for constriction in burrows where room is limited.
With regards to thermoregulation, burrows have the benefit of attenuating surface heat during the day but retaining some of it at night. Ball Pythons have been found in burrows over 3 ft (1M) in length, where they can go deeper or closer to the surface to thermoregulate. Essentially, the bottom of the burrow is the relatively cool end during the day and then the warm end at night. All in all, this tells us that a thermal gradient is necessary in the enclosure, without a huge drop in nighttime temperatures (despite being nocturnal, they retreat to a warm burrow if they get too cool while on the prowl). In captivity we achieve this by having an enclosure with a warm end and a cool end, with a hiding place in each.
Personally, I measure the success of my parameters by observing the snakes’ feeding response over time. The best seasonally adjusted feeding response from my snakes has been achieved with a warm end at 90-91F (32C) and a cool end at 80-81F (27C). Generally, I only allow a small drop in temperature at night which can be achieved using thermostats with a nighttime drop option (I wouldn’t say this is essential though if your house cools down at night anyway). A lot of people are now giving recommended basking spot temperatures in care sheets and promoting heat from above rather than heat mats, but I will explain in the Heating section why it doesn’t matter where the heat comes from – and go into where and how to measure temperatures.
Summary: Warm end 90-91F (32C), Cool end 80-81F (27C), Nighttime drop 4F (2C) lower temp. at both ends.
Ball Python Humidity and Shedding
As with temperature, the subterranean habits (not fossorial by the way – they aren’t able to dig) of this species also influence their humidity requirements. There is a persistent myth that Ball Pythons are from arid areas. Whilst they may have colonised some arid areas, the bulk of their home range is made up of savannah habitat, and the rest is either dry forest or tropical rainforest. Even when you take into account seasonal variations in precipitation, savannah is actually far more hospital than arid habitat and maintains much higher soil humidity – something that Ball Pythons encounter in their underground lairs. For this reason, it is important to maintain a reasonably high humidity level of 55-65%. Lower than 55% will engender difficulty shedding. Furthermore, some research suggests that very low ( -40%) and very high (+80%) can both contribute to susceptibility to respiratory infections, with the latter also being a factor in necrotising dermatitis (scale rot). Orchid bark, coconut fibre, cypress mulch and sphagnum moss are all great for raising humidity, but mist the enclosure if these are not enough.
Generally, if your getting your humidity to that nice 60% area, your ball python will shed just fine. If you’re struggling to maintain humidity, these snakes can shed incompletely or retain eye caps. A good way to do this is to either mist the enclosure the day before they shed (not always easy!) or provide them with a “shed box”. A shed box is a plastic tub, filled with damp sphagnum moss and with a hole in the top for the snake to enter. Some snakes never actually learn to use these, but in my experience a majority of them do and it can lead to a perfect shed every time.
Summary: 55-65% humidity year round.
I’ve linked a video here of Stefan Broghammer finding Ball Pythons in Ghana. Stefan is a herpetologist and author who has been to Africa many times to record observations this species in the wild. This video gives you a good idea of typical habitat for the species (not very arid!), and shortly after the starting point at which I’ve linked it, Stefan gives us a temperature reading (in English) from inside a wild Ball Python’s burrow. We should always prioritise primary research like this when learning about how to care for our animals.
Stefan has asked me to add a link to his latest book, which is well worth the read (and available in English): Python regius: Atlas of Colour Morphs Keeping and Breeding
3. Ball Python Housing
First and foremost, it is worth noting that Ball Pythons are generally solitary in nature. In fact, nothing stresses them more than having another, unwanted, conspecific in their enclosure. I have known people who have successfully kept them together but generally it ends in fights and bullying (or as close as these gentle creatures can get to these behaviours), and results in poor feeding response from one or more them. Whilst it is true that a male and female can be kept together for breeding, it is best to separate them after each successful copulation for at least a couple of weeks, then permanently once breeding is over. Some males will go off food for months if around females during the breeding season, and also harass them relentlessly.
