Caring For Your New Ball Python
Caring for your new friend isn't that difficult, but there are a few things to keep in mind. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There are a lot of great resources and books on the subject, but here's a compact guide to get you started.
- Most importantly, keep the cage clean and at the right temperature. Ball pythons are cold blooded which means that unlike us, the temperature of their body depends on their environment. Failure to maintain heat will result in sickness.
- There are generally two ways to provide heat: from beneath with an under tank heater (UTH) like heat tape, and from above with a heat lamp. In both cases it is strongly recommended to control this heat source using a thermostat otherwise overheating can harm or even kill your reptile.
- If using a UTH (my preference):
- The UTH should be on the outside of the tub or tank. Your thermostat's probe should also monitor the heat tape on the outside of the tub, being sandwiched between the UTH and the tub. If kept inside the tub, the snake could knock it loose which would result in dangerous overheating.
- The temperature of the hottest part of the tub, under the substrate but directly over the heat tape should be kept at 90 degrees.
- The general/ambient temperature of the air in the tub should be ideally around 78-82 degrees. If your room is especially cold, you can supplement with a low-powered heat lamp.
- If using a heat lamp:
- Setup your heat lamp on one side of the tank so as to create a gradient with a hotter and colder side. The hotter side should be about 90 degrees, and the colder side about 80 degrees.
- Purple/night time bulbs may be run 24 hours a day, but red and other colors should require a timer switch to be run in daytime only, or they may interrupt the python's sleep cycle.
- Consider a Ceramic Heat Emitter. This device looks and plugs in like a light bulb, but provides only heat, without any light shining into the enclosure.
- Beyond the thermostat, you can use an extra thermometer to monitor temperature within the cage. Even better is to get an inexpensive temperature gun, which lets you test many surfaces quickly.
- Humidity should be kept above 50%, and this is easy to attain with a tub setup. A glass aquarium with a screen top is a much more difficult setup to maintain humidity in, especially in the winter.
- No special lighting is required.
- Never put tape in the tub.
- For substrate, you can use newspaper in the bottom of the tub or aspen chips that can be purchased in huge bags from local pet stores. Avoid pine! Zoo Med Eco Earth Coconut substrate is an inexpensive option if purchased in bricks which is good for boosting humidity when moist.
- Do not put more than one ball python in one enclosure for a period of time unless you are breeding them (see below). Not only does this stress them out but it can spread illnesses.
- Feed your python once a week an appropriate sized prey item, ideally a rat.. A good size is a rat that is 10-15% of her weight, until she is 500g. For example, a hatchling that is 120g would get a meal that is between 12g and 18g. This would be a fuzzy rat. Once they get bigger they will eat rat pups (20-35g), and then weaned (35-50g), then smalls (50-90g). The rat and python will be about the same size around their middle.
- Put your frozen rat in a plastic baggie and in warm water for 15 minutes to thaw it and get it warm to the touch. A live rodent's temperature is about 88-93F. Use water that is hot but not hotter than you could hold your fingers in. You do not want to cook the rat. You can also leave it out for a few hours and then it is quicker to warm up.
- To feed, hold it with some kind of tongs or by the tail and hang about 4-5” in front of the python until he smells it, then she will usually eat. Best done at night. Try to disturb them as little as possible for best results. A non aggressive eater may take a couple of minutes so be patient.
- After feeding do not handle the snake for 48 hours or else it could regurgitate the meal which is bad for its health. Brian at BHB has disputed this rule.
- Never leave a live rat alone with your snake -- they can hurt it or even kill it. Frozen rats are the cheapest, easiest and safest for your snake, although live rats are fine as long as you supervise the feeding.
- You can buy frozen rats at PetSmart, but they are expensive. You get much better prices online buying in bulk but they will charge you a lot for shipping so it isn’t good unless you are buying say $100 or more.
- If a snake will not eat on its regular schedule it could mean several things. It could be in shed. It could be stressed out due to too much handling or not having proper environment. Least likely it could be sick. A snake that is eating is probably a healthy snake. It may be none of these things; ball pythons can be very picky eaters but there are a lot of tricks you can use to get them eating again.
- For more information read feeding frozen rats.
- When handling, avoid fast movements and touching it close to its head. This scares them.
- To pick up your python touch it in an area opposite its head to let it know, then you can pick it up there. Sometimes she will let out a very quiet hiss, but this is okay.
- Holding it for too much time can stress the animal out. A couple times a day for short periods of time is ideal.
- It may be scared of you at first and ball up, but will generally get used to you over a period of time.
- Do not handle your python for at least 48 hours after feeding (see above).
- If your snake is stressed it will stop eating. Overhandling is one of the major causes of this stress, in addition to wrong environment. If your snake is not eating regularly you should double-check all your environment parameters and stop handling it until it’s eating again.
- When their belly is pink this usually means they are going into shed. This process can last 10 days. You may also notice their eyes greying over for a day or so. They often won’t eat during this time. If humidity has been properly kept, they should shed their skin and not have any pieces stuck. Skin shed all in one piece is a good sign that your environment is healthy, but it's not uncommon for a snake to tear the delicate shed skin into several pieces as it works its way out.
- If pieces of the shed have not come off after several days, there are ways to help it shed. But be sure not to try to rip the skin off or it could harm the animal.
- Pythons can get various kinds of sicknesses but if proper care is given this is an unlikely scenario. Expensive trips to the veterinarian are a motivation to take good care of your pet.
- Some kinds of sickness are caused by wrong environment. A common one is respiratory infection (RI) which is often caused by not having a warm enough environment for a period of time. Often the python will make a wheezing noise when it breathes, may have bubbles at the mouth, and may leave its head in upright position to help it breath. Help should be sought immediately.
- Other kinds of sickness may come from contact with other sick animals. This includes RI, mites, and parasites. Never let germs from animals contact each other unless you are sure they are both well. Snakes from pet stores are known for having mite infestations, which look like tiny black dots.
- Buying snakes off craigslist from inexperienced or dishonest individuals is another way to bring sickness home that may affect your other snakes. Always buy from people you trust.
- If you buy a second snake, be sure to keep it completely separate for a month or two from your other ones, until you are sure it’s healthy and it is eating regularly. Sterilize anything that could spread germs, e.g. germx.
- Once you’ve gotten comfortable with your python you may one day begin wondering what it would be like to breed your own animals. By breeding pythons with different visual genes/morphs you can even create combinations never seen before! Try playing around with a morph calculator to see what combinations you could create with your snakes. Males capable of breeding at about 500g and females are mature enough around 1500g (usually after 2-3 years).
- Buying a ball python from a reputable breeder is one of the best things you can do to set yourself up for success. At MorphMarket, we have hundreds of ball python morphs organized by the gene so you can a healthy little guy that fits your exact preference.
- In general, larger breeders will often have a greater track record about how they've dealt with their customers. Smaller breeders on the other hand, may be able to spend more time talking with you and providing customer support.