Ball Python care in captivity
By Melissa Kaplan Additional material/post-editing by Kyle Wohlmut
Ball pythons (Python regius ) are found at the edges of the forest lands of Central and Western Africa. They are equally comfortable on the ground and in trees. They are crepuscular, active around dawn and dusk. Called Royal pythons in Europe, they are called "Balls" in the United States due to their habit of curling themselves up into a tight ball when they are nervous, their heads pulled firmly into the center. Like most pythons, Balls are curious and gentle snakes.
Balls typically reach 4 feet in length; occasionally there are specimens that reach greater than 5 feet. When properly fed, their bodies become nicely rounded. Like all pythons and boas, Balls have anal spurs. These single claws appearing on either side of the vent are the vestigial remains of the hind legs snakes lost during their evolution from lizard to snake millions of years ago. Males have longer spurs than do the females; males also have smaller heads than the females.
Ball pythons, like all pythons and boas, devour a variety of prey in the wild - amphibians, lizards, other snakes, birds and small mammals. They do not eat mice in the wild, however, and do not recognize the mice we offer them as being something edible. Thus, imported wild-caught Balls tend to be very picky eaters, at least initially, and drive their owners to distraction in their attempts to get them to eat something. Balls are reputed to be able to go for extended periods of time without food; wild-caught Balls have gone for a year or more without food until finally enticed to eat lizards and other snakes. This is not a healthy trait and must not be a reason for selecting this species. This should also make you suspicious when a pet store tells you that their Balls are eating well. Buying captive-born Balls reduces the stress on the threatened populations in the wild and helps ensure you will get a healthy, established eater and a snake already used to contact with humans. Buying from a reputable breeder will ensure that you will get the help and advice you need to assure that your Ball feels comfortable and secure enough to eat after you bring it home and let it get settled for a week or so.
With the increased popularity of reptiles as pets there is increased pressure on wild populations. In addition to the more than 60,000 Balls that are imported annually, Balls are killed for food and their skin is used for leather in their native land. For some reason, despite their low reproduction rate, wild Balls are the least expensive pythons on the market, generally wholesaling for under ten dollars. Imported Balls also harbor several different types of parasites which may go unnoticed by the novice snake owner. All around, it is better to buy a captive-born hatchling or an established, well-feeding juvenile, sub-adult or adult than an imported Ball of any age.
In captivity, young Balls will grow about a foot a year during the first three years. They will reach sexual maturity in three to five years. The longest living Ball python on record was over 28 years old when it died. Egg-layers, female Balls encircle their four to ten eggs, remaining with then from the time they are laid until they hatch. During this three month period, they will not leave the eggs and will not eat.
Selecting your Ball Python
Choose an animal that has clear firm skin, rounded body shape, clean vent, clear eyes, and who actively flicks its tongue around when handled. All Balls are naturally shy about having their heads touched or handled by strangers; a normal reaction is for the Ball to pull its head and neck sharply away from such contact. When held, the snake should grip you gently but firmly when moving around. It should be alert to its surroundings. All young snakes are food for other, larger snakes, birds, lizards and mammalian predators so your hatchling may be a bit nervous at first but should settle down quickly.
Selecting an escape-proof enclosure Select an enclosure especially designed for housing snakes, such as the glass tanks 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 full adult may require a 40-50 gallon tank (48" x 24"W).
For substrate, use newspaper at first. This is easily and quickly removed and replaced when soiled and, with an import, 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, although newspaper will serve as a good substrate for the life of the animal. Pine and aspen shavings should not be used as they can become lodged in the mouth while eating, causing respiratory and other problems. Additionally, cedar may be toxic to reptiles. The shavings must be monitored closely and all soiled and wet shavings pulled out immediately to prevent bacteria and fungus growths. The utilitarian approach is to use inexpensive astroturf. Extra pieces can be kept in reserve and used when the soiled piece is removed for cleaning and drying (soak in one gallon of water to which you have added two tablespoon of household bleach; rinse thoroughly, and dry completely before reuse). Remember: the easier it is to clean, the faster you'll do it!