In the wild males will seek out females to mate, then either move on to find another, or be ousted by a stronger male. This allows females to mate with several males – and for good reason: male-male competition. Male-male competition in Ball Pythons is composed of two stages: direct competition and sperm competition. Direct competition occurs when males fight each other on sight for access to, or monopoly over females or territory. Stronger and larger males tend to win more fights and mate with more females. Small but fast/sneaky males do tend to breed all the same, but cannot circumvent sperm competition. Sperm competition occurs after copulation because females store sperm from each male until the moment of ovulation. It is the males with higher quality sperm (e.g. most motile, most long-lived) that will fertilise most/all of the eggs. These two stages of competition allow females to only reproduce with the most genetically fit males, whose genes will give their offspring higher survival rates and make them more likely to successfully reproduce in turn. From a male’s point of view, this means that they cannot be certain of fertilising the clutch of any female they mate with.
In a nutshell, females want access to the best males, and males want to monopolise access to all females. This tells us that both sexes have an interest in “shopping around” but that the males also have an interest in being territorial. Don’t be fooled though, even if there are no males around, females are still thinking about the resources for their next clutch. They will subtly compete for the best hiding place, the warmest spot, or anything else until one becomes dominant. This results in the less dominant snake becoming stressed and – you guessed it – showing poor feeding response.
Don’t get me wrong, I have seen Ball Pythons kept together successfully for long periods in zoos, but the enclosures were huge and elaborate. So, if you are unable to convert your living room into a replica of the sub-saharan savannah ecotope, it’s best to keep these animals individually!
Ball Python Housing types
When it comes to housing, there are three main types: Vivariums (generally wooden with glass sliding doors here in Europe, but often all-glass in the US), Plastic tubs (aka R.U.B.s), and Rack systems. It’ll be up to you what you chose, but I’ll put some some useful products on the Reptile Supplies and Accessories page. That way you can use the information in this care sheet to put together a decent setup at a good price, rather than falling prey to inflated pet shop prices!
I’m going to discuss all three housing types here, but first there are two main points to remember:
A. Whichever type you choose, you must meet the snake’s required parameters in TEMPERATURE, HUMIDITY and SECURITY. The security aspect is related to hides, and will be discussed shortly. A lot of websites try to convince you that vivariums are always best, and for good reason: they are more expensive and will make people more money! Neither vivariums or plastics are inherently “better” than the other – aesthetics, cost, etc. mean nothing to a snake.
B. An enclosure must not be a place in which an animal can injure itself! Vivariums are generally pretty safe but be sure to inspect a second hand one for screws/damage/splinters. Some plastic tubs have a lip or protrusions on the underside of their lids – so watch out for these too. Inspect all hides, branches and furniture for spiky or rough bits. If there is anything in the enclosure that your snake could either rub its snout on or get it stuck in, it eventually will.
Vivariums are the type of housing that is the most aesthetically pleasing and usually the most spacious. Generally the wooden back comes with some pre-drilled holes so you can put probes and heating appliances inside. The downside is that the wooden base is too thick for you to use a heat mat from underneath. If a mat is your preferred heating method, it needs to be placed in a special holder for safety, and be used inside the vivarium. This easily resolved issue leads many people to mistakenly think that you absolutely have to heat vivs’ with bulbs or ceramic heat emitters, both of which dry out the air and make maintaining humidity more difficult. Another issue that I have with vivariums is that they offer the snakes little privacy. The glass fronts can leave some (not all) Ball Pythons feeling exposed and more sensitive to disturbance. The easiest solution for this is hanging a drape over the front – defeating the purpose of having a beautiful vivarium!
A well thought-out, natural vivarium like the one on the left can not only provide a decent home for your snake – it can also be the centre piece of a room. Attribution: Sauli SärkkäSaerX at fi.wikipedia [Public domain].
Plastic tubs have the upside of being excellent at maintaining humidity, but the downside of being unsightly. The main issue with tubs though is that it can be hard to find ones that are big enough, yet are see-through and have a secure, locking lid. If big enough, tubs do work well, it can just be difficult to obtain an appropriately sized one for a 5 or 6lb (2.5KG) female! One important benefit that tubs offer is that they are non-porous and very easy to clean and disinfect, something that makes hygiene easier if you have several animals. Once again, hanging a drape over the top of these enclosures can help make the snakes feel more secure – make sure the drape allows light to pass through though, we want to give them privacy, not total darkness.
