I. General Information
Python regius also known commonly as Ball Python or Royal Python is a snake belonging to the Pythonidae Family and are indigenous to Central Africa and west to the western coast of Africa south of the Sahara desert. They typically will be found in grasslands and savannahs in their natural range and occasionally in sparsely wooded areas. They generally remain hidden during the day, and take up residence in abandoned rodent burrows and termite mounds. In their natural state, they are typified by black and brown coloration, and can at times display colors that are at the yellow end of the brown spectrum. They are a non-venomous species of snake, and generally considered very placid. Adult ball pythons typically range in size from about 3 feet to 5.5 feet in length and are generally about 2 to 4 inches in girth at the widest point of the body. The females typically fit in the higher end of that spectrum, with the males being smaller. The general nature and size of these snakes make them very desirable in the pet trade, and contribute to their popularity as a pet snake. The common name Ball Python comes from the fact that these snakes will ball up with their head in the center of the “ball” as a defensive mechanism. They are not known to strike when scared, but rather to ball up and wait for the threat to go away.
In the pet trade today, very few animals are imported from Africa, although they were imported in large numbers in the 80's and 90's. The large majority of ball pythons today come from breeders that have been breeding for genetic mutations. Today the black and brown normal patterned ball python is quickly being replaced with every color and pattern imaginable.
These snakes as pets are generally kept in glass aquariums and as a rule do not require a very large amount of space, due to the fact that in the wild, they do spend the majority of their lives in very small underground locations. While glass aquariums do work, and can be adapted to keep the animal in optimum conditions, we prefer to use plastic housing for these animals, as plastic is better at retaining heat and humidity (more on this later). Plastic tubs can be purchased at most large chain stores, and are very affordable. This makes it easy to buy an enclosure that is sized properly for your snake, and can be upgraded to a larger size when it is required, without having to spend a lot of money, or store old glass cages.
For a baby Ball Python, one that is between 12 and 18 inches, we recommend a plastic tub that is similar to a Sterilite 16 qt. container. This is one that is approximately 16”x12”x7”. For sub-adult females and adult males, generally represented by a snake that is 18 - 24 inches (up to about 32 inches for adult males), something similar to a Sterilite 28 qt. is sufficient (approx. 23”x16”x6”). For adult females, generally described as a snake that is 32 - 64 inches, a 41 qt. Sterilite is more than enough room (approx. 35”x16”x6”). Sterilite containers do not have to be used, as any other brand is sufficient, but make sure that the dimensions are similar, and the lids have some sort of locking device (more on this later). Once you have selected the proper size container, we will begin preparing it for your new snake.
This first thing you will want to do with the container is to put some holes around the top of the container. This can be done in numerous ways, but we prefer to use a hot soldering iron, as it makes a very neat hole, and does not have the risk of cracking the tub like a drill bit might. The number of holes is something that you will need to experiment with on your own. The purpose of these holes is primarily to allow air flow into the tub for temperature regulation and to regulate the humidity in the desired range. The holes affect humidity more so than temperature, as temperature can be raised and lowered by the heating mechanism (discussed more later). Do not worry if you make too many holes, as these holes can be covered by some form of tape, such as electrical tape, and if the humidity needs to be lowered later, the tape can be removed.
Now that the holes are in place, you are ready to select a substrate for your enclosure. There are many options here, and all can be used successfully, but should be chosen based on your preference for looks and ease of maintenance. Some of the options are: newspaper, paper towels, artificial turf, sand, dirt, pelletized paper and various shredded natural substrates such as corn cob, coconut husk, pine bark, cypress mulch or aspen bedding. The three most regularly utilized and recommended by hobbyists and breeders include newspaper, cypress mulch and aspen bedding. Before talking about those, I would like to briefly touch on the downside of some of the other selections. Artificial turf is an option that we often hear people considering and is generally a poor decision, because while it is relatively inexpensive, it can harbor parasites and be a breeding ground for other bacteria and harmful microorganisms. Sand and dirt can be used, but generally contain very small particles that when dry can become airborne and interfere with your snake's respiratory system. I have heard of people using pelletized paper very successfully, but we have never tried it. Newspaper, while it is very inexpensive and easy to change when soiled, may not be appealing visually to some people. Those people are generally inclined to select one of the shredded wood products. We use almost exclusively aspen bedding, because it is a fairly attractive bedding, and can be spot cleaned when it becomes soiled. The down side of aspen is that it can mold fairly quickly when it remains wet. If this is a problem that you are having, cypress mulch can be looked at, as it is naturally resistant to mold and mildew. With that said, the substrate should not be kept to wet, as this can cause health issues with your snakes such as blister disease or scale rot.
