Best Substrates for Snakes and Ball Pythons
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The ideal substrate for pet snakes can depend on several factors. If the snake is a tropical species, such as a rainbow boa that requires high humidity, there are certain substrates that will work for this species better than they would work for a ball python, who require lower ambient humidity.
There are many safe and affordable substrates on the market online, in pet stores, or even in your local garden department. There are also some options that should never be used. Let’s get these out of the way first and then discuss ideal materials.
Never Use These Substrates for Ball Pythons and Other Snakes
First, stay away from pet toilet products that are advertised as clumping or scoopable such as clay kitty litter (which often contains clumping agents like bentonite and silica). Materials that clump upon exposure to moisture will stick to reptile tongues and eyes and even get into food. The problem with this is that those sharp little particles can cause serious intestinal damage if ingested. This material is also highly irritating to a snake’s skin and constant contact can result in abrasions and ulcerations.
Never Use Cedar
One material that should absolutely never be used is cedar. There is a reason that this material smells nice to humans, but repels fleas and moths. The volatile oils, known as phenols are responsible for that clean fresh pine scent. But this can cause damage to the skin and respiratory systems of caged animals. Within the confines of an enclosure, especially one with solid sides such as an aquarium/terrarium, the pet cannot escape the fumes from cedar shavings, and the phenols and acids this material releases will eventually erode the lining of the lungs and trachea.
Do Not use Sand
Sand is another enemy of snake health and safety. Silica sand and play sand can cause irritation of eyes, nasal passages, skin between scales, and even silicosis. Silicosis is a disease of the lungs that develops after repeated exposure to silica dust. And it is extremely dusty.
Reptile “calci-sand” is not safe either. It’s composed of calcium carbonate – basically crushed antacid tablets. It’s dandy if applied on top of food as a calcium supplement occasionally, but as a substrate, it can cause dehydration and irritating. Some pet shops will indeed try to sell this product to the unwary, but don’t go there.
Walnut shells have a number of positive features such as appearance, absorbency, and low dust. However, unless the shells are finely ground and mixed with other materials, the hazards can outweigh the benefits. The particles are actually quite hard and sharp, creating problems for eyes and for digestive tracks if swallowed. Best to avoid.
Artificial Substrates for Ball Pythons
Artificial substrates can be polarizing. Some experienced keepers admire them, while others despise them. Take carpet, for instance. Most fresh carpeting outgasses for several days, even weeks after installation in your house. The effects can be so harmful that veterinarians recommend that to ensure the safety of birds and reptiles, these pets should be removed to a safe location for 10-14 days until the rooms are ‘completely’ aired out and toxic gasses dissipated.
Even when using carpeting with special, environmentally friendly (less toxic, vastly reduced outgassing) backings, birds and reptiles should still be removed for several days.
Indoor/outdoor carpeting and Astroturf® pose just as many problems. These are not made for frequent washing and sterilization and will come apart in little bits and chunks small enough to be swallowed. They may hold up well to the wear and tear of athletic shoes, but not to high heat or chemical cleaners. These also emit Volatile Organic compounds (VOCs) for five years or more.
In fact, synthetic carpets are made from nylon fibers with a polypropylene backing known to release over 40 noxious chemicals, including styrene and 4-phenylcyclohexane (4-PC), which can cause eye and respiratory tract irritation and may also affect the central nervous system.
Potting Soil as a Substrate
Some keepers like the look and affordability of potting soil. This is soil with pulverized sphagnum moss that has been processed and sterilized. Bags of plain soil may be easily purchased at garden centers, building supply stores, and even some supermarkets. Some keepers think it is too dusty, and the particles are so fine that there is no way to subject it to the same treatment as aspen (see below). Also, many brands have been mixed with fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, vermiculite, or perlite. The latter two items may cause gut impaction if ingested, while the former are obviously toxic.
These are the Best Substrates for Ball Pythons and other snakes
With those forbidden materials explored, we can look at what is recommended for certain snake species and why.
As mentioned above, different species of snakes require different substrates. Ball pythons require only moderate humidity, and although they do burrow, they greatly prefer a moist hide. Rainbow boas tend to burrow a little more often, especially juveniles, but also generally seem to prefer a hide as well as high humidity and a moist substrate. Ball pythons do well with a humidity around 55%, rainbows prefer an ambient moisture level of 80% or even 90%. The importance of the substrate’s ability to hold moisture therefore varies between these two species.
Best substrate for Ball Pythons
Aspen Shavings for Ball Python
One highly favored material for ball pythons is aspen shavings, especially those that are double shredded. The advantage of light colored aspen shavings is they reveal where dark colored droppings have ended up. It is inexpensive and readily available.
Ball pythons need less humidity compared to other snakes. So it's not necessary to damped the aspen shavings. Which is good, because this bedding does not hold moisture without molding and does need to be changed frequently.
Another drawback can occur with some really large ball pythons. Some keepers have reported with the shavings getting inside the ball python's mouth during feeding time. This can be circumvented by misting the shavings to weigh them down if one is living in an arid environment, or by placing heavy indented kraft paper on top of the shavings until any live prey items are consumed. If the enclosure humidity is in excess of 70%, the kraft paper approach is probably best. Feeding killed prey can help to minimize this problem as well.
Cypress Much for Ball Pythons
Cypress mulch is well regarded by many keepers of species requiring a great deal of humidity. It is anti-mold and mildew, although some keepers complain that damp cypress bits will stick to everything they touch.
Orchid bark (made from fir trees) is another possible option that is low in dust and holds humidity very well. However, it is reported to facilitate bacterial and mold growth, and also to provide a habitat for mites. If humidity is the goal, then large chunks of washed and baked cypress on top of washed and sterilized pea gravel may be a better solution than orchid bark.
Terry cloth towels may be inexpensively obtained from thrift shops. They are easily cleaned and disinfected by machine washing in hot water, soap, and bleach. They are especially suited for reptiles in quarantine or with abdominal injuries. The same is true for paper towels. If the snake has an injury or open sore of any kind, a rough yet normally safe substrate may be asking for trouble. It is best to remove all chunky bits and have a smooth and soft surface that is cleaned everyday if there is a medical issue with skin or eyes. Once healing is accomplished, then back onto a more natural substrate the snake can go.
Substrates with Mixed Reviews
Carefresh pellets are a product with mixed reviews. These recycled paper products are readily available and quite affordable. However, they may not be a good choice for large adult snakes such as boas and pythons (although keepers of garter snakes do like them). Although juvenile pythons and boas seldom ingest the pellets accidentally, it is possible for adults to do so. Although they are non-toxic, they can swell inside the snake, causing gut impaction and eventually death. They do not inhibit molds and odors and so must be replaced frequently. So while some keepers swear by this bedding, others would not touch it with a 10 foot pole.
There are more Internet threads comparing the virtues of various beddings than there are pieces of vermiculite in a pound of potting soil. So do your research, stay away from the baddies mentioned at the beginning of this post and experiment with the rest to see what works best for your ophidians and their enclosure set-up.