Rack systems are essentially plastic drawers in a stack, generally at least a few draws wide and as many high. Whilst they have the benefit of easily maintaining the correct temperature and humidity, the drawback is that the small size of the draws in some racks impedes the expression of an adult Python’s natural behaviours. Remember the “periscoping” behaviour I mentioned earlier? They do this because they have an instinctive urge to, it’s how they see over vegetation or obstacles and survey their territory. I have a male who periscopes regularly, sometimes raising his head to 9 or 10 inches (22cm) off the ground. The 5 or 6 inch (13-15cm) high draws in some of the most popular rack systems simply wouldn’t give him the vertical space he wants! He also likes to climb, and to me, keeping him in an enclosure that precludes both of these behaviours would just be cruel. The argument that people make to me is that these animals live in burrows and feel safe in a drawer. You can tell because they feed so well in racks! And of course they do, they don’t know any different – but just because an animal is healthy that is not an excuse to deny it a more enriching existence. That said, rack systems do provide enough space to correctly house hatchlings, in which case they are an appropriate and convenient type of housing.
Personally I don’t always produce more than one clutch a year, so I’m not pushed for space or particularly fussed about making a profit. I only keep a few animals and this allows me to invest more space and money in them than someone who has a large collection. Obviously, what I’ve said here is only my personal opinion, even if it is based on years of observations. It will be up to you to decide how you keep your animals, and whether you think my assumptions about their space requirements are correct.
This is a plastic tub that I made into a basic example enclosure for this article. It gives you a rough idea of how a Ball Python enclosure should look: two hiding places, a heavy water bowl and a branch for climbing. It’s too small for Bobby, who you can see inspecting my work, but I use him for photos because of how calm he is. For a younger snake, this would make an ideal enclosure, and come in at a much lower price than a wooden vivarium.
Ball Python Recommended enclosure sizes
A Ball Python needs two hides (or more) that it fits into snugly, a decent-sized water bowl and some additional floor space to move around and stretch out. If the hides occupy more than 40% of the enclosure, then it is too cramped. Also, adults need at least 15 inches (40cm) of vertical space and a branch or two for climbing. Neonates do not tend to do well in very large enclosures and size should be adjusted as they grow.
Here are some general guidelines for minimum enclosure sizes:
Hatchlings will need a 12 inch (30cm) long vivarium/terrarium, a 5-10 US gallon (19-38 litre) glass tank, or a plastic tub with equivalent floor space.
Yearlings/subadults will need an 18-24 inch (45-60cm) long wooden vivarium/terrarium, a 15-20 US gallon (19-38 litre) glass tank, or a plastic tub with equivalent floor space.
Adults will need a 3-4 foot (90-120cm) long wooden vivarium, a 40-50 US gallon (151-190 litre) glass tank, or a similarly sized plastic tub – generally these are around 40 US gallons (151 litres).
Glass tanks tend to have a higher height to width ratio, so a slightly lower capacity plastic tub can have as much floor space.
Ball Python Hides
Of major importance for Ball Pythons is the SECURITY aspect. These animals are what is called positively thigmotactic (i.e. seek contact with objects/substrate for security), and must have a hiding place that is dark, sturdy and they fit into snugly. In a rack system the drawer itself provides the “hide”, but if you opt for a vivarium or large plastic tub then you need to provide at least two hides: one in the cool end and one in the warm end. This way, your snake can thermoregulate by moving from one hide to the other, without remaining exposed. Personally, I like the Exo Terra caves because they are heavy enough for adults and now come in an XXL size that is large enough for most females. I have included a link to these in the Ball Python Products page. Occasionally, you will encounter a female that is too big for these hides, in which case using a log or constructing a hide out of cork bark is a good idea. You can also buy black plastic hides that are bit flimsy, but still better than nothing.
Ball Python Water bowls
There are a variety of both naturalistic and basic water bowls available. The main things to remember are a. the bowl needs to be heavy enough to not easily be knocked over, and b. the inside surface of the bowl should be as smooth as possible. Materials that are rough or porous give bacteria, algae and moulds a greater surface area to anchor themselves to, and are harder to clean and disinfect properly. Though Ball Pythons do not generally soak, I do prefer bowls that are big enough for this just in case.
On a side note, I have read several times now that distilled water is bad for reptiles and amphibians as its demineralised state causes it to leach minerals out of animals’ bodies. Having looked into this, research and first-hand observations by herpetoculturists do corroborate this information. I recommend that you never use distilled water for herps. If the tap water in your area is safe for fish (a decent aquatics shop will be able to tell you) then it is fine to use, if not then opt for natural bottled water. Check out the hygiene section for how often you should change the water.
