Table of Contents
Boa Constrictor Care Guide
Boa Constrictor Basics
Boa constrictors are an extremely popular snake in the pet trade and make an excellent adult beginning keeper’s pet. Although there are several species of boa constrictors found in the pet trade, the two most common are red-tail boas (Boa constrictor constrictor) and northern boas (Boa constrictor imperator).
Red Tail Boa
|Red Tail Boa||Boa Constrictor Imperator|
These snakes are native to parts of North, Central, and South America. Other than a slight size difference, their care is fairly similar, and they both tend to do well in captivity. For the purpose of clarity, and because these snakes are known by a whole lot of common names, these species will be referred to in this guide as ‘imperator’ and ‘red-tail’.
Shoppers should be aware that pet stores are notorious for selling imperators as red-tails, because of the difference in value. Baby or juvenile imperators should sell for less than $200, while red-tails go for about $100 more. Both species have red-tails, but the imperator has mahogany tail patches on a darker background.
Red-tails have bright red dorsal patches on a paler background. Before purchasing a snake labeled as a red-tail, shoppers should read up on them to be sure they know which one they are getting. Be sure to purchase your boa from a reputable source. Look for active snakes lacking any retained shed skin, possible respiratory infection (auditory breathing can be a sign of this) or spinal kinks or deformities. Check for snake mites, which are small, black, parasites that resemble ticks.
They Enjoy Being Held
Boa constrictors are usually very docile and tolerate handling very well. They often seem to enjoy being held and will seek out an area on your arm or shoulders and enjoy your body warmth. They may crawl around for a few minutes before hunkering down to grab some heat.
Boas are typically active, alert snakes, sleeping for 12 hours and being active for 12 hours, usually at night, but they don’t seem to mind being awake during the day, and many seem to enjoy it. They might hiss or bite if they feel threatened, but consistent, gentle handling will usually tame them within a few weeks. It’s important to know how to hold your boa so it feels secure. One hand should be under its body near its head, and the other hand should be under the back half of its body. The snake might loosely wrap itself around you for added support, but it typically won’t constrict unless it feels alarmed or stressed.
While both the boas mentioned in this guide are generally quite friendly and predictable in temperament, it is important to respect their inherent strength. Just as they constrict around their prey, they can wrap themselves tightly—and painfully—around you. An adult can exert 12 pounds of pressure per square inch from two or more body points. Therefore, it is wise to keep these pets away from your head and neck area.
For instance, an Ohio woman was forced to call 911 after a newly rescued boa constrictor wrapped itself around her head. A firefighter responded to the call and was able to get the snake off of her face... by cutting off its head. Red-tail boas get about 25% larger than imperators at maturity, which is a relative term when it comes to growth. They continue to grow throughout their lives, with imperators getting to about 8 feet for females (males are smaller) and female red-tails growing to 10 feet and weighing 60 pounds at sexual maturity when reaching 3 years of age. At this age they weigh twice that of a 3-year-old human, so this may not be the best pet for homes with small children. Fatal mishaps, although extremely rare, have occurred.
20 Years old and Beyond
This is a pet you will need to prepare for a long friendship with, as most live beyond 20 years with proper care, and some as old as 40 have been recorded.
Boa Constrictor Housing Design
Big Bucks and Lots of Space
This is one reptile pet that is going to need quite a bit of room as an adult. Plan on providing an enclosure for an adult boa constrictor that is around 6 to 8 feet long, 2 to 3 feet wide, and 3 to 4 feet tall.
The minimum size they will need to thrive is around 10 square feet of floor space for a single snake. The snake’s habitat will ultimately cost the owner 3 times the price of the snake. This is one reptile pet that needs advance planning in its acquisition, and should never be an impulse purchase.
Boa Constrictor Substrate
For young snakes, lining the cage with paper or paper towels is often the best option for easy cleaning and monitoring their bowel movements.
Boas can be kept on several types of substrate. Newspaper, aspen, white or brown butcher/wrapping paper, and cage carpet are the most often used substrates. Fir and cypress barks are also acceptable, but are not recommended for use in extremely humid regions. Aspen or reptile carpet will make spot cleaning easier, while the cage can be spot cleaned, while paper will necessitate full removal with each stool, otherwise smearing may occur that can lead to blister disease. Wood shavings are best avoided due to irritation concerns and the potential for accidental ingestion and impaction. A depth of 2-3 inches will make the snake most comfortable.
As with ball pythons, hides are essential to make your snake feel secure. A minimum of two hides should be provided in the enclosure, one at each end of the temperature gradient. Hides can be half logs, commercial reptile caves, rock piles (smooth) and other types of furniture that can be sterilized. They should not be too spacious, as a close fit will help the snake feel safe.
