Published on October 5, 2016
Ball pythons (Python regius) are native to Central and Western Africa. They prefer grassland, savannah habitats, and farmland. Ball pythons spend most of the time under the ground in burrows. They are crepuscular, meaning they are most active around dawn and dusk. These snakes have labial pits on either side of their mouth which sense heat or infrared radiation, and are used most frequently to detect prey. They lack eyelids, and instead their eyes are covered by a thin, transparent scale, known as the “spectacle”. This spectacle is shed regularly with the rest of the skin. Ball pythons have anal spurs which are thought to be the vestigial remains of hind legs. Males have longer spurs than females. These single claws appear on either side of the vent.
General Setup Needs for Ball Pythons
Ball pythons should be housed in enclosures that are twice as long and one time as wide as their length. Four feet in length is typical for ball pythons, requiring an 8ft x 4ft enclosure. All snakes are escape artists, and can be especially powerful and cunning when it comes to breaking out. Ball pythons are a ground-dwelling species, so longer enclosures are preferred over taller enclosures. The enclosure should be large enough to provide a wide horizontal temperature gradient. Caging should be made of sturdy, nonabsorbent material, such as glass, plastic, or Plexiglas.
For low maintenance enclosures, newspaper, butcher paper, and artificial carpeting are safe, easily cleaned, and inexpensive. For a more decorative setting, a bioactive substrate, or living substrate, containing a mixture of numerous bases, including peat moss, potting soil, finely shredded bark, sand, and clay can be used. This type of substrate requires upkeep and demands close attention from the reptile’s keeper. You still need to clean out the feces and urates on a daily basis. Pine and aspen shavings should not be used because they can get lodged in the mouth and may even be toxic. Sand, loose dirt and walnut shell are also readily available but are not ideal, except within the environment of a bioactive substrate.
All snakes MUST have a place to hide within their enclosure. A minimum of two hiding boxes or logs should be provided. One should be available near the heating source, and the other placed at the cooler end of the enclosure. These hides are their sanctuary, and you should not bother them while they are hiding. Types of hides include a hollowed-out half-log, an empty cardboard box, terra cotta flower pots (with edges sanded down), or an upside-down opaque plastic container.
Ball Pythons are ectothermic (cold-blooded), thus requiring supplemental heat in captivity. Your python will need a basking site of 95°F. The warm side of the cage should be 80-85°F. The cool side of the cage should be no colder that 70°F. We strongly advise against using hot rocks. Hot rocks require direct contact to provide heat and frequently cause dehydration and thermal burns in reptile species. Improper heating gradients are the leading cause of illness in captive reptiles. When kept at too cool of temperatures, your python’s metabolism, digestion, kidneys, and immune system all function at a reduced capacity.
An appropriate photoperiod of 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness during the winter months, and 14 hours of daylight, and 10 hours of darkness during the summer should be provided to all ball pythons. The use of timers to maintain this photoperiod is recommended. Full spectrum lighting containing ultraviolet A (UVA; 320-400nm) and ultraviolet B (UVB; 290–320nm) radiation is suggested for all snakes, but might not be as important in ball pythons. Ultraviolet light produces beneficial behavioral and psychologic effects as well as allowing for the production of vitamin D3, which plays an essential role in calcium metabolism. The only lights that can safely provide these critical wavelengths to your diurnal reptiles are the UVB/A producing fluorescents made specifically for the reptile pet trade. “Full spectrum” lights which look like incandescent light bulbs are incandescent light bulbs and are only for producing heat. They do not produce any UVB. The use of the term “full spectrum” can be grossly misleading, so be sure you are purchasing the correct bulbs.
Humidity is an often overlooked aspect of the captive environment. Even the most enthusiastic pet reptile keepers sometimes fail to install a hygrometer within the vivarium. Ball pythons require 50-70% humidity inside of their vivarium. Ways to increase humidity can be as simple as placing the water dish under the heat lamp. Likewise, one can spray the side of the enclosure with tap water every 24-48 hours. To promote optimum health, providing a humidity hide allows your python to regulate their personal hydration within the cage. Providing a water bowl large enough for your snake to soak in when it wants can also achieve adequate humidity.
Low humidity levels can lead to dysecdysis (trouble shedding), and chronic dehydration. Too high humidity can lead to respiratory infections and skin disease in your ball python.
Ball pythons are carnivorous and consume their prey whole. Snakes should always be fed freshly killed or frozen-thawed prey items. Live rodents can inflict severe injury to a snake through biting and scratching. Growing ball pythons should be fed once weekly while adult ball pythons (those over three years of age) typically need to eat only once every two to four weeks, depending on the size of the food item, the time of year, and reproductive activity. Ball pythons are known to not eat well in captivity, but any anorexia should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Feeding too frequently can lead to obesity and constipation. Mice and rats are the most readily available food sources in the pet trade. Food items should be a smaller than the largest diameter along a snake’s body. No vitamin or mineral supplements are required for ball pythons if fed previously healthy rodents.
Ball pythons are generally amenable to handling. Regular handling will allow the snake to become more comfortable with human contact. Always be gentle, and try to avoid sudden movements. The snake should be supported with both hands at all times, with one hand supporting the front half of the snake and the other supporting the back half. If the snake wraps around your arm, you can unwind it by gently grasping it’s tail and slowly unwrapping it from around your arm – do not try to unwrap it by moving the head. Snakes should never be handled immediately before they are about to shed because they can be ill-tempered and more aggressive during this time. Likewise, do not handle your snake immediately before and after feeding. When transporting your snake, it is often best to place your snake in a cloth pillow case that is tied shut and then put into a plastic carrying case.
Reptiles and their prey items can spread Salmonella spp. and other pathogens. The CDC advises that the handler wash his/her hands after each contact with a reptile or its prey. Additionally, reptiles should not be handled by children under the age of 5 years, or by people with compromised immune systems.
With appropriate husbandry ball pythons can live well into their twenties. At Pender we recommend annual exams with a fecal parasite check for all our ball pythons. Other commonly encountered medical conditions include anorexia (not eating), dysecdysis (poor shed), respiratory disease, parasites, stomatitis (mouth infection), and trauma (thermal burns and rodent bites). All of these medical conditions warrant evaluation by one of our exotic veterinarians. Our veterinary staff can help you with these, or any other issues you may be having, while also assisting in setting your ball python up for a long and healthy life. Please give us a call at 703-654-3100 with any questions or to set up an appointment for your ball python.