Provide a hiding place A variety of hide boxes are suitable for your Ball Python, but some form of hiding area is absolutely essential. A half-log is available at pet stores. An empty cardboard box or upside-down opaque plastic container, both with an access doorway cut into one end, can also be used. The plastic is easily cleaned when necessary; the box can be tossed out when soiled and replaced with a new one. Broiling pan lids, propped up at one end, are effective and extremely easy to clean. The box or log must be big enough for the snake to hide its entire body inside; you will need to eventually replace it as your snake grows. Balls prefer dark places for sleeping and, as they are nocturnal, they like the dark place during our daylight hours; they also like to sleep in something that is close around them, so do not buy or make too big of a cave for its size. Place a nice climbing branch or two in the tank with some fake greenery screening part of it; your Ball will enjoy hanging out in the "tree."
Proper temperature range is essential to keeping your snake healthy. the ambient air temperature throughout the enclosure must be maintained between 80-85 degrees F during the day, with a basking area kept at 90 degrees F. At night, the ambient air temperature may be allowed to drop down no lower than 75 degrees F only if a basking area of at least 80 degrees F remains available. Special reptile heating pads that are manufactured to maintain a temperature about 20 degrees higher than the air temperature may be used inside the enclosure. There are adhesive pads that can be stuck to the underside of a glass enclosure. Heating pads made for people, available at all drug stores, are also available; these have built-in hi-med-lo switches and can be used under a glass enclosure. However, when using drug store heating pads, monitor their temperature carefully and do not allow the snake direct contact with the pad. 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. All pythons, especially Ball pythons, are very susceptible to thermal burns. For this same reason do not use a hot rock. New on the market are ceramic heating elements. They radiate heat downwards, do not emit light, and are reported to be long lasting. Plugged into a thermostat will enable you to adjust the temperature inside the tank as the ambient room temperature changes with the seasons.
Buy at least two thermometers– one to use in the overall area 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 who will be too cold to eat and digest its food or one ill or dead from overheating.
No special lighting is needed. Balls are nocturnal snakes, spending their days in the wild securely hidden away from possible predators. 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. Make sure the snake cannot get into direct contact with the light bulbs as Balls are very prone to getting seriously burned.
Respect your Ball's needs, however, and be sure to provide a hide box, and expect them to use it!
Allow your snake to acclimate to its new home for a couple of weeks. Start your hatchling (about 15" in length) off with a single pre-killed one 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. If you have not had any experience force feeding a snake, you may not want to try it yourself until you have seen someone do it. Force feeding, whether of a mouse or with a formula inserted by catheter and syringe, is very stressful for the snake (and it isn't much fun for the owner!). If your new Ball has gone several months without eating and is beginning to noticeably lose weight, take it to a reptile vet or contact your local herpetology society and ask to speak to someone who is knowledgeable about Ball pythons and feeding problems. A good inexpensive book that covers some of the tricks to enticing reluctant Balls to feed is The Care and Maintenance of Ball Pythons by Philippe de Vosjoli.
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. Soaking is especially good just before a shed. When they eyes clear from their milky opaque, or "blue" state, soak the snake in a tub of warm water for ten minutes or so, then lightly dry it off, and return it immediately to its tank; it should shed cleanly within twenty-four hours.
Routine veterinary care for newly acquired snakes is essential. 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 take it and your snake to a vet who is experienced with reptiles. There it will be tested and the proper medication given if worms or protozoan infestations are found.
Common problems encountered in captivity include retained eye shed (spectacles) and mites. When snakes shed their skin, the layer of skin over their eye is also shed, and can be clearly seen when looking at a piece of head shed. Always check your Ball's head shed to assure it has shed the spectacles. If one or both spectacles have been retained, bathe the snake again in warmish water for about ten minutes. Before returning it to the enclosure, place a dab of mineral oil on that eye with a cotton-tipped swab. The spectacle should come off within twenty-four hours. If it does not come off, wrap your four fingers with transparent tape, sticky side out. Gently rock your fingers from left to right (or, from nose to neck) across the eye; the spectacle should come off. If this does not removed the spectacle, then seek veterinary assistance.
