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by Thomas Steele

Why a Ball Python?
The ball python is widely considered the best snake for beginners. It’s small size and calm demeanor makes it an ideal pet. It is rare for a ball python to grow larger than five feet in length with four feet being closer to the average adult size. At adult size their girth is roughly the same size as a soft drink can. Once they are properly set up and on a regular feeding schedule they are very hardy animals. Overall they are very friendly and enjoy being handled. It is rare for someone to be bitten and when it does occur it is usually because the owner made a mistake. Even at full adult size ball pythons pose little to no danger to humans. With that in mind it is essential to remember that they are still wild animals and must be treated as such. If you treat your ball python with the same respect you do any animal that can bite you won’t have any problems. If you have your heart set on a snake and don’t want the problems associated with some other types of pythons or boas such as size (reticulated and Burmese) or aggressiveness (Emerald Boas) then the ball python is for you. Did I mention how cute they are? back to top

What to look for when selecting your Ball Python
When selecting your ball python the first thing to decide is where to get it. If it is a pet store take a look at it. Make sure it is clean and that the animals are kept in sanitary and humane conditions. Avoid places that have their ball pythons stored in large numbers in a small enclosure or places that do not clean regularly. If you decide to buy from a breeder try to learn about their facilities. Ask them if they can put you in touch with customers of theirs so that you can ask them about their buying experience. Whenever possible examine the snake your self. If you visit a facility and they will not let you handle the animal before selecting, kindly thank them and leave. Selecting a captive bred ball python over a wild caught ball python is usually a good idea. See, What is the difference between Wild Caught and Captive Bred for reasons why. When examining the snake try to evaluate its overall health and condition. Choose a ball with vibrant skin that does not appear dull. Dull skin is a sign of poor nutrition. Check for retained skin from a previous shed and examine the eyes for eye caps. The eyes should be clear and not foggy. See if the animal is alert and active. Its tongue should flick actively and the snake should overall be fairly curious. A ball that is listless or inert should be avoided. Examine the mouth of the snake for mucus, as this is sign of a respiratory infection. Also check the mouth area for stomatitis or mouth rot; the mouth area should be completely clear. Look for a snake with a good body shape. The body should be round in shape not triangular. Check the body for lumps, raised scales, or external parasites such as mites or ticks. Also check the body for any damaged areas or wounds. Lastly check the vent area (near the tail) to make sure it is clear of feces. Try to avoid snakes with any of these symptoms. Ask the individual selling you the ball for a feeding schedule. If they cannot provide you with a feeding schedule for the snake, try to find one where they can. Selecting an animal that is feeding regularly will allow you to avoid the biggest problem most new ball owners go through. Choosing a healthy ball python from a reputable and knowledgeable dealer will greatly reduce the stress on both you and your snake during the crucial acclimation period. back to top

How much should I pay for a Ball Python?
Remember, you get what you pay for. Hatchling ball pythons usually range anywhere from $30-$100. The lower end of the spectrum usually comes from pet stores that buy these animals in bulk from importers. Expect to pay more for ball pythons that are captive bred as they usually experience fewer problems than balls that are imported. This doesn’t mean that you can’t find captive bred ball pythons for a relatively inexpensive price. If you see a very inexpensive ball python there is usually a reason why. It is a good idea to examine these snakes closely for problems and to ensure that they are properly feeding. Do not base your decision to buy a ball python based on the cheap price. You can easily spend five to ten times that amount properly housing your snake and if the snake has health problems vet fees can pile up quickly. The price range above is for ball pythons with normal coloration and patterns. Adult balls go for significantly more and ball python morphs sell for thousands. Piebald ball pythons sell for over $30,000. Visit The Snake Keeper at www.ballpython.com <http://www.ballpython.com> for great descriptions of different ball python morphs. back to top

What is the difference between Wild Caught and Captive Bred?
Wild caught ball pythons are harvested from their natural environment by the thousands, shipped and stored in large numbers, and as such usually have a great number of problems. These problems include parasites, stomatitis, scale rot, and feeding problems. Many do not survive the trip overseas and some imported ball pythons never feed on their own. Because of these problems, wild caught animals should be avoided. Avoiding wild caught ball pythons also reduces the demand for them and hopefully, if demand drops enough, will give the native population much needed relief. Given a choice Captive Bred ball pythons are a better choice. There is a third distinction, captive hatched, these snakes come from eggs harvested overseas and hatched locally. They are better than wild caught balls but still put a strain on the indigenous populations. back to top

Cage Size
Hatchling ball pythons can happily reside in a 10-gallon enclosure for quite some time. About the time they reach 2+ feet in length it is best to move a 20-gallon tank where they can reside the rest of their lives. It would be preferred to eventually move to a 55-gallon tank to provide more living space for an adult ball python but a 20-gallon is adequate. Large enclosures over the 55-gallon size should be avoided unless you can provide multiple hiding places as well as multiple water dishes. Forcing a ball python to travel long distances for water or a place to play puts undue stress on the animal by forcing it to choose between security and water. Stress can lead to dry sheds and a lack of eating. It is also much more difficult to keep the correct temperature ranges in a large cage. With that in mind, if you can provide multiple hides and watering holes along with the proper temperature gradients there should be no problem keeping a ball in a large enclosure. They do, after all, live in the wild. back to top

