Ball Pythons are 4-5 foot long carnivorous snakes from Africa. These snakes can live to be 28 years old. They reproduce by laying 4-10 eggs once they reach maturity between 3 and 5 years of age.
Select an enclosure especially designed for housing snakes, with the combination fixed screen/hinged glass top. All snakes are escape artists; Balls are especially powerful and cunning when it comes to breaking out. A good starter tank for a hatchling is a 10 gallon tank (approx. 20″L x 10″W). A young adult requires a 20 gallon tank, and a large adult may require a 30 gallon tank (36″ x 12″W).
Balls are nocturnal and prefer to have an area in the cage to hide in. This can be formed with a commercial half log, plastic or cardboard box. It should be large enough for the entire snake to fit in. Tree branches should be provided for the snake to climb on.
Use paper towels or newspapers at first. These are easily and quickly removed and replaced when soiled and, 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. Astroturf provides an inexpensive alternative. Extra pieces can be kept in reserve and used when the soiled piece is removed for cleaning and drying (soak in one part bleach to 30 parts water; rinse thoroughly, and dry completely before reuse
Proper temperature range is essential to keeping your snake healthy. The ambient air temperature throughout the enclosure must be maintained between 80-85oF during the day, with a basking area kept at 90oF. At night, the ambient air temperature may be allowed to drop down no lower than 75oF. Reptile heating pads are manufactured to maintain a temperature about 20 degrees higher than the air temperature may be used inside the enclosure. Heating pads made for people should not be used as they may overheat. 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. Do not use a hot rock as they may burn your pet. Place 2 thermometers in the tank, 1″ above the enclosure floor, and the other 1″ above the floor in the basking area. Don’t try to guess the temperature – you will either end up with a snake that will be too cold to eat and digest its food or one ill or dead from overheating.
Ball pythons do not require special UVB lighting (as do many other reptiles). However, they do need a dark period of at least 8 hours. 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.
Start your hatchling (about 15″ in length) off with a single pre-killed week to 10-day old “fuzzy” mouse. A smaller sized hatchling may require a smaller mouse; try a pre-killed 5-day old. Older Balls may be fed larger pre-killed mice or pinkie rats. Live prey may harm your snake so avoid them. If your new Ball has gone several months without eating and is beginning to noticeably lose weight, take it to a reptile vet. 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.
Routine veterinary screening
Newly acquired snakes should be taken to your veterinarian. During the examination, our veterinarians will evaluate the body condition, oral cavity and respiratory system for evidence of infection, as well as the skin for signs of parasites, fungus or burns. Many of the parasites infesting Balls 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 bring it and your snake in for evaluation.
Handling your new snake
After giving your Ball a couple of days to settle in, begin picking it up and handling it gently. It may move from you, and may threaten you by doing tail lashings and hissing. Be gentle but persistent. Daily contact 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. Always be gentle, and try to avoid sudden movements. If the snake wraps around your arm or neck, you can unwind it by gently unwrapping it from around you starting from its tail end – not the head.
Some things you should have on hand for general maintenance and first aid include: Novalsan (Chlorhexidine diacetate) for cleaning enclosures and disinfecting food and water bowls, litter boxes, tubs and sinks etc. Betadine (provodine/iodine) for cleansing scratches and wounds. Set aside a food storage bowl, feeding and water bowls, soaking bowl or tub.
Ball Python Feeding Problems
Most ball pythons in the pet trade are imported from Africa where they are not fed on mice. Therefore they may not recognize mice as being food. Compound this with the fact that the animals are often stressed and heavily parasitized and dehydrated, and you have an animal that may well die unless it gets into the hands of someone who knows what is going on. If at all possible, you should try to get the python to feed voluntarily before resorting to force feeding (stuffing a mouse or feeding tube down its throat). It will be less stressful for the python–and you.
One key thing is to evaluate the environment. Make sure the temperatures are in the proper range (mid 70s to high 80s during the day, low 70s to low 80s at night).
Tricks to Encouraging Self-feeding
A healthy ball may be tricked into eating in a couple of different ways:
- Provide a dark hidebox for it – an inverted flower pot with a hole in it, a cardboard box, half log, hollow log section, ceramic cave – whatever works. It is okay if the snake’s body touches all the sides when it is inside – they feel more secure this way. Dangle killed or stunned prey (use forceps) in front of the opening. Be prepared for the snake to strike and DON’T jerk the prey back! If you do, you will have discouraged the ball and he will not strike again. Leave him alone for several days before trying again. You may have better success offering a smaller prey item for the next feedings.
- Feed at night, not during the day. These are nocturnal snakes and may be uncomfortable feeding during the day. Once they are fully acclimated to captivity–and you– they will often take food during the day.
- If it takes the prey but won’t eat, or won’t take it, drop the mouse inside, and swathe the enclosure with towels to block the snake from seeing anybody or anything and leave it alone for 24 hours. Resist the temptation to peek! Do NOT do this with a live gerbil, however!
