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Ball python care guide - The Critter Depot

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Ball Python Care Guide

ball python care guide

General Facts

  • Shy and easy to care for
  • adult males are 2-3 feet / adult females are 3-5 feet in length
  • nocturnal
Habitat Design
  • Horizontal tanks - 10 gallons - 30 gallons in size
  • 1-2 hides
  • warm side and cool side
  • shallow water dish
  • climbing branches
  • Temperature & Humidity
Feeding
  • feeding schedule
  • live vs dead prey
  • Should i use a Separate feeding enclosure?
Habitat Cleaning
  • Daily, Weekly, and Monthly routines
  • Common Diseases and Illnesses 

Getting to Know Ball Pythons

Ball (or Royal) Pythons are the most popular pet python in the world. They are indigenous to the grasslands and open forests of West and Central Africa. This shy yet gentle snake is the perfect pet for someone new to snake keeping.

Baby ball pythons are approximately 10 inches in length. Adult females average 3 to 5 feet long, and adult male ball pythons average 2 to 3 feet in size. This size difference is known as sexual dimorphism. If you want small snake, it is best to choose a male for although rare, 5-6 foot females have been reported. The record age for a ball python is more than 40 years – so plan on a long life for your new pet snake if you provide proper care.

These snakes have been selectively bred for decades for their color variations, called ‘morphs’. A wide variety of color morphs have been developed from the wild-type. These can include ‘granite’ and ‘pied’ morphs, all quite striking.

Ball pythons are primarily nocturnal by habit, burrowing during the day and emerging at night. Care and handling of this species should take this into account. When active at night, they are notorious escape artists and the setup of a comfortable and secure habitat requires a bit of forethought.

These snakes are good for beginners as they are relatively docile and respond quickly to gentle and consistent handling. Although they should not be handled right after eating (wait 48 hours) most other times will suit them, although I find that they prefer to be handled in early evening. Once a trusting bond has been established, these snakes enjoy physical contact with owners and will crawl playfully up and down the keeper’s arms and body, and inside shirts and sleeves. 

How To Design a Ball Python's Habitat 

How To Build a Ball Python Habitat

These snakes need room to move, but not too much, as this can make them feel insecure. So selecting the proper tank size is critical to ensure your ball python is happy.

A juvenile Ball will do well in a 10 gallon tank for a couple of years. At 2 1/2 years old, your snake will have more than doubled in length and will be sexually mature. At this point, a 20-30 gallon tank is advised. Despite their tendency to climb, most keepers have had the best success with a horizontally oriented tank, rather than a vertical arrangement. The basic elements of the tank should include a suitable substrate, one-two hides, a warm and a cool side, a water dish/shallow pool and something for the snake to climb and bask on.

Ball Python Substrate

  • Paper towels
  • aspen shavings
  • cypress shavings

Most beginners’ tanks will have a glass bottom. Some advanced models may have a false bottom with some sort of screening to allow feces and urine to sift down. Sort of a fancy cat box type of setup. If you begin with a simpler, solid bottomed affair, you should top paper towels placed on the bottom of the tank with an absorbent material. A thick layer of aspen shavings is favored by most snake keepers, although many do like cypress shavings just as well. Aromatic woods such as pine and cedar should be avoided as they can cause lung and eye irritation.

A dense (3-4 inches) covering of shavings provides a light and sanitary bedding that the snake will often disappear under as an alternative to its hide. That’s quite alright, but it is advisable to provide an insulating layer such as felt or reptile carpet under the glass and on top of the heating mat to be certain the snake will not fall asleep on top of a too hot mat and burn itself. Snakes can and will choose to rest in an area that ends up being too hot for their safety. Think in terms of the old adage about a ‘boiled frog’. As the temperature increases, they don’t always feel it in time to move to a cooler spot. It is up to the keeper to carefully test and retest all surfaces several times weekly to keep your snake safe.

Ball Python Habitat Temperature

Provide your python with a basking spot temperature of 88 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit and an ambient temperature of 78 to 80 degrees. In fact, nowhere in the habitat should the ambient temperature be less than 75 degrees. This is a heat loving species at home on the baking plains of the Sudan, so don’t assume it’s warm enough. Keep it warm but not blistering. It’s important to take readings at the surface of the bottom of the warm side, the cooler side, and any basking areas. For temperature measurement, a digital laser thermometer is a worthwhile investment. For less than $20, a new keeper can take readings from all over the habitat with the push of a button. Keepers need to remember that the ambient temperature of the room can affect the temperature of the habitat, so frequent readings are strongly recommended.

A basking lamp can be provided, but it must be carefully placed so that it can never exceed 95 degrees F at the closest possible point to the snake. And remember, although a burrowing and grassland species, they climb quite well. If you provide your snake with a basking branch beneath a heat lamp, he/she is likely to use that branch as a launch pad. An adult Ball is quite strong and only a screened top clamped down tightly on all four sides will prevent escape. Also, monitor your snake’s nose, as they can scrape off the skin, rubbing against the screen incessantly while trying to escape.

