Kenyan (East African) Sand Boas
©1997 Denise Loving
The sand boas are a group of generally small boids, mostly Asiatic, although some species are native to Africa and one species even ranges into Europe. They are related to the rosy and rubber boas of North America, and together they make up the group called the erycine boas. The East African (also known an the Kenyan) sand boa is in build a typical sand boa, but colored orange or yellow with chocolate-brown to black splotches. The belly is white or cream. In the wild, East African sand boas range through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Chad, Niger, Yemen, Tanzania, and Somalia. They eat small rodents and lizards, which they catch by lying in wait nearly buried in the dirt or sand until a potential meal walks by. They may also search out rodent nests to dine on the young. Babies may also eat insects, but this is not thought to be common. They are most active at night, but I have seen mine prowling in the afternoon as well.
Male sand boas only reach about 15 to 18 inches in average length and about 70-100 grams in weight, although a very old male may reach as much as 24 inches. Once they reach adulthood, at about 15 months to 2 years of age depending on feeding schedules, they frequently eat very little, especially in the summer breeding season. The females will generally reach about 24-36 inches, with 28 being typical, and will weigh in the neighborhood of 400-900 + grams. They are much stockier than the males, who are rather stout snakes themselves. They can live well into their teens, with the record for a closely related species being over 30 years.
If your sand boa thinks you are food and bites and hangs on, try waving a bottle of alcohol (rubbing or drinking) in front of its nose, or spraying a bit near (not in) its face. I was careless recently and my big (27 inch) adult female thought my index finger was a mouse. A little spritz of Bitter Apple, which is alcohol-based, on my hand near her head made her let go quickly. It barely hurt, and didn?t bleed a drop! Since that incident, I had a yearling male grab my finger when I put it in front of his face when he was ?periscoping? because he thought it might be food. I had to let a little alcohol run down into his mouth before he let go. Still, it barely left a mark on my finger.
You should never squeeze your sand boa, but let it crawl from hand to hand, or cradle it in both hands. The larger females need a lot of support, and can be held cradled in your arms against your body, rather like a baby. If you try to put them across your shoulders they will probably fall off. They don?t climb well, and will frequently fall off the edge of surfaces like tables and laps. They prefer to go downward when possible.
Another housing possibility is a plastic sweater box. This is cheaper but less attractive. The lid or the sides near the top should be drilled for ventilation, or a soldering iron will also melt holes quickly. Care should be taken that humidity doesn't build up too much. Juveniles will climb in an attempt to explore (read escape) and can get through very small holes. It is a good idea to use hot glue to line the inside of the lid of a sweater box with fiberglass screen to prevent escapes. If you do this you can make much larger holes for the best ventilation. You should also make sure to use clamps or large rubber bands so that the snake cannot force the lid off and escape that way. Binder clips from an office supply store work well for this.
Recently I have seen a clear plastic cage marketed as a "Reptile Ranch" that makes a nice home for a smaller sand boa. It is made of clear plastic with a tightly-fitted plastic lid with air vents and access doors. They are inexpensive and attractive, and are about the size of a sweater box.
The substrate that I use is Carefresh, which is not too attractive, but safe. I used to use crushed walnut shells, but heard too many reports of snakes ingesting it and becoming impacted, with fatal results. I have also heard reports of this happening with sand, so I don't advise that either. While sand boas is their common name, most sand boas don't live in sandy areas. Shredded aspen is safe, and like Carefresh it holds the burrows that the sand boas make. Many people use pine shavings, although others speculate that they may be toxic because of the volatile chemicals such as turpenes in the wood. I don?t use pine, and if you choose to use it make sure it doesn't have a strong smell. Never use cedar shavings, which are definitely toxic to reptiles.
The cage needs heat at one end, most economically supplied from beneath. Heating pads made for herps are fine, but don't stick them to the bottom of the tank, it makes them impossible to remove. They can be regulated with a rheostat (dimmer) either made for herp heating or from the hardware store. I frequently use a human heating pad, which can be bought at a drugstore for under $15. If you are using an aquarium use something like small wooden blocks to lift the tank so that it doesn't rest directly on the heating pad, and there should be one end of the cage that is unheated. You also need a thermometer - one from a pet shop should cost about $5 and will do the job. Place the thermometer in the substrate over the heating pad. It should be between 90 and 95 degrees F over the hottest part of the heating pad. Human heating pads usually have a hotter spot that is a lump in the pad; check the temperature directly over that. If it gets too hot even on low (and heating pads vary greatly) either raise the tank more or place newspapers between the pad and the tank to regulate the heat. The higher the cage is raised above the heating pad the greater the temperature fluctuation as the room temperature changes. The other end of the cage should be approximately room temperature, in the 70s. If the snake spends all the time on the cool end you might want to lower the temperature a bit, but they should have a place to go that reaches 90F in the daytime. If they don't have a place to get warm they can get respiratory infections and digestive disturbances. The warm-end temperature can drop into the 80s to the high 70s at night as long as it reaches 90 during the day.