NOTE: Cedar mulch or pine bedding should not be used as the fumes and natural oils in these woods are harmful and sometimes fatal to your snake.
The next thing to look at for your new enclosure is a water bowl. Ball pythons do not have a need to soak in the water bowl like some other species of snakes, but may on occasion if the temperatures are too high in the enclosure and they are attempting to cool down, or for relief if they have a mite infestation. The bowl should be one that is on the heavier side, to decrease the chance of the snake tipping it over. A ceramic crock makes a great water bowl, and is one that we use regularly. Another consideration for the water bowl can be size, as it relates to humidity. If you are having a problem keeping your humidity up, a larger water bowl will provide more water surface area, and thus raise the humidity. Vice-versa, a smaller water bowl may lower your humidity. The water in your snake's enclosure should be changed weekly, and the non-porous bowl cleaned at the same frequency. One other option is to use disposable bowl liners that fit into a receptacle of some sort, making cleaning easier. We use plastic inserts that are 8 oz. for babies and juveniles and 16 oz. cups for sub-adults and adults. We use 4 inch PVC couplers for the 16 oz. cups and 4 inch PVC end caps for the 8 oz. cups. We then use Solo plastic deli cups as the inserts. The PVC components can be purchased at most home improvement stores, and the disposable cups can be purchased from most restaurant supply stores.
At this point, we now have a suitable enclosure, ground cover and a water supply. The next thing that should be considered is the means to provide a suitable thermal gradient. There are many things to consider here, and we will attempt to touch on them all. With that said, the first thing to acquire is some means of checking the temperatures. We use infrared temp guns, as they are fairly inexpensive, relatively accurate and provide a means to check temperatures very quickly in numerous different locations. Another common tool for this is something similar to an Accurite inside/outside thermometer. Some of these are as simple as a basic thermometer, others have a feature that allows you to see the minimum and maximum temperatures that were seen in a given period of time and others will also include a hygrometer for humidity readings. These are good tools, as the unit can be placed outside of the tub, while placing the probe inside of the tub (some will place the unit on the cool end of the tub, and the probe on the warm end). This is an efficient means of measure two spots simultaneously. Some other forms of temperature analysis in your enclosure are dial thermometers and sticky tape thermometer strips. We do not recommend these, as they are generally inaccurate, but they are available, and thus I thought they bore mentioning. Now that we have a way of measuring temps, we need to get something to adjust the temps. Generally raising the temperature is what is required. There are a few options here, and include hot rocks, under tank heaters (a.k.a. UTH), Flexwatt, ceramic heat emitters (a.k.a. CHE) and heat lamps. There are plusses and minuses to any of the above, and we have tried them all. We recommend some type of UTH or Flexwatt to provide heat to the enclosure without having the animal able to come into direct contact with the heat source. UTH can be purchased online or in most large or specialty pet stores. Although they are factory regulated, we recommend getting something to control the device, either in the way of a rheostat (like a lamp dimmer that can be purchased at most home improvement stores - we have used Lutron dimmers from Lowe's) or a thermostat. There are many thermostats on the market, and we use exclusively Helix thermostats, but there is one to fit into almost every budget. Make sure that your heat source is plugged into your rheostat or t-stat, and verify that it is the correct temperature and make sure to check the temps every couple months, to ensure that a dimmer didn't get bumped or that the t-stat isn't malfunctioning. As mentioned earlier, other sources of heat can be used, like hot rocks, we recommend against them because they are known to have very hot spots on the rock, and are prone to shorts if exposed to spilt water in the enclosure. We stay away from CHE and heat lamps because they tend to dry out the air very quickly, thus leaving you with a constant humidity battle. Once you have selected your optimal heat source, dial it in such that the hot spot is between 87 and 91 degrees, and attempt to get your cool side somewhere near 78 and 82 degrees (a tad lower is ok, but try not to go below 75 degrees as a rule). With that said, if your snake is kept in a cool house or location in the house, it may be necessary to run some form of heat source on the cool end of the enclosure to keep it from getting too cold.
