Ball pythons are one of the most popular snakes in the pet trade. Looking at the wide variety of morphs, docile temperament, and a nice mid-range size, it’s easy to see why ball pythons are so appealing to many first time snake owners. Unfortunately, these snakes aren’t always beginner-friendly. Ball pythons can be easily stressed, sensitive to imperfect husbandry, and they often have some feeding quirks that can be challenging even for experienced owners. With an average lifespan of 25-35 years, even 40+ years being possible, this pet is a big long-term commitment. If you’re considering a ball python for your new reptilian pet, you can set up yourself (and your snake) for success by familiarizing yourself with the basics of ball python husbandry, common husbandry problems, and common feeding problems. In this longer-than-average care sheet, we’ll explore the basics and flesh out some of the details.
Enclosure Size and Type
The enclosure is the foundation for every other aspect of ball python husbandry. When it comes to choosing an appropriate enclosure for a ball python, opinions vary quite a bit. Do you go with a glass tank, a PVC reptile cage, a wood vivarium, a modified storage tub, or something DIY? Do you choose something snug or spacious? What if you’re buying a baby, do you get a small enclosure now and upgrade to a bigger one later? I’m going to share my own preferences, which fall pretty solidly into the middle of the spectrum.
The rule of thumb I follow for minimum enclosure size is that the length of the enclosure plus the width of the enclosure should be equal to or greater than the length of the snake. For example, if you have an enclosure that’s 30″ long and 12″ wide, that would be appropriate for a snake up to 42″ long. But this is just the minimum guideline. Bigger is generally better, especially when you’re setting up a permanent home for an adult snake. Choosing an enclosure larger than the recommended minimum is great for accommodating things like hides and water dish, which can take up a lot of the floor space, while leaving plenty of room for other accessories like driftwood. Even if you have a small juvenile but you don’t want to buy multiple enclosures over the course of your snake’s growth, don’t be afraid to start with the adult sized enclosure (I would recommend planning for at least a 5′ adult if you choose this route). When housing a small snake in a large enclosure, be sure to clutter up all that empty space with some extra hides and decor, so they don’t feel too exposed. I like to keep a clear area available for feeding, which we’ll get into later.
Once you figure out what size enclosure is best for your snake, you have to decide what type of enclosure you want to use. Different materials have different advantages and disadvantages. I’ll go over the two most common types, glass (or acrylic) and plastic.
Most first time snake owners go straight for the glass tanks; available in every pet store, easy to find cheap on sale or second-hand, and it makes for a nice display. However, the down sides to glass tanks are numerous. Glass is an extremely poor insulator, which makes heating difficult. The screen lids used with tanks allow a lot of air flow, which allows humidity to escape. These tanks can work for ball pythons, but it takes a lot of modification, monitoring, and maintenance.
Plastic enclosures, whether they are PVC reptile cages or storage tubs, are much more suitable for a ball python’s needs. This is the “set it and forget it” type of enclosure. Plastic insulates heat well, and the minimal air flow allows for excellent humidity retention. Storage tubs might not be nice to look at, but they’re cheap and easy to find in stores. They require some modification, like drilling air holes, but setting up a tub is a simple task. PVC reptile cages can be expensive, though price will vary depending on the manufacturer and whether or not you have to assemble the cage yourself. These cages have all the visibility benefits of a glass tank and all of the practical husbandry benefits of a tub, and a few hundred dollars is a great investment when you consider the lifespan for this pet. It’s not uncommon for people buying a baby ball python to start with a mid-size tub, then upgrade to a PVC cage when the snake outgrows the tub.