Most experienced keepers recommend an undertank heating mat, especially for night time usage. Remember not to place the hide directly over the mat, unless you have monitored the temperature for at least one week before introducing your snake to the habitat. Half way between the cool and warm sides is best short term until you are really confident in the temperature gradient.

Ball Python Habitat Humidity 

Although this species is used to some fairly hot conditions, they are also used to a humidity that might surprise some keepers. An average humidity of 50% should work, unless your snake is starting to shed, then 60-65% is better. It can be challenging to keep the humidity up in a habitat with a screen top. But foggers are a great way to keep the humidity high for your reptiles. Some are more labor intensive than others, but it is up to the individual keeper’s preferences and life style.

If you choose to mist your snake twice daily, be sure to spray the entire habitat with warm water, not just the snake. To spray your snake with cold water is just asking for a traumatized animal. If you must be away for the day and it looks like your guy/gal is beginning to shed, you can supply a second source of water, such as a second bowl or damp sphagnum moss. For a second water source, warm water is again essential.

Because the humidity level throughout even large habitats will be more consistent than temperature gradients, an hygrometer attached to the side of the enclosure will take the guess work out of managing humidity. Be mindful of the fact that warm baths in a habitat with solid top (not screened) may create unsanitary conditions favorable for the growth of molds, so careful observation of what works may take a couple of weeks. A successful keeper never assumes that once temperature and humidity provisions seem optimal, they will always stay that way. That is seldom true, and good monitoring of the conditions with changing seasons will prevent problems.

Habitat Hides for Ball Pythons

Ball pythons really like hiding. Provide a nice big one or 2 smaller ones (always large enough to permit the snake to form a ‘ball’ that is entirely contained within the hide). A hide made of something easily sanitized is essential. Plastic hides and branches may look tacky, but may be the most practical, depending on your lifestyle. I love the look of cork wood, but it is really problematic to clean. Dishwasher safe hides and bowls are the easiest by far. If you do decide on cork wood as an attractive and snake friendly hide, I would replace it every year. Otherwise, you can try what some reptile keepers do and bake the wood at 250 degrees F for 2 hours to sanitize.

Speaking of temperature gradient, a cold environment will encourage brumation. Brumation is more or less the equivalent to hibernation in mammals. It is a reaction to insufficient heat necessary for normal activities. Brumation can be deliberate, and is useful if you are attempting to breed Ball pythons, or it can be accidental due to heater malfunction. In captivity, brumation is not strictly necessary for health and may actually cause your pet to be unnecessarily lethargic, with a greater than normal tendency to hide and refuse food. This is yet another reason why temperature monitoring regularly is really quite important.

Feeding Your Ball Python

what to feed  ball python

When you feed your snake depends on what times he/she is most active. Early evening is a good time to feed your Ball if you are offering live food. Observe your snake the entire time that a live prey animal is inside the habitat.

You may choose to feed dead prey instead of live. You will need to dangle the item in front of the snake (dancing it around the habitat is what some keepers do with picky eaters who don’t strike right away). Then when the strike and squeeze has occurred, leave your snake in peace for at least 24 hours.

How often you feed your snake depends on how old it is. Baby snakes don’t even start to think about food until they are two to four weeks old. Once they do, they generally need to eat about twice a week. More frequent feedings will encourage them to grow faster, if that is what you wish. As your snake gets older, he/she will not need to be fed quite as often.

Should I Use A Separate Feeding Enclosure?

The use of a separate feeding enclosure is a subject of debate among fanciers. Some feel that while a separate feeding enclosure may not be strictly necessary, but it can sometimes be helpful. One argument in favor is that using a different habitat for feeding times can help to keep the main enclosure cleaner and more sanitary. A separate feeding enclosure may also be necessary if you are housing more than one snake in a habitat (not recommended) or if you use a substrate that can possibly be ingested. Others feel it is unwise to move the snake to a strange environment, expect it to perform a natural behavior immediately, and then expect it not to throw up when it is handled for the purpose of placing it back in its main home. 

What will you be feeding your python?

Depends on how old he/she is. A very young snake can only manage pinkies for quite a few months. After that they will graduate to fuzzies, and then hoppers. Well for the love of Mike, what do all of those terms mean? The terms mentioned above refer to feeder mice, rats have their own designations.

Concerning mice…

  • Pinky: A pinky is a newborn mouse. Ranging from one to three grams in weight, depending on where you purchase them. They have no fur and are high in protein.
  • Fuzzy: A fuzzy is a slightly older baby mouse, with the beginnings of fur. They are slightly bigger in size and weigh around 3-5g.
  • Hopper: The next age stage. These are around 5-9g in weight and are fully formed, but not fully grown.

Concerning rats…

  • The rat equivalent of a pinky would be a ‘rat pup’. These are slightly bigger in size, around 5g.
  • The rat equivalent of a fuzzy is called a ‘fluff’. And around 10-25g in weight, so quite a substantial difference.
  • The rat equivalent of a hopper would be ‘weaner’ rat, at around 25-50g.
  • Adult mice and rats are only suitable for snakes over 4 feet long.

