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Wild ball pythons (Python regius) are found at the edges of the Central and Western African forest lands. They are equally comfortable on the ground and in trees, and are active around dawn and dusk. In Europe, these handsome snakes are often called "Royal Pythons," because throughout history they have been the favored pets of herp-loving royalty. In the United States, we call them "Ball Pythons" due to their habit of curling themselves up into a tight ball, with their heads pulled firmly into the center, when they are nervous. Like most pythons, ball pythons are curious and gentle snakes.
Ball pythons typically reach 4-5 feet in length. When properly fed, their bodies become nicely rounded. In the wild, they devour a variety of prey--amphibians, lizards, other snakes, birds, and small mammals. Mice are not part of their normal diet, as there are no mice living native in Africa, but with patient training they will also learn to eat live or dead mice. See below for feeding tips.
In captivity, young ball pythons will grow about a foot a year during their first three years. They will reach sexual maturity in three to five years. Ball pythons are egg-layers. The females encircle their four to ten eggs, remaining with them from the time they are laid until they hatch. During this three month period, they will not leave the eggs, and will not eat.
Selecting Your Ball Python
Choose an animal that has clear firm skin, a rounded body shape, a clean vent, clear eyes, and who actively flicks its tongue around when handled. If at all possible, make sure your ball python is already eating before you purchase it (see Feeding Tips below). All ball pythons are naturally shy about having their heads touched or handled by strangers; a normal reaction is for the ball to pull its head and neck sharply away from such contact. When held, the snake should grip you gently but firmly when moving around. It should be alert to its surroundings. All young snakes are food for larger snakes, birds, lizards and mammalian predators. So your hatchling may be a bit nervous at first, but should settle down quickly.
Selecting an escape-proof enclosure
Select an enclosure especially designed for housing snakes, such as the glass tanks with the combination fixed screen/hinged glass top. All snakes are escape artists; ball pythons are especially powerful and cunning when it comes to breaking out. A good starter tank for a hatchling is a 10 gallon glass tank. A young adult requires a 20 gallon tank, and a full adult may require a 30 gallon tank.
Select a suitable substrate
Use paper towels at first. These are easily and quickly removed and replaced when soiled. Once the animal is established, you can use more decorative ground cover such as commercially prepared shredded cypress or coconut bark. Aspen shavings should not be used, as they can become lodged in the mouth and lungs while eating, causing respiratory and other problems. Also, pine and cedar shavings should never be used because the resins will overpower the snake's ability to smell its prey, and it may become either withdrawn or violent, striking out at everything that moves. The shavings must be monitored closely, and all soiled and wet shavings must be immediately removed to prevent bacteria and fungus growths.
Provide a hiding place
Most pet stores carry half-logs and realistic-looking reptile caves. However, an empty cardboard box or upside-down opaque plastic container, both with an access doorway cut into one end, can also be used. The plastic container is easily cleaned when necessary; the cardboard box can be tossed out when soiled and replaced with a new one. The box or log must be big enough for the snake to hide its entire body inside. Remember that you will need to eventually replace it as your snake grows.
Ball pythons prefer dark places for sleeping and, as they are nocturnal, they like a dark place during our daylight hours. They also like to sleep in something that is close around them, so do not buy or make a cave too large for its size. Place a nice climbing branch or two in the tank, with some fake greenery screening part of it. Your ball will enjoy hanging out in the "tree."
Keeping it warm
Proper temperature range is essential to keeping your snake healthy. The ambient air temperature throughout the enclosure must be maintained between 80-85F during the day, with a basking area kept at 90F. At night, the ambient air temperature on the coolest side may be allowed to drop down no lower than 73-75F only if a basking area of at least 80F remains available.
Special reptile heating pads that are manufactured to maintain a temperature about 20 degrees higher than the air temperature may be used beneath the enclosure. You can also use incandescent light bulbs in porcelain and metal reflector hoods to provide the additional heat required for the basking area. All lights must be screened off to prevent the snake from burning itself.
All pythons, especially ball pythons, are very susceptible to thermal burns. For this reason, NEVER use a hot rock. These rocks are very cheaply made, and have no internal or external thermostat controls. All too often, they break down without warning, and the temperature skyrockets to dangerously high levels. Because reptiles have very few nerve endings on their stomachs, they will not realize that the temperature has changed--and they will literally cook to death.
A safe alternative, if your home gets very cold at night, is a ceramic heating element. These white spiral-based "bulbs" radiate heat downwards, do not emit light, and are long lasting. They are a good choice for keeping your ball comfortably warm without overheating it. Note: CHE's must be used in a wire clamp lamp, not a solid-sided one, or the heat buildup will shatter the bulb.