We now have the cage almost ready to receive your new snake. However, we still need a “rodent burrow” in the cage. We do this by what is commonly referred to as a hide box. Two identical hide boxes are recommended. One should be on the cool end, and one on the hot side. This allows the snake to go to its desired temperature location, while not sacrificing security. Identical hides are recommended, so that the snake does not have to stay in one temperature regime all the time, just because that is the preferred hide (i.e. the one it feels most secure in). A hide box can be something as simple as an old cereal box with a hole cut in the side to a commercially designed molded plastic hide box. We have successfully used small kitty litter pans with holes cut in the side, and set them in the enclosure upside down, but have recently started transitioning to 10 inch plastic plant pot bases with a 3 inch hole cut in the top for our adults and sub adults. We do not provide hide boxes for our babies, because they reside in a hatchling rack, and the tubs are solid grey plastic. The tubs are relatively dark inside, even with the lights on, and the tub acts as a hide box in itself. If for some reason, your snake is a poor feeder, and there are no hides in the enclosure, it may not be eating because it is stressed. Although it is rare, we have had to put small hides in our baby tubs, even though they are dark, because a particular baby is still uncomfortable. I briefly touched on Sterilite tubs earlier in the care sheet and mentioned some sort of locking device. Many of the Sterilite tubs come with latches mounted on the tubs that clamp over the lid. These are important since snakes are masters of escape. If you do not have any type of locking device built onto the enclosure you pick, make sure you have some sort of plan for securing the lid, as it is the most common path for escapees. We have used books, bricks and other forms of weights in the past, but these do pose a threat as an object that can fall and crush an animal if care is not taken to prevent this. Bungee cords are another option. However, there are many things that a creative mind can come up with, but when testing a new restraining device, make sure to check the enclosure often to ensure it was not defeated by Houdini.
The last thing to do to your enclosure is add lighting. This is by no means necessary, and is strictly a cosmetic measure for the benefit of the owner. These animals do not require any sort of UV lighting, and nothing special in the way of bulbs. We do recommend some sort of florescent lighting, as they are generally not heat emitting sources of light. We have already dialed in our temps, and do not want to have to go back and fix them because the light has changed the thermal gradient. We are now ready to get a new snake.
III. Care and Husbandry
Your cage is ready to go and it is time to select a Ball Python to put in the cage. The best source of a new snake is to contact a breeder that specializes in Ball Pythons, as this is your best bet at getting a healthy well cared for animal that is more than likely captive bred. Captive Bred (a.k.a. C.B., or C.B.B.) is an animal that is a product of two snakes that were maintained and bred in captivity by the breeder. Captive hatched (a.k.a. C.H.) snakes are commonly found in the snake trade, and generally defined as snakes that were hatched in captivity, but the breeding of the parents took place in the wild. The “farmer” either collected the eggs in the wild, or caught gravid (another word for pregnant in animals that have eggs rather than live birth) females, and held them until eggs were laid. The last type of Ball you may see would be a Wild Caught animal (a.k.a. WC). We generally recommend staying away from WC animals as they usually are imported with internal parasites, often times have ticks, and are generally very difficult to get feeding and acclimated to captive life. They are also generally more aggressive. Once you have located your potential source for your new snake, you will want to select a snake that does not display any outward issues, such as kinks, open wounds, scabs, cloudy eyes (unless it is in a shed cycle), mucus around the nostrils or mouth, wrinkled or sagging skin or blisters or discolored belly scales (again unless it is near a shed). You will generally want to ask the person what your animal is feeding on, and how the prey is presented to the animal (more on this later). The age of the snake is not overly important, but it bears asking, as it may be a sign to the feeding habits of the snake.
Once you have asked all of the pertinent questions, selected your snake brought it home, you will want to place it in its new home. At this point, it is recommended to leave the snake alone for one week to let it adjust to its new surroundings and settle down as it may be somewhat stressed from being removed from its current home and transported by car or sometimes by overnight shipping, if your animal was ordered online. Keep an eye on your new snake for this first week, and watch its habits. Does it stay on the hot or cold side all of the time? Does it spend a lot of time in the water bowl? Does it cruise around a lot during the day or evening? These observations will be very helpful in determining if the cage is too hot or cold, if the snake may have mites or is getting ready to shed and the humidity is too low, or if it is hungry. For first time owners, we recommend taking notes about all of the above observations, because if you have a problem with the snake in the future, many forums or private breeders/keepers will ask these questions in an attempt to find a solution to your problem.
