10 Methods to Get Ball Pythons to Eat Frozen-Thawed, Dead Prey
Ball pythons are popular exotic pets and are a common first python or snake. However, they are notorious for refusing food, sometimes even if it is pre-killed or live. Therefore, getting finicky ball pythons to eat frozen-thawed prey (dead prey that has been frozen and defrosted) can take some experimentation and guesswork.
Feeding snakes live prey is controversial and can be potentially dangerous for your snake as well as inhumane for the live animal, therefore, before resorting to offering live, be sure to exhaust all possible options first.
First, it is important to know that if your snake refuses to eat, don't panic. Adult ball pythons can subsist for months without food and babies can last weeks . It is important to weigh your snake weekly to ensure they are not losing a lot of weight. If they maintain their body weight there is nothing to worry about for now. Here is a list of methods to get your reluctant ball python to eat.
1. Check Your Husbandry
If your snake has inappetence, it is essential to first ensure that your husbandry standards are satisfactory. It is relatively simple to set up the proper environment for a ball python, but deficiencies in their care can easily lead to problems that will also result in a fasting snake. As with most reptiles, overall cage temperature, humidity, and lighting should be in the appropriate range, as recommended by breeders and hobbyists. If everything checks out, you can move on to the next steps. Please be aware that there is some controversy regarding the minimum cage size for snakes and other aspects of care, in part due to papers and studies conducted by reptile expert Clifford Warwick , although this researcher actively denounces keeping reptiles altogether.
Please refer to the quick care information below:
- Cage Size: 20-gallon tank for small adults, 30 gallon minimum (36 inches long) for standard size adults (larger for snakes that exceed the average length).
- Temperature: The ambient temperature should be about 80 degrees F with around a 90-95 degree F basking spot.
- Substrate: Newspaper, aspen, coconut-based bedding, and orchid bark all work.
- Humidity: You should lightly mist the enclosure daily in enclosures that dry easily (unlike tubs).
- Lighting: Generally not required unless breeding (to simulate seasonal changes).
- Cage Furnishing: At least one enclosed hide. Some owners prefer to use 2, one on the "cool" side and one on the "warm" side of the enclosure. Enrichment for snakes can include tubes (PVC pipes are inexpensive and easy to find), large plants, and cage furniture that provide elevation.
2. Heat the Prey
Ball pythons hunt by detecting heat. As a result of this, ball pythons can be very sensitive to the temperature of their prey. It is a common practice for snake owners to feed prey that is room temperature or even cold recently-thawed rodents to their reptiles, and this is a common cause of ball pythons refusing to eat. To resolve this, first properly thaw the prey.
How to defrost frozen rodents:
- 24 hours before feeding, remove the prey from the freezer and thaw in the refrigerator. Do not thaw by leaving the rodents out in room temperature, as this can result in the formation of bacteria.
- Once the prey is thawed completely, you can use a heat lamp to warm it. Use a reptile heat bulb with low wattage of around 15-25 degrees F, and do not aim the bulb too close to the prey as this can sometimes damage the body, which can be a turn off to ball pythons. Let the surface of the prey warm up gradually and evenly so that the thin walls of the frozen-thawed rodent do not rupture. You may have to use trial and error to figure out the best way to do this.
- Do not use a plastic bag and warm or hot water for thawing unless you can ensure the prey won’t get wet. Wet prey can be a big turn off to ball pythons.
3. Feed at Night
Ball pythons are nocturnal hunters and some individuals may be sensitive to the time of day when they are offered prey. For snakes that are problem-feeders, it is a good idea to feed them after sundown. Whether feeding at day or night, it wouldn't be a bad idea to darken the room as much as possible, leaving the lights dimmed/off and shades down. After your snake takes the prey, be sure to keep the environment as dark as possible so it can eat in peace.
4. Offer More Security
Security is often an enormous player in getting snakes to eat. Ball pythons are particularly sensitive to feeling insecure and getting stressed. There are numerous ways owners can try to work with ball pythons that feel overly exposed, and it will take some trial and error. Here are some tips:
- If your snake lives in a rack system without a hide, add one. Long pvc pipes fit in racks too.
- Make sure the hide is appropriate for the individual snake. It is a common belief that snakes like to feel their body touching the sides of the hide, as opposed to being in one that is too large, so experiment.
- If your snake has hides available and still won’t eat, try putting it in a pillow case in the enclosure about an hour before feeding, then offer the prey.
- As previously mentioned, feed at night and keep the room dark.
- Keep your presence at a minimum. Try to stay out of a view and leave immediately if your snake takes the prey. 
5. Change the Size or Color of the Prey
Ball pythons are notoriously picky, and a formally anorexic snake can sometimes go crazy over a small rat vs. a larger one. Ball pythons in the wild probably never see white rodents, so some of them may not recognize this prey as food. Try to find brown or spotted mice or rats to offer. Alternate the sizes from large to teeny to see if your snake has a preference.
