Ball Python Care Guide
The Royal python (Python regius) nicknamed the Ball Python in the United states is a smaller python native to Africa. They are one of the most popular pet pythons due to their docile nature, smaller size and relatively easy care.
As keepers it is our job to make sure these animals not only survive in captivity but also thrive.
To understand captive care we first need to understand the animal's wild habitat.
Ball pythons are native to west Sub Saharan Africa from Senegal, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, and Nigeria through Cameroon, Chad, and the Central African Republic to Sudan and Uganda. The area is made up of grasslands, savannas, and sparsely wooded subtropical areas. Ball pythons spend the majority of their lives underground in mammal burrows, where it is warm, dark and humid. They are nocturnal animals, meaning they are more active at night,dusk, and dawn. In the wild their diet consists mostly of small mammals such as Natal multimammate mouse (AKA the African Soft Furred Rat), shrews, gerbils, striped mice, and occasionally birds. They rarely climb, though some males have been seen in lower branches of trees feeding on or going after birds.
Things to consider when getting a pet snake:
Ball pythons on average are 3’ to 5’ in length with females normally being larger than males. Rarely do they reach 6’ in length, though some cases have been reported.
Ball pythons can live 30 or more years with proper care, and the record for the lifespan of a ball python is over 40 years old.
Ball pythons eat rodents, so having a source for food is important.
Ball pythons are shy animals, and will spend most of their time hiding. If you want an animal for display they are not the best choice.
Ball pythons typically shed every 4 to 6 weeks. They shed less often as they become older.
When the animal starts to “go into shed” you will notice their color becomes dull and muted, the belly may become pink (in the case of albino animals the whole snake might look more pink) and the eyes will become a grey milky color, also called “blue” or “in blue.” The eyes will clear up right before the animal sheds. If your animal has issues having a complete shed then you need to raise your humidity.
1 appropriately sized meal should be fed weekly to snakes under 400 grams and once reaching 400 grams or more they can be fed every 2 weeks. Ideally 15% of body weight for an animal under 500 grams and nothing larger than a small rat once reaching 500 grams and larger. Over feeding is a real issue with ball pythons in captivity, with most animals being overfed and obese. In the wild they would not come across anything larger than a small rat. Their most common and natural prey, the African Soft Furred Rat when fully grown is roughly the same size as a small Dutch hooded rat (the common rat used for feeders in the US). If you must feed larger prey (because that’s all that is available) simply feed less often, feeding a medium rat once every 4 weeks is fine for a larger snake. Feeding too large of prey can lead to other complications like a prolapse and regurgitation as well.
Always feed in the enclosure, do not move to feed. These are ambush predators and do not go out and actively hunt, they wait for something to come to them. So by moving them you are causing unnecessary stress. If you are worried about the animal ingesting bedding, place the rodent above some paper towels or a plastic lid, this way as the snake starts to eat no bedding will become stuck to the prey. A little bedding will not hurt your snake, and normally is nothing to worry about. The school of thought about moving to feed so the snake does not associate it’s cage with food is a very outdated myth. If you’re worried about getting bit when you open your cage, get a snake hook and train the snake. A small tap on the nose is normally enough to get a snake out of “feeding mode” when you open the cage.
Perform spot cleaning daily, check for waste, and do a thorough cleaning once a month. This involves removing all of the contents of the cage and disinfecting them with an appropriate cleansing solution. Wipe out by ZooMed is a wonderful animal safe cleaner. The substrate should also be completely changed once a month.
While ball pythons are generally gentle snakes and tolerate more handling than some snake species, handling can also be stressful. When you first bring your animal home, it’s a good idea to give them a week to settle in and adjust to their new home. Try to keep handling sessions to 30 minutes or less at a time. In other words don’t hold your snake for hours at a time. Remember you just set up a mini ecosystem for them to live in, and chances are your home is not the same as that ecosystem. Always give your snake 24 hours after a meal before handling.
In the enclosure you want a temperature gradient of 87 to 90℉ on the hot side to 77 to 80℉ on the “cool” side. The temperature should not get below 75℉ (unless you’re breeding, more on that in another guide).
