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Burmese Pythons

General Information

Burmese Pythons can grow to more than 20 feel long, and weigh over 200 pounds. As hatchlings, they eat full-grown mice. As adults, they eat large rabbits and chickens (always buy from a private poultry farm to avoid the risk of salmonella).

Take a moment, before you buy, to make sure you are up to this sort of challenge. What will you do with this gigantic snake if you get tired of caring for it? This is a reptile that, when full-grown, can swallow small dogs without a hiccup. Zoos and herpetology societies do not want any more cast-off Burms; they already have more than they can handle. So think long and hard, before you make this kind of commitment. The cute little hatchling you adore now will very quickly become large enough to crush you in your sleep.

Getting Started

The Burmese Python is native through southeast Asia, including Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, southern China, and Indonesia. While Burms are being captive-bread throughout the United States, native populations are considered "threatened," and are listed as such on the CITES II Appendix. This listing prevents them from being captured in the wild and sold as either food, exotic pelts, or pets.

NOTE: Recent legislative changes have made it much more difficult to purchase Burmese Pythons. Check your local laws to see what special licenses are required in your state.

These diurnal (active during daylight) rainforest dwellers are equally at home on the ground and in trees, from areas of lush vegetation up to colder mountain forests. They are also excellent swimmers, and always enjoy a nice long soak in warm water, especially just before they are ready to shed.

In the wild, Burms spend the morning hours basking, soaking up the sun's warmth, so they can begin moving around and searching for food. They do not eat every day, and often go for several days without feeding if food is scarce, or they are unsuccessful in the hunt. If they are successful, they spend the next several days or weeks keeping warm enough to digest their meal.

Burmese breed in the early spring. Females lay their eggs in March or April; their clutches range from 12-36 eggs. Females encircle their eggs, remaining with then from the time they are laid until they hatch. During this time, they will not leave the eggs, and they will not eat. While incubating, the females muscles twitch. These tremors apparently enable the female to raise the ambient temperature around the eggs by several degrees. Once the hatchlings cut their way out of their eggs, they are on their own.

Burmese pythons, like all pythons and boas, devour a variety of prey in the wild--amphibians, lizards, other snakes, birds, and mammals. In captivity, they should be fed pre-killed mice, rats, and rabbits. You can buy their prey at pet stores, and from private breeders and suppliers to the herp trade; these animals have been specially raised and are clean, healthy and well-nourished, and you can always find a source who uses humane euthanasia methods. If you live in a more rural area, you may be able to find free-range chickens. (Store- and hatchery-bought chicks should be avoided due to potential salmonella problems.) Under no circumstances should you feed your snakes wild-caught prey items. Wild rodents and other animals carry a variety of parasites and bacteria for which your snake has no immunity. If you cannot afford to buy the proper food, you should not buy the snake.

Selecting Your Burmese Python

Choose an animal that has clear firm skin, a rounded body shape, a clean vent, clear eyes, and that actively flicks its tongue around when handled. 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 other larger snakes, birds, lizards, and mammalian predators--so your hatchling may be a bit nervous at first, but should settle down quickly.

Like all pythons and boas, Burmese have anal spurs. Males have longer spurs than do the females, and have tails that are longer and narrower at the base (tail-end of the vent). Otherwise, there is little difference in appearance or temperament between the two sexes.

Getting Started

Build or purchase a strong snake-proof enclosure. Select an enclosure especially designed for housing large snakes, such as the Critter Cottages™ with the combination fixed screen/hinged glass top. All snakes are escape artists; Burmese are especially powerful when it comes to breaking out. A good starter tank for a hatchling is a 55-gallon tank.

After the first few years (and some bigger commercially available enclosures), you will have to build your own enclosure out of wood and glass or Plexiglas. Some people partition off a large part of a room, or convert a walk-in closet into a suitable Burmese habitat. Be prepared--giant snakes need lots of room, and that includes the space you'll need to get in and clean out its enclosure. Remember that your snake will grow rapidly, even when fed conservatively, so you must always buy or build an enclosure much bigger than the present size of your Burmese.

Suitable Substrate

Use paper towels, butcher paper, or unprinted newsprint at first. These are easily removed and replaced when soiled, and will allow you to better monitor for the presence of mites and the condition of the feces. Once your Burm is established, you can use decorative ground cover such as commercially prepared shredded cypress or coconut bark. Do not use orchid bark, pine, cedar, or redwood shavings. The resins in these woods are so strong and aromatic that they can overwhelm the snake's sense of smell...and even though the snake may be able to see its prey, it will not be able to smell or locate it. This can make the snake either withdrawn, which may cause it to starve, or it may become violent and strike at anything within range. Aspen and other small fragments of wood can become lodged in the mouth and lungs while eating, which can cause respiratory infections and other problems.

Shavings must be monitored closely, and all soiled and wet shavings removed immediately to prevent bacteria and fungus growths. An easy, cost-effective alternative is to use utility carpet mats. These can be brushed clean, or run through a washing machine when heavily soiled. Linoleum is a bit pricier, but it is easy to clean and disinfect and, when used on the floor and a few inches up the walls of wooden enclosures, will help preserve the wood from the acidic urates. Remember: the easier it is to clean, the faster you'll get it done!