Ball Python Substrate and decorations/branches
As far as substrates go, the most popular options are aspen shavings, newspaper, orchid bark, coconut fibre, cypress mulch and paper towels. Newspaper and paper towels are cheap and absorbent. They also make it easy to clean out the enclosure completely and ensure correct levels of hygiene. Although it looks similar to paper towels, I do know of a python that had an allergic reaction to toilet paper, so this is best avoided!
A lot of people use newspaper or paper towels for the above reasons, but there’s nothing wrong with cypress mulch, orchid bark and coconut fibre. In fact, they are great for maintaining humidity. Personally I don’t like aspen shavings, but I have spoken to people with larger collections than me that swear by it. Your best bet is to choose a substrate that makes it easy to maintain humidity and that you can afford to change regularly. Recently, coco husk has become extremely trendy, but personally I find it way too susceptible to mould. I don’t particularly care what’s trendy, or what other people use – and neither should you. Try some substrates and find the one that you suits your setup.
When choosing a substrate, bear in mind that Cedar, and to a lesser extent pine, are toxic to snakes and should never be used. Sand also appears to be harmful, being regularly inhaled and ingested by Ball Pythons if used. Whilst it is true that sand tends to block the digestive system of species that haven’t evolved to deal with it, don’t worry if your snake accidentally swallows a chunk of a different type of substrate – this happens all the time in nature with no ill effects.
Over the last few years a study has been widely circulated that some people have cited as “proof” that male and juvenile Ball Pythons are arboreal. I have read the study in question and the authors (whose work was excellent by the way) did not state that all male Ball Pythons are arboreal. They stated that based on stomach contents of wild Ball Pythons in a south-east Nigerian rainforest, and how often they found them climbing, it was likely that males/juveniles there were more arboreal than females – as well as being opportunistic bird predators. They go on to explain that some snake species show different dietary preferences between males and females because the females have to be big enough to produce eggs/offspring, giving them a different morphology and weight. In this case the aforementioned sexual dimorphism pushes females to prefer terrestrial prey and males to prefer prey found in shrubs and trees.
This all makes perfect sense as most rainforest birds roost at night, making them easy prey for the male Ball Pythons who are generally lighter than females and therefore able to climb up and snatch them. Reptiles never turn down an easy meal, and a lot of terrestrial snake species will climb and eat birds if it is like taking candy from a baby. The authors never said that this is how this species behaves across their whole geographic range – only in one area of somewhat non-typical Ball Python habitat. There aren’t a lot of trees to climb in some of the grassland habitats or agricultural areas that they occur in, and in these areas male and juvenile Ball Pythons occupy a terrestrial niche – not a semi-arboreal one. In the future we should be careful to interpret scientific studies correctly and proportionately, rather than taking the results of one observational study as a golden rule for a whole species – especially one with as massive a geographic range as Python regius.
Sneak into the snake room at 1 or 2am and you will see both males and females climbing. They’re not exactly graceful climbers, and are by no means arboreal – but they still give it a try! This is a 2300g female Spinner Blast Ball Python.
The reality is that both sexes like to climb, and enjoy a branch or two in their enclosure, but yes males are better at it. You do not have to provide a 6 foot (2M) tall vivarium with a small tree in it for a male Ball Python! 15-24 inches in height (40-60CM), with a climbing branch is completely fine.
As always, inspect any branches you use for rough or spiky bits and sand them if necessary. Also, if a branch is glued or screwed in place, it is best not to have it touching the floor as it will make it harder to clean.
4. Heating for Ball Pythons
Ah, and now we get to that old argument, heat from above vs heat from below! It’s an utterly pointless argument, especially as Ball Pythons are nocturnal and rarely bask. Sorry heat from above people – but just because the sun heats everything from above, that doesn’t mean that it makes a difference where your snake’s heat comes from. What you need to remember is that during the day a healthy Ball Python will spend most of its time hiding, and therefore gain (or lose) most of its heat through its belly. Where the heat comes from doesn’t matter, but if the substrate your snake is lying on is too cool then heat will move out of it and into that substrate – that’s just how heat behaves, whatever the source of it may be. So, if you want to get the temperature right, then heat the enclosure however you like, just make sure you are measuring it under the hides if using heat mats or adjacent to the hides if using heat from above (i.e. lamps/ceramic heat emitters). For my snakes that have mats, I place both a thermostat and digital thermometer probe under the warm hide, and a digital thermometer probe under the cool hide. I secure them with surgical tape and cover with a thin layer of substrate. This is a particularly good way of keeping heat pads at a safe temperature. If you do use this method, remember that if a cool snake goes and sits on top of the thermometer probe it will read a lower temperature until the animal warms up – don’t turn up the thermostat in this case! Get the temperature right without the animal in there first, then use the thermometer probes and a thermometer gun to double check temperatures daily when the snake is in there.