A cleaned and sterilized tree branch or two that are sturdy enough to support the snake's weight should also be provided in the enclosure. Driftwood makes a nice smooth structure, and is cleanable and attractive.
The recommendations above are for adults. Juveniles will need much smaller accommodations in order to survive. A habitat that is too large will result in stress and may compromise their immune system. So although it’s an added expense, the habitat needs to be changed to the full size at around 1 year old, no sooner.
Boa constrictors come from tropical climates, so warm temperatures in their enclosures are essential. During the day, a temperature gradient between 82 to 90 degrees F should be maintained. Also, a basking spot of 90 to 95 degrees F should be provided. At night, temperatures can drop to 75 F, but should never get lower.
The temperatures in your snake's cage are critical, so accurate thermometers with measurements in several locations of the enclosure (the warm end, cool end, and basking spot) are a must. A laser thermometer, such as a Reptitemp, is super affordable and should be used twice weekly to be sure that the conditions are still optimal, despite changing house ambient temperatures.
An undertank heater on the warmest side will need to be employed but hot rocks should never be used.
A combination of incandescent bulbs, ceramic heating elements, and heating pads can be used to maintain the temperatures and provide illumination for the keeper to view their pet. A low-wattage fluorescent bulb, such as the Exo Terra natural daylight reptile lamp, can be used to provide a photoperiod (day/night cycle) and to better observe your boa. Full-spectrum bulbs with UVB like the Solar Glo all in one reptile lamp, may provide physical and physiological benefits to boas, but this has not been proven, so provide it only if it makes you feel better, or you have live plants within the enclosure to consider.
Maintain a humidity level in the enclosure of around 60 to 70 percent. Keeping a bowl of water in the enclosure can help to raise the humidity level, along with misting the area. The snake will likely climb into the water bowl for baths, so make sure it's sturdy and big enough. It should be cleaned regularly, as snakes will often defecate in the water. Shedding snakes will definitely require a clean bath daily to aid in the process. Shedding issues are usually a result of insufficient humidity. A soak or two in warm water during the shed cycle will greatly help them in low-humidity conditions. Do not place their bath container directly over the belly heat or under a basking bulb. For a really tough shed, you may need to manually soak your boa in a separate container for up to an hour (two hours if you’re combating a particularly tough shed) and repeat as necessary.
Boa Constrictor Diet
Feeding frequency will depend upon age for these species. Small snakes (3-4 feet in length) can be fed every five to seven days, juvenile snakes (5-6 feet in length and 18 months to 3 year old) every 10 to 14 days, and fully grown snakes older than 3 years every three to four weeks. Adjust feeding to maintain a good body condition in your snake.
Hatchling snakes can be fed mice and then rabbits (one per feeding) as they grow larger. An adult boa constrictor will eat a few rats for a meal or one rabbit every month. Never feed a snake a prey item larger than its widest body part.
Avoid handling your snake for at least 24 hours after a meal, or regurgitation might occur. Boas generally like to hide with their prey to eat it. So don't be surprised if your snake disappears into a hide box with its meal, and you don't see it for a while.
Feeding time is when the most care is required for handling boa constrictors (as with any other snake). Do not feed by hand, as this increases the risk of accidental bites if they mistake fingers for food. And wash your hands well after handling food, or the snake might strike at your hand. A handling stick can help to push the snake away from the cage door at feeding time to prevent problems.
Regurgitation can occur if your temperatures are incorrect or the snake is handled too quickly after dining. If this happens, allow 10 days to pass before attempt to feed the boa again. Never feed a new boa constrictor a meal that is larger than the snake’s mid-body girth. It should never exhibit a bulge after eating. Especially in young boas, a meal that is too large may lead to regurgitation. However, an established boa will handle a meal resulting in a small bulge just fine. They should be fed only quality mice or rats. They need no additional food or supplementation. Be sure you buy your rodents from a good source to prevent disease and mites.
Most boa constrictors available as pets will be eating frozen/thawed prey. If you purchase one that is eating live rodents, it will often take frozen/thawed prey that is presented from a pair of tongs. Pre-killed rodents are always best, whether they are frozen/thawed or freshly killed, because live rodents may harm your boa. If your snake does not kill its prey (boas will not eat if they are not hungry or are kept under improper conditions), the rodent may bite or even kill your boa. Even if the boa does constrict its prey, the rodent may bite before it is killed. Never leave your boa unattended with live rodents.
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 snakey 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 in the dishwasher every two weeks. Perches and branches will benefit from this treatment.