Humidity should stay around 50% to 60% and can be bumped up to 70% during a shed (when the animal's eyes become milky, see shedding above).
Supplemental lighting, or UVB is not necessary for ball pythons, but if used should run on a 12/12 or 10/10 cycle, meaning 12 hours on and 12 hours off. Continuous bright, overhead lighting is stressful to snakes, especially a nocturnal species such as the ball python. Do not use a red or blue colored night time bulb, these are stressful and disrupt the snakes normal sleep cycle. The myth that snakes can’t see red has been disproven so having a red light on at night would be like having a red sun all the time, making it hard to sleep.
Only one snake should be housed in each enclosure.
There are 4 basic types of enclosures you can use:
Stand alone plastic tub
The first and most common is a glass tank. No matter if you call it an aquarium, tank, or terrarium, if 4 sides are made of glass it’s all the same setup. While tanks are normally the easiest to get, they require a little more work to get them right. There is nothing wrong with using a tank for a ball python. It’s best to start with a smaller tank & upgrade on size as the snake grows. This means a tank can be less cost effective than other enclosures and a bit of a headache to set it up each time. However, you can always look for used tanks online to save some money if using a tank is your preference.
When setting up a tank you’ll need: You can also find our basic starter kit Here
The tank. I recommend no larger than a 20 gallon for a hatchling, and no larger than a 75 gallon for a large full grown adult. Most ball pythons can live fine in a 40 to 55 gallon tank. They will feel more secure in smaller spaces. Remember they live in small rodent burrows in the wild. Exo Terra makes some great tanks for reptiles & this one is a perfect size for a ball python for most of its life.
At least 2 hide boxes. These can be as fancy or as simple as you want. Avoid woods that can mold. Plastic always works best, as it’s easy to clean.
A water bowl. Again, it can be as simple as a plastic dog bowl, or a reptile water bowl that is designed to look like a rock. A great space saving water box is this corner designed one by ZooMed. On this link be sure to pick the right size, as it defaults to the XL ;)
Clutter. And by this I mean extra cage décor. Fake plants, or cork bark (cork does not easily mold like other woods). There is no need to add climbing branches since ball pythons are not arboreal snakes, meaning they don’t climb naturally in the wild. Some great fake plants and cork bark pieces.
Heat source. This is needed with a tank because glass does not hold in heat very well. I recommend heat from above in the form of a ceramic heater AKA CHE short for ceramic heat emitter & below in the form of an under tank heater (aka heating pad or mat).
Please note: Heating sources should NEVER be inside the cage & MUST be controlled with a thermostat (See number 2 below)
Dome lamp for the ceramic heater. Make sure you buy one with a ceramic top, that is rated for the wattage of ceramic heater you buy. The dome lamp in the link is a good one to buy. This one has a built in dimmer. If you get a dome lamp without one you’ll need to buy a separate dimmer switch or plug for it. Again, unregulated heat sources can be very dangerous.
A thermostat to control your under the tank heater. A thermostat is very important because without it the under tank heater can become too hot and burn your snake. This one is a nice inexpensive choice.
Thermometer. You will need a way to easily see the temperatures in your snake's enclosure. Avoid the stick on kind because if your snake knocks them off they can become stuck to the snake causing damage to the scales. You will want 2 of these, one for the hot side and one for the cool side. I recommend AcuRite 00613 Digital Hygrometer & Indoor Thermometer Pre-Calibrated Humidity Gauge.
Bedding. You’ll want something that holds in humidity well without being harmful to your snake. Do not use cedar or pine as they both can be toxic to reptiles. These two brands of bedding are a great choice.
Foil tape. This is used when you have an open screen lid to help hold in heat and humidity. You can also cut pieces of acrylic to cover the screen, or cardboard works too. But the foil tape is easy. Always make sure to only put the foil tape on the outside part of the lid, not on the inside.
Foam board or similar black or dark material. You would use this to cover the back and sides of your glass tank if there is not already a background. Again this will make the animal feel more secure.