Now I’ve mentioned digital thermometers and thermometer guns here for a reason: though essential for controlling your temperatures, a lot of thermostats are actually off by a few degrees. You should always place a thermometer probe close to your thermostat probe. Generally, a thermometer will be more reliable and helps you adjust the thermostat.
Surgical tape (left) is useful for keeping thermostat probes in place. It does not stick to animals like normal tape and is easily removed. You can use glue or silicone instead, but risk damaging your probe if you ever remove it.
Ball Python Heating appliances
Heat mats are a great way to heat your snake from below. Mats work well if mounted on the outside (underneath) of plastic tubs and glass vivariums, as long as these are raised on furniture stoppers to allow for a little air circulation. Never place them inside these types of enclosures. In wooden vivariums heat mats can be used inside as long as they are in a special mat holder, and the thermostat/thermometer probes fastened to the top of it. If you chose this method make sure it is a decent holder – I have seen some useless ones. Never ever use a mat without a thermostat; they can cause severe burns at relatively low temperatures due to the way heat can build up under heavy bodied snakes (referred to as thermal blocking). When using a heat mat, it should be placed under the warm hide. A mat that covers more than 30-40% of an enclosure’s floor space may make it hard to create a thermal gradient.
Heat bulbs should only be used if you can find a “night time” one – usually dark red or blue. A bright bulb as a heat source = all day and no night! That said, bulbs work well as long as the enclosure is big enough to allow for a thermal gradient to occur, and are housed in a metal cage to prevent your snake from burning its snout. Other than the fact that they make it harder to maintain humidity, it is worth mentioning that bulbs cost more to run than mats, especially if you choose the wrong wattage. It sounds counter-intuitive, but in a 3 foot (90CM) vivarium, a 50 watt bulb will struggle and cost more than a 100 watt bulb.
Ceramic heat emitters work like bulbs, but are more efficient, more powerful, and make no light – in fact they’re better all round! Like bulbs, they do of course heat the air and lower humidity, but as I said before, orchid bark, sphagnum moss and misting can help with this. Heat emitters can cause severe burns and do need to be in a metal cage.
N.b. Bulbs and heat emitters should be fitted at one end of a vivarium rather than the middle, and be at least 6 inches (15CM) from each wall. They are not suited to plastic tubs.
Heat rocks are awful! They don’t work well with thermostats, are usually too small and cause more burns than any other heating appliance. Never use a heat rock!
Ball Python Thermostats
Now that I’ve discussed the main types of heating appliances, lets take a look at thermostats. There are a number of brands, but three main types: dimming, pulse proportional and on/off. Always make sure that a thermostat is the correct wattage for the appliance you want to use it for.
Dimming thermostats are designed for use with heat bulbs, dimming and brightening them to control temperatures.
Pulse proportional thermostats send pulses of electricity to an appliance at a varying frequency to control temperatures. These are great for heat mats and ceramic heat emitters. They would wreck light bulbs though by making them flicker constantly.
On/off thermostats are fine for keeping heat mats safe, but not very accurate. They get to the set temperature, turn off, then cool down by several degrees before switching on again.
5. Lighting for Ball Pythons
Constant bright light is not really appropriate for this species, unless they can retreat into a very dark hide. In fact, constant, strong overhead light probably lowers feeding response over time by stressing the snake. Recently a myth has started to emerge that Ball Pythons are crepuscular rather than nocturnal, but having slept in the same room as this species since I was 12 years old, I can tell you that it simply isn’t the case. Watch out for misinformation like this, as it helps to sell UV bulbs – not care for your snake appropriately.
