The Ball Python Care Sheet
Standard common name: Ball Python
Scientific name: Python regius
Other common names: In Europe and Africa this species is often referred to as the royal python.
Size: Ball pythons are heavy-bodied snakes with relatively slender necks. Their heads are distinctly wider than their necks. Adults average about 28"-46" in total length. Females are larger than males. Hatchlings average 9"-11" in total length.
The accepted record length for the species is 78." The biggest specimen we have ever observed measured close to six feet.
Distribution: This species occurs in sub-Saharan west and central Africa; ball pythons can be found from Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia on the west coast, east to southwestern Sudan and northwestern Uganda in the center of the continent. Tens of thousands of ball pythons are annually imported into the U.S., mostly originating from Togo, Benin, and Ghana.
Cage size: Ball pythons require a secure, well-ventilated cage. A glass aquarium with a secure ventilated top (screen wire or perforated metal) makes a satisfactory cage. Plastic storage boxes, with numerous perforations for ventilation, can be satisfactorily used to maintain ball pythons. Hatchling ball pythons do best in an enclosure with about 40 square inches of floor space; often, if placed in too large an enclosure, a hatchling may be insecure and fail to feed. Sub-adult ball pythons do best given 120-200 square inches of floor space. Older adults require at least 400-600 square inches of floor space. Most adults could live out their lives quite happily in an enclosure the approximate size of a 20-gallon-long aquarium.
Substrate: It has been our experience and observation that ball pythons do extremely well on either aspen bedding or on newspaper. Both are easy to maintain at a satisfactory level of sanitation. Ball pythons can be successfully maintained on a variety of substrates, including potting soil, clean gravel, cypress bark chips, and carpet, although some greater diligence may be required to maintain proper levels of cleanliness and odor with these substrates.
We particularly like aspen bedding for ball pythons. When using aspen bedding, we have had the best results when the substrate is kept 2"-4" deep in the cage. We rarely observe a ball python to burrow or push in the aspen. Rather they are content to live on top of it and pack it down into trails and depressions. When the ambient temperatures are low, we place a hide box down into the aspen over the area heated from underneath by heat tape or Flex-Watt strips so that they can sit in the box directly over the heat.
We purposely do not meticulously clean aspen bedding on some predetermined schedule. We find that this is not necessary and we prefer to leave it relatively undisturbed when possible. We check the cages daily, paying particular attention to the ambiance and odor of the cage. If it smells fresh and clean, then we don't disturb it. If the odor of some large stool or uneaten meal is detected, then the source of the offending odor is removed. Every second or third month, all the bedding is replaced. It is a very efficient way to maintain ball pythons, who themselves are efficient and clean snakes and allow such a lenient maintenance regime.
When using newspaper as a cage substrate, it is a good maintenance practice, after papering the bottom, to crumple several pieces of newspaper in the cage, under which the snake can hide if desired.
DO NOT use cedar bedding or any cedar product as a substrate for any snakes.
Water: Clean water should be available in a glass or ceramic water bowl at all times. For hatchlings we supply a small 8 oz water bowl measuring about 2.5" in diameter, 1" in depth. Adults are provided a 16 oz water bowl, measuring 4" in diameter and 3" in depth.
Ball pythons are rarely observed to soak in their water bowl in conditions of normal health and security. Most often the reason for ball pythons to sit in their water bowls is that they are stressed or insecure in their cages (they are "hiding" in their water bowl,) or if they are plagued by an infestation of snake mites.
Temperatures: Temperatures are extremely important for the successful maintenance of reptiles. Your captive reptiles rely on you to provide them the necessary temperatures they need for a healthy life. Don't guess temperatures, measure them!
As a general starting point for successful maintenance, ball pythons can be kept in a cage that has a night time low temperature of 79-81 degrees F and a daytime high temperature of 81-85 degrees F.
When possible, it's a better maintenance practice to provide a temperature gradient for ball pythons; in other words, one end of the cage is 8-10 degrees F warmer than the other end, with the cooler end of the cage averaging 77-80 degrees F. This will allow the individual to choose an ambient temperature that best suits at any given time. However, true thermal gradients are difficult to create in small cages. In actual practice, this species is kept very successfully in cages with ambient temperatures in the range of 78-83 degrees F with a small basking area heated to temperatures of 85-88 degrees F. By selectively basking, a ball python can achieve temperatures intermediate to the extremes of temperature in the cage, which, ostensibly, is the objective of a thermal gradient. Some keepers keep the basking spots turned on and warm at all times while other keepers prefer to put the basking spot on for 8-12 hours daily.
Both radiant heat or substrate heat are satisfactory ways to create a basking spot. Ball pythons will bask under warm lights or ceramic bulbs. However, it is our observation that they seem to prefer to sit on a warm area of substrate, heated from below with some type of heating pad to temperatures 85-88 degrees F. It's important that the supplemental heat be allowed to dissipate without heating the entire enclosure to higher than ambient temperatures.
