Ball Python Caresheet
Ball Pythons are the most popular species of Python in the United States and probably in the world. It is estimated that there are more Ball Pythons in captivity in the U.S. than all other Python species combined. The reasons for this are their typically calm demeanor, perfect size (not too big, but big enough to be impressive), attractive looks, and relatively low maintenance. Ball Pythons are simple to successfully maintain, but require several inexpensive pieces of equipment.
Once you have the necessary equipment, maintenance is probably lower than any other pet. What other pet can you feed as little as once every 10 days (although a healthy Ball Python can go months without food) and clean it's cage maybe 2-3 times per month? The only thing you have to do every single week is make sure that it has fresh, clean water. A US zoo had a ball python that lived for 49 years in captivity.
Adults average 3 to 4.5 feet, but there have been ball pythons as long as six feet in length. These specimens are unusual, but they do exist. When fully grown, females are larger than males.
Ball Pythons are nocturnal, meaning they rest during the day and are active primarily at night. A ball python, like any snake, does not need to be handled to be happy. In fact, too much handling will cause your Ball Python to become stressed. Snakes are naturally solitary creatures and are not comforted by interaction with their owners or even other snakes. When they encounter another animal in the wild, they're either thinking about eating it or being eaten by it - or breeding it. :-)
Can I keep two in the same cage?
Keeping two snakes together for prolonged times can even cause stress in one or both animals, so it's only recommended for those who have some experience. If you are experienced enough to house two snakes together, you probably don't have to ask.
Ball Pythons are usually shy, docile snakes. They make excellent pets if cared for properly ball pythons will not use biting as a defense mechanism, but it's not unusual for them to strike at an owner's hand if they think it's dinner time. Always wash your hands after handling a food item and try not to handle your snake for a day or two after it eats - this will give the snake time to get out of "hunting mode". Instead of biting, a nevous or frightened ball python will curl into a ball and tuck its head tightly in the middle, in order to protect it from being harmed. This is where the common name for Python regius comes from.
Too much handling or lack of a place to hide can cause stress, which can cause them to quit eating and/or lead to an overall decline in health. As difficult as it may be, and as much as you will still want to, handling should be completely avoided until a snake has eaten at least five times for you. This "hands off" period is recommended in order to let the snake adjust to its new surroundings. After the snake has eaten five times, its confidence will be bolstered and you can begin handling the snake for brief periods. I recommend no more than 15 minutes at a time and 3 times per week - some snakes may do OK with more, but that could be pushing it for others. Again, your snake doesn't really want to be handled, so don't feel that you're neglecting it. If you can avoid handling completely, your snake would appreciate it! :-)
Ball Pythons shed their skin as they grow, or as the old skin wears out. Usually, the skin will start to look cloudy, followed by the eyes turning a cloudy blue-grey color. A few days later the eyes will turn clear again.
During a shed cycle, you want to make sure that the relative humidity in the cage is at least 50%. For most of us, this means either having a humidifier in the snake room, or misting the cage or providing a humid hide area (a plastic container filled with damp mulch, moss, etc.).
A swollen mouth or red/inflamed gums may be a sign of mouth rot or an infection.
A cheesy substance along the gums is also a sign of mouth rot. See a qualified veterinarian immediately. This is usually caused by dirty cage conditions, improper temperatures and can also be secondary to another illness, such as respiratory infection. Mouthrot is very uncommon if your cages are kept reasonably clean and temperatures are correct.
Blistering on the belly may be a sign of scale rot.
This is usually caused by the cage being kept too wet and/or dirty for extended periods, and is also very uncommon if cages are kept clean. See a qualified veterinarian immediately.
Soaking in the water bowl can mean a number of things.
a. It's too hot and the snake is attempting to cool off. Make sure your snake has access to temperatures in the high 70's (cool end).
b. It doesn't have somewhere to hide and it feels insecure. Add a hide box.
c. The environment is too dry and the snake is going to be shedding soon. Spray the cage or add a humid hide.
d. It has snake mites!!!!
If you do notice mites, you will want to get some type of Mite spray to disinfect the cage as well as your Ball Python. Pro-Vent-a-Mite works very well (unlike most other brands) and is readily available on the internet.
If a ball python has pieces of old, dry looking skin dangling off of it, that is skin that did not come off during its last shed. This may indicate that the humidity is too low. At this point, you need to soak the snake in very shallow warm water for an hour or two. Make sure the water is not deep enough to cover the snake's entire body. Do not attempt to pull off stuck pieces of skin without proper soaking before hand.
