In part one of this series, we started with the foundation of ball python care. In part two, we branched out into identifying and solving some of the most common husbandry issues. Now, we dive into the biggest set of issues with ball pythons: feeding. This is where even experienced owners will inevitably get frustrated. Ball pythons are notorious for being picky eaters and losing their appetite for long periods of time. I’ve worked through a wide range of feeding issues with my own ball pythons, and my experiences have helped me build quite an arsenal of tips and tricks.
Before we get started, I want to take a moment to share a personal anecdote illustrating why it’s important to read the first two articles in this series before you continue here. See this little cutie pictured above? This is Munchkin, one of my own snakes, the poster girl for my ball python care series. She is the perfect example of how unforgiving of mistakes ball pythons can be, and how important it is to do your research when choosing a new pet. I rescued Munchkin when she was three years old and barely bigger than a hatchling. I was (and still am) shocked that she was even alive. Her previous owner was unable to get her to eat consistently, and her prey was much too small when she did eat; her growth was severely stunted as a result. She wasn’t eating properly because she was severely stressed from poor husbandry; all wrong temperatures, low humidity, inadequate hiding places, frequent handling, etc. As soon as she was moved into an enclosure that met all of her needs, and she was only being handled long enough to be weighed about once a month, she was eagerly eating appropriately sized prey every week. As soon as she was eating properly, she began growing the way she should have as a baby.
Everything is connected. If one thing is wrong, other things will go wrong, and one detail quickly destroys the big picture. So with all of that said…
When a ball python is refusing to eat, the first thing you need to do is make sure your snake is not stressed. These sensitive snakes can be stressed by many factors. Check your husbandry. Then check your husbandry again. Start with the fundamental basics: temperatures, humidity, hides. If the basics are all good, look at other possibilities.
Are you handling your ball python when it isn’t necessary? Moving your snake out of the way to spot clean the enclosure, or weighing your snake to track overall condition and determine the appropriate prey size, are perfectly fine (but should still be done as quickly and infrequently as possible). Any handling beyond the necessities needs to be put on hold until your ball python is eating regularly. Remember that these are solitary creatures and handling is, generally speaking, stressful for them.
Do you move your ball python out of their enclosure and into a separate area to feed them? This is unnecessary, and potentially harmful for both the snake and yourself. A timid snake will become less likely to eat if they’re removed from the place where they feel safe and comfortable. If the snake does eat, regurgitation is more likely to happen due to the mental stress and physical activity of being moved. Many people think a separate feeding area is necessary to prevent the snake from assuming your hand is prey every time you reach into the enclosure; this isn’t going to happen unless your hand smells like a rodent literally every time you do any enclosure maintenance. The best way to increase your chances of being bit by your snake is by handling them when they’re in hunting mode, and your hands are more likely to smell like a rodent on feeding day. Always, always, always feed in the enclosure. If you’re concerned about your snake ingesting substrate, put a plate or some other barrier down before feeding.
Is your ball python’s enclosure in a busy area of your home? Noise and movement are big contributors to stress. If the enclosure is in a place where the vibration of every passing footstep can be felt by the snake, that’s unsettling for them. If the enclosure is in a room where people tend to use their “outdoor voice”, the television/stereo are often blaring, music practice is on the daily itinerary… consider moving the enclosure to a mellower area. Snakes do, indeed, have the ability to hear those loud noises, as well as feel the vibrations those noises create.
Have you started to panic about your ball python refusing to eat, and figured if you offer them food every couple of days maybe you’ll increase your chances of a successful meal? This is maybe the most popular and most counterproductive tactic. If your snake is uninterested in eating, constantly shoving food in their face is only going to make them less interested in eating. After a refusal, it’s best to wait a minimum of two weeks before offering another meal. Be patient and remind yourself that it’s not the end of the world if a ball python skips a meal or two, even with a teeny tiny baby.
Have you been offering food the way your ball python prefers? If you’re feeding frozen/thawed or pre-killed prey, some snakes prefer to strike and constrict as if the prey is live, others prefer to eat more calmly when no one is watching. Some are perfectly content to eat a room temperature rodent, others require a lifelike body temperature. Some are even picky about the color of the rodent’s fur. You may have to experiment to figure out your individual ball python’s preferences.
