There are several subspecies of the boa constrictor (with the species name boa constrictor) that are found in the pet trade. Red tail boas (Boa constrictor constrictor) and Boa constrictor imperator can be commonly found in the pet trade among other less common subspecies. The care for all these species is fairly similar.
Pet Boa Constrictors Considerations
Before committing to the ownership of a boa constrictor, be sure you will be able to handle the size and strength of a full grown snake for the 25-30 years they might live.
A full grown red tail boa will reach 8-10 feet long and weigh up to 50 pounds. These are very muscular and thick bodied snakes. While generally quite docile in temperament, it is important to respect the inherent strength of these animals and that they could inflict serious injury to a person. As a general rule for a constricting snake over 6-8 feet, it is a good idea to have a second person present while handling the snake, just in case assistance is required. Keep in mind also that large, secure housing is required for these snakes and as adults they need large prey such as large rats or even rabbits to eat.
As with other reptiles, owners should choose a captive bred specimen. Captive bred reptiles are generally more healthy and docile than wild caught counterparts. All boa constrictors fall under CITES (Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species) and are listed in CITES Appendix II (threatened in their native habitat).
Additionally, Boa constrictor occidentalis is on CITIES Appendix I - endangered - and requires permits to buy and sell. Fortunately boa constrictors breed fairly readily in captivity.
Choosing a Pet Boa Constrictor
When you are ready to purchase your pet boa constrictor keep your eyes open for signs of a healthy snake.
Some of these signs are:
- Firm and muscular body
- No loose folds of skin
- Tongue flicking
- Clear eyes
- No signs of retained shed (check the eyes and the end of the tail)
- No visible external parasites
- Clean vent
- Scales healthy, no brown or curled edges
- No wounds on skin
- Reacts to handling by coiling firmly (but gently) on hand/arm and relaxing a bit after awhile
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT
Housing Boa Constrictors
While baby boa constrictors can be housed in glass aquariums, larger snakes will need a custom enclosure, either commercially purchased or constructed at home. Boa constrictors are very powerful and will escape if given the chance, so enclosures must be very secure. The cage size for an adult boa constrictor is around 6-8 feet long, 2-3 feet wide, and 2-3 feet tall. The minimum is about 10 square feet of floor space (for a single snake).
Remember, this large cage should be easy to clean and you must be able to maintain high temperatures in it.
A variety of substrates can be used in boa constrictor cages. For young snakes, lining the cage with paper or paper towels is the best option for easy cleaning. For adults, paper can also be used, as can something like indoor/outdoor carpeting. The benefit of carpeting is that two or more pieces can be cut to fit the enclosure and a soiled piece can simply be replaced with a spare while the soiled piece is cleaned and disinfected. Reptile bark can also be used, although it can be more expensive. The use of wood shavings is probably best avoided due to irritation concerns and the potential of accidental ingestion and impaction.
Hides are essential to make your snake feel secure and a minimum of two should be provided in the enclosure - one at each end of the temperature gradient. Hides can be half logs, commercial reptile caves, upside down plastic containers with a hole cut in the side, or even cardboard boxes.
Make sure they are not much larger than the snake, as a close fit will help the snake feel secure. They should be cleaned (or replaced in the case of cardboard boxes) when they become soiled.
A cleaned and sterilized tree branch heavy enough to support the snake's weight should also be provided in the cage.
Soak it in a bleach solution, rinse it very well and dry it thoroughly before adding to the cage if you got it from outside. Otherwise store bought driftwood can also be used.
Heat and Lighting for Boa Constrictors
Boa constrictors come from tropical climates so warm temperatures in their cages are essential. During the day, a temperature gradient between 82-90 degrees Fahrenheit (28-32 degrees Celsius) should be maintained. In addition, a basking spot of 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit (32-35 degrees Celsius) should be provided. At night, temperatures can drop to 78-85 degrees Fahrenheit (26-30 degrees Celsius). The temperatures in your snake's cage are critical, so accurate thermometers with measurements in several locations of the cage (warm end, cooler end, basking spot) are a must. A combination of incandescent bulbs, ceramic heating elements, and heating pads can be used to maintain the temperatures (follow manufacturer's recommendations precisely). Any bulbs or heating elements in the cage must be shielded to prevent burns, to which snakes are quite susceptible.
Hot rocks should never be used.
Humidity and Water for Boa Constrictors
The humidity level can usually be maintained with a large bowl of water in the cage and a heat source nearby will cause evaporation to increase the relative humidity. The snake will likely climb into the bowl for baths so make sure it is sturdy and big enough. It should be cleaned regularly and snakes will also often defecate in the water so keep a close eye on the cleanliness of the water. Shedding snakes can especially benefit from a bath to aid in the natural process.
Feeding Boa Constrictors
As a rule, younger boas should be fed more frequently than adults. Smaller snakes can be fed every 5-7 days, intermediate snakes every 10-14 days, and full grown snakes every 3-4 weeks. Feeding should be adjusted to maintain a good body condition in your snake. Keep in mind that many snakes in captivity are overfed so obesity can be a problem. Hatchling snakes can be fed mice then rats and finally rabbits (one per feeding) as they grow larger. An adult boa constrictor will eat a few rats for a meal or one rabbit every month. Never feed a snake a prey item larger than their widest body part. Also, avoid handling your snake for at least 24 hours after a meal, or regurgitation might occur.
Generally boas like to hide with their prey to eat it. Don't be surprised if your snake disappears into a hide box with their meal and you don't see them for awhile. It is a good idea to feed snakes in a separate enclosure (one that they can't see through such as a large storage bin) away from their home cage so that they only associate feeding with that location if you have the opportunity to do so. Your snake will also be less likely to mistake your hand for food every time you put your hand in the cage.
Feeding time is when the most care is required for handling boa constrictors (as with any other snake). Do not feed by hand (it increases the risk of accidental bites) and since boa constrictors hunt primarily by their sense of smell, wash your hands really well after handling food, or the snake might strike at your hand. A handling stick can help push the snake away from the cage door at feeding time to help prevent problems.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT