Ball Python Care
Ball Pythons are one of the most popular snakes being kept and bred in captivity.
Ball Python Acclimation, Care And Feeding
Acclimating a new Ball Python:
When you receive a new ball python, it is important to set it up in the correct environment so it can acclimate and begin feeding. Our ball pythons are raised in plastic boxes within a rack system. These boxes are usually not very big. Our hatchling and juvenile tubs are approximately 21” x 9” x 4”. Our subadult and adult Ball Pythons are housed in tubs ranging from 21” x 15” x 5” up to 33” x 17” x 6”. These conditions are ideal for ball pythons. In the wild, ball pythons spend most of their time in rodent burrows, rock crevices, hollow logs, etc. They feel secure when in close quarters and get stressed when they are in big, open spaces. The best way to set up a new ball python is to replicate how it was housed at the breeder's. However, most people that are keeping an individual, or perhaps several ball pythons, prefer to house them in larger display cages in a naturalistic setup. That way, they can more easily observe the snake's feeding and behavior. It is not difficult to acclimate ball pythons to this kind of setup, but it does take a little patience. Here are a few ideas on how to make the transition to their new home as stress-free as possible:
First, it is best to cover all 4 sides of the cage with black construction paper or cardboard. That way, the snake cannot see out into the room. It will feel more secure if it can't see the world around it. Keep in mind that ball pythons, especially young ones, feel very insecure when exposed. Covering the sides is only temporary. Once the snake has fed at least 2 or 3 times, the paper on one side of the cage can be removed each week. After four weeks, all of the paper will be removed. This allows the snake to gradually get used to the glass. Also, double-check your cage temperatures to make sure the hot spot is about 90 and cool side stays around 80. If the cage is too cool or too warm the snake may not feed.
Next, make sure there are a couple of good hiding places. The snake will probably spend most of its time in these hiding places. There should be one hid on the warm side of the cage and another on the cool side. In the wild, ball pythons spend a lot of time in burrows, and under logs/brush where they can stay hidden and feel secure.
Third, keep handling to a minimum, or preferably none at all, for the first couple of weeks or until the snake has fed at least a couple of times. Handling is stressful for a ball python. A stressed snake is unlikely to feed. Giving them a couple of weeks to get used to their new environment initially will make the transition much easier.
Also, feed a new ball python right in the cage/tub it normally lives in. Removing it to feed it in another container will only cause more stress. Once the snake has fed 3-4 times in its own cage, you can remove it to feed it in another container if you prefer.
Newly acquired ball pythons normally begin feeding within the first week or two. However, the stress from shipping and being placed in an unfamiliar environment can sometimes make the snake go into a non-feeding mode. This is nothing to panic about, as long as there are no other health issues with the snake. Ideally, it is best to get babies about 100 grams or less, to start feeding within 1-2 weeks. They don't have the fat reserves to survive as long as larger balls do. Older juveniles, subadults, and adults, can go much longer. We received a 250-gram clown ball python in January of 2003, that didn't eat its first meal for us until July 2003. He didn't lose much body weight, if any, and he went on to be a fine breeder for us. Ball pythons sometimes take lots of patience! It's important not to panic when a new ball python refuses to feed. There's usually a reason they are refusing food. Making sure they have the proper environment is extremely important to getting a new snake to settle in and begin normal behavior. See the sections below on feeding and housing for more information and tips. For more tips about feeding, see the Feeding section below.
CarIng For your ball python
Handling and biting issues:
Ball Pythons are one of the best species of snakes as far as handling is concerned. They rarely strike out of aggression. Most bites occur because of a feeding response. If you bring feeder rodents into the same room that a ball python is kept in, the snake will smell them and become interested in feeding. If you open the snake's cage and stick your hand in, it may assume its feeding time and strike. If caution is used when opening the snake's cage, bites are very unlikely.
Baby ball pythons tend to be more high-strung and defensive. This is especially true when a hatchling or juvenile is stressed. Keep in mind that in the wild, any animal larger than them is a potential predator. They don't understand that because they are in captivity, there are no predators. They view people as large predators at first. Ball Pythons feel threatened by our presence until they realize that we aren't going to hurt them. The best way they can deter a predator is by rapidly striking at it. Also, the process of shipping and being put into a new home can be stressful, which can put the snake on the defensive. They will feel frightened by the experience, which means they are more likely to strike. If the snake is acclimated properly, then put on a regular handling schedule, most ball pythons lose the tendency to bite. Luckily, ball python bites aren't usually serious. Being bitten by a baby ball python is like getting pricked by pins. A few drops of blood may form, but nothing some antibacterial soap and water, and perhaps some hydrogen peroxide or Neosporin can't fix. Adult ball pythons can give out more painful bites, but not something that requires any serious medical care. Careful observation and handling can usually eliminate the chance of being bitten. See the section above on acclimation for tips on how to reduce the amount of stress your ball python is experiencing. It is very common for juvenile ball pythons to be a bit high-strung and aggressive at first, but nearly all of them settle down nicely and become excellent pets. You won't see many aggressive adult ball pythons, which means that all of those high-strung juveniles mellow out in time.
Newly acquired ball pythons should not be handled unless absolutely necessary for the first couple of weeks, or until it has fed several times. Handling is somewhat stressful to a ball python, even if they don't show any signs of stress. Ball pythons that are stressed tend to go off-feed. Allow the new snake to adjust to its new environment slowly.
Ball pythons can be kept in a variety of cages. For display purposes, glass aquariums or reptile cages are generally used. Babies can be housed in small cages, equivalent to a 20-gallon aquarium. Adults need to be housed in cages at least the size of a 40-gallon aquarium. The main benefit of a display cage is that you can more easily observe the snake's behavior. If branches, logs, or other props are used, you can see the snake climbing on these. The drawback is that glass cages tend to make ball pythons feel less secure, which could cause feeding and behavior issues. Another housing method is rack systems using plastic tubs. These are generally used for housing larger numbers of ball pythons. Many snakes can be kept in a relatively small area. I use Freedom Breeder brand rack systems. The individual tubs are set up so that each snake requires a minimum amount of time and labor. The drawback to this kind of caging is that you have to slide the tub out of the rack to see the snake. It’s very difficult to observe natural behavior in this kind of setup. Whatever cage type is used, make sure it is very secure with no way for the snake to escape. Non-locking cage tops or racks that don't have tight enough spacing are very easy for ball pythons to escape from.
Regardless of the type of caging you choose, it is important to create a proper environment for the snakes. Ball pythons do very well in captivity if they are given the correct conditions. The ambient cage temperature should be 82-83 during the day, with a slight drop at night. A hot spot should be given that stays a constant 90-92 degrees during the day and around 85 at night. It is very important to make sure there is a temperature gradient, so the snake can choose whether it wants to warm up or cool down. Rack systems are generally heated with heat tape or heat cables. Most racks have tape or cable on each shelf in the rack. This must be connected to a high-quality thermostat to control the temperature. A thermostat is probably the most important piece of equipment you can buy. Don't risk using a low-quality, cheap thermostat. A thermostat that fails could lead to the death of your snakes. We use and recommend the Herpstat made by Spyder Robotics. Another very important piece of equipment is a temperature gun. This small device will measure the temperature of anything you point it at, at the click of a button. It is much more accurate than a stick-on cage thermometer. You can also use it to measure temperatures anywhere in the cage (or room for that matter). They are very inexpensive and can be purchased at a variety of online reptile supply companies.
Heating a display cage is a little more complicated. A combination of heat lamps and a heating pad usually works best. Use a heating pad, covering 1/4-1/3 of the underside of the cage as a 24-hour heat source. This will supply the belly heat that the snake needs to digest its food. For additional heat, a lamp placed above the cage will work. The wattage will depend on the cage size, amount of ventilation, and room temperature. You'll have to experiment a bit with the wattage to see what provides the correct temperature. It is best to use a red, blue nocturnal reptile bulb or ceramic heat emitter in the heat lamp. Ball pythons don't like bright light. These darker bulbs will not disturb the snake as much.
Ball pythons require fairly high humidity. 60-75% works well for them. Conditions that are too dry can result in health problems. They will have a difficult time shedding and may retain patches of old skin over their body and eyes. You will know when the humidity is high enough when the snake sheds all in one piece. That is a great sight for a ball python keeper! Low humidity can also cause respiratory infections (RI). Signs of RI are wheezing or foamy discharge from the mouth. Minor cases can be cured by raising the temperature and humidity in the cage. However, most RIs should be treated with medication from a veterinarian. If your cage has a lot of ventilation, such as a screen top, you'll want to make sure to provide plenty of extra moisture to help keep the humidity level high enough. Some types of bedding, such as coco chips and cypress mulch, retain water fairly well. I highly recommend coco chips for both display cages and racks. Wetting it down once or twice a week will help keep the cage humid. There are several brands of coco chips available and can be purchased online. A humid hiding place is also very effective. We use a plastic box with a hole cut in the lid large enough for the snake to enter and leave. Moistened paper towel or sphagnum moss is kept inside. The paper towel should be changed once or twice a week. If sphagnum moss is used, it should be re-wetted once or twice a week. The snake will spend a lot of time hiding in the box where the humidity will be higher than in the rest of the cage.
All snakes shed their skin several times a year. It is easy to see when a ball python is preparing to shed. Their colors get dull and their eyes become a cloudy, blue-grey color. Their eyes get cloudy because liquid is forming underneath the eye scale, which allows it to separate from the eye itself. This process will take several days. It’s best not to handle them at this time. They cannot see very well and may get frightened if they are picked up. It is important to make sure the humidity is higher than usual. If the humidity is too low, the snake may not be able to shed its skin properly, leaving patches of dry skin on the body and eyes. Misting the cage daily during shedding will help the snake have a good shed.
If the snake does retain skin or "eye caps", there is a relatively easy way to remove it. Place the snake in a plastic box with just enough water to barely cover the snake's body. It shouldn't have to swim to stay afloat. The water temperature should be 80-85 degrees. It should feel slightly cool to your touch, as your body temp is about 98.6 degrees. The box should be covered with a lid to prevent the snake from escaping. Make sure the box has a few air holes so the snake doesn't suffocate. Let the snake soak for at least an hour. At that point, remove the snake and gently rub the old skin off the snake's body. This is a good way to remove the retained skin. However, it is important to adjust the humidity in the snake's cage so it doesn't become a consistent problem.
Feeding Your Ball Python
Ball pythons in captivity eat mice, rats, and African soft fur rats (ASFs). They can be fed frozen-thawed, pre-killed, or live rodents. The benefit to frozen-thawed is that you can purchase a large supply at one time and use them at your convenience, rather than having to get a supply of live rodents every week. Also, a dead, thawed out rodent does not pose any threat to a snake. Live rodents have been known to injure or even kill the snake that was supposed to eat it. There's no danger of that with a dead rodent. The drawback to using frozen-thawed is that some ball pythons can be picky feeders, and may resist feeding. When our collection was smaller, only about 100 snakes, we used to feed our breeders thawed rodents. However, there were always a few that would just not eat them. We had to feed those live rodents. Also, a lot of the snakes that did eat thawed were inconsistent. As our collection grew, we decided to switch over most of our breeder ball pythons to live rodents. When we fed thawed, only about 40-50% of them would eat on a weekly basis. After we switched to live, about 90% of them would eat each week. However, most of our breeders that are usually fed live will still eat thawed, depending on how hungry they are. We feed our snakes what they want to eat, whether it is a rat, mouse, or ASF. More consistent feeding leads to better growth rates in our babies. It also allows the breeders to gain weight faster, which leads to more consistent reproduction.
Almost all of our Ball Pythons that are for sale are feeding well on frozen/thawed rodents. We typically start new hatchlings on live crawler mice. After 3-5 feedings, most babies will readily switch to thawed hopper mice and can be switched to thawed fuzzy rats after that. The key is to present the rodent properly as described below.