These snakes are in fact nocturnal, being active on and off between 8 or 9 PM and 6 or 7 AM generally. As a result, Ball Pythons have evolved to take up the necessary vitamin D from their prey rather than synthesising it with the aid of sunlight. The ambient daytime light that comes through your windows is perfectly adequate for their circadian rhythm, and specialised lighting is unnecessary.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with setting up a light in a vivarium and putting it on for just 4-6 hours a day – it’s entirely up to you and the odd exposure to UV light can’t do any harm. Personally, I don’t provide UV lighting for my snakes, but I do take them outside for an occasional sunbathe – who knows if it has any measurable impact on their health though!
6. Feeding your Ball Pythons
Ball Pythons have gained a reputation as picky feeders, due to their habit of fasting and their sensitivity to disturbance. This is a bit exaggerated however, you just need to remember that as adults these snakes naturally fast at different times of the year. In the wild they deal with differing levels of food abundance by fasting or feasting, and many of them also stop eating while breeding. Sometimes they fast for several months with no ill effects, and this is no reason to worry unless they are losing a significant amount of weight.
When trying to get your snake on a nice, regular feeding routine it is important to do two things:
- Maintain detailed records of feedings (or attempts) and include the snake’s weight every couple of months.
- Bear in mind the role that disturbance plays in feeding response.
Keeping records allows you to refer back to your snakes behaviour months or years before. It’s less worrying if it starts fasting in November but you look at your records and see that it did exactly the same thing the previous November. Considering disturbance is important because these animals are shy and it can cause them to go off food. For example, putting a snake’s enclosure in a high-traffic area of the house is a common reason for poor/no feeding response. Another common mistake is trying to feed too often. If an adult Ball Python refuses to eat, don’t try again the next day – try again in two weeks with no handling in-between! You have to remember that having its enclosure opened regularly is as annoying to your snake as being poked in the eye repeatedly would be to you. Also, moving them to a different enclosure to feed usually makes them even less likely to eat.
Now assuming you have a healthy, feeding adult Ball Python, you can feed it a meal equal to or slightly smaller than the snake’s greatest girth once every 6-7 days. Some keepers prefer to give a meal that is 1.5 times the snake’s greatest girth every 10-12 days but generally I’ve seen snakes do best if given the first option. Very young hatchlings should be fed a meal equal to their greatest girth once every 5 days, then every 7 days once they have grown a bit. Occasionally, hatchlings will refuse to eat, and breeders resort to “assist-feeding”. This entails gently opening the snakes mouth and stuffing a pinky mouse in, eventually the snake realises the only way to get rid of it is to swallow it! You can find videos of how to do this online, but probably won’t encounter this problem unless breeding snakes yourself and starting off hatchlings.
The absolute best time to feed a ball python is when you see them waiting at the entrance to their hideout.
Sometimes they simply will not wait – watch your fingers when they get like this!
Ball Python Food
When it comes to types of prey, the most commonly available are mice, multimammate mice (a.k.a. African soft-furred rats) and rats. Some snakes have a preference between these, whereas others eat all three. If you have a snake that is picky with all of these, remember to try feeding it prey items of differing sizes, sexes and colours. Over time, I have found that snakes fed on rats grow faster than those fed either type of mouse. This is probably due to the fact that rats have a denser skeleton and musculature, making them a better meal by weight.
Frozen or live? In the UK these days it is illegal to sell live rodents as snake food. In many other countries it is still legal and the snakes usually kill the rodents very quickly (they’re snakes after all!). Nasty bites and gnawing do occur when too large a rat is given, or when a rodent is left in with a Ball Python that isn’t hungry. These snakes aren’t good at aggression; if they aren’t hungry they won’t kill a rodent, or even defend themselves when it gnaws at them.
Given the risk – however small – I prefer to give frozen-thawed prey. These are humanely killed and can be brought in bulk. When thawing them out, I put a few in a zip-lock plastic bag and float it in a tub of hot water, then after an hour put in more hot water and give them another 15min. When you think a rodent is thawed enough, pick it up and give it a squeeze – it should be as warm in the middle as your dog or cat’s belly is to the touch, if not then a lot of Ball Pythons won’t strike at it. Don’t try using a microwave by the way, it heats unevenly and can make rodents explode (this is less funny than it sounds).
After a while, you’ll learn what tempts your snake and what doesn’t. Some Ball Pythons will eat a warm mouse left next to the entrance to their cave, whilst others will refuse to eat unless you make the prey “walk” around for them (feeding tongs are a good idea for this!). Don’t forget that they usually won’t eat when getting ready to shed, just like most other snakes.