Sand boas live in primarily arid areas, but in the wild they would seek out humid microclimates. You should give them this ability by supplying a humidity box. This will greatly assist them in shedding properly, and many seem to enjoy it even when not in shed. Mine frequently will stay in the humidity box for days, and seem very relaxed when checked on. A humidity box is a plastic box with an access hole cut in the lid, half filled with slightly damp green sphagnum moss (not the milled brown kind). I get my green moss in the garden section of a large hardware store. It is much cheaper there than at a pet store. You could also use damp paper towels. These can be disposed of frequently, while the moss can be dried out and reused as long as it is not moldy or soiled. Put the humidity box where it straddles the end of the heating pad. Check it frequently for mold or droppings.
Sand boas do drink water, and should have access to fresh drinking water at least periodically. If you use a screen-topped tank you can keep a small water dish constantly available on the cool end. If you use a plastic box you may want to only place a small water dish in with the snake at night 2 or 3 times a week. This is to avoid excess humidity building up where the snake can't escape it. When I put my sand boas back in their cages I frequently put their heads over the water dish and am sometimes rewarded by getting to watch them drink. Some snakes may have trouble finding the water at first, so this is a good practice to make sure they don't get dehydrated.
That does it for the mandatory furniture. You may want to try laying a piece of plate glass with smooth edges on the substrate and see if your sand boa will burrow under it and lie where you can see him. They like the feeling of something over them and don't seem to realize that it is transparent. They don't need hide boxes since they usually bury themselves in the substrate or use the humidity box, but they may use a low one at times. A flat piece of tree bark works well.
You could also landscape your pet's home if it is large enough with potted succulents (remove to water), driftwood, a ceramic water dish molded to look like a rock pool, or other items. You can disguise the humidity box by burying it and covering the top with a flat piece of bark or a similar object. Remember that sand boas will move things around as they burrow, and won't make use of any climbing opportunities, unless it is to escape!
Babies should be fed every 5-7 days, and adults every week to every month, depending on the snake and the size of the meals. It is hard to get babies actually fat, but there is a belief that feeding baby snakes a lot so they grow fast will shorten their life spans. On the other hand, a hungry snake may be grouchy and if kept underfed they will always be stunted. Watch your snake, and adjust the amount and frequency of food as necessary. Adult females are prone to obesity if overfed. If this happens cut back a bit - obesity shortens lives for snakes as well as humans. If your sand boa consistently refuses food it may be stressed from too much handling. Try leaving it alone more to see if that will bring back its appetite. You should not handle your snake unnecessarily for 24 hours after eating, as it may regurgitate. If it does regurgitate, wait a few days before feeding again, so that the irritation to the esophagus has a chance to heal.
The shed process usually lasts between one and two weeks. The skin will look dull for a few days to a week, then it will look almost normal, but a close look at the belly shows that it looks slightly yellowish instead of white. A few days after this the snake will shed, frequently in the evening. If the snake does not shed completely you can place it in a damp cloth snake bag placed inside its cage for a few hours. This usually does the trick. If there are a few stubborn spots you can apply a little contact lens wetting solution, let it soak, then gently peel the skin off.
You should check the shed skin if possible to see that the eyecaps have shed. If they are retained for more than a couple of sheds they can damage the eye. If your snake retains an eyecap you should first try the damp snake bag. If that doesn't work you can take a piece of scotch tape or masking tape (not something as sticky as duct tape) and reduce the stickiness a bit by sticking it to your finger a couple of times, then gently placing it over the eyecap and lifting, using a rolling motion. If this doesn't work either wait until the next shed to see if it comes off then, or consult a herp vet. If the eyecap is only retained for one shed it is very unlikely to cause problems, but people have blinded their snakes by trying to use forceps to remove retained eyecaps. If you provide a humidity box there is every likelihood that your snake will never have a bad shed.
Your sand boa, just by being a reptile, may be harboring a strain of Salmonella. A few simple precautions in handling your pet will make sure this never causes any problems. Never let your snake crawl on the kitchen counters, and use the bathroom for washing the cage and furnishings, disinfecting all surfaces afterward. Don't kiss your snake, or let it tongue-flick your lips. Wash your hands well after handling, or use a disinfectant gel. Disinfect any surface that your snake touches which may touch food, or that a young child may touch. Infants and people with impaired immune systems should probably not have contact with any reptiles, but chicken from the supermarket causes far more cases of Salmonella than do pet reptiles.
If you get a new snake it should be quarantined for six months, to prevent transmission of parasites and diseases. Sand boas are normally hardy snakes and seldom get sick, but symptoms such as excess mucus, gaping to breath, repeated regurgitation, or anything else out of the ordinary should be investigated by a herp vet. Remember, if you have any questions ask someone - the only stupid question is the one not asked!
Copyright © 1997, 1998, 2000 Denise Loving
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