Best Ball Python Substrates - Which should I Use?
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Whether you are a new ball python owner or an experienced veteran looking for a refresher course, we have everything you need to know about the different types of substrates to use within your ball python habitats!
First, let’s look at the substrates you absolutely should not use.
Two of the most harmful substrates for any reptile are pine or cedar shavings. While these shavings typically look and smell nice to us, the aromatic compounds they release can be extremely harmful to the respiratory system of your ball python.
While these substrates are good for many rodents, most tropical and equatorial reptiles have never been exposed to pine or cedarwood because pine and cedar forests are found in more temperate environments. As such, these reptiles have never adapted to the very strong chemicals that the trees produce. The chemicals irritate the lining of their respiratory system, which can lead to infection, trouble breathing, and even death. As such, you should never use any aromatic wood shavings as a substrate for your ball python!
You can use other types of wood shavings, such as Aspen shavings, which do not give off a significant aroma. However, there is a significant chance that your snake will accidentally consume some of the wood shavings during feeding, which will lead to gut impaction. To avoid this, if you are using any type of wood shavings you should remove your snake from the habitat and place it in a warm place with no substrate for feeding time.
Small, loose substrates
This category of “Do Not Use” substrates include sand, loose dirt, walnut shells, and any other loose substrates that can be accidentally ingested during feeding. Your ball python is a ground-dwelling creature, but it is not adapted to very fine, loose sediments such as sand or crushed walnut shells. The tiny particles often get lodged in the ball python’s eyes and heat-sensing pits on the head.
These small particles can cause problems shedding, which can lead to significant and expensive health problems. Further, with any loose substrate of any size, there is a significant chance that your ball python will accidentally ingest some of the substrate as they handle and eat their food items. Since ball pythons lack an ability to digest any plant materials, these accidental food items can lead to impaction, which can ultimately kill your ball python.
That being said, sand, dirt, and crushed nut shells can be added to a biologically active substrate, which we discuss below. But, if you are looking for the cheapest, most effective, and most sanitary options for housing your ball python, these next substrates are for you.
Super Effective, Less Visually Appealing
If you want something simple and effective, you should try newspaper, butcher paper, or artificial turf (a.k.a. Reptile carpet). These substrates may not be the most visually appealing, but they are very good for a number of reasons.
First, these are the easiest substrates to clean. While the biologically active substrates below can provide some breakdown of your ball python’s feces, you must monitor them fairly closely to be sure they are not growing any dangerous fungus or bacteria that may negatively impact your ball python. In contrast, with a paper or reptile carpet lining on your ball python’s cage, you can easily spot clean every day to keep your snake’s habitat perfectly clean and healthy.
Second, they are super cheap. Newspaper and butcher paper can be purchased in large rolls that will last you years, even if you regularly replace the liner. Reptile carpet can be cleaned with reptile-safe sanitizers and reused for years.
However, these substrates definitely do not look natural, and they do not give your snake a way to burrow. Burrowing is a natural behavior seen in ball pythons, and these simple substrates do provide a way for snakes to burrow, on their own. If you do use these substrates, make sure that you provide plenty of hides and other opportunities for your ball python to “burrow” and hide during the day. Otherwise, they may become stressed which can lead to a number of health problems.
If you want to provide your snake with a healthy, natural way to burrow, you will need to create a healthy, biologically active substrate, discussed below.
Biologically Active: Natural Looks and Easily Maintained
One of the best, healthiest, and most aesthetically appealing substrates is a biologically active substrate composed of a number of different elements. While the exact composition of a biologically active substrate can vary wildly, they share the feature of being “alive” in that they have bacteria and microorganisms.
This makes the substrate “active”, which allows the substrate to break down and process your snake’s waste. So, you can simply stir the substrate up every few days, and spot clean any large chunks of waste or skin sheds. Active substrates also hold water much better, which can help snake owners in dry environments keep the humidity up within a terrarium.
Many pet stores sell pre-made biologically active substrates in bags of different sizes. While this is the easiest way to make and start a biologically active substrate, it can be much more expensive than making your own substrate. However, if you make your own substrate you will likely have to buy more of each individual component than you need. If you have many snakes or have a place to store substrate until you need it, this is one of the best options for any ball python owner.
To make your own biologically active substrate, you need to combine the following elements into a very loose, fluffy mixture.
- Peat Moss
- Potting Soil
- Finely Shredded Bark (non-aromatic)
While the exact proportions of each of these components can vary slightly, you want to start with a mixture of mostly peat moss, potting soil, and finely shredded bark. If the substrate is too light and springy, you can add in small amounts of sand and clay to help it hold together a little better. Ideally, you want something that your snake can dig through easily, but that will also hold its shape so the snake can excavate a proper burrow.
Maintaining this type of substrate is easy. Don’t worry too much about feces, because the microbes in the substrate will break it down and it will become part of the substrate. If you stir this substrate regularly, it will not get too compact and can be used for a long time. Eventually, the substrate may become too thick and you will have to replace the substrate or add fresh substrate on top to give your snake the right consistency and moisture levels. If the substrate ever becomes too dry, you can simply add some water and fluff it up to ensure your snake stays in a nice, humid environment.
So, Which is the Best Ball Python Substrate?
It really depends on your needs. While a biologically active substrate is very easy to maintain, it does take more work than a simple substrate like butcher paper. With one snake in a large tank meant for display, biologically active substrate mixtures look the best and give your snake the opportunity to display natural behaviors. On the other hand, if you have many snakes to care for or are setting up a breeding operation, go for reptile carpet or butcher paper to minimize your efforts.
If you need more information about how to house your ball python, check out our article on Ball Python Habitats to learn about all aspects of ball python housing and rearing. Good luck!