Feeding this species is a learning process, but they aren’t as picky as people think. Personally I’ve had a couple of difficult snakes, but no major problems over the last 20 odd years.
7. Ball Python Hygiene and Microbiology
With long-term captives special attention should be paid to hygiene. In the wild an animal will simply move away from a spot where it has defecated, but in captivity they can’t. This means they remain in close proximity to a high concentration of germs until you remove their mess. The result of this is that if proper hygiene is not maintained, micro-organisms that are usually commensal can become numerous enough to overwhelm a captive animal’s immune system and turn pathogenic. A good example of this phenomenon is infection by Protozoa such as opportunistic amoebas and certain types of Coccidia.
are a subclass of parasitic Protozoa that can infect Ball Pythons, but contrary to popular belief do not always cause symptoms. In one study, several snakes were found to remain subclinically infected with Coccidia if kept at certain temperatures, showing no symptoms whatsoever. It should be assumed that while some Coccidia cause an abrupt health decline, others will cause infections (Coccidiosis) if an animal is kept under poor husbandry conditions.
It is good practice to check your animals daily (just visually) and remove waste immediately. Enclosures, water bowls and hides should be disinfected with a veterinary disinfectant once every two months or more often if the snake makes a large mess. Personally I use F10 disinfectant. Water bowls should also be rinsed at least once a week and cleaned with washing-up liquid if any slimey-ness or build up is present. My snakes love fresh water and often go straight to the bowl for a drink when I replace it every 3-4 days. On top of these hygiene measures, it is a good idea to completely replace the substrate every couple of months.
F10 veterinary disinfectant is incredibly safe when you respect the recommended ratios of solution to water. This is F10 Super Concentrate, but it can be bought as a pre-mixed solution.
Some pathogens can only be killed by heat or bleach, but if you use bleach be extremely careful to properly rinse it off before putting your snake back in. Also, be aware that bleach can soak into wood and slowly poison your snake afterwards. Generally, veterinary disinfectant is the safest option when cleaning long-term captives. That said, bleach is your best option when cleaning newly acquired vivariums or furniture that are from pet shops and could have come into contact with Cryptosporidium serpentis, a highly contagious Coccidian parasite that kills snakes and is not killed by most disinfectants.
In addition to maintaining regular hygiene, quarantine any new snake for a couple of months in a different room to the rest of your animals.
Something that people often mention to me is their fear of contracting Salmonella from reptiles. Whilst reptiles do carry Salmonella, it is easily eliminated by using antibacterial handwash. Also, this disease generally attacks young infants or people with compromised immune systems. A healthy adult is no more at risk from handling reptiles than from handling eggs or chicken – but hand washing is vital.
Another question that pops up regularly is “should I take my snake to the vet if…”
If your snake does any of the following, take it to a vet immediately: wheezing/bubbling, salivating, getting a swollen face/neck, becomes unable to move/unfurl, shows lumps under the skin, looks straight up at the ceiling for hours (stargazing), or gets sores that seem to spread – take it to a vet immediately.
For minor scrapes and abrasions, a veterinary disinfectant ointment can be used. A tube the size of the one in the photo below will last you a long time and hopefully never be used, but it is well worth having it around in case.
Infections in Ball Pythons range from mites to Nidovirus respiratory infections. I’m not going to go into them all here, but the key to getting any of them treated is finding the right vet. If your local vet says “well I do have some experience with exotics so I’ll take a look” – that’s not good enough! It takes a specialist to have a high success rate when treating reptiles. If you have to drive for an hour or two to get to the nearest specialist it will be worth it. In fact, it will probably be the difference between a dead or live snake after treatment.
Bioactive vs “sterile” enclosures for Ball Pythons
A very popular trend recently has been creating bioactive enclosures for reptiles. These have been extremely well marketed, based on the idea that they mimic an animals natural ecosystem and apparently never need cleaning. Generally these enclosures have live plants and a “clean up crew” comprised of isopods (woodlice) and insects called springtails.
These enclosures are fantastic for small amphibians and reptiles, but have to be used differently for larger reptiles (who make larger messes!). For starters, saying that they mimic a natural ecosystem is a bit far fetched – a natural ecosytem has hundreds or thousands of species, predation, food webs, exchanges with other ecosystems and generally a degree of complementarity between habitats. At the end of the day, a snake in a bioactive vivarium is still confined to a relatively small area that it can’t leave, this is why Coccidiologists have determined that snakes in captivity are more susceptible to Coccidiosis than those in the wild.
