Everything you need to know about ball pythons

Ball pythons are one of the most popular pet snakes in the world and regarded as a great snake for beginners. They are shy snakes by nature and have an awesome temperament, which makes them easy to handle, although hatchlings can be a bit nippy. 

Did you know they are called Ball pythons because they curl up into a ball when threatened?

Adult males grow to an average size of 2 – 3 feet while females are typically larger, growing to 3 – 5 feet on average. Hatchlings are approximately 10 inches long

They can live for 30 years or more, although, 20 years is a more likely estimate. The record age for a ball python is more than 40 years, so either way, they are a long term commitment and will stay with you for many years. Several factors will determine the age your snake will reach, things such as diet, habitat, and providing the necessary veterinary care all play their part respectively for the lifespan of your snake. 

Although they do make for great pets, there are a couple of things that can cause difficulties for first-time owners.

One of the most critical parts of keeping a healthy ball python is maintaining the correct humidity levels within their tanks. This is where beginners often run into trouble and certainly not something a child can take care of alone. I’ll go into more detail later in the post.

Ball pythons are primarily rodent eaters and a large mouse is usually enough for an adult. We’ll cover their eating in more depth later in the article.

If you’re still interested, we’ll now go through everything you need to know about ball pythons. 

Native to central and western Africa

The ball python is native to Western Africa and West Central Africa where it lives in areas of mixed trees and grassland. In the wild, they hunt at night while daytime is spent hiding in burrows. Pythons don’t live as long in the wild as they do in captivity.

Things You Will Need

Getting your new snake set up in its new cage won’t come cheap and can often cost more than the snake itself. You will need an aquarium with a secure lid and at least one source of heat, either a heat matt or lamp. You will also need a thermometer, water bowl, and a couple of hiding boxes. I would recommend you get a humidity gauge, a second heat source and a pair of hemostats

Feeding

Looking after pet snakes is unlike caring for animals like dogs or cats. It requires a lot of patience and will be challenging at times but is also very rewarding. Often ball pythons can be fussy with their food and will only eat when they feel safe. 

Wild-caught ball pythons are more finicky eaters than captive hatched and bred snakes. Captive hatched and bred snakes typically adjust better to captivity and are better at eating regularly.

Snakes identify their prey by scent, size, color, movement, and temperature and when a ball python feels safe, it will bite its prey then coil around it. The coil is intended to suffocate the prey. Once the prey stops moving, the snake will find the head and begin the process of swallowing. After the pray has been swallowed, the snake will find a dark and warm area to lay and digest the food. This takes about four or five days. 

 Food

The amount of food you will offer your ball python will vary depending on the age of the snake. Younger snakes between 16 – 30 inches need more food because they are growing fast. Older snakes between 30 – 48 inches in length don’t need to be fed as often.

As a guide, young ball pythons should be fed once every seven to ten days. Hatchlings are capable of eating small to average size mice, while adults can eat rats measuring up to six inches. Adult snakes should be fed roughly every two to three weeks. You’ll need to find out what’s the best feeding routine for your snake as it is not an exact science. Some people choose to feed their ball pythons weekly, so it depends, but if your snake is becoming overweight, it’s a good sign she’s being overfed.

Depending on preference, you can choose to feed your snake either pre-killed food or live food. If your snake has gone a while without eating and won’t entertain its pre-killed food, live food may be enough to tempt her, but be careful not to leave a rodent in the cage unattended as they can fight back and even scar the snake.

Pre killed food is readily available and is often the preferred choice for snake owners, especially when there are children in the household. You can buy them frozen or even ask your local pet store to kill them for you. Lab mice and rats are easy to get hold of and are not expensive. 

Not Eating

As I wrote earlier in the post, ball pythons can be finicky eaters and may leave you confused and worried. The first thing to do when this happens is to relax. It is not uncommon for a ball python to go into a six to eight-month fasting period, and very rarely will it harm your her. As long as your snake doesn’t lose more than 20% of its original weight, there is no need to panic. Use a postal scale and monitor and carefully track any weight loss.

There are lots of reasons why a snake may not be eating. Here are some of the most common:

  • Stress – not being comfortable in its new environment
  • parasites – either internal or external
  • Infections – respiratory, mouth rot, blister disease, etc
  • Handling the snake too much
  • Nocturnal – may not want to eat if it’s daylight / bright lights
  • Off feed during the winter months – breeding season.

Here are a few things you should try if your snake is free of parasites and healthy: 

  • Double-check temperature and humidity cycles are correct
  • Leave the snake alone for a week, then offer food
  • Make sure your snake has a few places to hide
  • Move the tank somewhere quieter
  • Offering live food? Try offering dead and vise versa
  • Offer different types, sizes, and color of rodent

In most cases, your ball python will eventually eat so try not to get too stressed. Try some of the things above and be patient. If you are worried about your snake, give your local pet store a call for advice or contact a vet. Remember, you can never be too careful.

Waste and shedding

How often your snake sheds and defecates depends on how often she is eating and her metabolism. Older snakes that aren’t growing as much may only shed a few times a year while a young ball python that is growing may shed, and or defecate every four to six weeks.

Shedding/sloughing takes roughly seven to ten days to complete. The first sign you will notice when she is about to shed is her belly turning slightly pink. Shortly afterward, her eyes will begin to look foggy and her colors will start to dull. Things will clear up after roughly six days, then a few days later, she will rub against an object to remove the skin. If all goes well, the skin will be removed in one piece, in the same way, you would pull a sock off.

