We’ve already gone over the ball python basics, and then some, in part one of my ball python care series. Now let’s explore a few of the problems many ball python owners experience with basic husbandry, what causes these problems, and how to fix them. Some aspects of ball python husbandry can be a bit of a challenge, even for experienced snake owners, since there are many variables that can come into play.
If you’re using a glass tank, one of the biggest uphill battles you’ll experience is maintaining the right temperatures. The glass is an extremely poor insulator, and the screen top creates a lot of air flow, so all of your heat is escaping in every direction. This isn’t much of a problem if your room temperature is consistently in the 75F-80F range, in which case all you would need is an under tank heater (UTH) to provide a warm side floor temperature of 90F. Since most of us don’t keep our homes that warm year round, you’ll probably need to add some insulation and consider other heat source options.
If you’re using a tub or PVC cage, as long as your room temperature is warm enough (70F-75F) you should be fine with only one heat source. If your room temperature is usually well below 70F, some heat sources will work better than others (a RHP instead of a UTH, for example), or you may need to use more than one heat source (a UTH and a RHP). You may also consider adding insulation even though plastic enclosures are already pretty well suited for retaining heat.
A heat lamp, specifically a ceramic heat emitter (CHE), is the most popular choice for boosting the ambient temperature in a glass tank. The CHE bulbs are a much better option than any light-emitting bulbs, including red or blue “night time” bulbs, because the CHE can be left on at all times without disrupting the snake’s day/night cycle. The other option for boosting ambient temperatures is a radiant heat panel (RHP). If you’re using a tub, a CHE or RHP may not be a practical option for you. If your set up only allows for a UTH and your cool side temperatures are way too cold, you can simply add a second UTH to the cool side and set the thermostat to 75F-80F.
Remember that any heat source should be regulated by a thermostat, and you should always monitor the temperatures on the enclosure floor (because your ball python doesn’t live up on the wall or floating in the air).
For insulation, foam boards can be purchased at hardware stores, and they’re easy to cut to size. With a glass tank, you can use these foam boards to cover the back and side walls of the tank entirely, as well as part of the front wall (leaving a window for easy viewing) and part of the screen top (leaving enough of the screen uncovered for appropriate air flow and space for a heat lamp if you’re using one). With a tub, cover all four walls and the top, cutting air holes in the boards to match the air holes in the tub. With a PVC cage, cover the back, sides, and top, cutting air holes/strips to match the cage if needed.
When a ball python owner is struggling to keep the enclosure’s humidity above 50%, it’s almost always an air flow issue. This just comes with the territory of glass tanks, whether you’re using a typical aquarium type tank or you have something like the Exo Terra terrariums. These types of enclosures don’t retain humidity at all without some modification. In a standard top-opening tank, you can solve this issue by covering most of the screen lid. Start by covering most of the screen with a non-absorbent material (aluminum foil, plastic wrap, etc) leaving only 5-10 square inches of ventilation, check the humidity after an hour or two, then increase or decrease the coverage as necessary. If you have a front-opening tank, there is likely a strip of air holes in the front in addition to a screen top, in which case the top screen can be covered completely to start and adjusted as necessary from there.
To turn a storage tub into an enclosure, start with fewer air holes than you think you need. Once the tub is fully set up, including the water dish being full and the heat source running, check the humidity and add a few more air holes if you need to. If it turns out that you started off with too many air holes, fill some of them in with a dab of hot glue, let things settle for an hour or two, then reassess.
If your humidity struggles are caused by your heat source(s) drying out the enclosure, or you live in a particularly arid climate, reducing the air flow may not be enough. In this scenario, there are two solutions to try. I recommend starting with using a larger water dish, or adding a second water dish. If that still doesn’t solve your problem, it’s time to look into adding moisture to the enclosure via the substrate. I prefer to use damp substrate as an absolute last resort, because there can be a pretty fine line between being damp enough to provide good humidity and being so damp that it causes scale rot. If you need to go this route, at least try to keep the floor dry inside the hides so the snake’s not sitting on a wet surface all the time.
The most popular substrates that hold water well, without turning into a mold/mildew festival, are cypress mulch, coconut husk, and sphagnum moss. Coconut husk ranges from large solid pieces (similar to big chunky bark mulches) to very fine particles (similar to potting soil). The finer it is, the dustier it can get when it’s dry, which can be irritating to your snake’s respiratory system. Sphagnum moss isn’t very practical to use as a substrate by itself, but it can be mixed with cypress or coconut. Water can be poured directly into these substrates as needed to rehydrate it. Remember that you only want it to be damp, not dripping wet, so start with a small amount of water and mix up the substrate thoroughly, repeating as necessary until everything is uniformly moistened.
Many people will just use a spray bottle to mist the enclosure. This tactic is generally ineffective because it’s not fully rehydrating the substrate. The water will evaporate quickly from the substrate surface, so you’ll find yourself misting the enclosure multiple times a day, and your humidity will never be consistent.
Humid hides are fully enclosed hides filled with damp substrate to create a microclimate that’s much more humid than the rest of the enclosure. Some people like this option because, in theory, they don’t have to worry so much about maintaining a minimum of 50% humidity in the rest of the enclosure. I think humid hides are great for certain types of snakes, but I don’t like relying on them for ball pythons. These snakes really do best when their entire environment is consistently kept at 50% humidity or higher.
Despite the ball python’s reputation for being docile, I often hear complaints from beginners about their ball python acting aggressively. I personally have had to deal with an “aggressive” ball python. The thing is, it’s not aggression.
The most common type of “aggression” is defensiveness. When a snake strikes at you, with or without actually landing a bite, then immediately retreats, that means they’re stressed, feeling threatened, and trying to scare you away. This stress is often the result of inadequate husbandry, so if your snake is striking at you (and they’re not just excited about feeding time), you need to do a full husbandry evaluation. If the hides, temperatures, humidity, etc, are all perfect, look at other potential sources of stress. Is the enclosure in a high traffic or noisy spot in your home? Move it to a quieter area. Have you been handling your snake a lot? Has the snake recently been moved to a new enclosure, or had their existing enclosure changed in a drastic way? Leave them alone for a few weeks, and reduce the frequency and/or duration of handling in the future.
The other possibility is feeding response. It’s not unusual for snakes to get worked up and ready to bite anything that moves when they’re hungry and smell food. This is one of the many reasons why I strongly recommend feeding snakes in their enclosures, rather than moving them to a separate feeding area. Trying to handle a snake that’s in feeding mode is basically begging to get bit. If your snake has a particularly strong feeding response, even just opening the enclosure on feeding day can become quite a challenge. You may also experience feeding response bites when it’s not feeding day if your snake is generally underfed and therefor hungry all the time. Feeding response bites are very obvious, as the snake will bite without letting go and may even coil their body around you to constrict, the same as they would do with their prey.
If you’re struggling with basic ball python husbandry, hopefully these tips will help you troubleshoot and swiftly find a solution. Sometimes you have to experiment a little to see what works best for you and your snake. If one piece of the husbandry puzzle is missing, it can have a domino effect and throw off other pieces of the puzzle, and your ball python needs the whole picture to be happy and healthy. Part three of this series focuses solely on feeding issues, which nearly every ball python owner will experience to some degree.