Many other types of Protozoa, such as opportunistic ameoba, do well in damp substrate, and Coccidia can produce sporulated oocysts that survive for months in almost any conditions (other than extreme heat). There is no evidence that woodlice or springtails can destroy these parasites (though they will help keep your plants healthy). So if your snake has in its digestive tract either parasitic, commensal or opportunistic Protozoa, they can eventually become a problem if the vivarium never has its substrate completely removed. Most of the time, woodlice can’t eat a hefty snake shit before the snake slithers through it – spreading amoeaba, flagellates and possibly Coccidia oocysts all over its enclosure!
Reptiles appreciate bioactive vivariums because they contain a lot of places to hide and climb that enrich their lives – not because they contain bugs and dirt. Personally I like naturalistic vivariums that look good but maintain high levels of hygiene, given that hygiene is the key to maximising a captive animal’s lifespan.
It is definitely rewarding seeing your animal look like it is in the wild, but we have to remember that it isn’t. If you decide to make a bioactive enclosure for a Ball Python my advice is as follows: remove all excrement immediately and change the substrate every 6 months, disinfecting the enclosure every time. If you use plants that are hardy then you can re-pot them within a couple of hours. Also, you can keep a small portion of the substrate and put it back after cleaning, which may help maintain some of your insect/isopod population.
8. Notes on juvenile Ball Pythons and Sexing
When you get a new snake, especially a juvenile, it is important to leave it alone for a week to acclimatise to its new surroundings. Be sure to put a juvenile in an appropriately sized enclosure, one that is too big can make them stop feeding unless there are very abundant hiding places. Generally a new snake will have been correctly sexed if acquired from a good breeder. Mistakes do happen however, and there are two methods for sexing yourself: popping and probing. Popping refers to the practice of holding a snake above the vent and rolling your thumb along the tail to evert the hemipenes of a male. Whilst it is a useful method for juveniles, it can be difficult with adults who are more muscular.
In the video below, a breeder shows us how to pop Ball Pythons. I’ve chosen this video because the creator has included both male and female snakes, as well as a male with smaller than usual hemipenes.
Probing refers to the practice of inserting metal probes into the vent, and measuring the depth to which they enter. This method is particularly dangerous if done incorrectly, but both methods can harm a snake. If lacking in confidence your best bet is to have someone with experience show you how.
Last time I bought a Ball Python it was from a respectable dealer who was more than happy to probe the animal in front of me. As I said before, when you’ve found a good breeder that is most of your homework done. Personally, I probe my hatchlings, then have another breeder double check their sex before I sell them – this gives us the best chance at accurately sexing all of them. The honest truth, however, is that some snakes can be exceedingly difficult to sex; the only 100% reliable way of knowing is if an animal has reproduced.
9. Notes on Ball Python handling
This female Pastel Bongo ball python is particularly shy. Sitting down and gently handling animals like this can slowly tame them.
There is no particular method to handling ball pythons. Just make sure that they feel secure and that their body is supported. This Acid ball python is exactly the same age and weight as the Bongo Pastel above, but unlike her he is completely fearless. It just goes to show that their personalities do vary.
These snakes might hate being disturbed too often, but gentle handling once a week helps keep them tame and healthy. In the wild these snakes are mainly ambush predators but do regularly forage and climb as well. They also have to vacate burrows quickly when they flood, so they do get the odd bit of exercise. In captivity, using their climbing branches simulates this but climbing between your hands and exploring a (warm) living room is equally good for them.
A Ball Python should be picked up gently by the body, and with two hands if adult. When handling, the body should always be well supported and care should be taken not to touch the head, as this frightens them.
To this day I have only been bitten once by a Ball Python, and that was by accident because I fed it without using tongs. It resulted in a scratch, and of course reminded me that these animals are in no way a threat to humans.
10. Links to Ball Python products and Ball Pythons for sale
Thanks for reading. I have made this care sheet as detailed as possible, but feel free to send me questions if I have missed anything! In the future I will do a separate article on breeding. You can find links to any products you may need on the side bar or below (just make sure adblocker is off).
Any available snakes can be found here: Ball Pythons for Sale