Now that one week has passed since you brought your snake home, we can assume that it has acclimated to the new surroundings and it's time to feed it. Hopefully you asked the breeder what they were feeding your snake, as this will give you a good starting point for attempting a first feed. Most Ball Pythons will readily take a live mouse, and mice are generally easy to obtain. If you forgot to ask, we would recommend trying this first. However, the breeder may have told you that they were feeding rats or African Soft-furred rats (a.k.a. ASF). We will discuss each of the prey items and the many options for offering these items in a bit, but first let's discuss prey size and feeding frequency. When selecting a prey item for your snake, you want to choose a rodent that is about the same size or slightly smaller than the largest girth of your snake. If you are feeding your snake based on this size rule, then a 7-10 day feeding schedule is perfect for healthy growth. Once your snake has reached adult size, you can wait as long as 14 days between feedings. If you cannot get a sufficient sized rodent for your snake, you can attempt 2 smaller meals at one sitting, or even try smaller meals 2 times weekly. You now know what size to feed, but what do you feed: live, p/k (pre-killed) or f/t (frozen-thawed). We produce all of our own snake food, and due to feeding a large collection of animals, we offer live, as it saves time, and if the snake doesn't eat, we have somewhere to house the un-eaten rodent. If you are feeding one or two snakes, f/t may be the way to go. I say this, as you can order as many frozen rodents as you would like, and keep them in the freezer for 6-9 months. This saves you from driving to the pet store every week, especially if the store is very far away from your home. If you feed this way, we recommend taking the rodent out of the freezer the day before feeding and let it thaw at room temperature overnight. Then, just prior to offering to the animal, put it under a blow dryer for a few minutes, or put it on some sort of heating pad to get the temperature above room temperature. This helps the snake to distinguish the dead rodent from the rest of the environment. When feeding f/t rodents, we offer the food by grasping the rodent behind the head with a set of hemostats. This allows you to “dance” the rodent around a bit, making it appear to be alive, and keeps you from getting your fingers or hand bitten in a mistaken strike. I have heard of many Ball Pythons taking frozen rodents right off of the cage floor, but I have never tried this. If live is your preference, make sure that you offer the rodent into the enclosure, and watch it for about 15 to 30 minutes, or until your snake has killed the prey. If after 30 minutes, your snake has not eaten, then remove the food item. If left in the enclosure for long periods of time, the rodent can begin to chew on your snake and can actually kill it if it is left in there long enough. The last option for food presentation is p/k. We rarely have seen the need to do this, but we have run across the picky ball that seems afraid of a jumping around live animal, but won't take a frozen thawed, either because of the temperature or the smell (they do have a unique odor). In this case, you would start with a live rodent, and would kill it yourself and offer it to the snake via a set of tongs or hemostats. This is a last resort, and if you find the need to do this, we recommend speaking to an experienced hobbyist to inquire about how to do this.
The last thing to discuss in the feeding department is prey options. Mice are usually readily available from most pet stores, and should not be a problem to find. The issue with mice, is that you will find that your snake will quickly outgrow the size of a full grown mouse. This may lead to the necessity of feeding 2-5 mice per week to maintain their body weight. This is the reason that many breeders try to get their Ball Pythons feeding on rats. Your Ball Python will never get big enough to eat an extra large rat. The last option that you may run across is ASFs. These are not very readily available, but they are natural prey for Ball Pythons in the wild. They are illegal in some states and cities, so check your local laws. These are more commonly utilized when trying to get a wild caught snake to eat. I mentioned them because they are out there, and you may want to know if they are okay to feed. The last note on this subject is to be careful feeding ASFs to your snake, as they do have a tendency to get imprinted on that food item, and unless you breed your own, or have a ready supplier of them, we do not recommend you attempt to feed this rodent because you may end up with a snake that won't eat because you aren't giving it the food item it wants. This also goes for feeding hamsters or gerbils, as they are expensive to buy, and your snake might become hooked on them. Ball Pythons are one of the few species of popular pet snakes that are known to go on feeding fasts particularly during the winter months. This should not be alarming, as it is common during winter (which is the breeding period for the snake), but attention should be paid to the snakes over-all condition. A fast that goes on too long could be harmful to the snake is massive weight loss is observed. If your snake misses a few meals during the winter months, you may want to back off and only offer food once every three weeks (this helps from being wasteful with your rodents).
