Basic Care: Ball Pythons

Snakes

Ball pythons are modestly sized snakes that range from 30-45" in length and rarely reach five feet or slightly longer.  They originate from west and central Africa with most of the wild-collected animals exported from Ghana, Togo, and Benin.

Most of the ball pythons sold in pet stores are wild-collected.  Babies are often exported from "ranches" where adult females are collected, kept in captivity until they lay eggs, and then the babies that hatch are exported to other countries.  These "ranched" babies are often much cheaper to buy than ball pythons that were captive-bred and born in the United States and may be more difficult to get feeding.  Wild-collected ball pythons are more likely to have parasites than true captive-bred and born ball pythons.

There are now many different color morphs of ball pythons.  Some of them, such as panda pieds and scaleless, may sell for thousands of dollars.

Caging

All ball pythons need escape-proof cages.  There are many nice glass cages with sliding tops that lock securely.  A young ball python will do well in a 10-gallon size cage, around 12" wide by 20" long, while an adult ball python can live its whole life in a 20- to 30-gallon size cage, around 15" wide by 36" long.  Bigger is not always better, at least for babies, since some ball pythons feel more secure in smaller cages.  Many breeders keep their ball pythons in plastic sweater boxes in large rack systems. All ball pythons need hide boxes in their cages to feel secure.  The hide box should be about the same height as the ball python so it feels the top of the box touching its back when it crawls inside.  It should also be fairly compact so the ball python almost completely fills it up when coiled.  It is a good idea to have two hide boxes, one at the warm end of the cage and one at the cool end of the cage, so the ball python can hide where it wants without having to choose protection over warmth.

Substrate

Arizona is much drier than other parts of the country and what works well in damp Florida or muggy east Texas may not work well here.  Cypress mulch is a good choice as it retains moisture well but also dries out quickly on its surface.  A layer of this cypress mulch about 1" deep will give the ball python a chance to burrow if it desires.  The cypress mulch should be damp, but not dripping wet, at the bottom of the cage, and you should mist the cage daily so that the cage stays humid.  Even with this effort, some cages may still be too dry which results in shedding difficulties. These ball pythons need a humidity chamber added to their cage.  A small plastic box, about 50% bigger than the ball python is while coiled, works well.  A hole big enough for the ball python to crawl through should be cut on the top and the interior filled with damp sphagnum moss.  This should be placed in a warm area of the cage.  Another way to increase humidity is to use a large shallow water bowl and to have a piece of cork or a hollow log that you soak in water daily and place back into the cage.  Many ball python breeders swear by aspen bedding or newspaper and you are welcome to try those options as long as you try other ways to keep provide high humidity in the cage as noted above.  It is very important to spot clean mulch or other bedding daily and to completely throw out all the bedding when you notice an odor or at least every two months.

Make sure you are buying cypress mulch and not hardwood mulch, cedar mulch or shaving, or pine shaving as those substrates can be dangerous.

Heat and Light

Ball pythons do well with a heat source coming from below, such as a piece of heat tape or a heat pad designed for reptile cages.  They may also use a basking light such as a white light on during the day and a red light on during the night.  This heat source should only cover about ¼ to 1/3 of one end of the cage so the ball python can crawl away when it is warm enough.  Typically the cool end of the cage should be around 78-80°F while the warm end of the cage should be 85-90°F.   Make sure you have a thermometer at both ends of the cage so you are sure it is not getting too hot or too cold.

DO NOT USE HOT ROCKS!  Ball pythons and other snakes readily burn themselves on these items.

Diet

Ball pythons can eat mice throughout their life. Baby ball pythons do well with fuzzy mice or weanling mice (also called “hoppers”).  The larger the ball python, the larger the mouse.  An adult ball python will eat 2-3 adult mice a week and may tale a small rat instead.  As a general rule, you know to go to a larger size mouse if the snake is still hungry after eating.  It may be better to offer two of the smaller sized mice one meal and if the ball python readily eats them both then try the larger sized mouse next meal.

Many adult ball pythons will not eat from October to February (i.e., the late fall and winter months).  While this is often normal, it is important to make sure that there is no medical reason for this change in appetite so it is a good idea to have a fecal sample checked for parasites twice a year and to have an examination at least once a year in August or September.
We strongly urge you to feed thawed pre-killed rodents since live mice and rats can cause life-threatening injuries to the ball python.  If you must use a live rodent, put rodent food in the cage so it has something to eat other than the ball python.  Even if the ball python is hungry, it may get bit or scratched in the process of killing the prey.

Some imported ball pythons can be very fussy about their food.  They may accept African soft-furred rats or gerbils and gradually learn to take mice or rats.

Water

As mentioned above, it is very important for a ball python to have water at all times.  The water bowl should be large enough for the ball python to be able to completely coil inside.  The larger water bowl also helps combat the low Arizona humidity.  An adult ball python will do well with a 16 oz (about 1 liter) water bowl.  A sturdy ceramic water bowl is best since it will be difficult for the ball python to tip over.  Clean the water bowl at least once a week with warm soapy water and rinse well before replacing it in the cage.

Preventive Medicine

As mentioned above, it is important to make sure that your ball python is healthy.  We recommend checking a stool sample for parasites twice a year and to have an examination at least once a year in August or September.