A good point & shoot thermometer is recommended to measure temperatures around the tank. These also come in handy to check the temps of food if you’re feeding frozen thawed. Infrared Laser Thermometer Gun
Setting up your tank:
Now that you have all this stuff it’s time to have fun!
Attach your under tank heater with the thermostat to the bottom outside of the tank. The probe for the thermostat will go outside the tank on the bottom between the glass and the under tank heater. Never put the under tank heater and thermostat inside the tank, and again never use an under tank heater without a thermostat. If your under tank heater is the kind with a stick side, place the probe for the thermostat between that and the glass. Plug the under tank heater into the thermostat, plug the thermostat into the wall, and set it according to directions. Set the thermostat to 90℉ and be sure to check your temperatures after about an hour. If you’re using a deep bed of substrate you might have to turn it up a little.
Add your bedding, hides, décor, water bowl, and thermometers. To help with humidity you can also place the water bowl on the warm side. Once everything is inside your tank you’ll want to cover almost all of the screen lid with the foil tape, leaving an opening for your dome light that the ceramic heater goes into. If your tank already has a background, attach your black foam board outside to the sides.
Ideally, you want the warm side of the tank to be 87 to 90℉ and the “cool” side to be 77 to 80℉. If the warm side is too hot you can uncover some of the screen lid or raise the ceramic heater using a stand like the Zoo Med Reptile Lamp Stand. If it’s too cold set the temperature higher on your thermostat, making sure you don’t have a hotspot higher than 90℉. Check to make sure it’s not under an A/C vent or in a room that stays cooler. Avoid putting your enclosure in a window, where it might get too hot or too cold.
You want your ceramic heater & under tank heater on the same side of the enclosure.
Setting up a stand alone tub:
You’ll still need almost everything listed above but normally you will only need heat from below (aka belly heat) and since the lid for a stand alone tub is solid you don’t have to worry about the foil tape. You also don’t have to worry as much about blacking out the sides, since the tub will be smaller making the animal already feel more secure, and not as clear as glass.
When doing a stand alone tub hatchlings do best in a 6 to 12 quart tub, you will want something with a good locking lid like this Sterilite Latch Storage Container. You’ll need to add holes for air flow. If you notice too much condensation (water) on the sides of the container add a few more holes. For an adult ball python a 28 to 41 quart size container works well. Again a good locking lid is important. A 41 quart option for an adult snake. With larger containers you still might want to add bungees, or weights across the top to make sure the lid stays securely in place, especially with a large stronger snake.
Setup is basically the same as stated above but if you want you can attach your under tank heater and probe for your thermostat to a piece glass and set the tub on top. This makes it easier if this is a temporary setup. If it’s going to be your permanent setup you can attach the under tank heater and thermostat probe the same way you would on a tank, right to the bottom of the tub. You’ll probably find you’ll have to keep the thermostat set a little lower depending on the thickness of the plastic, so be sure to check your temperatures daily.
Setting up a rack system:
Most rack systems are ready to go. They can come with belly heat or back heat in the form of heat tape or heat cable. Again you must have a thermostat to control the heat. For rack systems you’ll need a little more powerful thermostat and the 2 brands I recommend are Herpstat and Vivarium Electronics. Smaller weaker thermostats are not rated to power multiple heat sources. Because most rack systems are 5 or more tubs, it’s best to invest in a better thermostat to avoid fires.
Vivarium, PVC cage, or custom built cage:
Often called vivariums, these cages are generally somewhat like a box, with only the front being glass. They can be PVC, wood, custom built or store bought. These are the ideal mix of tank & tub, giving the owner a way to view the animal, while the animal still feels secure. The setup is similar to a tub, normally you would only need belly heat because the PVC or wood acts as a good insulator and holds heat and humidity better than glass. Radiant heat panels are also a popular choice in cages like this. Cages similar to this one made by Reptile Basics, PVC Cage Cages made of PVC are becoming more readily available. If you choose to build your own cage, make sure it is from wood that is snake safe (no cedar or treated “green” pine) and properly sealed to prevent molding or warping.