The size of the prey you choose will depend on whether or not the snake can both swallow and digest it. When in doubt, consider the width of the diner. That is, prey should be no wider than the widest part of the snake's body. Choosing prey that is too large, if it is actually swallowed, can result in regurgitation at the very least (if you’re lucky), with injuries, seizures, partial paralysis, gut impactions, and death being unpleasant possibilities as well.

Should you feed only rodents? Not necessarily. Everyone enjoys a change of pace and an older snake can be offered day old chicks now and then. Does the prey have to be alive? Some keepers believe that the live prey offers the ability for the snake to perform natural behaviors. Others claim that this is nonsense and that a rich environment and positive interaction with a human handler should provide sufficient stimulation. The advantages of pre-killed, frozen dinners over live chow are:

Live prey can be too active for young snakes.

Sometimes dinner bites back. Attacks by live prey can permanently disfigure your snake. Injuries caused by live prey can include lacerations to the snake's mouth area and eyes. Cutting through his/her tongue sheath is not uncommon.

Attacks by live prey can traumatize your snake, and it can be very difficult to get that snake to feed on that prey item again.

Pre-killed offerings can last in the freezer for up to six months. Remember to thaw it completely in the refrigerator and warm it to slightly above room temperature before feeding it to your snake. Do not use a microwave for this.

Tricks to tempt your python into eating pre-killed meals:

Use tongs or hemostats to dangle the prey and "dance" it around the cage to make it appear alive and entice the snake to strike at it.

Sense of smell is very keen in most snakes. Make sure the prey is warmer than room temperature; it will smell more appetizing to your snake that way. You can also pith (pierce) the braincase of the prey with a pin or nail to release even more enticing odors (yum).

How to Clean A Ball Python's Habitat

Cleaning the habitat is fairly easy and should be done lightly once a week, thoroughly once a month. Attending to sanitation weekly is something you will thank yourself for, because snake feces can become rank is a musty way that is distinctively snake and definitely unpleasant.

  • Daily: Spot remove any feces that you see.
  • Weekly: Remove and dispose of the top 1 inch of bedding and replace with fresh.
  • Bi-weekly: Place dishwasher safe furniture and water bowl/bowls in the dishwasher every two weeks.

Monthly: Remove everything, and spritz the habitat interior with 10% bleach solution. If the terrarium is glass, spray sides with vinegar after the bleach has been applied and removed and wipe down for better visibility. Do not use bleach stronger than a 10% solution and do not place your snake back inside without wiping down all damp areas after it has soaked in bleach for ½ hour. After wiping down, wait another ½ hour, install fresh substrate and reposition the sanitized furniture. Only then should you place your snake back in. This is one time where a separate container for you snake is handy. A Tupperware box with tight fitting lid, a thick rumpled terry cloth towel in the bottom, and a warm location (or you can but the box right next to the aquarium/vivarium, remove the undertank pad from the underneath the primary habitat and slip it under the secondary holding container) are all that is needed. If using supplemental heat beneath a Tupperware or other plastic box, be sure to slip a hand towel over the heating element so it does not come into direct with the plastic. Also, preheat the box for at least 10 minutes before placing the snake inside.

Common Ball Python Diseases and Illnesses 

Proper feeding and sanitation can help prevent most common ball python diseases.  For example, blister disease is associated with damp, filthy environments and effects the bottom most scales, the scutes, that are in constant contact with the filth. The scutes develop a reddish appearance and if untreated they become swollen and infected by bacteria and fungi. The habitat must receive a comprehensive cleaning immediately and the snake must see a vet, who will probably administer an injectable antibiotic, followed by a course of topical treatments administered twice daily (by the owner).

Other conditions such as mouth rot, respiratory infections, and fungal infections are often a function of a dirty environment. Mouth rot is a very common outcome of a filthy habitat. It is often first noted as a pus lined mouth, or bubbling nostrils. When this is discovered the ball python should be taken to the nearest reptile veterinarian near you immediately. Antibiotics and mouth rinsing twice a day may be required.

Most respiratory problems are also rooted in poor husbandry. Douglas Mader, DVM states that “If a reptile is not housed at its POTZ (preferred optimal temperature zone) it can become stressed. Over time, this will depress the animal’s immune system, predisposing it to disease”. One of those diseases is pneumonia. This is why correct heating combined with correct sanitation is critical. Respiratory infections can be lingering and often fatal, so prevention is the best cure.

Ball pythons can be susceptible to internal and external parasites. Believe it or not, ticks and mites can be particularly troublesome for ball pythons. A clean and well inspected terrarium is not going to be a source of ectoparasitic infestation, however, if you have other indoor/outdoor pets and you live in a portion of the country prone to ticks, and your Ball has free run of a room where those same animals are allowed, then your snake may pick one or two up and accidentally carry them back into the habitat. Examine your snake thoroughly, including the underside, on a regular basis. If a feeding tick is discovered, consult your veterinarian as the best means of removal. Do not attempt to pull it off with tweezers, as the head may remain imbedded and begin to fester.

Ball pythons are delightful creatures and deserve the best care you can provide. In turn they will provide you with many years of companionship and amusement.

Happy Herping!

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