I love animals and I love doing research, so I combine the two to bring you some fact-filled articles on animals around the world.
Ball Pythons as Pets
Ball pythons are an excellent beginner pet if you want to get into owning exotic pets. Balls are very friendly, though they are also shy and will need some time to build a trusting relationship with their owners. They are one of the smallest breeds as far as pythons go and live in central and western Africa. They live in tropical areas, but they also thrive in captivity.
Ball pythons come in over 1,000 different morphs. The normal morphs are the most common and are the ones usually sold in big pet stores. There are a lot of other common morphs that can be found easily but these morphs are not cheap.
- Albino ball pythons are yellow and white in color with red or pink eyes.
- Butter pastel ball pythons have brighter yellow sections than the normal balls.
- Mojave ball pythons look just like the normal ones but have a pure white underbelly instead of the normal color pattern.
- Piebald ball pythons are especially popular due to their chunks of pure white coloration on their bodies. These ones are often depicted in photos across the internet with smiley faces on their bodies.
How long do they live? How big do they grow?
While these are great beginner snakes, they are lifelong pets. Ball pythons live up to 30 years with the oldest on record living over 40. These snakes are also a good introduction to having larger reptiles as an adult male can grow to be 2 to 3 feet in length while adult females can get up to 3 to 5 feet in length. Hatchling balls emerge from the egg and are about 10 inches long.
While adult ball pythons can get up to 5 feet, they actually don’t need that large of an enclosure. For an adult ball python, they can live comfortably in an enclosure with dimensions of 36 inches x 18 inches x 12 inches. Juvenile ball pythons will need a smaller enclosure. If it’s too large it can stress out your young ball python and make them feel unsafe. Here is a list of the best enclosures you can get for your ball python.
- Exo Terra enclosure: these were specifically designed for tropical reptiles and amphibians. They have locking glass doors, hold heat and humidity very well and are extremely popular with experienced snake owners.
- Wooden vivariums: these offer more privacy for your snake and also hold heat and humidity very well. With these, you would need to buy a lock for the glass doors.
- Plastic tubs: these are used mostly by breeders and those who keep multiple snakes. They are lightweight and work well to hold heat and humidity while letting your snake have a lot of privacy. They aren’t the prettiest but they do the job.
- Glass tanks: usually used as fish tanks, these are also very popular with first-time snake and reptile owners. They offer a lot of visibility but can cause your snake to feel vulnerable and unable to hide. These also have mesh or screen tops that make it difficult to keep in the heat and humidity and you would need a lock for the lid.
A lot of these enclosures that have loose or mesh lids would need locks for the tops. Ball pythons are notorious for escaping their enclosures, in fact, one of mine escaped even with a lid lock and a heavy rock on top. I only had one lock on one side and it was clearly not enough.
Another important note is when choosing a location for your enclosure, try to find a low-trafficked area as ball pythons are shy and can get easily stressed out with a lot of movement close to them.
Substrate for ball pythons should be something easy to clean and will help control the humidity.
- Eco Earth
- Pulverized coconut husk
- Shredded Orchid bark
- Cypress mulch
- Aspen bark shavings
- Paper towels: good for a temporary use
- Newspaper: good for a temporary use
- Cloth towels: good for a temporary use
- Reptile Carpet: good for a temporary use
The last few are mentioned to be for temporary substrates because pythons like to burrow and hide and the more loose substrates are best so they can burrow and hide.
There are also substrates that are dangerous for snakes in general.
Materials to Avoid:
- Sand: it can get logged between the scales and cause discomfort
- Cedar: cedar bark or mulch produces an oil that is deadly to reptiles and can kill your snake
Temperature and Humidity
The enclosure will need a hot and cool side and the hot side will be a basking area. You should have something your snake can climb on and be closer to the heat source. Heating rocks should never be placed in the enclosure as these are very dangerous and can burn your snake. The hot side of the enclosure should be between 88 and 96 degrees Fahrenheit.
The cooler side of the enclosure should be between 78 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit and is generally a good spot for the hide. The enclosure itself should never drop below 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
The humidity levels need to be in the range of 50 to 60% to ensure proper shedding and hydration. Ball pythons live in tropical climates and need humidity to maintain healthy hydrated skin and to be able to shed in a full section. Humidity can help prevent shed from getting stuck and help prevent your ball python from getting sick. If the humidity is too low it can cause problems with shedding, and if the humidity is too high it can cause respiratory and shedding problems.