Respiratory Infection (RI)
I've owned a few hundred ball pythons over the past decade, and so far - knock on wood - I have never experienced a ball python with a respiratory infection in my collection. That said, it can happen and I've seen it in several collections. I've also had other snakes develop RI, so I'm quite familiar with the signs and how to treat it. Early indications include bubbles in the mouth and wheezing. As the infection becomes more advanced, you will notice mucous coming from the mouth and nostrils, and this will usually be accompanied by mucous being smeared on the walls of the cage. First thing you need to do is schedule an appointment with a vet, so that you can get some antibiotics. After you make the appointment to go to the vet, you need to sit down and think about why that snake got sick....and then figure out how you're going to correct the problem. Causes are usually environmental and not a "bug" going through your collection - keeping snakes in a drafty area, or an ambient temperature in the low to mid 70's (even when you have a heat pad or lamp) are a couple of common ways that an RI will set in.
Hatchling to 1 year old
Tank/Cage Setup - 5-10 gallon tank or similar.
Rack System - I keep babies in 6 quart Sterilite containers.
Juvenile to Adult
Tank/Cage Setup - 20 gallon Long tank or any cage of comparable size. Larger females may require a 30 gallon Long, or the equivalent.
Rack System - I keep juvenile to subadults in 15 or 32 quart Sterilite containers. Adults are housed in a 41 quart Sterilite container (approx 33x17x5.5).
Too large of a cage may make a baby or juvenile Ball Python feel insecure and may cause them to quit eating.
Make sure the lid is secure. Ball Pythons are very accomplished escape artists and if there is a way out, they will eventually find it.
1. Heat Source - Heat lamp or under tank heat pad
2. Hide boxes - one for cool end and one for warm end (if cage is large enough to allow for two - if not, place it on the warm end)
3. Cage Thermometer or Non-Contact Infrared Thermometer aka "Temp Gun" (www.TempGun.com)
A Note About Temperatures
Measure the temperature at ground level in the cage, not half way up the tank, because ground level is where the snake will be spending it's time. Stick on, "fish tank" thermometers are not accurate, as they measure the temperature of the glass or surface that they are on, rather than the air temperature.
Hide Boxes are a must. The snake will need a hide box in order to feel hidden and secure. Provide one on the cooler side and one where the heat pad is. This is so they will not have to choose between the temperature they need and feeling secure. A large, long slab of cork bark that almost runs the length of the cage is a good way to provide a single hide box that will let the snake choose the temperature within the hide box.
Place your heat source on one far end of cage to provide a warm basking area, as well as a cool area on the other end. This will allow the snake to thermoregulate or control its body temperature.
Incandescent Dome Lamps
Heat lamps can dry the air out in a hurry and nocturnal snakes certainly do not need light to feel happy - the ambient light in the room is perfect actually. Ball pythons in their natural habitat typically hide inside of termite mounds and underground burrows during daylight hours. The only time I recommend a dome lamp is when the temperature in the room is 75F or cooler, and even then, it should ideally be just strong enough to provide a gentle warmth and boost the ambient temperature to the mid to high 70's or 80F max. If you're not using a night bulb (red or "black"), you'll only want to leave this on approximately 12 hours per day. A $3 timer from Wal-Mart will make this much easier. A 25-40 watt bulb is normally enough in a 10-20 gallon enclosure. Remember - gentle warmth...we're not striving for a basking spot suitable for a monitor lizard to bask. :-)
Do not place the lamp where the snake can come into contact with the light bulb. It's been said that snakes cannot tell when they're being burnt and will not always move away when they come into contact with a hot object. I read this on the internet, so it must be true. OK, I'm joking - this "fact" is certainly debatable, but then again it would explain a number of burn scars I've seen on old captive raised ball pythons.
Under Tank Heaters
This, in my opinion, is the best source of heating. Use only under tank heat pads made for use with reptiles. Do not use human heating pads or heat rocks sold at your local pet store. Heat rocks are supposedly suitable for some lizards, but they can burn your Ball Python. Leave the heating pad on 24 hours per day unless you decide to cool your snakes for breeding (which I do not).
Very easy to maintain and looks good. You can scoop out soiled aspen as needed without replacing all of it. You'll only need to completely change it out every 1-2 months. Only use this if the humidity in the room is around 50% relative humidity, or if you plan to use a humid hide. If you need to mist your cages to provide humidity, you will want to consider something else, as aspen will mold if it gets too wet.
Affordable and sanitary , newspaper is definitely effective, but it obviously doesn't look as good as a natural bedding. Another problem is that it dries out easily and doesn't hold as much moisture as a thick layer of cypress mulch. If you use newspaper, I would highly recommend giving the snake some crumpled up pieces to hide under. When I start a clutch of babies, I usually use newspaper. In this situation, I will usually provide a clay saucer as a hide box and then fold up a whole sheet of newspaper and lay it over the hide box. This helps create a slightly more humid microclimate and results in much better shedding results.