Heating
Maintaining a good temperature gradient for your ball python is essential. A good range to consider is 75-90 degrees. Keep the temperature above or below this range for extended periods of time and your swimming at your own risk. Day time temperatures should range from 85-90 degrees in the basking spot and the enclosure should maintain a cooler area around 80-83 degrees. This temperature difference allows the snake to choose a temperature that is more comfortable to them at any given time. During the night the temps can drop 5-6 degrees. Maintaining a high temperature will keep your snake comfortable and allow it to digest food properly. Keeping thermometers on both sides of the enclosure is a good idea to keep tabs on the temperature.

There are numerous heating options for establishing and maintaining this heating gradient. One thing that should not be considered an option is a heating rock. While some are able to use them without problems they pose a serious burn risk to your ball and do not provide heat to the overall enclosure. There are much safer options. An under tank heater (UTH) is one of the better ones. These are available at most pet stores and can be ordered online as well. An under tank heater attaches to the bottom of the tank and will heat the entire tank without burning your ball. A great many times a UTH is more than adequate in providing all the heat your ball will need. Secondary heat sources that can be used are heating lamps and heat tape. Whenever using heating lamps it is a good idea to keep an eye on the humidity as they can dry out your ball’s skin. Whatever heat source you decide on it is essential that you keep your snake from making contact with the heat source to avoid burns. back to top

Humidity
Humidity is essential to ensure your ball python sheds properly. Keeping the humidity between 60-70% greatly increases the chances that your ball python will shed in one piece. A few ways to keep the humidity level high in the enclosure is to provide a larger water bowl. Putting the bowl on or partially on the UTH will also raise the humidity as the water evaporates. Other ways include misting daily, keeping damp moss inside a hide, and covering a portion of the top of the cage with plastic. Take care when covering part of the cage to not restrict airflow so as to adversely affect the air quality in the tank. More expensive options include keeping a humidifier in the same room and/or buying a mister for the cage. A very important thing to keep in mind when raising and maintaining humidity is to never let conditions in the tank become damp as this can cause irritation to your snakes underbelly and lead to scale rot. back to top

Lighting
Lighting in your snake’s enclosure serves only to heat the enclosure. Since ball pythons are nocturnal and rarely come out during the day in their natural environment they do not need any special lighting. Basking bulbs that provide a full UV spectrum are fine but equally as good are regular light bulbs. Many snakes use sunlight to produce vitamin D; ball pythons are provided with all the nutrients they need through the food they eat. back to top

Enclosure furnishings
The first thing to consider when deciding what to put into your ball’s enclosure is what type of substrate to use. Substrate is what you use to cover the bottom of the cage. The easiest and most readily available substrate is newspaper. Newspaper without print can usually be purchased from your local newspaper at a very inexpensive price. Newspaper ink poses no threat to your ball python but some find it more aesthetically pleasing without print. If appearance is what your after then there are a number of suitable alternatives to newspaper. The first such alternative is wood chips. AVOID CEDAR WOOD CHIPS AT ALL COSTS! Cedar wood chips contain chemicals and fumes, which are highly toxic and can prove fatal to your ball python. It is widely viewed that cedar chips are unsuitable for housing animals of any kind. The jury is still out on whether or not pine chips are harmful. There is no consensus on it’s effects so it is probably best to avoid pine as well since other types of wood chips are readily available. The wood chips should be large and not shredded to avoid having your ball ingest them. Finely shredded chips can also cause respiratory infections in ball pythons. Astroturf is another suitable substrate. It is a good idea to keep at least two pieces available so that a clean piece may be placed in the enclosure while the other is cleaned. Astroturf has been known to retain odors so proper cleaning is essential. Finally, indoor/outdoor carpeting is well suited for a substrate. Like Astroturf, it is a good idea to keep more than one piece available for cleaning purposes. Avoid substrates like sand or gravel which can is extremely rough and can irritate your ball’s tender underbelly.