Do you have more than one snake living in the same enclosure? While there are some species that can live communally, ball pythons are not in that category. Ball pythons should never, ever, under any circumstances with the exception of breeding, be housed with other snakes. Living in close proximity to other snakes will only cause them to compete over resources such as temperature zones and hiding places. Snake body language can be extremely subtle and frequently misinterpreted. It’s easy to look at two ball pythons curled up in the same hide together and think they’re cuddling in a friendly way, but they’re actually fighting, and both of them are stressed.
Seasonal Loss of Appetite
This is something every ball python owner should expect. Babies generally eat throughout their first winter just fine, but once they get into yearling/sub-adult/adult territory, refusing to eat becomes normal. When the seasons change, the days become shorter, the barometric pressure rises, the temperature and humidity drop. All of these things can trigger low metabolism and a disinterest in food. Maybe your ball python will eat like clockwork regardless of the season, maybe only a month’s worth of meals will be skipped in the middle of winter, or maybe you’ll be saving a lot of money on rats when your ball python doesn’t eat for eight months. These “fasts” can start any time in the fall or winter. In my experience, if three meals in a row are refused, it’s time to back off and try again in the spring. If the first meal of spring is refused, wait two weeks and try again. Rinse and repeat until your ball python resumes eating. Regardless of what month each of my ball pythons stop eating, I start offering food in late March or early April, and everyone is back to eating consistently by the end of May.
During a seasonal loss of appetite, weigh the snake about once a month. Monitoring weight is one of the easiest ways to monitor health. Most healthy ball pythons will lose very little weight in this low metabolism phase, but you should be prepared for the possibility of substantial weight loss. There is absolutely no need to worry about a ball python refusing to eat unless they’ve lost 20% or more of their weight. This still isn’t a time to panic, but it’s a time to maybe try a few tricks to help nudge the snake back into the habit of eating.
When They Just Won’t Eat
Some ball pythons are fussier than others, especially when something has changed (moving to a new home, changes in the enclosure, coming out of a seasonal loss of appetite, changing prey type, etc). If your ball python is refusing to eat during a time of year when refusals are not normal, and you have ruled out every possible cause in everything from your husbandry to possible medical problems, it’s time to try some of the “last resort” tactics. These tips are all based on a diet of frozen/thawed rats.
Make sure your frozen/thawed rats are properly thawed. Follow the same basic food safety protocols as you would with your own frozen meats, thaw the rat in the refrigerator overnight. Rapid thawing causes rapid deterioration and bacteria growth, which leads to not-so-fresh food, and a rat that may “explode” when your snake bites/constricts it. Once the rat has completely thawed in the refrigerator, then you can work on bringing it up to an appetizing temperature.
If your fussy snake requires a lifelike temperature, the best way to warm up a rat is with hot (but not boiling) water. There are many ways to do this. Placing the rat in a plastic bag and submerging it in the water is the most common method. I personally prefer to use a “double boiler” method, as this guarantees the rats stay dry, and it’s much easier to check their temperature periodically until they’re ready. Aim for a belly temperature of about 100 F (this is easiest to measure with an infrared thermometer). For particularly timid eaters, or snakes with poor striking aim, bring the rat’s head closer to 110 F to create a hot target spot.
Some ball pythons prefer to eat when no one is watching. For these shy eaters, leave the rat on a large plate in the enclosure, keeping the plate away from any heat sources. Wait approximately 24 hours before deciding the rat is not going to be eaten, as it can take several hours for the snake to build up enough interest to eat.
Other ball pythons need their prey to be “alive”, so you must be an active participant in meal times. If your snake needs to hunt, use a pair of feeding tongs to dangle the warmed rat by the tail or by the shoulder blade area, and gently wiggle the rat around a little until your snake approaches, strikes, and constricts.
If the plain old rat aroma isn’t enticing your snake to eat, perhaps you need to add some extra appealing scents to the mix. “Braining” is a common trick in which the rat’s skull is pierced with a knife or other sharp object, and some of the brain matter is then smeared into the fur on the rat’s head. Another scenting trick, when you’re feeding rats, is to take dirty mouse bedding (or an actual mouse, if you have other snakes who eat mice) and rub it all over the rat to transfer the smell.
