Ball pythons are the smallest of the African pythons. They seldom reach lengths of more than three to four feet, but can grow as long as six feet. They have an average life expectancy of 20 - 30 years, so be prepared for a long term commitment when considering a python as a pet. The name "Ball Python" is derived from the snake's habit of coiling into a ball when threatened, with its head and neck tucked tightly in the ball. They are very passive snakes, which seldom strike out at handlers.
Many Ball Pythons are imported. These wild caught animals have a difficult time adjusting to captivity. They may take months before they feed. Captive bred and raised individuals are preferred and will fare much better.
Ball Pythons should be housed individually, except during breeding attempts. Enclosures for juveniles should be at least 15 in long and 10 to 12 in high. Adults should be housed in enclosures at least 3 ft long, 15 in wide, and at least 12 in high. Larger cages provide better opportunities for establishing a proper thermal gradient. Newspaper or butcher paper is the preferred substrate since it is inexpensive and easy to change when it becomes soiled. Each also has the added benefit of allowing direct visualization of the feces and urates. Artificial turf or indoor/outdoor carpeting may also be used. At least one hide box is essential; multiple hiding areas in different temperature zones of the enclosure is ideal.
Dilute bleach water (1:30) is a useful disinfectant for cages and artificial turf. All organic matter needs to be washed away prior to using the dilute bleach. The bleach solution should be left on for 10 minutes before washing off. Providing the proper thermal gradient is critical to the well being of the snake. The preferred optimal temperature zone during the day is 80-85 F, with a basking spot up to 95 F. Night lows can be 80 F. Thermostatically controlled fiberglass heat mats are an excellent way to provide the proper thermal environment. The mats are placed under the tank and should be no larger than 20-30% of the surface area of the cage. A UVB light is recommended for juvenile snakes.
Humidity is also important to enable normal shedding and respiratory function. Relative humidity should be 50-70%.
Generally, they should be fed prey items no larger than their girth at mid-body. Juveniles should be fed the appropriate sized rodent(s) weekly. As they reach adulthood it is acceptable to decrease the feeding interval to every 10-14 days.
Adults can be maintained on adult rats. Either frozen and thawed (warmed to body temperature) or freshly killed prey is recommended. The prey should be humanely euthanized using acceptable methods. Frozen prey should be used within six months of freezing. A separate feeding cage is recommended so the snake associates the cage, and not your hand, with feeding. Ball pythons are night-time feeders.
Sexing can easily be accomplished by probing. Juveniles may be sexed also by manual eversion of the hemipenes. Either technique should be performed by an experienced person or reptile veterinarian, since poor technique may result in injury. Generally, females probe a distance of 2-4 subcaudal scales and males 8 or more. Males have larger cloacal spurs and thicker tails than females. Sexual maturity occurs between 2 and 4 years of age, if appropriately fed and maintained.
Breeders begin cycling in mid-September through mid-November. Eggs are usually laid from mid-February through early April. Ball Pythons should not be fed for two weeks prior to cooling. The temperature is gradually decreased to 75 F. Some breeders keep the snakes at their preferred daytime high temperature during this period, but drop the nighttime low to 75 F. It is possible to utilize a combination of these two techniques. Monitor the snakes carefully for evidence of respiratory disease. Respiratory infection is most likely if the snakes are not provided a basking spot in their preferred temperature range for at least part of the day and, because of this, the first technique is not recommended. Depending upon the breeder, males are introduced to females either at the beginning of, during, or after cycling. Active courtship precedes copulation. Eggs are usually laid in burrows or well placed sweater boxes with moistened vermiculite and peat moss inside. Usual clutch size is six or seven eggs. Incubation time is about three months.
Good husbandry is the best way to prevent many problems. Ball Pythons should be quarantined for at least three to six months before being added to an established collection.
Respiratory tract disease is very common in captive snakes. Difficulty breathing, discharge from the mouth, and wheezing are common signs associated with respiratory tract disease.
Vomiting is a common sign of many problems. Inadequate temperature, excessive feeding, and handling after feeding are common causes. There are many medical causes for vomiting and a veterinarian's should be sought promptly if your pet begins vomiting.
Snake mites are very common external parasites. The mites may cause significant disease and distress to an infested snake.
Many Ball Pythons are wild caught; these snakes usually harbor significant internal parasite loads. We strongly recommend avoiding wild caught snakes, and instead purchasing captive bred and raised snakes, from an experienced and reputable breeder. Any new snake should be examined by a veterinarian and quarantined before being introduced to a collection.
Other common signs of problems include loss of appetite, loose stools, difficulty shedding, and lumps/bumps. A competent reptile veterinarian should be sought out to diagnose and treat any of the disorders that may affect your python.
Speak with your reptile veterinarian about Salmonella and what measures are recommended to limit the risk of transmission to people.
A good reference to have on hand is "The Ball Python Manual" by P. de Vosjoli et al.
This care sheet was modified from information provided by Susan Horton, DVM, of Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital, and is © 2002
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