NOTE: Handling snakes after they eat has been a debated topic. While I have never seen anyone that actually has documented evidence of when to actually handle your snake after a meal, we recommend waiting three days. While stressing the animal and causing it to regurgitate the meal is a concern, the biggest concern should be cuts or tears in the stomach from the nails and/or teeth of the rodent. Three days is generally enough time for the rodent to be digested enough that the teeth and nails are no longer rigidly attached to bone and due not pose such a great risk to the fragile internal organs.
The last bit of care we need to discuss is ecdysis (scientific terminology for shedding of the external layer of skin in a whole piece). During the shedding process, you will see your snake start to become dull, the eyes will start to turn blue and the belly will generally start to turn pink. This is the normal process, and will generally take about 8-10 days from the first signs that the snake is about to shed. It is not unusual for your snake to miss a meal when it is in a shed cycle. We also do not recommend handling the snake during this period, as the snake usually cannot see very well, and can become defensive. Also, handling close to shedding could cause you to rip the skin, prior to the animal shedding. When you see the signs that your snake is going into a shed cycle, it is recommended to raise the humidity in the enclosure to about 55-70 %. This will help the animal shed its skin in one piece, as opposed to a bunch of small flakes, which may result in shed stuck on the animal.
While this article really was written with the intent of informing the new owner what goes into caring for their new pet, I realize that the idea (sometimes known as dream) of breeding is what brings someone to the hobby to begin with. With that said, I felt that mentioning some of the facets of breeding would be beneficial. This is by no means intended to take you step by step through the breeding process. Hopefully in the near future I can do a write up that will solely focus on breeding and all of the minute details and tricks that go along with it.
The first question that many people ask in regards to breeding their Ball pythons is what age they need to be to breed? There are many opinions on this, but the most common seem to be that the male should be about 1 year old and the female should be at least 2 years old. However, this is not the only thing that should be taken into consideration when determining maturity. Many reptiles also are affected by size. With that said, males should be 500 grams and females should be 1500 grams at minimums. We have bred males and females at smaller sizes and younger ages than those mentioned, but the targets I mentioned are relatively widely accepted numbers in the industry. The next most common question surrounds breeding time and timelines of the female progression through the breeding evolution. Typically this species is bred in the winter and eggs hatch in early spring. However, there are breeders now that are having great success at getting captive animals to breed year around. The majority of our breeding generally occurs between November and April, and the majority of our eggs hatch in September and October. The basic timeline for breeding goes something like this: the female will develop follicles while being bred, she will then ovulate (appears as a large swell just aft of mid body, she will then shed about 14 days after ovulation, she will lay eggs about 30 days after this shed and the eggs will hatch about 60 days after being laid.
Now that we have proceeded through the breeding portion, we are ready for eggs. The average clutch size for a Ball python female is about 6. We have had clutches from 1 to 12 eggs. I believe the largest clutch I have heard about is 19 eggs. Once the eggs are laid, the next decision (which actually should be made prior to the eggs getting here), would be whether to artificially incubate or maternally incubate the eggs. We have not personally tried the maternal incubation method, but have spoken to a lot of people that have, and read about numerous instances. The most important thing here is to keep the humidity right, as temps are pretty easy. We artificially incubate our eggs, and have done so through the use of two different homemade incubators. The most important thing is temperature. The industry accepted range is about 88 to 92 degrees. We incubate our eggs at about 88.5 and have had great success. The next thing is humidity. Most try to keep the humidity as close to 100% as possible, but the key is that the eggs don't stay wet, or it will cause problems. Once you give the eggs heat and humidity, wait 60 days and your babies will start crawling out of the eggs. Baby care then brings us back to the beginning of the care sheet, and the cycle starts all over. I know that this section was pretty basic, but as I stated earlier, I will be attempting to write a much more detailed article on the whole breeding process.