Mites Mites are a sign of poor environmental conditions. Adult mites are tiny reddish brown dots barely bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. You may first notice them swarming over your hand and arm after you have handled your snake (don't worry–they are harmless to humans) or see them moving around your snake's body or clustered around the eyes. Mites are harmful to snakes, especially ones that have not been kept properly. On the positive side, they are easy and relatively inexpensive to get rid of, although the process is time-consuming. Place the snake into a warmish bath into which Betadine or Listerine mouthwash has been added - the water should be slightly yellow and the aroma very apparent.
While the snake is soaking, clean out the enclosure. Throw away the substrate (careful to not let any spill on the floor) and any wooden objects in the enclosure such as branches or hide logs. Rocks should be boiled for ten minutes, then placed back in the enclosure for fumigating.
Wash the tank out thoroughly with soapy water, then swab down with a bleach-water solution (one cup bleach to one gallon of water); let the solution sit for ten minutes, then rinse out thoroughly before fumigating. To fumigate, place inside the enclosure (on a piece of foil) a Vapona Strip or Hart's 3-in-One Flea Collar. Seal up the tank: tape foil or heavy paper over all openings. Let sit for two hours. Unseal, replace the strip or collar back in their package and enclose in a plastic bag for future use. Let the tank air out for at least two hours before putting in new substrate and furnishings. Before placing the snake back in the enclosure, dab each eye with mineral oil; this will seep into the tiny pits along side the eye in which the mites hide and breed. Watch the snake and enclosure carefully. Mites are like fleas in that they have an extended egg cycle, and any eggs you and the fumigant missed may hatch in four to six weeks. If you see any at that time, repeat all of the above steps. That should be the last time you will have to do it. In the meantime, evaluate the snake's environment (heat, photoperiod, privacy) and health (internal parasites, respiratory infection, pseudomonas infection [mouthrot], lesions, protozoan infections) to determine the underlying cause for the weakness then enabled the mites to take hold. Then fix it!
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 away from you, and may threaten you by lashing it's tail and hissing; don't be put off - it is usually just a bluff, and snakes, like most reptiles, are very good at bluffing! Be gentle but persistent. Daily contact with each other 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. Don't get over-confident! Given a chance and close proximity to seat cushions, your Ball will make a run (well, a slither) for it, easing down between the cushions and from there, to points possibly unknown. Always be gentle, and try to avoid sudden movements. If the snake wraps around your arm or neck, you can unwind it by gently grasping it's tail and gently unwrapping it from around your neck or arm - do not try to unwrap it by moving the head. Some snakes are a bit sensitive about being handled soon after they have eaten. If you feed your snake out of it's enclosure, go ahead and replace it back into it's enclosure after it has finished eating. Then leave it be for a couple of days. As the snake gets more comfortable with you, it will be less nervous and less likely to give you back your mouse.
Necessities Some things you should have on hand for general maintenance and first aid include: Nolvasan (Chlorhexidine diacetate) for cleaning enclosures and disinfecting food and water bowls, litter boxes, tubs, sinks, your hands, etc. Betadine (povodine/iodine) for cleansing scratches and wounds. Set aside a food storage bowl, feeding and water bowls, soaking bowl or tub, even sponges, to be used only for your snake.
Enjoy yourselves You have a companion that will be a part of your life for a great many years if taken care of properly. They should remain alert and active well into their old age. The main causes of death of snakes in captivity are directly related to their care: improper temperatures, contact with heating and lighting elements, no regular access to water, lack of necessary veterinary care and treatment, careless handling–all things for which we, as their caretakers, are directly responsible.
Places to Go, Things to See and Learn:
Join your local herpetological society where you can meet other reptile owners, learn more about your ball python, and find an experienced reptile veterinarian in your area. Check your local pet stores and library for these and other python and reptile care books:
The General Care and Maintenance of Ball Pythons . Philippe de Vosjoli, 1990. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Lakeside CA.
The Completely Illustrated Atlas of Reptiles and Amphibians . Obst, Richter and Jacob, 1988. TFH Publications, Inc. Neptune City, NJ.
Snakes of the World . Scott Weidensaul, 1991. Chartwell Books, Seacacus, NJ.
Living Snakes of the World . John M. Mehrtens, 1987. Sterling Publishing Co. New York.
[—–] Copyright © 1995 Melissa Kaplan RepEnvirEd 6466 Commerce Blvd #216 Rohnert Park CA 94928 firstname.lastname@example.org