The ball python (Python regius) is a good snake for a beginning snake owner. Growing to a maximum size of 3-5 feet, ball pythons are not as large as many of the other constricting snakes that are kept as pets, are quite docile and are easy to handle.
About Ball Pythons
Ball pythons are so named because when threatened they roll themselves into a tight ball, tucking their head inside their coils. Young ball pythons grow about a foot a year for three years.
They can live for a long time with proper care (up to about 50 years although 20-30 appears to be more typical).
Captive Bred Ball Pythons
Ball pythons are somewhat notorious for refusing to eat but many people believe that it is a much larger problem with wild caught specimens. In addition, wild caught snakes tend to be very stressed from capture and transport and often harbor a large parasite load. The downside to captive bred snakes is that they tend to be more expensive but they are readily available.
Choosing a Ball Python
When you are ready to get your ball python, look for a young, captive bred snake (you may have to find a breeder for this). Choose a snake that has a well rounded body, clean eyes and vent, and that shows no signs of respiratory problems (wheezing, bubbles around nostrils). Look for one that is alert and curious and gently grips your hand/arms when handled (they may be skittish but should calm after handling for a bit).
It is not a bad idea to ask for a feeding demonstration to be sure the snake readily takes a meal.
Ball Python Health
If you already have a constricting snake at home, any new python (or boa) should be quarantined due to the risk of inclusion body disease. Experts vary on the length of recommended quarantine time but 3-6 months is not extreme.
In addition, a vet check is in order, especially for internal (take a recent stool sample) and external parasites.
Housing Ball Pythons
Ball pythons are not terribly active snakes so a smaller enclosure is fine (use a 10-20 gallon tank for younger snakes and a 30 gallon tank for an adult). They are however adept escape artists so a securely fitted top is absolutely necessary.
- Substrate: You have many options for bedding for your snake including shredded bark, newsprint, and Astroturf. Astroturf is probably the easiest because you can cut a few pieces to fit the cage and simply replace the dirty pieces as necessary (the soiled pieces can be soaked in a solution of one gallon of water with 2 tablespoons of bleach, rinsed well, dried and then used again).
- Cage Furnishings: Provide sturdy branches and a dark hiding place for your snake (they like to feel securely enclosed so it should be just large enough to accommodate the snake).
- Temperature and Lighting: 80 - 85 degrees Fahrenheit (27 - 29 degrees Celsius) during the day, with a basking spot of around 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). Night time temperatures can fall to around 75 degree Fahrenheit (23 -24 degrees Celsius) as long as an area of 80 degrees Fahrenheit is maintained. An under the tank heating pad designed for reptiles works well for providing the cage heat but it is difficult to monitor the temperature. An incandescent heat bulb or ceramic heating element can be used to achieve the basking temperatures. Never use hot rocks with pet reptiles and make sure the bulb or heat element should be placed or screened off to prevent contact with the snake otherwise burns may result. Use multiple thermometers to monitor the temperatures in the cage (one at the bottom of the cage and one at the basking spot).
- Water and Humidity: Provide a dish large enough for your snake to soak in. Soaking is especially important during sheds. Some owners like to provide a covered dish (e.g. plastic storage container) with a hole in the lid, to provide security for the snake so it will soak longer if necessary. Another alternative is to provide a humidity retreat, which similarly uses a covered container with an access hole lined with damp sphagnum moss or paper towels to provide the moisture (a water dish is still provided outside the retreat).
Feeding Ball Pythons
Ball pythons can be fed exclusively mice or small to medium sized rats (as appropriate for the size of the snake) and only need to be fed every week or two. Young snakes should be fed fuzzy mice every 5-7 days while older snakes should be fed increasingly larger prey and can go a little longer (i.e. 10 - 14 days). Use pre-killed prey since live mice can injure a snake (dangling the prey in front of the snake with forceps usually gets the snake interested in it).
Moving the snake out of their cage into a separate enclosure for feeding is a good idea and will help in the taming process. The snake will associate eating with the other enclosure and is less likely to confuse your hand for prey when you put your hand into the cage. This will make it easier to reach into the cage to get the ball python out for handling.
Even captive bred ball pythons sometimes refuse to eat, fasting for a couple of months. As long as body weight and condition are maintained, this is not problematic. If your snake stops eating, carefully examine the husbandry, handling, health, and environment of the snake to make sure stress isn't the culprit. Consult a knowledgeable vet or experienced keeper for help if the fast is prolonged or causing weight loss over 10%.
If necessary, some tricks to entice a python to eat include dipping the prey in chicken broth, trying different colors of mice, exposing the brain of the prey before feeding it, feeding at night, and covering the cage with towels after offering a mouse. You may even want to try feeding a hamster or gerbil, although this may make your snake more likely to refuse mice if it develops a preference for hamsters and gerbils.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT