Caring for Your Ball Python
Ball pythons, known for their calm temperament and striking patterns, are one of the most popular pet snakes in the world. These pythons are native to the warm and tropical climates of sub-Saharan Africa and are the smallest python from Africa.
Ball pythons tend to be shy, but they are relatively docile and easy to care for. With proper care, they can live 30 years or longer.
Male ball pythons are generally smaller than females, reaching only 3 ½-4 feet long. Females, on the other hand, can reach 4 ½-5 feet long. A baby ball python can be housed in a 10-20 gallon tank, but an adult will need an enclosure that is a minimum of 3 or 4-feet long, such as a 55-gallon tank.
Ball pythons can be kept on several different types of substrate. Cypress mulch retains moisture and helps keep a proper humidity level. Aspen will also work well; however, it doesn’t absorb moisture in the same way as cypress mulch. While cage carpet also works for ball pythons, they seem to enjoy a loose substrate that they can bury themselves in.
Ball pythons are a ground-dwelling snake that appreciate several different caves or shelters to hide in. The best setup would be to have two hiding spots in the cage—one on the warm side and the other on the cool side. Low branches and artificial plants can also be added to contribute to your python’s habitat.
Other Necessary Supplies
- Water dish
- Thermometer (preferably digital)
- Hygrometer (to measure humidity)
- Feeding tongs
Spray bottle for misting
Spot clean weekly, or more often, as needed. The entire cage and décor should be cleaned and sanitized at least monthly. Clean the enclosure with a 3% bleach solution, distilled vinegar and water (50/50), hydrogen peroxide, or a pet-safe cleaning product.
Heating & Lighting
Ball pythons, like all reptiles, are cold-blooded (or ectothermic) and don’t produce their own body heat. They rely on the temperature of their surroundings to heat or cool them. It’s important that a habitat include a temperature gradient so it can self-regulate its body temperature.
Temperatures in a ball python cage should range from 80F, at the cool end of the habitat, to 85-90F at the warm end. While ball pythons are dependent on warmth, lighting is not essential for them. Most keepers like to add lighting for better viewing or effect.
Ball pythons are nocturnal, so UVB lighting is not essential like it is for some other reptiles. However, low levels are thought to be beneficial.
There are several ways to keep your ball python’s cage at an ideal temperature. You can use a heat pad, heat lamp, or a combination of the two if extra warmth is needed. The temperature can easily be raised or lowered by changing the wattage of bulb that is used. (Higher wattage bulbs create more heat than lower wattage bulbs.)
Another important element of a ball python’s habitat is humidity. Without proper humidity, a ball python tends to have difficulty shedding its skin. A shed skin should come off all in one piece—flaking off in patches is a sign that the humidity is too low.
Ways to increase the humidity include increasing the size of the water dish and misting the habitat with lukewarm water from a spray bottle one or more times per day. If your tank has a screen lid, you can cut down on moisture loss by covering part of the lid. There are also foggers made for reptiles that will help boost the humidity.
In general, humidity in a ball python’s habitat should stay above 50-60%, but it is also important that it not stay saturated all the time. If it’s too moist, skin infections and other problems can result.
The humidity should naturally cycle from low to high throughout the course of the day. It’s also a good idea to provide a humid hide for your ball python. This can be as simple as a plastic tub with a lid and a hole cut into the side that’s large enough for the snake to enter.
The hide should be large enough for the snake to crawl inside and coil up comfortably. Put a layer of damp moss inside the hide box, and check every few days to make sure it stays moist. The humidity will help soften the old skin and help your python shed more easily.
Most ball pythons thrive on a weekly feeding of an appropriately-sized rodent. A good guide is to look at the thickest part of the ball python’s body, and look for a rodent that is about the same diameter or a tiny bit larger. Hatchling ball pythons usually start out on rat pinks or mouse hoppers and work their way up to small to medium rats as an adult.
Feeder rodents are available in two options: live or frozen. Frozen feeders have several benefits over live rodents:
- There is no risk of the rodent injuring your snake
- Reduces the risk of parasite transmission
- You can buy in bulk and store them in your freezer
- More humane for the rodents
- You won’t need to provide care for frozen rodents
You will need to thaw and warm the rodent before feeding it to your snake. (Note: DON’T use boiling water, and NEVER microwave your snake’s food.) Warm water is the fastest and easiest way to thaw a rodent. Just fill a plastic ziploc bag, container, or cup with warm tap water and submerge the frozen rodent. Let it thaw 20-30 minutes for smaller rodents and 30-60 minutes for larger rodents.
As the water cools, pour it out and add more warm water to speed up the thawing process. Let the rodent thaw until it feels warmed all the way through. You can also place the frozen rodent in the fridge overnight to thaw.
Many snakes will not take thawed rodents unless they are warmed up above room temperature. The easiest way to do this is to empty the water out of the container after the rodent is thawed and refill it with hot tap water. Put the rodent in the water for 20-30 seconds, then dangle it in front of the snake with a pair of feeding tongs.
The python should strike right away if it is hungry. It will go through the same motions of constricting its prey as it would do with a live rodent.
Some keepers use a separate cage to feed their snake in. Since it is only used for feeding, it can be much smaller than the snake’s regular cage. The theory behind this is to keep the snake from expecting food and striking anytime the cage is opened. It can also prevent the snake from accidentally ingesting any substrate while eating.
If you do feed your snake live rodents, be sure to never leave it unattended while feeding. A cornered rodent may actually attack your snake and injure it. If 5-10 minutes pass and your snake has not eaten, remove the rodent and try again later.
If your ball python won’t eat, first make sure the temperature and humidity are in the correct ranges. Missing one or two meals is usually not a cause for alarm, as long as the snake is acting normally and not losing weight. Many snakes will not eat if they are about to shed their skin.
Adult ball pythons sometimes have the tendency to go off feed during the fall and winter, especially males. This coincides with the time of their breeding season in the wild. As long as your snake is healthy beforehand, this fasting period shouldn’t cause any harm.
If you notice any significant weight loss or are concerned about your python, please consult your vet.
Signs of a healthy python
- Bright, shiny eyes without retained eyecaps
- Nostrils free of discharge and no signs of wheezing or labored breathing
- Firm body weight without being too obese or thin
- No abnormal lumps or scabs
- Alert and inquisitive nature
- Weight loss
- Labored breathing, wheezing, or discharge from nostrils
- Sores, bumps, abrasions
- Mites (tiny black insects crawling on your ball python)
There are a variety of online resources covering ball python health issues, such as:
Size: 3 to 5-feet long, occasionally up to 6-feet long
Life span: 30 years, sometimes more!
Origin: Central and Western Africa
Care Level: Beginner to intermediate
Ball pythons are shy snakes that are named for their habit of curling into a ball when they feel threatened.
A ball python can track its prey’s body heat by using the heat-sensitive pits near its mouth!
Ball pythons are now being bred in many different color phases, called “morphs” - popular morphs include pastel, albino, spider, clown, and piebald.
Unlike most reptiles, female ball pythons actually provide parental care for their young! After a female lays her eggs, she coils her body around them to protect them. She can even flex her muscles and “shiver” to generate heat to keep her eggs warm. Once the babies hatch, she slithers away and the babies are able to fend for themselves.
Several African cultures regard ball pythons as sacred animals. The oldest ball python on record lived to the age of 48!
This is a basic outline about caring for your ball python and is not meant to be an exhaustive guide on ball python care or health. For further guidance, please refer to books, online resources, veterinarians, or animal care specialists.