Hiding Place

Burms, like most snakes and reptiles, feel insecure out in the open. Always provide at least one hiding place to help ensure their good health. When your Burm is small, a half-log or ceramic cave (available at most pet stores), an empty cardboard box, or an upside-down opaque plastic container will suffice. Remember to cut an ample-sized opening in one end of the box or container, so your Burm can enter and exit without feeling cramped. Once your snake outgrows these easily-replaced hide boxes, you will need to use your imagination. Eventually, you can use a large kitty-litter pan or suitably modified garbage can. Once the snake reaches ten feet, you will have to put your imagination (or hammer and nails and wood!) to work to devise increasingly larger enclosures.

Temperature

Proper temperature range is essential to keeping your snake healthy. The ambient air temperature throughout the enclosure must be maintained between 85 - 88°F during the day, with a basking area kept near 90°F. At night, the ambient air temperature should not drop below 78 - 80°F.

Special undertank reptile heating pads may be used inside the enclosure. You can also use incandescent light bulbs in porcelain or metal reflector hoods to provide the additional heat required for the basking area.

Snakes do not require UVB light. However, do not make the mistake of using a common household light bulb in your snake's heat lamp. Always use a suitable white incandescent bulb. Remember, all lights must be screened off to prevent the snake from burning itself, and white lights must be turned off at least 12-14 hours a day to mimic a proper day-night cycle. If kept under lights all the time, the snakes will become stressed, and may become ill.

If the proper temperatures cannot be maintained with an incandescent light, then you must use another source of non-light emitting or dim-light emitting heat. Ceramic bulbs, available at most pet stores, are an excellent alternative. Avoid heat rocks, as all pythons are very susceptible to thermal burns. Heat rocks are dangerous, and can prove deadly!

Don't try to guess at the temperature in your snake's enclosure. If you're wrong, your snake will be too cold to eat or digest its food. This can lead to starvation or regurgitation, which are both dangerous for your snake. (Plus, nothing smells as nasty as a half-digested rat or rabbit!) Always use two thermometers: one placed 1" above the enclosure floor on the cooler side, and the other placed 1" above the floor in the basking area.

Feeding

Allow your snake to acclimate to its new home for a week or two. Start your hatchling (about 22" in length) off with a single pre-killed "fuzzy" baby rat. A smaller sized hatchling may require a small mouse. Older Burms may be fed larger pre-killed rats. If possible, never feed your Burmese a live mouse or rat; this can make them much more aggressive. And the last thing you are going to want is an aggressive 20-foot, 200 pound snake breathing down your neck!

Burmese pythons are bottomless pits; they are always hungry, and will gladly eat prey too large for them to digest--with the inevitable result, regurgitation. In general, you should never feed your snake any prey that's larger than the widest part of the snake's body. Limit its food intake to once a week, twice if you feed it very small meals. An obese Burmese is an unhealthy Burmese, and overfeeding will not make it grow any faster.

Water

Provide a bowl of fresh water at all times. Burmese like to soak in water, so the bowl should be large enough to comfortably hold its entire body. It may also use the bowl as a toilet, so check (and clean, if necessary) the bowl every day. Once your snake gets too large for standard bowls, it will need to be taken out and bathed in a safe, secured bathroom.

Handling Your New Snake

After giving your Burmese a couple of days to settle in, begin picking it up and handling it gently. It may try to move away from you, and may threaten you by twitching its tail, hissing, and snapping. 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 Burm will make a run (well, a slither) for it, 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 unwrapping it starting at the tail end, not the head. (If you unwrap any snake starting with its head, it will believe that its "prey" is escaping, and it will simply tighten further.)

CAUTION: If you have small children, or children will have access to the room in which the snake will be kept, ask yourself whether you can properly secure the snake so that, not only is there no chance for it to escape, but there is no way for young fingers to undo the cage. Remember that regardless of how tame your Burmese becomes, and no matter how long you have had it, it is still a wild animal--and as such is to be considered unpredictable and potentially dangerous!

A Special Note About Albinos

Albino Burmese Pythons are gorgeous. Hands-down, they are some of the most impressive snakes you will ever see. From patternless lemon-yellow to high orange to high white to any color in between, they are the undisputed jewels of the python family. However, never forget that albinos are created by inbreeding. And inbreeding can cause both physical and temperamental instability. Albino Burmese Pythons have a higher incidence of respiratory infections, physical mutations, and--most importantly--fractious personalities. Use extra care and patience in training and caring for your albino. They can become aggressive without warning, often with painful or even deadly results.

Places to Go, Things to Do and See...

Check out your local herpetological society and reptile rescue for information on reptiles. Also, check your local library for these and other python and reptile care books:

Lovely bronze burmese python basking in ivy
Burmese Python
Striking granite burmese python curled up on substrate
Burmese Python
Gorgeous coppery burmese python curled up in the grass
Burmese Python
Well-fed adult burmese python basking in the grass
Burmese Python
Striking albino burmese python basking on gravel and grass
Burmese Python
Amazingly vivid high-color albino burmese python curled up for a nap Closeup of patternless albino burmese python
Burmese Python
Burmese Python