Ball Pythons

Description and Background

The Ball Python (Python regius) is a nonvenomous species of python found in Africa. It is also known as a royal python and is very popular in the pet trade because of its docile nature. Adults typically do not grow more than 5 - 6 feet in length. Females tend to be slightly bigger than the males by around a foot. They are a stocky snake with a relatively small head and smooth scales. The typical ball python coloring is black or dark brown with gold sides and blotches running down its body. The belly is a cream white or yellow, which may also include some faint black markings. However, those in the pet industries have, through selective breeding, created many morphs with varying colors and patterns. Ball Pythons prefer grasslands, savannas, and sparsely wooded areas. They seek shelter often in termite mounds or empty mammal burrows. An average age of a ball python is around 30 - 40 years old, with some coming close to 50 years of age. They are hardy and docile creatures that do not require much attention, making them a perfect beginner snake for any reptile enthusiast.

Housing

There are two ways of housing your ball python. One is to house in a glass terrarium, and the second is to house them in a rack system, which is most commonly used for breeding. Size is very important when it comes to snakes and bigger is definitely not better in this case. Snakes are shy animals and enjoy a small, dark, and warm enclosure so they feel secure. The length of the tank should be no more than 1 1/2 times the length of your snake and no less than 2/3 the size of the length of your snake. As long as there are hiding spots and a good amount of foliage, your snake should be fine. An important thing to remember when using any glass enclosure is that snakes are escape artists. They can and will try to escape at one point, and if you do not properly lock your tank, then they may crawl out. Special locks are made just for terrariums to make sure they do not find a way out. Rack systems seem to work pretty well, especially for baby ball pythons. They are very dark and warm which doesn't stress them out, and they are also escape proof providing you put the bin back in the rack.


Temperature, Heating, Lighting

Ball Pythons are cold blooded and therefore rely on outside heat that you must provide for them. The warm side of the enclosure should be between 87 - 90 ºF (30 - 32 ºC) and the cool side should be around 77 - 80 ºF (25 - 27 ºC). Keeping a thermometer on both sides or using a temperature gun will allow proper control of the temperatures so the snake does not get stressed out. Too small of an enclosure will make it impossible for you to create a proper heat gradient for your snake. Ball Pythons do not need any special lighting and will be just fine with the natural lighting of your home. If using a rack system, then no light will ever be used. 

Humidity

Humidity is not as big as an issue for ball pythons as it may be for a tropical reptile, such as a Crested Gecko. The normal humidity levels should never drop below 50%, but 55 - 60% humidity is ideal for ball pythons. Average humidity of a house is around 40% so a light misting every few days should help. Also, a water bowl placed in the cage and not a lot of ventilation will also help to increase the humidity to proper levels. Remember to have a hydrometer in the cage to make sure the humidity is around what it is supposed to be.


Substrate

Ball pythons are overall a very clean reptile and do not require much maintenance. Choosing a substrate is relatively easy and most will work just fine. No Cedar! Cedar is poisonous to all snakes and must be avoided at all costs. The most popular bedding for ball pythons is aspen shavings. They are very easy to spot clean and replace entirely, due to its low cost.

Diet and Feeding

Ball pythons can live their whole lives on eating mice. However, nutritionally speaking, rats are a much better option and should be considered if possible. Snakes should be fed about once a week, making sure the meal is of an appropriate size. That means that the mouse or rat should be about the same size as the largest part of the snake’s body. Ball pythons should be converted over to frozen thawed foods as they get older. This is because the larger mice grow teeth, which can injure your snake during feeding time. If you do choose to feed live prey however, make sure that you never leave your snake unattended, as this could prove to be dangerous. A separate feeding bin is also a smart idea because it'll prevent a feeding response every time you go to open up its enclosure to take it out. Ball pythons have been known to not eat for several months at a time so do not get worried or frustrated if your snake refuses to eat. IT IS OKAY! First thing to do is make sure that all its needs are met, such as heat, hides, and humidity. If those are all met then it probably has nothing to do with you. Ball Pythons go off-feed for several months especially during breeding season so as long as your snake appears to be healthy and not losing weight, then there is nothing to worry about. 

Water

Always make sure there is fresh water in the enclosure. This is important so that the python can drink or possibly bathe. However, a healthy ball python will not usually bathe so size of the bowl should be much less of a consideration. Having a water dish also helps to keep the humidity up a bit. You should change the water every few days, unless it becomes dirty, then change it immediately.


Shedding

There are 3 main signals to indicate that your ball python is about to shed its skin. The first indicator is that the belly of your snake will start to turn pink. The next signal is that the color of your snake will begin to dull quite a bit. The last way to tell if your snake is about to shed is the fact that its eyes will turn a milky white color. After a few days the snake's eyes should clear up and when they do, you should expect to see it shed within the next day or two. Depending on how old your snake is, it will shed every 4 - 6 weeks. Ball pythons normally do not have problems with shedding. This is due to the fact they do not need high humidity. If your snake does however have a partial shed, soak it in warm water for 1 - 2 hours and then the remaining skin should be easily removed. Important spots to check on your python to ensure proper shedding are the tip of its tail and its eye caps. If you have improper shedding multiple times, there are a few things you can do to stop this. Moving the water dish under the light will increase evaporation and also the humidity. Also soaking the snake before it actually sheds will help the dead skin come off much easier. The last thing you could try is to cut off more ventilation to retain the humidity in the tank.

Handling Ball Pythons

In general, ball pythons are very docile animals and do not mind being handled occasionally. However, this does not mean EVERY ball python will be docile. You will come across a snappy python at some point that does not want anything to do with you. But with frequent handling you may be able to calm those snakes down. There are certain times that handling your snake are not recommended though. Do not handle snakes within 36 hours of it last eating because this can cause regurgitation and will agitate the snake. This could increase the likelihood of eating problems in the future. Also, try not to handle your python when it is in shed because its eyes will have that milky glaze over it, greatly decreasing its vision. If it cannot fully see its surroundings and you try to pick it up, then you may get bit. Other than those 2 times, handling your snake is completely safe. In fact, it's a must to hold your snake at least a few times a week in order for it to be comfortable and make a great animal for anyone to hold and enjoy!


Cleaning

Cleaning a ball python's cage is extremely easy. Spot cleaning should be done once a week. Then, once a month, everything should be removed from the cage and thoroughly cleaned with a reptile safe solution. The substrate in the cage should be removed every month too to prevent the growth of bacteria.

Health

Ball pythons are typically disease free with proper care. However, there are a few types of problems you may encounter owning one. They include:


Abscesses: This is a lump under the skin. Usually these occur when the skin is damaged from a mouse bite or a small scratch from something in its cage. Take the snake to a vet and they will normally treat it with some sort of antibiotic.


Ectoparasites: These are parasites that live outside the body. They are typically ticks and mites, which are fairly easy to get rid of. For the tick, just apply a small amount of Vaseline or alcohol and pull the tick off. For mites, just attach a small piece of fly paper (No pest strip) in the cage for about 3 days, which will hopefully remove any mites.


Endoparasites: These are parasites (worms) found inside your snake. Ridding your snake of any worms is as easy as bringing a fecal sample to the veterinarian and they will give you an appropriate treatment.


Mouth Rot: This disease is normally caused by stress or mouth injuries. It is noticeable because your snake will have white gunk all along its mouth. To treat this, you must use cotton swabs to clean the mouth and then rinse it off with hydrogen peroxide. Continue everyday until mouth rot has disappeared, normally in 1-2 weeks.


Respiratory Infection: This occurs when the snake is in an enclosure with too low of a temperature or humidity. You may see your snake wheezing, mouth gaping, have nasal discharge, or no appetite. Turn up the heat or increase humidity and if the symptoms continue, call your vet. Your snake may need antibiotics.


Salmonellosis: This is an intestinal disease which can be spread from snake to human so be sure to wash your hands before and after handling your snake to make certain you do not contract it. If your snake has stinky, watery, greenish-colored poop, it most likely has salmonellosis.


Stomach Rot: This is when the snake lives in a dirty cage. The stomach will turn red or brown and get bubbles on the scales. Take your snake to the vet immediately to ensure proper treatment.