Your python will need certain items in its enclosure to keep them happy and healthy.
- They will need a hiding spot large enough to conceal their whole body. Ball pythons are nocturnal and don’t like being out in the sunlight very often and having a hiding spot will help them feel safe.
- They will also need a water dish that is large enough for them to soak their whole body but shallow enough that they don’t need to swim to keep their heads above the water. A juvenile python's water dish should be no more than 1 inch deep.
Keeping It Clean
You can make your enclosure as elaborate or as simple as you wish, just remember the more you have in there, the more you will need to clean. Your python’s enclosure will need to be spot cleaned regularly whenever they go to the bathroom and deep cleaned every 30 days. Deep cleaning will consist of taking everything out and disinfecting it. You can buy commercial reptile tank cleaners or use a solution of 5% bleach to water. Make sure you thoroughly rinse the enclosure and let it dry fully before placing items and your snake back in their home.
Sunlight and Temperature
Ball pythons are nocturnal by nature and so they don’t need a lot of sunlight, but they do still need heat. If you use a bright heating light it’s recommended to go through 12-hour cycles. This means you can leave the bright light on for 12 hours and then keep it dark for 12 hours. To ensure there is proper heat, you can use a ceramic heat emitter. They say a red nighttime light can be used but a lot of experts say the red light can cause complications with reptiles' sight.
You can also use an under-the-tank heating pad to help keep the heat up, just do NOT place it inside the enclosure. They can burn themselves and there have been reports of snakes dying from mistaking the heating pads as food and choking on them.
Feeding snakes live or frozen rodents can be a sort of controversial topic. There are pros and cons to feeding each but it’s ultimately up to the owner and the snake's preference. If a ball python is used to eating frozen-thawed rodents, they can learn to eat live rodents very quickly, but trying to switch from live to frozen-thawed can be more challenging.
Live or Frozen?
Feeding live is more natural for the snake and while it does pose some dangers, it’s usually the easiest way to get them to eat. Pythons have heat-sensing pits on their top lip that they use to help locate their prey. Feeding frozen-thawed rodents to a snake who is used to a warm-moving rodent can be difficult and sometimes impossible. A lot of owners say feeding frozen-thawed is safer for the snake as there is less of a change the rodent will scratch and bite your snake. While this is true, some owners opt out to stunning or knocking out the live rodent to reduce the change of scratching and biting done to the snake. My personal preference is to feed live rodents as I feel it implements a more natural feeding and a predator to prey response. When they are younger I feel it’s best to knock out the rodent first before feeding until they can get more experience.
Mice or Rats?
Juvenile ball pythons that are adopted from pet stores usually start off with eating small white mice. As they get bigger you can start to feed them baby rats, adult mice, pregnant mice, and juvenile rats. The rule for feeder size is to never give your snake anything bigger than the largest circumference of their body, usually the middle of their body.
If You Do Choose Live Prey...
Ball pythons are usually very good eaters, thus making them a good beginner exotic pet however, some of them can be very picky. You should never leave a live rodent in the enclosure with your snake unsupervised or for long periods of time. If a snake is not interested in feeding, the rodent can stress out and even nibble on your snake.
How Often to Feed?
When ball pythons are small, you can feed them once a week and as they get bigger they might eat up to twice a week.
Tips for Proper Feeding
A survival instinct in snakes can make them regurgitate their food if handled or picked up after they have fed. When you are going to feed your snake, it’s best to not handle them excessively for a few hours before as they might refuse food. You should also not handle them at least 24 hours after they have fed.
It is highly recommended that you always use feeding tongs to feed your ball python. If you choose to drop the rodent into the enclosure or hold it for easier feeding on the snake, using designated feeding tongs will reduce the risk of getting accidentally bitten by your snake.
Reasons a Python Might Refuse Food
Some reasons your snake might refuse food are shedding, hibernation, or, illness. When your snake begins to shed they might refuse food in order to be able to fully shed their skin. They shed their eye caps and have blurred vision so they won’t actively hunt for food.
