pythons (Python regius) are found at the edges of the forest lands of Central
and Western Africa. They are equally comfortable on the ground and in trees. They
are crepuscular, active around dawn and dusk. Called royal pythons in Europe,
here in the United States we call them "balls" due to their habit of curling themselves
up into a tight ball when they are nervous, their heads pulled firmly into the
center. Like most pythons, ball pythons are curious and gentle snakes.
pythons typically reach 4 feet (1.2 m) in length; occasionally there are specimens
that reach 5 feet (1.5 m). When properly fed, their bodies become nicely rounded.
Like all pythons and boas, ball pythons have anal spurs. These single claws appearing
on either side of the vent are the vestigial remains of the hind legs snakes lost
during their evolution from lizard to snake millions of years ago. Males have
longer spurs than do the females; males also have smaller heads than the females.
pythons, like all pythons and boas, devour a variety of prey in the wild - amphibians,
lizards, other snakes, birds and small mammals. They do not eat mice in the wild,
however, and do not recognize the mice we offer them as being something edible.
Thus, imported wild-caught ball pythons tend to be very picky eaters, at least
initially, and drive their owners to distraction in their attempts to get them
to eat something.
pythons are reputed to be able to go for extended periods of time without food;
wild-caught ball pythons have gone for a year or more without food until finally
enticed to eat lizards and other snakes. This is not a healthy trait and must
not be a reason for selecting this species. This should also make you suspicious
when a pet store tells you that their ball pythons are eating well.
captive-born ball pythons reduces the stress on the threatened populations in
the wild and helps ensure you will get a healthy, established eater and a snake
already used to contact with humans. Buying from a reputable breeder will ensure
that you will get the help and advice you need to assure that your ball feels
comfortable and secure enough to eat after you bring it home and let it get settled
for a week or so.
the increased popularity of reptiles as pets there is increased pressure on wild
populations. In addition to the more than 60,000 ball pythons that are imported
annually, ball pythons are killed for food and their skin is used for leather
in their native land. For some reason, despite their low reproduction rate, wild
ball pythons are the least expensive pythons on the market, generally wholesaling
for under ten dollars. Imported ball pythons also harbor several different types
of parasites which may go unnoticed by the novice snake owner. All around, it
is better to buy a captive-born hatchling or an established, well-feeding juvenile,
sub-adult or adult than an imported ball of any age.
captivity, young ball pythons will grow about a foot a year during the first three
years. They will reach sexual maturity in three to five years. The longest living
ball python on record was over 48 years old when it died. Egg-layers, female ball
pythons encircle their four to ten eggs, remaining with then from the time they
are laid until they hatch. During this three month period, they will not leave
the eggs and will not eat.
Your Ball Python
an animal that has clear firm skin, rounded body shape, clean vent, clear eyes,
and who actively flicks its tongue around when handled. All ball pythons are naturally
shy about having their heads touched or handled by strangers; a normal reaction
is for the ball to pull its head and neck sharply away from such contact. When
held, the snake should grip you gently but firmly when moving around. It should
be alert to its surroundings. All young snakes are food for other, larger snakes,
birds, lizards and mammalian predators so your hatchling may be a bit nervous
at first but should settle down quickly.
an escape-proof enclosure
Select an enclosure especially
designed for housing snakes, such as the glass tanks with the combination fixed
screen/hinged glass top. All snakes are escape artists; ball pythons are especially
powerful and cunning when it comes to breaking out. A good starter tank for a
hatchling is a 10 gallon tank (approximately 20"L x 10"W [50 x 25 cm]). A young
adult requires a 20 gallon tank, and full adult may require a 30 gallon tank (36"
x 12"W [91 x 35 cm]).
a suitable substrate
paper towels at first. These are easily and quickly removed and replaced when
soiled and, with an import, will allow you to better monitor for the presence
of mites and the condition of the feces. Once the animal is established, you can
use more decorative ground cover such as commercially prepared shredded cypress
or fir bark. Pine and aspen shavings should not be used as they can become lodged
in the mouth while eating, causing respiratory and other problems. The shavings
must be monitored closely and all soiled and wet shavings pulled out immediately
to prevent bacteria and fungus growths. The utilitarian approach is to use inexpensive
Astroturf. Extra pieces can be kept in reserve and used when the soiled piece
is removed for cleaning and drying (soak in one gallon of water to which you have
added two tablespoon of household bleach; rinse thoroughly, and dry completely
before reuse). Remember: the easier it is to clean, the faster you'll do it!
a hiding place
half-log is available at pet stores. An empty cardboard box or upside-down opaque
plastic container, both with an access doorway cut into one end, can also be used.