No special lighting is needed. Ball pythons are nocturnal snakes, spending their days in the wild securely hidden away from possible predators. To make it easier to see your ball during the day, you can use a full-spectrum light or low wattage incandescent bulb in the enclosure. Make sure the snake cannot come in direct contact with the bulb. Respect your ball's needs, however, and be sure to provide a hide box. And expect them to use it!
Since ball pythons are "live" feeders, they prefer being given live prey. However, with care and patience, it is possible to train them to eat freshly-killed or thawed prey. The feeding instructions below refer to both live and pre-killed prey, unless otherwise specified.
Allow your snake to acclimate to its new home for a couple of weeks. Start your hatchling off with a single 7-to-10-day old "fuzzy" mouse. A smaller sized hatchling may require a smaller mouse; try a 5-day old. Older ball pythons may be fed larger mice or pinkie rats. Adults will easily eat a hopper (sub-adult) or young adult rat.
If you have problems getting your new ball to eat, try some of these tricks:
If you aren't sure of your ability to force-feed your snake, or it has refused food for so long that it's beginning to noticeably lose weight, take it to a reptile vet or contact your local herpetology society, and ask to speak to someone who is knowledgeable about ball pythons and feeding problems. A good inexpensive book that covers some of the tricks to enticing reluctant ball pythons to feed is The Care and Maintenance of Ball Pythons by Philippe de Vosjoli, or the new edition, The Ball Python Manual, by de Vosjoli, Dave and Tracy Barker and Roger Klingenberg.
Provide a bowl of fresh water at all times. Your snake will both drink and soak, and may defecate, in it. Check it daily, and change it when soiled. Soaking is especially good just before your snake sheds. When its eyes turn milky opaque, or "blue," it should definitely soak in a tub of warm water. Remember that when its eyes are cloudy, it cannot see clearly, so it may strike at anything nearby in self-defense. Don't handle or feed your snake again until it has shed.
Ball pythons should routinely shed in one piece, from snout (including spectacles) to tail-tip. If a snake does not shed cleanly, something is wrong, either with the snake or with its environment. Newly acquired snakes may not shed properly for the first month or two, as they are getting acclimated to their new surroundings. This is a sign of transient stress. If it continues, or begins to occur in a long established snake, the snake must be evaluated for possible health problems, and the snake's environment must be evaluated for humidity problems.
Humidity and Ball Pythons
Ball pythons are native to very warm, but not hot, dry areas in Africa. Many people make the mistake of trying to keep them in a too-humid environment, using damp sphagnum moss or misting them frequently throughout the day. Keeping the overall environment damp can lead to skin lesions and more serious diseases like bronchial infections, which can be fatal.
A ball python really only needs an area within its dry enclosure to retreat when it requires higher humidity. One way to accomplish this is to provide a water bowl large enough for the snake to soak in when it wants. Depending on the ambient humidity of its enclosure, this may be enough, or may be enough during part of the year. Another good, safe option for a ball python is a humidity retreat box.
Handling your new snake
After giving your ball a couple of days to settle in, begin picking it up and handling it gently. It may move away from you, and may threaten you by lashing its tail and hissing. Don't be put off--it is usually just a bluff. And snakes, like most reptiles, are very good at bluffing! Be gentle but persistent. Daily contact will begin to establish a level of trust and confidence between you and your snake.
When it is comfortable with you, you can begin taking it around the house. But don't get overconfident! Given a chance and close proximity to seat cushions, your ball will make a run (well, a slither) for them, easing down between the cushions...and from there, to points possibly unknown.
Always be gentle, and try to avoid sudden movements. If the snake wraps around your arm or neck, you can unwind it by gently grasping its tail and unwrapping it from around your neck or arm. Do not try to unwrap it by moving the head! If you do, the snake will believe that its "prey" is escaping, and it will tighten down further.
Some snakes are a bit sensitive about being handled soon after they have eaten. If you feed your snake out of its enclosure--which is always a safe idea--go ahead and replace it back into its enclosure after it has finished eating. Then leave it alone for a few days. As the snake gets more comfortable with you, it will be less nervous--and less likely to give you back your mouse.
You have a companion that will be a part of your life for a great many years, if taken care of properly. It should remain alert and active well into its old age. The main causes of death in captive snakes are directly related to their care--improper temperatures, contact with heating and lighting elements, no regular access to water, lack of necessary veterinary care and treatment, careless handling--all things for which we, as their caretakers, are directly responsible.