For terrestrial snakes like ball pythons, hiding places are crucial. These snakes want to be snugly tucked away out of sight, safe from predators. If your ball python doesn’t have adequate places to hide, they will become stressed, and stress quickly snowballs into bigger problems like refusing to eat and becoming susceptible to illness. A minimum of two hides should be provided, one for the warm side and one for the cool side. These two hides should be 1) snug, with little to no empty space around the snake, 2) enclosed, with only one entrance, allowing the snake to actually be hidden from view, and 3) identical, except for the temperature, so the snake feels equally comfortable in both hides and won’t have to prioritize security over thermoregulation. Hides like the half-logs found in most pet stores should not be used for primary hides (though they’re acceptable for extra decor), as they are too open and leave the snake exposed. I recommend reptile basics hide boxes, cave style hides from brands like Exo Terra, even cardboard boxes or opaque plastic food containers.
The ideal temperature gradient for a ball python is a warm side of 90F and a cool side of 80F. There’s a little wiggle room at either end, but not much. Prolonged exposure to temperatures over 95F can potentially cause injuries like burns or neurological damage from hyperthermia. Ambient temperatures consistently below 75F can lead to illnesses like respiratory infections.
There are a few options for heat sources, the most common being an under tank heater (UTH), a ceramic heat emitter (CHE), and a radiant heat panel (RHP). Which type(s) you need will depend on your enclosure type and your room temperature, as well as your own preferences. For example, my snakes are all kept in my living room where the room temperature is consistently 70F. In each of my PVC cages, I could either use a UTH or a RHP, and I chose a UTH because it’s cheaper and I believe belly heat is more important than ambient heat. The UTH covers approximately one-third of the floor and provides enough heat to raise the ambient temperature five to eight degrees above room temperature. If your room temperature is cold, and/or you’re using an uninsulated glass tank, you may need to use more than one heat source to maintain the right temperatures.
No matter what type of heat source you use, it absolutely must be regulated by a thermostat to ensure appropriate and safe temperatures. An unregulated UTH, for example, could easily produce temperatures over 110F. Note: a thermostat is not the same thing as a thermometer. A thermostat monitors temperature and regulates the heat source as necessary to maintain a specific temperature. All a thermometer does is measure temperature, it doesn’t do anything else. Most heat sources will not come with their own thermostat, so you have to purchase one separately. The thermostat probe placement will depend, once again, on what type of enclosure and heat source you’re using as well as your own preferences. To use a UTH as an example, the thermostat probe could either be a) sandwiched between the UTH and the outside of the enclosure or b) placed inside the enclosure and secured in place by hot gluing the cord to the enclosure floor. I personally prefer to keep the probe inside the enclosure, so my thermostat temperature readings show what my snakes are actually exposed to. If the probe is between the UTH and the enclosure, you have to adjust the temperature setting a little, since some of the heat will be absorbed and dispersed by the floor.
A digital thermometer/hygrometer combo is great for monitoring ambient temperatures and humidity. A digital infrared thermometer (also known as a temp gun) will allow you to get accurate pinpoint temperature readings in any nook or cranny of the enclosure, and it’s especially useful in double-checking your heat source’s temperatures. When you’re checking temperatures, remember that your ball python lives on the floor of the enclosure, not on the wall or in the air. Always check the temperatures your snake is actually exposed to.
Humidity and Water
Hydration, good sheds, and good respiratory health, are all heavily dependent on the right humidity. The ideal humidity range for ball pythons is 60%-80%. Anything below 50%-60% can cause health problems such as dehydration (which can result in flaky or stuck sheds) and respiratory infections. If your enclosure has low air flow, you should be able to achieve a minimum of 60% humidity very easily just from the water dish. If your enclosure has too much air flow, your heat sources are drying things out too much, you live in a particularly arid climate, or some combination thereof, you may need to take some additional steps to ensure proper humidity. An extra water dish or dampened substrate can help boost the humidity. Misting the enclosure with a spray bottle tends to be comparable to putting a Band-Aid on a severed artery; it might boost your humidity for a moment, but the humidity will quickly drop again. Using a fogger/humidifier can quickly become overkill. Keep in mind that a wet environment can lead to scale rot, so you really want to address any humidity issues via air flow and water dishes if you can.