The plastic is easily cleaned when necessary; the box can be tossed out when soiled
and replaced with a new one. The box or log must be big enough for the snake to
hide its entire body inside; you will need to eventually replace it as your snake
grows. Ball pythons prefer dark places for sleeping and, as they are nocturnal,
they like the dark place during our daylight hours; they also like to sleep in
something that is close around them, so do not buy or make too big of a cave for
its size. Place a nice climbing branch or two in the tank with some fake greenery
screening part of it; your ball will enjoy hanging out in the "tree."
range is essential to keeping your snake healthy. The ambient air temperature
throughout the enclosure must be maintained between 80-85F (27-29 C)-during the
day, with a basking area kept at 90F (32.5 C). At night, the ambient air temperature
on the coolest side may be allowed to drop down no lower than 73-75F ( 23-24 C)
only if a basking area of at least 80F (27 C) remains available. Special reptile
heating pads that are manufactured to maintain a temperature about 20 degrees
higher than the air temperature may be used inside the enclosure. There are adhesive
pads that can be stuck to the underside of a glass enclosure. Heating pads made
for people, available at all drug stores, are also available; these have built-in
hi-med-lo switches and can be used under a glass enclosure. You can also use incandescent
light bulbs in porcelain and metal reflector hoods to provide the additional heat
required for the basking area. All lights must be screened off to prevent the
snake from burning itself. All pythons, especially ball pythons, are very susceptible
to thermal burns. For this same reason do not use a hot rock. New on the market
are ceramic heating elements. They radiate heat downwards, do not emit light,
and are reported to be long lasting. Plugged into a thermostat will enable you
to adjust the temperature inside the tank as the ambient room temperature changes
with the seasons.
at least two thermometers - one to use in the overall area 1" (2.5 cm) above the
enclosure floor, and the other 1" (2.5 cm) above the floor in the basking area.
Don't try to guess the temperature - you will either end up with a snake who will
be too cold to eat and digest its food or one ill or dead from overheating.
No special lighting is needed. Ball pythons are nocturnal snakes,
spending their days in the wild securely hidden away from possible predators.
To make it easier to see your ball during the day, you can use a full-spectrum
light or low wattage incandescent bulb in the enclosure during the day. Make sure
the snake cannot get into direct contact with the light bulbs as ball pythons
are very prone to getting seriously burned. Respect your ball's needs, however,
and be sure to provide a hide box, and expect them to use it!
Allow your snake to acclimate to its new home for a couple of weeks.
Start your hatchling (about 15" in length) off with a single pre-killed one week
to 10-day old "fuzzy" mouse. A smaller sized hatchling may require a smaller mouse;
try a pre-killed 5-day old. Older ball pythons may be fed larger pre-killed mice
or pinkie rats. If you have not had any experience force feeding a snake, you
may not want to try it yourself until you have seen someone do it. Force feeding,
whether of a mouse or with a formula inserted by catheter and syringe, is very
stressful for the snake (and it isn't much fun for the owner!). If your new ball
has gone several months without eating and is beginning to noticeably lose weight,
take it to a reptile vet or contact your local herpetology society and ask to
speak to someone who is knowledgeable about ball pythons and feeding problems.
A good inexpensive book that covers some of the tricks to enticing reluctant ball
pythons to feed is The Care and Maintenance of Ball Pythons by Philippe de Vosjoli,
or the new edition, The Ball Python Manual, by de Vosjoli, Dave and Tracy Barker
and Roger Klingenberg.
Provide a bowl of fresh water at all times. Your snake will both
drink and soak, and may defecate, in it. Check it daily and change when soiled.
Soaking is especially good just before a shed. When they eyes clear from their
milky opaque, or "blue" state, soak the snake in a tub of warm water for ten minutes
or so, then lightly dry it off, and return it immediately to its tank; it should
shed cleanly within twenty-four hours.
Routine veterinary care for newly acquired snakes is essential. Many
of the parasites infesting ball pythons and other reptiles can be transmitted
to humans and other reptiles. Left untreated, such infestations can ultimately
kill your snake. When your snake first defecates, collect the feces in a clean
plastic bag, seal it, label it with the date, your name and phone number and the
snake's name, then take it and your snake to a vet who is experienced with reptiles.
There it will be tested and the proper medication given if worms or protozoan
infestations are found.
common problem encountered in captivity include retained eye shed (spectacles)
and mites. When snakes shed their skin, the layer of skin over their eye is also
shed, and can be clearly seen when looking at a piece of head shed. Always check
your ball's head shed to assure it has shed the spectacles. If one or both spectacles
have been retained, bathe the snake again in warmish water for about ten minutes.
Before returning it to the enclosure, place a dab of mineral oil on that eye with
a cotton-tipped swab. The spectacle should come off within twenty-four hours.