- If gerbils are legal in your state, try feeding stunned, then killed gerbils (do not leave a live gerbil in with your snake – the gerbil is more likely to bite the snake than the snake is to grab the gerbil, and once bitten, the snake is less likely to try to eat). If it takes them, start rubbing killed mice on gerbils to scent them, and offer the mice (a killed gerbil can be used repeatedly if kept frozen and defrosted when needed for scenting).
- If the python is regurgitating its meal, this may be a sign that the enclosure is too cold, or that it has an internal parasite infection, or that the prey was too big.
- Check to make sure that the temperatures are in the correct range. If they were too cool, wait a couple of days and try again – with smaller, more easily digestible, prey.
- If the regurgitated prey is extremely smelly, it is a sign that there may be a protozoan infection going on. The snake (and the securely bagged prey) should be taken to a reptile vet to have the condition checked out and treated.
- Snakes, as a rule, can eat anything that is as big across the shoulders as the snake is wide in the body. However, this doesn’t mean that they should! Bigger prey is harder to digest, and less efficiently digested, than smaller prey. And most snakes will regurgitate prey that is too big. It is better to feed two or three smaller prey items at a feeding session than one large one.
- Try feeding more colorful prey. Not only do they not recognize mice as being ‘food,’ they don’t recognize red-eyed white mice as being food! Get parti-colored mice, mice with black, brown and gray colors mixed in their fur. While small hamsters are suitable for food, guinea pigs of any size are not – their fur and skin is much too thick to adequately digest. Chicks are not as nutritious as rodents, and rabbit, even pink (newborn) rabbits are too big. It is best to get your python feeding on rodents (or killed or stunned gerbils, in states where they are legal) as quickly as possible.
If your snake is seriously thin (triangular in cross-section, with the backbone visible), you will have to resort to force feeding. Rather than shoving a mouse or other prey item down its throat, it is actually less stressful, and more beneficial, to make a feeding slurry and administer it using a syringe and lubricated gastric feeding tube. This will enable you to get the feeding down more quickly using a highly digestible food product. This means that the snake will burn up less calories fighting you, and will not have to work at breaking through fur, skin and bones for a couple of days to get to the, er, meat of the matter. Being more highly digestible means that it will take less effort to digest and more nutrients will be extracted from it. Feeding slurries should be fed at the rate of 2% of body weight every 24-48 hours; weigh the snake daily, or at least every 2-3 days, and adjust the amount fed accordingly.
Stir the contents of a can of Hill’s a/d (available from your vet) until smooth. Dilute with Pedialyte or 1 part Gatorade mixed with 1 part water to thin enough to draw up into the syringe.
OR Stir the contents of one or more jars of baby food beef, chicken, or turkey. Heat gently, then mix in 1-2 inches of Nutri-Stat, Endura-Jel or other vitamin/mineral high calorie gel made for dogs and cats. Stir well, thinning if necessary with Pedialyte or Gatorade/water. Heat the slurry gently, then stir again to work through any hot spots.
Draw up into an appropriately sized syringe to which a feeding tube can be attached. These can be obtained from your vet or from animal equipment suppliers. Lubricate the tube with KY Jelly after warming it in warm water. It is always best to be shown how to force feed before doing it yourself. You need to gently pry open the mouth (a spatula or wooden clay modeling tool works well) and slide the tube in, taking care not to slide it right down the glottis into the lungs! Keep the snake’s head and neck straight while inserting the tube. Work it gently down, expressing some of the slurry in through it to ease the constricted muscles. The tube should be inserted no further than the stomach or the first third of the body of a smaller snake – measure it before hand if you need to, wrapping a bit of adhesive tape around the tube to serve as a marker. Express the slurry in slowly and steadily. If using a rubber gastric tube, pinch it closed before withdrawing it. Stroke the snake gently, from throat to mid-section, for a moment or two after withdrawing the tube. Gently place the snake back in its enclosure and leave it alone for a day. Because slurries don’t have the same amount (or type!) of indigestible material that whole prey does, expect to see some funny looking feces.
Our Veterinary Care for Ball Pythons
You’ve bought the snake, you bought the enclosure and furnishings, you bought the book (you DID buy the book, didn’t you?) on ball python care. One of the best kept secrets in the pet trade is that EVERY animal should be seen by a vet shortly after acquisition to make sure that it is healthy, and to begin immediately to correct the situation if it is not. External parasites are easy to see; internal ones are not, not unless you have a microscope, slides, fecal flotation solution and know what you are looking for. Many people think they can just use any worming or antiprotozan medication to treat their snakes or lizards, ignoring the fact that certain medications work only against certain organisms. Treating with one type of medication may have no effect on the organism causing the problem, giving you a false sense of security that you have corrected the situation…only to find, often too late, that you didn’t.
Our veterinarians can not only check for protozoans and worms, they can assess the nutritional and hydration status of your snake. Force feeding a dehydrated animal will kill it. If you do not know how to assess hydration, and you feed even an easily digestible formula, you may send your snake into shock, even having diluted it with either of the two electrolyte solutions.
So, wait, you’re saying, how can I get a fecal exam if I can’t get any feces because my snake won’t eat? Your vet can do a cloacal wash, syringing fluid into the cloaca then syringing it back out again, using the fluid to do the microscopic exams.