How To Care For A Ball Python
It’s easier than you think!
Before you ever get a snake of ANY species, consider the following:
1) How big will this snake get, and do I have the room to properly house an animal of that size?
A ball python does great in a smaller cage considering its size, but a burmese python needs an enclosure at least half its body length – and some burmese get up to 20 feet long! Can you really fit a 10 foot long cage in your house?
2) Can I REALLY afford all the accessories and supplies for the snake?
For example, for a basic ball python setup, you should budget at least 100 dollars for everything.
3) Am I comfortable feeding mice or rats to the snake?
Snakes can never be vegetarians; their digestive systems are evolved to live completely on animal proteins. If you have troubles feeding rats to snakes because you had a pet rat once and they’re just so cute… You might want to rethink getting a larger snake. Smaller species such as sandboas and cornsnakes never get large enough to eat rats.
4) Will I still want this snake 20 years from now?
Most snakes are pretty long lived. Ball pythons easily reach ages of 20 years or even 30 with proper care, and cornsnakes can live up to 25. Are you going to be as fascinated with the snake then as you are now, or are you going to get bored with its care and tire of cleaning the cage? Think realistically – if you’re 20 now and get a baby ball python, when you are 50 years old that snake is very likely to still be going strong!
5) If the snake is for your children… Are you prepared to take over its care?
Let’s face it, kids are kids, and usually have short attention spans. You as the parent are responsible for the animal’s wellbeing. After a year or so, your child will probably begin to forget to remind you to pick up snakefood on the way home. They might stop cleaning the cage regularly or providing fresh water daily. When that happens, you either need to take over care of the snake, find it a new home with people who will care for it the rest of its life, or start reminding/nagging the child to take care of his or her pet. Unless you have an exceptional child who is mature for his or her age, I don’t recommend snakes for pets for children under 8 years of age.
About The Ball Python Species
Ball Pythons are also known as Royal Pythons in countries outside of the US. That is where they get thier latin name, Python Regius, from. The name Royal Python comes from the myth that Cleopatra wore them as living jewelry around her wrists and neck. The term Ball Python comes from their habit of curling up into a ball as a defense. Ball Pythons are native to the Central Western and Western parts of Africa, with most imported snakes originating in Benin, Ghana, or Togo.
Ball Pythons are constrictors, which puts them in the boid family, along with other pythons and boas. These snakes are also known as “Old World” snakes, because they still have vestigal hips. You can actually see the remnants of legs on either side of the vent, like below. These leg remnants are known as spurs, and ball python males use theirs to “tickle” the female into readiness during courtship. (Pictured is an adult female)
Ball Pythons are exceptionally long lived snakes. The oldest snake on record lived at a zoo, and was reported to have died at the ripe old age of 48 years. Most people who take good care of their animals can expect them to live at least 25 years, if not more.
Ball Pythons are among the smallest python species. Average length of a Ball Python is anywhere from 3 feet to 5 feet, with males generally being smaller than females. Females have been known to get over 5 feet in length, but this is uncommon. There are no obvious visual differences between male and female Ball Pythons! Some might argue that spur length is an indicator of gender, with males having longer spurs, or that a female ball python will always be larger than a male. This is not true. While yes, most females are bigger than most males, there are many, many exceptions to this. The only way to truly know the gender of your adult snake is to probe it. This is when someone who knows what they’re doing (I do NOT recommend you try this without someone showing you how) takes a thin, metal rod and uses it to very gently probe inside the vent back towards the tail. In males, the probe will go deep, because it is following one of the two hemipenes. In females, the probe will barely go past a couple scales. Another method of sexing that is most successful on young snakes is ‘popping’, where the keeper gently pops the hemipenes out. This only works well on younger snakes that do not have strong muscle control over that part of their body yet. I repeat, I do not recommend trying to sex your snake yourself until someone with experience shows you how.
First, let us talk about how snakes maintain their body temperature. Snakes are Ectotherms, meaning they get their body heat from their surroundings. This is also known as being “cold-blooded”. Because snakes get their body heat from their environment, that means it is entirely up to you to make sure they have the temperatures they need to thrive. The best way to provide heat for a snake is through a heat gradient; that is, you have a range of temperatures the animal can choose from. For a Ball Python, your ‘hot’ side needs to be around 90 degrees, and your ‘cold’ side needs to be around 80. Keeping a constant temperature of, say, 85 degrees through the entire tank seems like it would be fine, but in reality stresses out your animal. They know what temperature they need to be, and providing a range to choose from allows them to monitor their own body temperature. That is why it is so important to have a heat gradient, and not just one temperature throughout.