If it does not come off, wrap your four fingers with transparent tape, sticky
side out. Gently rock your fingers from left to right (or, from nose to neck)
across the eye; the spectacle should come off. If this does not removed the spectacle,
then seek veterinary assistance.
are a sign of poor environmental conditions. Adult mites are tiny reddish brown
dots barely bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. You may first
notice them swarming over your hand and arm after you have handled your snake
(don't worry--they are harmless to humans) or see them moving around your snake's
body or clustered around the eyes. Mites are harmful to snakes, especially ones
that have not been kept properly. On the positive side, they are easy and relatively
inexpensive to get rid of, although the process is time-consuming. Read the article
Getting Rid of Reptile Mites to find out the best ways to eradicate them.
including ball pythons, should routinely shed is one piece, from snout (including
spectacles) to tail-tip. If a snake does not shed cleanly, it is a sign that something
is not right, either with the snake or with its environment. Newly acquired snakes
may not shed properly for the first month or two as they are getting acclimated
to their new surroundings. This is a sign of transient stress. If it continues,
or begins to occur in a long established snake, the snake must be evaluated for
possible health problems, and the snake's environment must be evaluated for humidity
and Ball Pythons
pythons are native to very warm, but not hot, dry areas in Africa. Many people
make the mistake of trying to keep them in a too humid overall environment, using
damp sphagnum moss or misting them frequently throughout the day. The problem
with this is that keeping the overall environment damp leads to conditions such
as blister disease where in the skin, usually of the belly, becomes covered with
blisters, leading to bacterial infections of the skin, which in turn leads to
overall health problems.
fact, all a ball python needs is an area within its dry enclosure to which to
retreat when it requires higher humidity. One way to accomplish this is to provide
a water bowl large enough for the snake to soak in when it wants. Depending on
the ambient room (and thus enclosure) humidity, this may be enough, or may be
enough during part of the year. Another good, safe option for a ball python is
a humidity retreat box.
your new snake
giving your ball a couple of days to settle in, begin picking it up and handling
it gently. It may move away from you, and may threaten you by lashing it's tail
and hissing; don't be put off - it is usually just a bluff, and snakes, like most
reptiles, are very good at bluffing! Be gentle but persistent. Daily contact with
each other will begin to establish a level of trust and confidence between you
and your snake. When it is comfortable with you, you can begin taking it around
the house. Don't get overconfident! Given a chance and close proximity to seat
cushions, your ball will make a run (well, a slither) for it, easing down between
the cushions and from there, to points possibly unknown. Always be gentle, and
try to avoid sudden movements. If the snake wraps around your arm or neck, you
can unwind it by gently grasping it's tail and gently unwrapping it from around
your neck or arm - do not try to unwrap it by moving the head. Some snakes are
a bit sensitive about being handled soon after they have eaten. If you feed your
snake out of it's enclosure, go ahead and replace it back into it's enclosure
after it has finished eating. Then leave it be for a couple of days. As the snake
gets more comfortable with you, it will be less nervous and less likely to give
you back your mouse.
Body Disease / Quarantine
Inclusion body disease (IBD) is a virus that affects boas and pythons
(boids). It is always fatal in pythons. Unfortunately, the lust to sell has overcome
common sense in private breeders as well as pet stores and wholesalers, and an
increasing number of boas and pythons are being sold who are infected with this
spend a considerable amount of time observing boids before you buy them, especially
at pet stores. Even reptile specialty stores have been selling infected stock
so buying from such stores is no guarantee that you are buying an uninfected/unexposed
snake. Don't buy a boid because you feel sorry for it, because it looks sick and
the store isn't providing proper care for it - you may lose every boid you own.
observe strict quarantine procedures when bringing in a new boid into your house
if you already have other boids. IBD may take several months to manifest itself.
Owners have reported their new snakes showing signs as little as one month after
acquiring hatchlings to well over one year after acquiring a new boid.
have boids who are not acting well (loss of appetite, regurgitating meals, mouthrot,
respiratory infection, contorted body positions, stargazing) seen by a reptile
vet as soon as possibly after symptoms are noticed. Warn the vet before coming
in that it may be IBD so they may take precautions to reduce exposure to other
boids who may be in their office at that time.
that it doesn't require snake-to-snake contact to spread the disease. You may
unwittingly spread it by handling other snakes without first thoroughly washing
your hands. Viruses are airborne - think twice about taking your snakes to places
where they will encounter snakes belonging to people who may not be taking proper
Some things you should have on
hand for general maintenance and first aid include: Nolvasan (chlorhexidine diacetate)
for cleaning enclosures and disinfecting food and water bowls, litter boxes, tubs,
sinks, your hands, etc. Betadine (povidone/iodine) for cleansing scratches and
wounds. Set aside a food storage bowl, feeding and water bowls, soaking bowl or
tub, even sponges, to be used only for your snake.
You have a companion that will be a part of your life for a great
many years if taken care of properly. They should remain alert and active well
into their old age. The main causes of death of snakes in captivity are directly
related to their care: improper temperatures, contact with heating and lighting
elements, no regular access to water, lack of necessary veterinary care and treatment,
careless handling--all things for which we, as their caretakers, are directly
Ball Python Manual, by Philippe de Vosjoli, Dave and Tracy Barker, and Roger Klingenberg,
1995. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Lakeside CA.
Illustrated Atlas of Reptiles and Amphibians, by Obst, Richter and Jacob. 1988.
TFH Publications, Inc. Neptune City, NJ.
of the World, by Scott Weidensaul. 1991. Chartwell Books, Seacacus, NJ.
Snakes of the World, John M. Mehrtens. 1987. Sterling Publishing Co. New York.