When it becomes clear that frozen/thawed is just not working out for your snake, the next thing to try is pre-killed (also referred to as fresh killed). This means you’ll have to kill the rat yourself, then immediately offer it to your snake. The best ways to do this humanely are a CO2 chamber (tutorials can be found with a bit of searching online), blunt force trauma to the head, or breaking the neck.
Third-to-last resort: feeding mice instead of rats. This is something I try not to recommend because there’s always the risk of a ball python refusing to eat rats after they’ve been fed mice. Keeping an adult ball python healthy on a diet of mice is impractical at best, impossible at worst, simply due to the amount of food the snake needs and the common reluctance to eat more than one or two prey items per meal.
Second-to-last resort: live prey. This is dangerous for your snake and must be done very carefully if the rodent is old enough that their eyes have opened. Rodent bites can cause serious puncture wounds that easily become infected, if they aren’t immediately lethal. Never leave a live rodent unattended with your snake, and always be ready to intervene if the rodent manages to land a bite.
Last resort: assisted feeding or force feeding. Due to the possibility of injuring the snake, this should be done by a veterinarian who is familiar with snakes or by an experienced snake breeder. Assisted feeding, in which a small prey item is placed in the snake’s mouth in hopes that the natural swallowing response will take over from there, is usually reserved for hatchling snakes who have not yet eaten their first meal. Force feeding, or tube feeding, uses a syringe to inject a liquid diet directly into the snake’s esophagus, and is reserved for animals in truly critical condition.
Changing Prey Type
Mice versus rats. Unfortunately, many breeders and sellers of ball pythons start their babies on a diet of mice. This can cause some pretty big headaches when the snake quickly outgrows mice and the only practical option is rats. Mice and rats don’t smell the same, which means most ball pythons raised on a diet of mice won’t immediately recognize a rat as food. If you own a ball python who only eats mice, and you’re not lucky enough to have an eager eater who will take rats with no fuss, get ready to be patient. This is the system I have used to transition from mice to rats, broken down into two phases.
- First, determine how many grams of food your ball python needs (refer to the feeding section of part one in this series). Take one mouse and one rat that, together, add up to the total weight your ball python should be eating. Thoroughly scent the rat with the mouse. Feed the mouse first, then offer the rat as soon as the mouse has been swallowed (alternatively, for shy eaters, simply place both the mouse and rat in the enclosure together and leave the snake alone). If the mouse is accepted but the rat is rejected, discard the rat and leave your snake with that half-sized meal so, hopefully, they will be hungrier for the next meal. Over the course of several weeks of successful meals with both the mouse and the rat being eaten, gradually increase the size of the rat and decrease the size of the mouse.
- Remove mice from the meals and feed just one appropriately sized rat. Continue scenting the rat with a mouse, or dirty mouse bedding. Over the course of several weeks of successful meals, gradually decrease how strongly the rat is scented, until eventually you’re feeding without scenting at all.
Live versus frozen/thawed. If your ball python is already eating rats, but has only been fed live prey, switching to frozen/thawed is in your snake’s best interest. Bonus: frozen/thawed is much more convenient for you, since you can buy frozen rats in bulk instead of having to breed your own rats or buy a live rat every time you need to feed your snake. The easiest way to make this transition is to start with pre-killed, and in time move on to thoroughly warmed frozen/thawed. Essentially, you’re working in the reverse order of the tips I listed in the previous section for convincing a fussy eater to eat.
The double whammy. Some unlucky souls will end up with a fussy ball python who has been raised on a diet of live mice. In this situation, start by switching from live to frozen/thawed, then from mice to rats. It might take an extra long time, but taking these baby steps is really so much easier than trying to jump right from live mice to frozen/thawed rats.
Remember that it can take several months, even over a year, to change prey types. Patience is crucial!
Fickle eating habits are the number one reason why many beginner snake owners struggle with their ball pythons. It’s not necessarily an emergency when a ball python refuses a meal, but it’s certainly something a ball python owner should be prepared to handle. Some instances of refusing to eat are normal, others are indicative of a problem, and it’s important to understand the differences. Hopefully, this mix of information and anecdotes can help you keep your pet happy and healthy.