Now, the cage! Ball Pythons spend most of their lives in animal burrows in the wild, and so in captivity, spend most of their time hiding in the smallest, darkest, tightest place they can find. On the one hand, that leads to a pretty boring animal to watch, but on the other, they don’t need a large cage. In fact, younger ball pythons do better in smaller cages. A 10 gallon aquarium or something of similar size works well for balls under 1 year of age. For older animals, a 20L tank or something of similar size is adequate.
To heat the cage, a UTH (Under Tank Heater) is by far the best method. Balls need belly heat to digest their food, and a UTH provides this without the drawbacks of a heatrock. Never, EVER use a heatrock. Heatrocks tend to burn animals, and you are best off just staying far, FAR away from them. Back to UTH – I recommend you get a rheostat or some sort of dimmer so you can better control your temperatures. In summer you aren’t going to need to heat things up quite as much as you need to in winter, right?
About winter – if you live in an area that gets very cold, you might want to consider using a heatlamp for that time. UTH’s do not heat the air very well, and so you might find that your snake never moves from where you have it attached to your cage. You can use a low-wattage bulb in a heatlamp to heat up the air in your cage. When you do this, however, you will need to make sure that the heatlamp does not dry out the air too much, which is why I only recommend it when it is cold out.
Ball Pythons require humidity between 40-60%. I recommend you get a digital hygrometer along with digital thermometers to measure your humidity and temperature. You should have something to measure the temperature on both sides of the cage (hot and cold, remember?), with the humidity cage whereever you like. Do not guess at temperatures or humidity, KNOW. There is no excuse for not knowing exactly what temperatures your snake is living at! You might be freezing or cooking your animal without ever knowing it.
As far as cage furniture goes, all you need are two hides (one for each side) and a water bowl big enough for the snake to soak in. My favorite hides are cereal or shoeboxes; they fit my adult snakes perfectly! Just remember that the snakes are looking for the smallest, tightest spot they can fit, so make sure their hides are not too big.
Substrate is what you put on the bottom of the cage, and really depends on your preference. I like to use papertowel, because it’s easy to clean and cheap. Other possibilities are cypress mulch, aspen shavings, or coconut fibers. NEVER, EVER use CEDAR of any kind – it is toxic to just about any kind of animal.
Young Ball Pythons should be fed every 7 to 10 days, and adult animals can be dropped to every 10 to 14 days. There are many schools of thought on the “right” way to feed a ball python; basically, if your animal is at a good weight and healthy, then you’re doing it right. Here’s an example of my feeding schedule for my three:
Periscope: 1 small rat every 7 days
Darwin: 1 medium rat every 10-14 days
Cindy: 1 medium rat every 7 days
Periscope is a growing young snake and uses all that energy from regular, frequent feeding to grow. Darwin is at a comfortable weight and healthy, and so he is fed less frequently. Cindy is putting weight back on after laying eggs, and so she is getting small, frequent meals to gain weight. Cindy could easily take jumbo rats; however, she doesn’t need to. Feeder animals are extremely nutritious compared to what these snakes would eat in the wild, and so they do just as well on smaller prey items.
Ball Pythons are notorious for being finicky eaters. Common causes for not eating are stress, breeding season, or too-low temperatures. However, sometimes, balls just don’t eat for whatever reason. If your snake is at a healthy weight, then you have nothing to worry about. The only time you should worry is if it has been over 6 months since the snake last ate AND it is losing weight. Ball Pythons have been known to fast for up to a year with no ill effects, so while it is stressful for you to have a snake refusing to eat, remember that for the snake it is perfectly normal.
Ball Pythons do not “hibernate” during the winter. Wintertime is their breeding season, and it usually begins once temperatures start dropping at night. Many Ball Pythons will not eat during this time, regardless of whether or not there’s a snake of the opposite gender around.
For information on this fascinating subject, there are several sites I highly recommend.
Markus Jayne – Not only does this site have a TON of great information about Ball Pythons, it also has a step by step (with pictures!) of how to breed your snake. They also have a ton of cool pictures and information about the many ball python morphs out there.
NERD – The infamous Kevin McCurley is the man who first began playing with the many genetic morphs of the ball python, and currently owns more ball python morphs than any one else. This site is an excellent resource!
Roussis Reptiles – This site is another one that is full of extremely useful information and tons and tons of great pictures.
Ball Python Guide – Last but not least, a basic guide with more information.