During the colder months, snakes might refuse food to maintain their energy. Ball pythons are cold-blooded so they are a lot less active when it gets cold. They might hide more often during this time too and may not wish to be handled very much.
Ball Python Behaviors
Why a Python Might Hide
When you first get your ball python, it’s likely they will hide for a while. It’s best to let them get used to the new enclosure and their surroundings before handling them. It will take time to establish a trusting bond between you and your snake because they will first see you as a threat.
Will They Bite?
Bites from ball pythons are exceptionally rare but can happen. Bites from juvenile pythons are superficial and might break the skin but are generally treatable at home with some warm water and antibacterial soap.
How to Handle a Ball Python
Once your ball python becomes more comfortable in its surroundings and with you, you can hold them and interact more often. It’s believed that ball pythons really enjoy being held and handled.
When you go to pick up your snake you want to first gently pet the back of their heads and bodies to ensure they aren’t sleeping. You don’t want to startle a sleeping snake and because they don’t have eyelids you can never officially tell if they are sleeping or just relaxing. After you give them a few pets, gently place your fingers under them and quickly but firmly lift them from their enclosure. If you hesitate when picking up your snake it will make them nervous and stress them out.
Once you have your snake outside of its enclosure, you can allow it to free roam your hands and arms but keep a firm hold on them and support its body. Don’t hold them too tightly as you can make them feel threatened and can possibly hurt them. After you are done examining or bonding with your pet, gently place them back on their enclosure floor and shut and lock the lid.
Ball Python Body Language
You will notice them flicking their tongues around as a way to see and smell their surroundings so don’t’ be alarmed when they do this, it’s not a sign of aggression.
If a snake is not comfortable with being picked up or feels threatened, its body language will tell you. A ball python coiled with its body tense and its neck in an ‘S’ shape means it’s not happy. They will often look shaky or jumpy and can hiss at you if they don’t want to be touched or messed with. If you find yourself in need of picking up your snake and moving them while they are in this position you still can.
Another reaction to feeling threatened is for ball pythons to coil up tightly in a ball and hide their head under their bodies for protection. They might slither quickly into their hiding area as well. When a ball python is in its striking position, the ‘S’ shape mentioned previously, it’s still rare that it will full-on bite a person. They generally will give a warning strike, this will be just like a normal attack but with a closed mouth. You can think of it as a really aggressive nose bump. They might also give a warning strike when they are shedding and can’t see very well. I had my first ball python do this to my hand while I was cleaning his enclosure during a shed. I startled him and he gave me a warning strike, hitting my hand with his nose, from under his hide. It was very startling but that was his point.
You can usually tell when your ball python is hungry because they will sometimes lay low to the ground with their head held high watching for prey. They might also move around more frequently looking for any food, flicking their tongue more often as well.
How to Handle a Stressed Ball Python
What you can do is take a paper towel or a regular cloth towel and drape it over the agitated snake. This helps calm them down and allows for the owner to scoop up the snake and towel to move them to where you need them. This is a good technique if you need to clean their enclosure and your snake is irritated, or if they need a vet visit but are not willing to cooperate with you. If it’s not necessary to handle them when they are agitated then leave your snake alone and allow them to calm down and settle.
Being nocturnal, the best time to hold and interact with your ball python is during the day. Nighttime is when they are more active and alert and tend to be less acceptable to being held. This also varies from snake to snake as they all have their own personalities and quirks. Some snakes love to be held no matter what time, others don’t like being held very often at all.
Shedding is another normal activity that snakes go through. A full shed cycle will take between 7 to 14 days from the color dulling to the full removal of the dead skin. If your snake is healthy and the humidity and heat is right, then your snake should shed their skin in one full chunk. Young snakes will shed between once or twice every 3 to 4 weeks, larger snakes will shed less often about once or twice every 4 to 6 weeks.
Signs to Look For
They will become a dull gray or a lighter version of their normal colors and they will be more easily agitated. Their eyes will get a light blue, cloudy color when they are close to shedding. This makes them temporarily blinded and they will be highly stressed out.
How to Help a Shedding Python
It’s good to have something rough for them to rub up on to help aid them during their shedding. Some juvenile snakes, no matter how healthy, might have issues shedding the first few times until they get used to it. Your ball python might need a little extra help if they are shedding in chunks or if you notice stuck shed.