Cypress holds it's humidity ten times better than Aspen. For areas like Kansas City, where it gets hot in the summer and/or cold in the winter, a thick layer of cypress acts as a built in humidifier. Only use plain Cypress Mulch. Do not use the variety that is dyed red. A $4.00 bag of Cypress Mulch will last an entire year with a single hatchling Ball Python.
The idea with cypress is to maintain some moisture, while also maintaining a dry top layer. When you mist, which you will need to do occasionally - maybe 1-2 times weekly, the goal is to mist enough that the cage remains humid for a couple days and then dries out by the third day. Any more moisture than that, and there's a good chance it will never dry out. A wet substrate in a dark, warm environment is prime habitat for bacterial growth and it will cause health problems if not remedied in time.
REMEMBER NEVER TO USE CEDAR, as it can be toxic to reptiles.
Climate - Temperatures & Humidity
75-80F on the cool end, 85-90F on the warm end. can be kept at a uniform 82-84F with good results. These are undemanding snakes.
If you use one of those cheap hygrometers or "humidity gauges" sold in pet stores, which I actually like having in my snake room as a point of reference, the relative humidity should read around 40-60%. However, you don't need to maintain that range at all times. In the spring and summer months, when little to no air conditioning or heating is needed, the water evaporating from the bowl and a hide box or two is usually enough to maintain a suitable humidity range - we may mist or spill a little water into the cage when we see a snake getting ready to shed its skin, but that's about it. In the winter and summer months, when the heaters or air conditioners are running longer, we notice the air becomes dry and misting becomes necessary.
Use a shallow, heavy bowl to avoid spills. Keep the water bowl on the cool end of the cage - if left on the warm end, bacteria will grow much faster. We change the water once a week unless it becomes dirty.
Most ball pythons can eat mice all their lives, but rats are also very popular and may be the best choice for larger specimens.
We try to feed a meal that is about equal to the thickest part of the snake, if not a little bigger. One or two meals a week is fine, but many ball pythons older than 6-10 months old will go off feed for a few months out of the year. The most important thing to remember is that this is OK. If the snake was eating fine and then stopped and you didn't change anything, chances are, the snake just isn't hungry. Don't panic!
What if my Ball Python refuses to eat?
Check the temperature - If the temperatures are incorrect, fix that and then wait a week before offering food.
Is it stressed? - If the snake is new, maybe you just need to wait. If not, make sure that you're providing a hiding place, not housing your Ball Python with another snake, and most importantly, make sure that you're not handling it too much. Cages kept in high traffic areas are also a bad idea. Every time you or your kids walk by, that snake feels your foot steps. If the snake is fairly new, this can be a problem.
Is it sick? - Look for any signs of illness mentioned above.
More than likely nothing is wrong - Ball pythons will periodically fast for a month or two at a time, or longer, for absolutely no apparent reason. If you have ruled out all of the above, just give them time. If they are not losing weight noticeably, do not panic. Our adult male ball pythons only eat about 10-12 times a year, so don't worry about being a bad snake owner. If the cage conditions are right, your snake will eat when it wants to.
Are you trying pre-killed food with a new snake? Pre-killed food items are the safest way, but a lot of young ball pythosn will only eat a live hopper, and sometimes only a live weaned mouse. A lot of older ball pythons that were raised on live rodents will not know what to make of a dead rat/mouse flailing around over head on a set of 18" hemostats. In a lot of cases, you can leave a dead rodent on the floor of the cage and those snakes will be most likely to take it that way.
To transition to pre-killed food, wait until a snake is eating regularly (3-4 times) and then try dragging the rodent around the cage (slowly), using forceps or hemostats. This is to simulate movement and vibrations in the ground of a live animal.
If you freed live prey, DO NOT leave them unattended. The snake will usually not defend itself if a live rodent attacks it or even nibbles on the snake. A live mouse can easily fatally injure or kill a snake in short order.
Pointers to entice a stubborn snake to eat
1. Handle the snake as little as possible - this means only for cleaning and necessary maintenance. I've had snakes for months before taking them out of their new cage, so don't BS yourself into thinking you NEED to get that snake out once a week. :-)
2. Place the snake in a secure brown paper bag with a pre-killed prey item over night. A lot of times a small snake will appreciate the extra seclusion and will eat the item.
3. Dangle the food item over head with a pair of forceps (live or pre-killed). If this seems to scare the snake, try dragging the mouse/rat slowly and make light "jerking" movements to simulate the movement of an active rodent.
4. Try feeding at night in a fairly dark room - this can really help with a shy snake.
5. Simply leave a pre-killed prey item near, but slightly offset from, the entrance to the snake's hide box. You'd be surprised how many ball pythons, even babies, will eat in this manner. This method also works surprisingly well with baby carpet pythons.
Always wash your hands after handling your ball python.· Also make it a habit to wash your hands after handling food items, or your snake may accidentally bite you, thinking that your hand is food!