Switching from Live to Thawed:
Ball pythons, especially babies or juveniles, that are feeding on live rodents, can be switched to frozen-thawed if you have a little patience. Here is the procedure that works great for us:
Thaw a rodent out to room temperature. The best way to do this is to put the rodent on a tray, paper plate, etc, and let it sit at room temperature until it no longer feels cool/cold. Then, place it under a heat lamp for several minutes. A 100-watt bulb in a clamp lamp placed about 8-10 inches above the rodent works well. Keep it under the light for a few minutes, or until the rodent feels very warm to the touch. The rodent's body temperature should be 100-110 degrees (use a temp gun to check). Make sure not to leave it under the lamp for too long or the rodent will "cook". As long as the rodent is very warm, it will simulate body heat. Offer it to the snake on tongs, with the rodent's head first. the snake will sense the heat signature being given off by the rodent, and it will strike and constrict it as if it were a live rodent. This method works well but sometimes takes several attempts. Ball pythons can be more stubborn than their owners sometimes. If it doesn't work after several attempts, wait 3 or 4 days and try it again. You can also leave the heated rodent in front of the snake. It may realize it is food and eat it off the floor of the cage. Larger ball pythons that are raised on live rodents can sometimes be very difficult to switch to thawed, but most babies and juveniles are very easy to switch. The key is to make sure the rodent is hot enough. Most people that have problems getting my ball pythons to take thawed are not warming the rodent to the proper temperature.
Once the snake grabs the rodent and begins to constrict, it is very important to either leave the room or not to move. If the snake sees movement, it will most likely drop the rodent and become defensive. If you don't move, he/she should constrict and swallow the rodent within a few minutes.
For additional info on offering thawed, watch the video on my YouTube channel: TheRoyalConstrictor.
If live rodents are used, it is very important to never leave them in the cage with the snake unattended. Baby mice and rats cannot injure a snake, but larger ones can injure, or even kill a snake. Ball pythons won't kill a mouse or rat to defend themselves. Keep a close eye on them to make sure the snake does not have any problems.
Food size and feeding schedules:
We start feeding our baby ball pythons within a few days of their first shed, usually at about 2 weeks old. We feed our newly-hatched babies mouse crawlers, which are a little bigger than fuzzies, but not as large as a hopper or weanling. Once a particular snake has eaten several times, we usually switch them over to fuzzy rats, offering larger meals as the snake grows. We feed most of our ball pythons once a week. This includes our babies, juveniles, subadults, and breeders. If there are any individuals that we want to grow and mature quicker, we will sometimes offer them an extra feeding every once in a while. We do not like to power feed our snakes, whether they are for sale or they are holdbacks/breeders. It is not healthy for a snake to be in a constant state of digestion. In the wild most ball pythons probably only eat every couple of weeks, depending on food scarcity. In captivity, we control the scarcity. Overfeeding snakes to get them to grow fast is not healthy for snakes. Take your time with them and enjoy the slow journey of seeing your ball python grow.
The size of the food item should be roughly the same diameter as the thickest part of the snake. Here is a general guideline to follow:
- Hatchlings (65-100 grams)- crawler/hopper mice
- Hatchling/juveniles (100-175 grams)- weaned mice, or fuzzy rats
- Juveniles (175-300 grams)- medium mice or crawler rats/rat pups
- Larger Juveniles (300-500 grams)- large/X large mice or larger rat pups, smaller weaned rats
- Subadults (500-1000 grams)- Jumbo mice or weaned/small rats
- Small Adults (1000-1500 grams)- small rats
- Adults (1500 + grams)- medium rats
On an average feeding schedule, a 60-75 gram hatchling can easily reach 600-700 grams by the time it is a year old.
Fasting- My snake won't eat!
Many ball pythons go off-feed for several months after they are a year old. This is normal behavior for this species. It seems to happen most frequently when a particular snake is close to sexual maturity. Most males mature at around 500-700 grams, and females mature at around 1500 grams. When ours go off-feed, we continue to offer food every week or two and we monitor the snake for any signs of sickness. We also check cage temperatures, to make sure they are warm enough. Ball pythons that are kept too cool will sometimes go off-feed. After several months, most ball pythons will resume feeding on their own.