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 perch. Monthly cleaning time is a good opportunity to let any potted plants dry out well and to wipe down the leaves, top and bottom, to discourage soil gnats and mites. Most habitats for adult boas will not contain plants, since the pets will be so large and heavy as adults that they can crush anything, but to maintain humidity for young snakes, some keepers supply furnish their snakes habitat with potted aloe plants or other succulents. These should be inspected monthly for unwanted creepy crawlies.
Boa Constrictor Diseases
Like ball pythons and other boids, the most serious disease that can affect boa constrictors is inclusion body disease, or IBD. This is a fatal retrovirus that's similar to HIV in humans. An infected snake can appear healthy but be infected since the virus can lay dormant for several years. Transmission is from snake to snake via mites, which carry infected bodily fluids.
Early symptoms of IBD include a boa breathing with its mouth open, drooling, and poor appetite. In advanced cases, IBD can cause snakes to lose control of their bodily movements. They may have difficulty moving and righting themselves if turned over, loss of coordination, disorientation, inability to strike at or constrict prey, and “star-gazing”, a condition where the snake holds its body still and raises its head, looking straight up for a period of time before resuming movement. In young boas, neurologic signs can progress to paralysis. They will have difficulty shedding, the result of incoordination and difficulty in moving that hinders the ability to rub off shedding skin. IBD also affects other parts of the body besides the nervous system. Infected boids will develop respiratory infections, weight loss, regurgitation, and infectious stomatitis. While boas tend to be asymptomatic carriers and can remain carriers for their entire lives, pythons tend to become sick more readily and illness progresses much more quickly than in boas. For this reason, collections that include both pythons and boas need to be kept well apart from each other. There is currently no treatment for Inclusion Body Disease.
This term describes the chronic regurgitation of a partially digested prey item, without an infectious disease being apparent. The regurgitation syndrome occurs mainly when raising young boas and recently imported wild-caught animals. It leads to a significant loss of fluids and electrolytes in the animal. Most of the time, the regurgitation occurs between the third and fifth day after feeding. This condition is one of the most common causes of death in young boids, and is in most cases a result of an inappropriate feeding schedule.
Bacterial Infections of the Intestine and Respiratory Tracts
The warm and humid conditions that make your boa most comfortable are also the perfect petri-dish where bacteria tend to thrive. The most common pathogenic agents are germs of the genera Pseudomonas and Proteus.
Infections of the intestine can result in a refusal to feed, regurgitation of the prey, or in diarrhea. Bacterial infections of the respiratory tracts result in slime around mouth, fluid running from the nostrils (also bubbles while breathing), and groaning sounds associated with breathing, and mouth gaping.
Send a fecal exam/swab to a vet or lab and request an antibiogram (antibiotic therapy) with resistance testing, followed by a treatment with the according antibiotic. In addition, subcutaneous injections with salt solutions are recommended. Or take the animal to vet for appropriate treatment.
Boa constrictor skin diseases
Skin fungus and bacteria can cause abnormalities on the scales. In order to determine the proper course of treatment, a swab is taken from the affected area. For this, you simply rub a cotton swab on the affected tissue, place it in the shipping container, and send it off to a competent vet. The medication of choice in the case of a fungus is the broadband antimycotic Canesten®, which is available as powder, crème, or liquid. An application of once or twice per day is recommended until a complete recovery has been reached.
Boa constrictor Nematodes and Tapeworms
Nematodes infest the stomach/intestinal tract and live off of the blood and tissue of the host. Pathogenic bacteria can then attack the affected areas, causing infections and further worsening the condition of the snake. An animal that feeds regularly, but loses weight rather than gaining it, needs to be evaluated. To determine this, the snake should be weighed monthly and a weight log maintained.
The eggs of the nematodes can be traced in the feces of the animal. A fecal sample sent to an appropriate lab can diagnose the presence or absence of these endoparasites.
In most cases, a single administration of the substance Fenbendazol (brand name: Panacur) in a dosage of 30-50mg per kg of bodyweight of the snake is sufficient to eliminate these parasites. The pills are solved in lukewarm water inside of a disposable syringe, and then administered through a catheter. Panacur is generally safe and very well tolerated.
Tapeworms can lead to chronic enteritis (infection of the intestine). Similar to an infestation with nematodes, the animals barely gain any weight, even though they feed regularly (assuming that they still feed at all).
Again, a fecal analysis is required. Treatment includes Praziquantel (brand name: Droncit). The recommended dosage is 25 to 40mg per kg of bodyweight of the snake as a one-time administration. The administration is also done through a catheter. In contrast to the relatively harmless Panacur®, cases of fatalities resulting from the treatment with Praziquantel have been reported, and this treatment should be administered by a knowledgeable veterinarian only.
Sensible approaches to handling and sanitation will prevent most ailments in boas, so be diligent and your long friend will live long and prosper.