Breeding Ball Pythons

First things first, the weight and age of the snake is the most important thing to consider before breeding. A male should not be under 700 grams and about 18 months old. A female could potentially breed successfully at 1200 grams but it is recommended waiting until she is 1700 grams and about 2 - 3 years old. The next most important thing is to make sure you actually have a female and a male. Trying to breed 2 snakes that you believe are a male and female but actually turn out to be 2 males or 2 females, will be a waste of time and very upsetting. To be sure of the sex, you can either probe the snakes yourself or take them to a vet if you are inexperienced. 

The next step once you have your male and female, or multiple pairs, is to replicate a "cooling" period for about 3 months. Temperatures during the day for the snakes should be about 85 - 88 ºF (29 - 31 ºC). The night time temperature can get as low as 72 - 75 ºF (22 - 24 ºC). No belly heat should be added in the cage as well. Also, removing the substrate will help with keeping the temperatures much cooler in the cage. During this cooling period, you must introduce the males and females together, for about 2 - 3 days at a time. Doing so will spark the male’s interests in mating and will normally cause it to refuse all food. 

After 3 months you may now return the cage to its normal temperatures and bring the belly heat and substrate back. At this point, all males should have ceased feeding and will mainly focus on mating. This is when you will add your female to the male’s cage for about 2 days at least once a week, hoping that a successful copulation will occur. Continue to add and remove females to your male’s cages until you are absolutely certain that your female is gravid. If you remove it too soon thinking it is gravid but it is not, then you just lost that snake's eggs for the year. It will not hurt the snake if you keep it in a male's cage even though it is gravid. You can tell a female is gravid just by the fact that it looks as if the snake just ate one of the largest meals in its life. This only lasts about a day or two, so you may miss it but it is hard to catch anyway. Don't worry about seeing it though, as long as you put your snakes together during these times, then everything should go very smoothly. 

After about 3 months of rewarming their cages, the females will begin to lay, but this is not always accurate. Snakes have been known to take up to 5 months to lay their eggs after rewarming up. THAT'S OKAY! As long as they still lay their eggs, you should be okay. Not all snakes will become gravid at the same time. Make sure that there is a small box filled with damp sphagnum moss so that your snake can lay her eggs in there. Once the eggs have been laid, carefully remove her from around her eggs and put the eggs in a small container filled with damp vermiculite. It's important to wash the female after you remove her from her eggs that way she will forget about them and immediately resume feeding. Hatching the eggs is done best at temperatures between 88 - 92 ºF (31 - 33 ºC) but variations have been done with much success.

Sex Determination

Determining the sex of a Ball Python is relatively easy and also pretty important. Although figuring out the sex of your snake is easy, that does not mean the differences are obvious. One way to get a good idea of the gender of your snake is to figure out the length of a mature python. Females tend to be around 4 1/2 feet, sometimes growing slightly larger. Males tend to stay smaller, typically 3 - 3 1/2 feet in length. This, however, is not a guarantee. A way to guarantee the gender of your snake is to do a cloacal probing or popping test. For the probing, you or a vet will insert a tiny metal probe into the cloaca and see how far it goes in. It will go further for males, typically 6 - 8 scales. For the females it will go in only around 2 - 3 scales. For the popping, this must be done with extreme caution because it has a chance of hurting the snake. You or a vet will press on either side of the cloaca and see where the male genitalia pops out. 


Baby Ball Python Care

Baby ball python care is identical to the adult python care, with a few exceptions. The main difference is that the enclosure must be much smaller, and possibly even darker because the baby snakes like to hide much more often than an adult would. Another difference would be to choose a smaller mouse or rat size. Adult mice would not be appropriate to feed a 3 week old hatchling, therefore you want to change the size of the food. A major thing to pay attention to for all hatchlings and baby snakes is to make sure they properly shed each and every time. An improper shed could cause problems for the future and even change the behavior the snake. Keeping the humidity high, a stable temperature, and constant food will help to ensure a nice clean shed for your baby.

Recommended Item Checklist

Glass aquarium

Screen top

Cage clips

Ceramic dome fixture

50 watt heat bulb

UVB light strip (Not needed)

Aspen shavings

Hides

Water bowl

Spray bottle

Chlorhexidine

Frozen mice/rats

Scooper

Scale to weigh them

Digital Thermometer

Hydrometer

Probe set (If breeding)