(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, here in the United States we call them "balls"
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,
ball pythons are curious and gentle snakes.
Ball pythons typically
reach 4 feet (1.2 m) in length; occasionally there are specimens that
reach 5 feet (1.5 m). When properly fed, their bodies become nicely rounded.
Like all pythons and boas, ball pythons 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 ball pythons tend to be very
picky eaters, at least initially, and drive their owners to distraction
in their attempts to get them to eat something.
Ball pythons are reputed
to be able to go for extended periods of time without food; wild-caught
ball pythons 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 ball
pythons are eating well.
ball pythons 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 ball pythons that are imported annually,
ball pythons are killed for food and their skin is used for leather in
their native land. For some reason, despite their low reproduction rate,
wild ball pythons are the least expensive pythons on the market, generally
wholesaling for under ten dollars. Imported ball pythons 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
ball pythons 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 48 years old when it died. Egg-layers,
female ball pythons 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
animal that has clear firm skin, rounded body shape, clean vent, clear
eyes, and who actively flicks its tongue around when handled. All ball
pythons 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 especially designed for housing snakes, such as the glass tanks
with the combination fixed screen/hinged glass top. All snakes are escape
artists; ball pythons are especially powerful and cunning when it comes
to breaking out. A good starter tank for a hatchling is a 10 gallon tank
(approximately 20"L x 10"W [50 x 25 cm]). A young adult requires
a 20 gallon tank, and full adult may require a 30 gallon tank (36"
x 12"W [91 x 35 cm]).
Select a suitable
towels at first. These are 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. 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. 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
Provide a hiding
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. 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. Ball pythons 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."
Keeping it warm
range is essential to keeping your snake healthy. The ambient air temperature
throughout the enclosure must be maintained between 80-85F (27-29 C)-during
the day, with a basking area kept at 90F (32.5 C). At night, the ambient
air temperature on the coolest side may be allowed to drop down no lower
than 73-75F ( 23-24 C) only if a basking area of at least 80F (27 C) remains
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.
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
Buy at least two thermometers
- one to use in the overall area 1" (2.5 cm) above the enclosure
floor, and the other 1" (2.5 cm) 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
Ball pythons are native to generally temperate to arid areas. Depending
on where you live, they may be fine with the ambient humidity. If there
are any problems shedding, or feces are dry when deposited or there is
straining to defecate, check the humidity with a hygrometer and get it
up to 50 percent. When shedding, they will need higher humidity: increase
enclosure humidity to 60-65 percent, or mist daily during the shed. If
you bathe them in a warm bath the day their eyes clear, they should shed
completely within 24 hours.
lighting is needed. Ball pythons 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 ball pythons 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 ball pythons 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 ball pythons to feed is The Care
and Maintenance of Ball Pythons by Philippe de Vosjoli, or the new edition,
The Ball Python Manual, by de Vosjoli, Dave and Tracy Barker and Roger
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.
care for newly acquired snakes is essential. Many of the parasites infesting
ball pythons 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.
A common problem 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 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. Read the article Getting Rid of
Reptile Mites to find out the best ways to eradicate them.
Snakes, including ball
pythons, should routinely shed is one piece, from snout (including spectacles)
to tail-tip. If a snake does not shed cleanly, it is a sign that something
is not right, either with the snake or with its environment. Newly acquired
snakes may not shed properly for the first month or two as they are getting
acclimated to their new surroundings. This is a sign of transient stress.
If it continues, or begins to occur in a long established snake, the snake
must be evaluated for possible health problems, and the snake's environment
must be evaluated for humidity problems.
Humidity and Ball
are native to very warm, but not hot, dry areas in Africa. Many people
make the mistake of trying to keep them in a too humid overall environment,
using damp sphagnum moss or misting them frequently throughout the day.
The problem with this is that keeping the overall environment damp leads
to conditions such as blister disease where in the skin, usually of the
belly, becomes covered with blisters, leading to bacterial infections
of the skin, which in turn leads to overall health problems.
In fact, all a ball
python needs is an area within its dry enclosure to which to retreat when
it requires higher humidity. One way to accomplish this is to provide
a water bowl large enough for the snake to soak in when it wants. Depending
on the ambient room (and thus enclosure) humidity, this may be enough,
or may be enough during part of the year. Another good, safe option for
a ball python is a humidity retreat box.
Handling your new
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 overconfident! 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.
Inclusion Body Disease
body disease (IBD) is a virus that affects boas and pythons (boids).
It is always fatal in pythons. Unfortunately, the lust to sell has overcome
common sense in private breeders as well as pet stores and wholesalers,
and an increasing number of boas and pythons are being sold who are infected
with this virus.
a considerable amount of time observing boids before you buy them, especially
at pet stores. Even reptile specialty stores have been selling infected
stock so buying from such stores is no guarantee that you are buying an
uninfected/unexposed snake. Don't buy a boid because you feel sorry for
it, because it looks sick and the store isn't providing proper care for
it - you may lose every boid you own.
strict quarantine procedures when bringing
in a new boid into your house if you already have other boids. IBD may
take several months to manifest itself. Owners have reported their new
snakes showing signs as little as one month after acquiring hatchlings
to well over one year after acquiring a new boid.
boids who are not acting well (loss of appetite, regurgitating meals,
mouthrot, respiratory infection, contorted body positions, stargazing)
seen by a reptile vet as soon as possibly after symptoms are noticed.
Warn the vet before coming in that it may be IBD so they may take precautions
to reduce exposure to other boids who may be in their office at that time.
it doesn't require snake-to-snake contact to spread the disease. You may
unwittingly spread it by handling other snakes without first thoroughly
washing your hands. Viruses are airborne - think twice about taking your
snakes to places where they will encounter snakes belonging to people
who may not be taking proper precautions.
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
(povidone/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.
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.
The Ball Python Manual,
by Philippe de Vosjoli, Dave and Tracy Barker, and Roger Klingenberg,
1995. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Lakeside CA.
Atlas of Reptiles and Amphibians, by Obst, Richter and Jacob. 1988. TFH
Publications, Inc. Neptune City, NJ.
Snakes of the World,
by Scott Weidensaul. 1991. Chartwell Books, Seacacus, NJ.
Living Snakes of the
World, John M. Mehrtens. 1987. Sterling Publishing Co. New York.
with Ball Feeding Problems
Inclusion Body Disease
Rid of Reptile Mites