Always choose a water dish that’s at least big enough for the snake to soak in it. Even if you never see your snake soak in the water, they should have the option in case they ever need to. Some snakes will soak in the water when they’re getting ready to shed. Soaking in the water can also be a sign of a problem you need to address, such as mites or constipation.
So many types of substrate to choose from, but which ones are the best? A lot of it boils down to – you guessed it – the rest of your set up and your own personal preferences, though there are some you should absolutely stay away from at all costs.
Substrates you should definitely not use:
- Pine, cedar, and other aromatic woods. The oils in these woods that make them smell nice to us will cause serious health problems for snakes, ranging from skin irritation to respiratory infections to liver damage.
- Sand, walnut shell, and corn cob. These substrates are very abrasive, causing irritation to the snake’s eyes and cloaca, as well as posing a serious impaction risk when ingested.
Substrates that are moisture friendly, good for enclosures that need damp substrate:
- Coconut husk or coconut fiber.
- Cypress mulch
- Fir bark mulch.
Substrates that are great as long as they don’t get wet, can mold easily:
- Shredded aspen.
- Paper towels, newspaper, etc.
Substrates that seem like a good idea but are difficult to clean/sterilize properly:
- Repticarpet, astroturf, etc.
Frozen/thawed rats are the best diet for these snakes. It’s common practice to feed ball pythons mice, particularly when the snake is young, and this is maybe the biggest cause of headaches for ball python owners. Ball pythons are notoriously fussy eaters, and one of the most common problems is being picky about prey type, so it can be extremely difficult to switch from mice to rats. Keeping an adult ball python healthy on a diet of mice is a hassle at best, impossible at worst, since an adult could need anywhere from three to ten mice per meal, depending on the size of the mice and the size of the snake. Most ball pythons won’t be interested in eating more than two or three prey items per meal. When you’re choosing your ball python, do yourself a favor and choose one who has been reliably eating rats, so you won’t have to change their food.
A digital kitchen scale is an invaluable tool for any snake owner, as weighing your snake regularly is good for 1) effortlessly choosing the right prey size, and 2) monitoring your snake’s health by tracking any weight gain or loss. The foolproof way to determine the appropriate rat size for your ball python is to use weight percentages. Now, depending on who you ask, the weight percentages you get might be more conservative or more aggressive. I’m going to break it down right in the middle, as this is the guideline I follow with my own ball pythons. For the first year, 10%-15% of the snake’s weight every seven days. For the second year, 7%-10% of the snake’s weight every seven to ten days. Third year and beyond, approximately 5% every seven to fourteen days will sustain a healthy weight. Remember that this is a basic guideline, and your individual ball python may need higher or lower weight percentages depending on their metabolism.
Remember when I said I like to keep a clear area in the enclosure for feeding? Browsing various care sheets, discussion forums, etc, will lead you to a lot of conflicting information on where you should feed your snake, inside the enclosure versus a separate feeding area. Arguments in favor of feeding outside the enclosure are based on the myth of cage aggression. The idea is that the snake will associate you opening the enclosure with feeding time and try to eat your hand. The only way your ball python is going to mistake your hand for a rat is if your hand smells like a rat literally every time you reach in the enclosure. Removing a hungry snake from the enclosure is a great way to get bit, though, simply because the snake is ready to strike at anything that moves. If you feed in the enclosure, you can effortlessly keep your hands out of striking range. On the other hand, you might switch off your ball python’s feeding response by handling them and removing them from their enclosure, then your snake won’t eat because they no longer feel safe and comfortable. Feeding in the enclosure is less stressful for both you and the snake. Additionally, many ball pythons (including two of my own) will calmly eat a frozen/thawed rat right off a plate, so all you have to do is put the plate down in the enclosure and leave your snake alone to eat on their own terms.
Phew! That probably seems like a lot to take in all at once, but remember that these are just the basics. For more in depth information, check out the rest of my ball python care series; part two covers some common problems and solutions, and part three is all about feeding. These snakes aren’t quite as forgiving of beginner mistakes as some of the other popular species, so it’s extra important to do your research and build up a good foundation of information.