Constricting snakes, commonly referred to as "boids" (members of the the taxonomic family Boidae), are a diverse group of snakes. There are several varieties kept as pets; while some are okay for beginners, some definitely are not.
These snakes share a common trait of killing their prey by suffocation, but there are significant differences in habitat, natural history and care requirements. While the terms boa and python often bring to mind large killer snakes, this is not the whole picture.
While there are large and potentially dangerous snakes in this group, smaller docile members of the family can actually make quite engaging pets. Some are quite curious, active and easily tamed, those there are individual personalities.
Dangers of Constricting Snakes
Unfortunately, there have been a number of cases where large pythons have caused serious injury and even death to humans - both children and adults. While this has happened with very large constricting snakes, they are certainly isolated events. However, the risks exist, and proper education and precautions are necessary to prevent tragic incidents.
A length of eight feet is often recognized as a safety threshold - any snake that reaches an adult length of more than eight feet requires a very secure enclosure and experts often recommended that two people be present to handle such large snakes. In fact, is is a good idea to have one handler for each four feet of snake; for example, three people to handle a 12-foot snake and four people for a 16-foot snake.
Feeding is a vulnerable time for owners of large snakes and it is recommended that there at least be another person present when feeding to assist if necessary. (Most constricting snakes only eat once every 10-14 days or less).
Burmese pythons are generally gentle but they are extremely large and powerful snakes and have been involved in fatal incidents.
Red tailed boas (commonly known as boa constrictors) are not as large but are still powerful and not recommended for beginners. Reticulated pythons grow very large and have a reputation for nasty temperament; they are only suitable for very experienced handlers if they're kept at all.
Other important considerations, other than size, include the source, the needs of the animals, and housing depending on the species. There is a significant variation in the care and housing arrangements between the different species. Captive bred snakes are preferred over wild caught - they are usually more tame, less nervous, less stressed and have fewer diseases. It may also be easier to feed them, especially with killed prey. The nervousness factor becomes increasingly important as the size of the snake increases - it is much safer to have a tame, docile python at feeding time.
Tree pythons and boas tend to have stricter needs for housing and humidity/environmental control; they they can be more of a challenge than the terrestrial species. The best constricting snake for beginners is the ball python, though these are somewhat notorious for refusing to feed in captivity: ensure your snake is captive bred and, if possible, ask the seller to demonstrate how it feeds.
Also consider the longevity of the snake: a healthy ball python, for example, can be expected to live 30-40 years. What accommodations can you make if you go away? Snake sitters can be hard to find!
All of these snakes are carnivores, and most experts recommend that you feed killed prey. Not only is it easier on the owner, but there is no risk of the snake being bitten or otherwise injured by the prey; a mouse or rat can inflict significant injury on a snake if given the chance.
Constricting Snakes' Health
Inclusion body disease is an important consideration with boids: This virus is fatal in pythons and boas who exhibit symptoms. It is impossible to tell for certain if a snake has been exposed (and some snakes are asymptomatic carriers), and it can take months for signs to appear. Do not buy an apparently unhealthy snake, and if you have snakes at home already, quarantine a new arrival for a minimum of 3-6 months (and always be sure to wash hands between handling snakes).
For more on the disease and it's prevention, see Inclusion Body Disease with information on this viral disease that affects boas and pythons.
Here is some additional recommended reading on keeping a large constrictor:
- AFH on Large Constrictors - guidelines published by the American Federation of Herpetoculturalists on the keeping of large constrictors.
- Handling Large Constrictors - precautions to take when keeping large constricting snakes.