What else can be put in the enclosure? The very next thing you should put in is a large water dish. Balls don’t drink a lot of water but it is nice to have a large dish to raise humidity and allow your ball to soak. Don’t worry about your ball drowning, like all snakes they are great swimmers. Next on your list of cage accessories should be a hiding spot or better yet, two hiding spots. There are lots of things that can be used for hiding spots in your enclosure. Aesthetically pleasing items include ceramic caves and half logs. These are relatively inexpensive but are not cheap. They can be purchased from most pet stores. Inexpensive alternatives that can be used include upside down Tupperware type containers with an entrance cut out. The same goes for flowerpots. Simply cut a hole large enough for your snake to enter in the rim of the container turn it upside down and voila, instant hide spot Something to keep in mind when creating hide spots are to make the hide large enough for the snake but small enough that it can touch each side. This provides the snake with extra security. If you have a hatchling this shouldn’t be a big concern since your ball will grow rather quickly and changing hides will become rather tedious. back to top

Food
This is the first thing most new ball python owners ask since it is one of the coolest parts of owning a ball python. The easiest thing to remember is to feed prey items no larger in diameter than the largest part of your snake. With that in mind there are some commonly used names for mice sizes. Pinkies are mice that are only a few days old. They have no hair and are pinkish in color, hence their name. Rarely will a ball python need to start on a prey item this small. Hatchlings right from the shell will usually start on a larger prey item. Some pet stores will recommend starting on pinkies but many times ball pythons will show no interest. It is better tostart them on fuzzy mice, which are 5-10 days old. Fuzzy mice usually will usually still have their eyes closed or have just opened them. They are coated with light fur and thus are much more recognizable to your ball as a food item. Within three months of hatching ball pythons are more than capable of feeding on adult mice. Again, use your snake’s girth as an indicator for what size food to use. Adult ball pythons can feed on a number of mice at one sitting although if your ball were eating more than 2 mice at a sitting it would probably be better to move to a larger food item and start your ball feeding on rat pups. Once your ball has reached its full size it can feed on medium rats.

As hatchlings ball pythons should be fed every 4-7 days. As adults once a week is plenty and at full size the feeding schedule can be slowed down to once every 11-14 days. It is important not to over feed your ball python. Usually the ball will stop eating when it is full though. Signs of obesity in balls include an inability to coil, skin showing between scales, and wrinkles that stay in the skin when the ball stretches. It is better to not feed often enough than to feed to often. Remember, ball pythons don’t get regular meals in the wild.

Whenever possible feed pre-killed prey items. The most important reason for this is for your snake’s safety. Mice and rats have teeth and can be very aggressive when threatened. After all, they don’t want to be eaten and they will attempt to defend themselves. Attacks from mice can severely injure your snake causing skin damage, eye damage, or possibly death. Many times once a ball has a bad feeding experience they will not feed again willingly. It is better to either kill the prey item before offering it to your ball or buy them pre-killed from a pet store or through a mail order dealer. Buying them pre-killed and frozen will also eliminate any internal and external parasites which live prey can carry. It can be difficult to entice your ball to eat pre-killed but it is well worth the effort. If you decide to pre-kill the item yourself there are a few quick methods available. The first is to place the mouse into a small bag and strike it against a flat object. The impact will kill the mouse instantly and painlessly. It is important to strike the mouse flat against the surface to avoid bleeding. Another method is to place a blunt object behind the mouse’ s head and jerk quickly up on the tail to sever the spinal cord. Suffocation and freezing are other possible methods, which can be employed. If any of these methods seem inhumane keep in mind that the snake will also suffocate the mouse itself and some of the methods described above are much quicker. The death of mice is a necessary part of keeping ball pythons and it is best to get accustomed to this right up front.

If you buy frozen mice you must thaw them before offering to your snake. The best way to do this is to place the mouse in warm water until it isthawed and then use a blow dryer to warm it’s body. This will trick your ball into thinking the mouse is alive and makes it much more palatable. Do not use a microwave to defrost the mouse. If you’ve ever put a hotdog in a microwave you know why.
The best way to offer the food item to your ball whether it is live or dead is to use a pair of tongs. Avoid using your fingers to hold the mouse as this can easily lead to a bite if the ball mistakes your fingers for food. Balls use smell and heat much more than their eyesight, which is poor, to establish what is food. It is very easy to mistake your warm fingers that smell of mouse for an actual mouse. If the mouse is alive never leave it in the cage with the snake for reasons described above. Always hold it with the tongs until the ball strikes and constricts it. If it is pre-killed you can set it in the enclosure with the ball but often it is necessary to “put on a show” with the mouse to entice the snake into striking. Once you’ve fed your snake, leave it alone for a day or two to allow it to digest and to avoid regurgitation. back to top

How big will my Ball Python get?
It is rare for a ball python to get over 5 feet long. There have been ball pythons recorded that have reached six feet in length but this is definitely the exception and not the rule. More often the average ball python length is around four feet. Hatchling ball pythons range from 12-17 inches in length and grow at a rate of about a foot a year for the first 3 years and then their growth rate slows greatly. Balls continue to grow all of their lives but the rate of growth is barely noticeable after 4 years. The growth rate of your ball python may vary as some grow extremely fast early in life while others take a little longer. back to top

How long will my ball python live?
Ball pythons, when properly cared for, can easily live 20-25 years in captivity. Once properly setup they are very hardy animals and will stay active until very late in their lives. The longest lived ball python on record was over 47 years old upon its death. You may want to consider this if you have not purchased your ball python already. If you have then we hope your in it for the long haul as ball pythons can make life long companions. back to top