A warm bath can help them to loosen the shed, just hold them while they soak in shallow water and allow them to move through your hands, gently pulling the dead skin. Don’t force it if the shed seems reluctant to come off though. If you feel the stuck shed is becoming too much of a problem for your snake you can see a vet for some further assistance.
Diseases and Complications
Just as with all pets, snakes can also be susceptible to diseases and health problems. Ball pythons are generally healthy reptiles and it takes a lot for them to get sick, but it can happen. All of these problems mentioned in this section will require a vet visit.
One of the most common problems for snake owners is stuck shed. This was mentioned in the above section but it can happen if the humidity in the enclosure is too low. Low humidity and cold enclosures are mainly the culprits of this issue but it can also happen to healthy juvenile snakes who aren’t experienced enough with shedding and may need some help. A shallow warm bath usually fixes the problem of stuck or chunk shedding but if it persists or is being particularly stubborn a vet visit is the way to go.
Respiratory infections are also common among tropical snakes if the husbandry conditions are not correct. An enclosure that is too cold or contact with another sick snake can transfer the infection to your snake. Snakes can’t cough so when they get mucus or fluid in their throats they can’t expel it as we can. This can accumulate and cause infections in their lungs and airway. If left untreated, it can be fatal so it’s important to watch closely for signs of a respiratory infection regularly. The symptoms of respiratory infection are:
- Blowing bubbles from the nostrils and mouth
- Unusual breathing sounds
- Heavy or labored breathing
- Food refusal
- Laying in their basking area longer than normal
If you notice any of these conditions make a vet appointment as soon as possible with the exception of the food refusal. It’s important to rule out other reasons your snake might be refusing food if none of the other symptoms are noticed.
Snake obesity is rare but not unheard of and is caused by overfeeding or feeding rodents that are too large for your snake. On a healthy snake, you should be able to feel the ribs slightly but not see them. There should be no white open spaces between the individual scales.
An overweight snake will have fat accumulation around the back of the head, sides and base of the tail. Obesity causes discomfort and can lead to problems breathing and eating in your snake. Correcting this problem can take years but it’s worth it to have a healthy snake again.
Eye infections are another rare problem but it’s not impossible for ball pythons to get them. Most of the time if your snake is dehydrated it will have dimples in its eyes and not an eye infection. This can be remedied by giving them baths and checking your humidity levels. Another common mistake for an eye infection is when the eye cap begins to shed, or when the eye cap is stuck on the eyes themselves after a shed. These should come off on their own or with a warm bath but if they don’t come off within a few days after the shed cycle then you will want to call a vet.
If any fluid is leaking from the eye, or if you notice any damage to the eyes, then it’s recommended to make a vet appointment as soon as possible.
Moth rot is a sort of umbrella term that covers any sort of problem with the snake's mouth. If you notice any of the following, you will need to seek out a vet immediately.
- Bleeding from the mouth
- Oozing of a thick substance
- Open wounds or cuts around or in the mouth
- Losing teeth
- Swollen lips or gums
There are a number of complications that can cause these symptoms and they will cause pain and discomfort for your snake and can make it difficult to eat.
Mites are a fairly common pest for snake and reptile owners. These little critters look like flakes of black pepper only they are alive and feed on the blood of your snake. They will get in-between and under the scales and are difficult to get rid of. The females leave the host body to lay eggs in the snake's enclosure and then return to the host to feed and mate.
To exterminate them completely, you will need to do a deep, thorough clean of the enclosure, and let your snake soak in a bath with the vet prescribed medication. You can also buy mite spray for aftercare and prevention. If you have allowed your snake outside of its enclosure while it was infested you will need to thoroughly clean your home as well. While mites are not fatal to your snake, they are an irritant and can quickly become a big problem. It has happened in the past though it was through pure neglect, but snakes have died due to severe mite infestation.
Scale rot is a bacterial infection that is often caused by unkempt dirty enclosures. It can also be caused if the substrate is continually wet and soggy. It often appears on the belly and can be dark, raised scales. Flaky skin, open wounds and blistering is also a symptom of scale rot and can cause a lot of pain to your snake. This can be treated by warm soaks and medical cream prescribed by a vet.
Inspecting the Mouth
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2019 Jade Hassenplug