If the skin doesn’t shed in one piece, it could mean she is dehydrated and too dry in her tank. If the eye caps did not shed off, her eyes will have a foggy look to them. Here are a few things you can do to help her she off the last couple of bits.

  • soak her in a lukewarm/cool bath for a half-hour then gently dab with a warm damp cloth
  • Placing your snake in a damp cloth bag for awhile sometimes helps 
  •  cotton swab that’s been moistened with baby oil

Don’t worry too much if you can’t get the eye caps off as they will come off in the next shed cycle. But do double-check your humidity levels and pay extra attention to her hydration right through to the next cycle. If the eye caps do not come off with the next shed cycle, you should visit your vet.

Respiratory infections are common in ball pythons. Some of the signs of respiratory infection are wheezing or popping when she breathes, a clear fluid coming out of the nostrils or mouth. Another common ailment ball pythons can suffer from is blister disease which is mostly the result of the snake being kept in poor conditions. A damp and dirty cage with low heat and possibly ectoparasites can lead to blister disease. The signs of blister disease are red sores or blisters on the snake’s belly and lower sides and occasionally on the back. You must keep your snake clean and warm to ensure she stays healthy. A solution of 10% bleach and 90% water is all you need to clean and disinfect her cage.

Ball Python Handling and Temperament

After you get your snake set up at home, it is best to leave her alone for a week or two. This gives her time to get comfortable and used to her new surroundings. After a few weeks, you should try feeding her for the first time, after a couple more, she should be ok to start handling for short periods.

Adult ball pythons are docile by nature and rarely bite, but reaching into her tank is typically when it’ll happen. Fortunately, their bites do not hurt and after a while, you will be able to gauge when she’s about to strike and avoid getting bit.

Cage / Tank

Good caging will give your snake a safe and secure home while providing the correct heat/light cycles. Modified aquariums are popular with snake owners and can often be bought from garage sales for a good price. 

  • Small Ball Pythons (16-28 inches) will do ok in a ten-gallon size enclosure (20x10x12 inches).
  • The minimal cage for an adult (30-48 inches) is a long twenty gallon (30x12x12 inches). 
  • A long thirty gallon (36x12x18 inches) would, of course, be preferred.

Commercially made Lizard lounges are aquariums with sliding screen lids also provide a good, safe home for your snake and can be purchased from pet stores.

Heat Lamps

There are a few different ways you can provide heat for your snake. Heat mats and a clip type lamp with aluminum reflector are probably the best options while heat rocks should be avoided. Heat rocks will not adequately heat the enclosure and can burn your snake if she lays against it. 

Clamp lamps on a timer are great because they provide both a warm basking spot and give your snake a photoperiod. Heat pads are used to provide belly heat and often placed at the warm side of the tank. Heat lamps don’t normally come with a way of adjusting the heat output, but you can use different wattages of a bulb. A 40 – 60-watt bulb is usually about right. You can buy snap-on lamp dimmers for your heat pads, although not as hood as thermostats, they do at least, provide you with a high, low, and switch off adjustment.

Humidity

A key factor in the overall wellbeing of your snake will be the level of humidity in the tank, as ball pythons are more sensitive to humidity than some may think.

You can monitor the changes in humidity using a hygrometer. Thee are accurate enough to give you a close estimate and allow you to make changes if needed. Low humidity can cause many issues, such as incomplete shedding, dehydration, and can even lead to a loss of appetite.

You can add/remove humidity by:

  • Provide bigger or smaller water bowls
  • Restrict, but not stop, airflow from the tank
  •  Use porous substrates like mulch that’ll hold moisture and mist the cage every so often

You can also provide a big water bowl with a hole cut in the lid. This would act as another hide while allowing her to rehydrate herself as needed.

Hide Box

Ball pythons spend most of their day below ground in burrows etc, so they need a safe dark place to feel comfortable when in your care. Hide boxes are used to represent these burrows and can be anything from broken terracotta plant pots to opaque Rubbermaid containers or even dog water bowls that have hollow bases.

It is good practice to have a few hide boxes in the tank, each at a different temperature, so your snake can choose where is most comfortable.

Water

Always provide your snake with a water dish large enough for her to soak in. This doesn’t need to be anything fancy, a plastic storage container is more than enough to do the job.

substrates

There are lots of materials available to use as a substrate, but it is sometimes better to keep things simple and just use a few sheets of newspaper. Many plant-based mulches are safe to use but I’d recommend you stay away from Cedar mulch, as Cedar oils are toxic and can lead to respiratory infections. Astro turf can also be used as a substrate and is easy enough to clean and replace. It will also make the tank look more pleasing to the eye.

Hopefully, this article has given you a better idea of what is required to successfully care for your new ball python. Learning the husbandry is eye-opening for many, rewarding, and educational. If you do find yourself stuck, there are lots of great snake forums online and many dedicated solely to the ball python. I’d recommend anyone thinking of purchasing a snake to join one of these forums as snake owners will frequently discuss the small things that your local pet shop won’t. 

Many great books on ball python husbandry are also available, so there’s a wealth of information out there that’ll help you look after and care for your snake the best way possible.

Believe it or not, this isn’t everything you need to know about ball pythons, there’s still a lot of learning to do. Good Luck!