Getting problem-feeders and Newly-Acquired Ball Pythons to eat:
If a particular snake is a stubborn feeder, and absolutely refuses to eat, it is best to try to figure out why. Is the cage set up ideal? Too cool or too warm? Too much handling? Is something causing the animal stress? Does it want a different type of food? It sometimes takes trial and error to figure out the problem. We've had ball pythons that would refuse to eat anything. Then, we moved them from one rack to another, and they fed within a few days. One trick we've learned with feeding picky babies is placing them in a deli cup (with air holes) with a crawler mouse and leave them overnight. Sometimes, being in close contact with the prey item for several hours does the trick.
1. Read over the acclimation part of this care page. You want to reduce stress as much as possible and provide the ideal environment for the snake. That makes a HUGE difference if feeding success.
2. Try not to handle the snakes at all until they have fed at least twice. Handling is stressful and a stressed snake won't usually eat.
3. Feed the snakes right in their cage. Removing them to feed in another container will cause stress. Once they have eaten 3-4 times, you can feed them in a separate container if you want.
4. Make sure you are feeding the correct size food. Feed them a mouse that is as big around as the thickest part of their body. Most likely, you need hopper or weaned mice. Pinkies and fuzzys are too small- even for hatchling ball pythons.
5. The heat lamp method for warming thawed rodents works best. Make sure the mice feel pretty warm (95-100 degrees) to the touch before offering. Once they are warmed up, hold them with tongs about 1" away from the bulb for about 5 seconds right before offering.
6. Only try feeding them 2-3 times a week. If you try every day, you'll just stress them out, causing them to be less likely to eat.
7. If you can't get them to eat thawed within the first week, you may have to try a live rodent. If they eat that, try a thawed again the next time you feed.
If all else fails, we may resort to force-feeding, or assist-feeding. We virtually never do this with adults- they have the body fat reserves to go for months without feeding. However, hatchlings cannot survive as long and it is important that they don't go too long without nutrition. We try to get our to feed on their own for at least 3 or 4 weeks and we hold off assist-feeding much longer for larger juveniles. It is always better to try to figure out why the snake isn't feeding on its own, rather than assist-feeding. However, sometimes there is no other solution, and assist-feeding is necessary to keep the snake alive. To assist-feed, gently hold the snake on either side of the head with your thumb and index finger. Take a pre-killed mouse fuzzy, one that is smaller than what would normally be fed to the snake. Use the nose of the fuzzy mouse to stick into the slight gap in the center of the mouth, where the snake's tongue flicks in and out. Use the fuzzy's nose to pry the snake's mouth open. Gently push the fuzzy as far back into the mouth as possible, so that most of the body is in. Gently, but quickly set the snake down and don't make a move. Usually, if the snake doesn't immediately spit it out, it will realize there is food in its mouth and will begin swallowing. Don't move until the mouse has been swallowed. This procedure takes some practice and patience but works great. Wait 4 or 5 days, then offer the snake a live meal. If it doesn't eat by the following day, assist-feed it again. Most baby ball pythons will start taking food on their own after 3 or 4 assist-feeds. We did have a pastel female that hatched here that refused to take a meal on its own for over 6 months. One day, it started to feed on its own and did fine after that. Patience, patience! Only use assist-feeding as a last resort. It is important to figure out what is causing the snake's stress and to correct it. Most balls will start feeding again on their own if their stress levels drop.
Enjoy your new snake!
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Ball Python Genetics
Ball pythons are available in thousands of different color and pattern combinations. There is no animal on earth that has shown as much genetic variation as ball pythons. Some of the earlier morphs originated from wild-caught or farm-raised snakes in Africa in the 1990s. Odd-colored or patterned ball pythons were occasionally found and offered to breeders in the US.
Examples of these early morphs are albino, hypo, clown, caramel albino, axanthic, piebald, and pastel. As the demand for rare color morphs rose, more morphs were discovered and made their way into captive-breeding collections. Most of these morphs sold for tens of thousands of dollars when the first babies became available. As more of them were produced, their prices dropped. However, every year, new morphs are produced by combining some of the existing morphs and occasionally, a new morph is found in Africa and becomes established in collections.