6. Change the Prey Type
If size isn’t the problem, sometimes alternative prey can stimulate ball pythons. Some ball pythons will only eat mice, unfortunately (rats are said to be the healthiest prey source for them), and if this is the case with your snake, offer mice with repeated attempts of introducing rats scented with mice. African soft-furred mice are another option that are natural prey for ball pythons in the wild and may be more desirable. Resort to this only if there aren't any other options left, as you don’t want to encourage your snake to only eat prey that is harder to find or more costly.
Some snakes can be stimulated to eat by scenting the prey with something very desirable. Ball pythons are known to have a preference for gerbils and some owners have had success using used gerbil bedding to scent frozen-thawed rats. You can ask pet store owners if they would be willing to give you some bedding from a gerbil's cage. Some ball python owners have had success with chicken broth.
Many reptile owners swear by this solution, but it can be quite unappealing to some. 'Braining' the prey involves splitting the head to expose the brain matter, and for reasons unknown, this sometimes gets the snake to become interested. You may want to test this method out to see if it is stimulating for your snake.
9. Allow for Plenty of Time Between Attempts
If you attempt any of these methods but your ball python doesn’t seem interested, give it a few days in between feeding. This is especially important if the snake appears fearful or distressed. You’ll want to only attempt to feed if the snake seems interested or is in a relatively relaxed state, with its head presented (not tucked away). Forcing the prey on a fearful snake will only serve to make matters worse.
10. "Tease Feeding"
This method refers to the process of getting the snake to grab the prey by mildly "irritating" it. This method can be very effective but can also potentially stress the snake more, therefore it should be utilized only after the above methods have been attempted. Tease feeding is accomplished by strategically tapping the snake's snout with and/or wiggling the prey in a somewhat aggressive manner in front of and around its head, taking care to stop the process immediately if the python retracts its head and balls up or shows other signs of high stress. Sometimes the snake will react defensively and subsequently grab the prey, and the feeding instinct will take over afterwards. If the snake angles its head toward the prey looking to bite (instead of retracting shyly), this is the response you want. This method may take some practice to initiate effectively with individual snakes.
What If the Snake Takes the "Prey" but Refuses to Eat?
If your ball python strikes at, constricts, and refuses to eat the offered prey, there can be a few issues at play. The prey may be the improper size, not warm enough, or the snake feels insecure. In one case, a ball python that normally refused to eat after constricting the dead prey would successfully eat more often when immediately placed into a pillow case after striking. When your snake strikes, carefully but quickly move it into a dark pillow case, cover the cage with a towel, and leave the room for at least an hour. This can be accomplished by using the forceps to drag the rodent (with the snake constricting it) by the tail or feet into the secure area.
Tips From Other Owners
Many ball python owners have had success getting their pets to eat in different ways that are atypical. It's worth trying these non-invasive methods to see if it works for you.
- Justin Kobylka has discovered that ball pythons may prefer to eat in different locations due to, he believes, an instinct that makes the snake avoid leaving its scent when hunting. His method involves cleaning the enclosure or even moving the snake to a different clean enclosure for feeding .
- Mist the snake. One owner believes this makes tropical snakes think it is the "wet season" and therefore may stimulate an appetite .
- With the snake in a secure and dark hide, drop the prey inside and block the entrance with towels so there is zero visibility. Leave the snake alone for 24 hours .
- Dip the prey in warm chicken broth .
- At night, remove the snake from the enclosure, keeping it out for about an hour, then put the snake back into the enclosure .
Other Reasons Your Ball Python Might Not Be Eating
- Shedding. If your snake has opaque eyes, they rarely eat in this condition. This means they are about the shed their skin. There are periods when the snake's grey eyes go away before shedding as well, so be aware of this if a snake is inexplicably uninterested in food.
- Breeding Season. The ball python breeding season is within the winter months. Sometimes ball pythons go off feed during this period .
- Gravid. Female ball pythons most likely will not eat if they are gravid.
- Importation Stress. Recently imported ball pythons can stop eating for months when they arrive, even up to a year. Imported ball pythons are extremely uncommon in the United States since they breed so well .
- De Vosjoli, Philippe. The Ball Python. i5 Publishing, 2012.
- Kaplan, Melissa. Dealing with Ball Python Feeding Problems. 1994.
- Kobylka, Justin. The Psychology of Problem Feeders – Get your Ball Python eating again. The Ball Street Journal
- Rheins, Jonathan. "Feeding Stubborn Snakes" (On-line), LLL Reptile and Supply Company, Inc. Accessed January 24, 2019 at https://www.lllreptile.com/articles/130-feeding-stubborn-snakes/
- Warwick, Clifford et al. "Spatial considerations for captive snakes" Journal of Veterinary Behavior. Volume 30, March–April 2019, Pages 37-48
- Wissman, Margaret. "Ball Python Won't Eat". (On-line), Reptiles Magazine. Accessed January 25, 2019 at http://www.reptilesmagazine.com/Reptile-Health/Ask-A-Vet/Ball-Python-Wont-Eat/
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.