Ball pythons do not appear to be able to detect dangerously high temperatures with their ventral surface. It's rare that a ball python allow it's back to burn under a too-hot radiant heat source, but ball pythons will often allow their bellies to burn by sitting on something too hot. Electrically-heated fake rocks (often referred to as "hot-rocks") can be very dangerous to ball pythons, as occasionally the surface temperature of some of these hot rocks may exceed 130-140 degrees F and they can cause severe burns on the bellies of unsuspecting snakes. A heated rock should feel warm when held in your hand; if the rock is a safe temperature (no more than 9o degrees F), then it can be tightly held in your hand for a full minute without feeling hot.
As is true for many snakes, ball pythons can better tolerate temperature extremes if they do not have food in their digestive system. If recently fed, they should not be subjected to temperatures more than 92 degrees F or below 75 degrees F. When empty of food, ball pythons are tolerant of a wider range of temperatures.
Feeding requirements: Ball pythons eat mice all their life. One appropriately-sized mouse per week is an adequate feeding schedule. Older and larger snakes may eat two or three mice, or one small rat a week. Hatchlings seem to prefer live small mice (just weaned, 4-6 weeks old) for their first meals. Most juvenile, subadult and adult ball pythons readily accept dead food, either thawed or fresh-killed.
Adult ball pythons may not eat during the winter months. This is normal. Typically they will start feeding in late winter or early spring..
REMEMBER! A hungry live mouse may attack and damage or even kill a ball python if left unsupervised. Always place food for a rodent in the snake cage, if feeding live prey.
Shedding: Ball pythons generally have few problems shedding their skin. When a snake incompletely sheds, and a portion of the skin is left adhered to the snake, the snake should be soaked in pure or slightly-soapy shallow water for several hours, after which the skin typically comes off very easily.
Special considerations for hatchlings and juveniles: Youngsters are very hardy and most do very well for their keepers. Hatchlings do best if kept by themselves, so that they are not intimidated by a cage mate. Hatchlings seem to prefer somewhat cooler temperatures than adults; we maintain hatchlings at temperatures of 79-82 degrees F. Young snakes often appreciate a small box in which to hide during the day.
General Comments: Ball pythons are unique among the pythons for their behavior of rolling into a ball when frightened. Most pythons feel obligated to defend themselves by biting in this circumstance, but ball pythons rarely bite in defense. This reluctance is part of the suite of instinctive behaviors of this species and for that reason, ball pythons are the python species least likely to bite their human handlers. However, they can bite, so they are due the same caution given to any harmless snake of this size.
This is a long-lived species of snake. Several years ago a ball python died after more than 49 years of captivity in the Philadelphia Zoo, setting the current longevity record for all snakes.
Ball pythons are among the best snakes to keep in captivity. They are both beautiful and interesting animals. They are extremely hardy animals that require minimal attention. They tolerate lots of attention and handling, and they thrive during periods of neglect. In other words, it's our observation that ball pythons are ideally suited to survive the mistakes and neglect that shouldn't ever happen, but occasionally do happen to all kinds of captive snakes.
Captive-Bred or Wild-Caught?
"Captive-bred" indicates that both parents of a captive-bred ball python are in captivity, and that the fertile egg from which the ball python hatched was the result of a successful mating between those parents while in captivity. In general, ball pythons that are hatched in captivity make superior pets and captives. Captive-bred pythons can be expected to be free from internal parasites, while all imported wild-caught pythons can be expected to carry a variety of parasites. Captive-bred pythons typically grow faster and breed at an earlier age than their wild-caught counterparts. Captive-bred pythons are usually more calm and trusting of their keepers than their wild-caught brothers. Best of all, no animals are removed from the wild when captive-bred pythons are purchased.
This question is of particular importance when one is considering breeding ball pythons. Wild-caught ball pythons, collected and imported as adults, are often very difficult to breed in captivity. This fact is true even when the snakes have nicely adjusted to captivity and are feeding well and behaving as if comfortable. MOST female wild-caught adult ball pythons NEVER breed in captivity.
Most baby pythons sold each year are "wild-bred, captive-hatched." What this means is that ball python eggs are either collected from the wild or obtained from wild-collected gravid [pregnant] pythons, and these eggs are hatched in captivity. Ten years ago "wild-bred captive-hatched" babies were usually hatched in the U.S., the result of gravid wild females being imported. Today many wild-caught adult females are identified as gravid when collected and are retained in their country of origin; the eggs are laid and hatched at a foreign dealer's premises, and the resulting babies are shipped to the U.S. labeled either correctly as "captive-hatched", or all-too-often as "captive-bred," an unfortunate misrepresentation.
"Wild-bred, captive-hatched" ball pythons can do extremely well when raised in captivity. However, many such hatchlings have parasite and disease problems not seen in captive-bred animals. Often, if the hatchlings have been kept for several weeks in their country of origin before being shipped, the quality of the care they have received and the quality of the water that they have been provided is so poor that these babies are quite ill by the time they reach the U.S. Such babies may originally look good when they arrive in the U.S., but they will break down quickly with skin and regurgitation problems. When purchasing "captive-hatched" babies from foreign origins, it is always a "buyers beware" situation.
It is our recommendation to always buy captive-bred hatchling ball pythons when possible.
posted 1 December 2006
previously published in part in Reptiles Magazine