Ball pythons are arguably the most popular python in captivity. With their small size and docile temperaments, they make the perfect pet snake. They are readily available in the pet trade and come in an array of different color/pattern types (morphs) Regular/normal/wild-type phase ball pythons are mostly brown and black with some white. They were given their name of Ball python because when they feel threatened they usually curl up in a tight ball with their head in the middle.
Africa, stretching from Senegal to Sudan. Populations occur in around 20 countries mostly on the southern border of the Sahara desert.
Mostly found in grasslands, they also occur in forested areas. They are terrestrial by nature and are often found in burrows.
Hatchlings are approximately 10-12" in length and 45-80+ grams of weight. Males typically stay smaller than females, usually between 3-5 ft (1000-2000g of weight) but sometimes bigger. Females are usually 4-5 ft (1500-4000g of weight) The biggest ball pythons can be up to 6 ft in length and over 5000g. Size is largely determined by the availability of prey.
If properly cared for these pythons can live up to 40+ years in captivity.
Ball pythons are well known for their shy and peaceful demeanor. They rarely ever bite and are a great beginner snake.
Ball Pythons should be started on appropriately sized rodents as soon as possible. Many keepers prefer to start with rats early on to avoid the possibility of the animal becoming reluctant to switch later in life. I personally feed a variety of rodent species and most snakes do not show a preference. As long as the prey is the correct size/frequency the rest is personal choice.
A good rule of thumb is to feed prey 1-1.5x the girth of the thickest part of the snake's body. Hatchlings should be fed every 5-7 days, juveniles every 7-10, sub-adults every 7-14, and adults every 7-21 depending on the snake's gender and condition. For example a female who just laid eggs needs all she can get, while an adult male who is not breeding does not need to eat every week to grow and be healthy. These are just general guidelines, there is always wiggle room. Bottom line is to monitor specific animals and do what is best for them.
It is often said that Ball Pythons are picky snakes, but I have had the opposite experience. I've found that given the proper caging and environment 90% of ball pythons are capable of being reliable frozen/thawed feeders. I start most of my hatchlings on f/t within a few meals of hatching. I've also received adult snakes who supposedly would not eat f/t who take it within a few days of arrival. If your snake is being picky, double check all aspects of the snake's environment - heat, bedding, hides, chance of illness, etc. More often than not the snake is signalling it's discomfort if it is refusing to feed. Sometimes it really is nothing, but it is good to check.
In the case of feeding live, NEVER LEAVE LIVE PREY WITH YOUR SNAKE unless you are supervising the feeding. Rodents can and have seriously injured and killed snakes. Don't take a chance!
If a snake regurgitates it's food, please wait at least 14 days before offering another meal - regurgitating is very hard on a snake and their gut flora needs time to get back to normal before taking another meal. Offering smaller prey is also suggested for the next few meals. Repeated regurgitating could be a sign something major is wrong, a vet visit should be seriously considered.
Ball Pythons need a basking spot of 86-90F with a background temperature of 75-80F. Letting the temperature fall below 75F for prolonged periods could result in a weakened immune system, illness, and difficulty digesting/regurgitating.
A thermostat is a must-have for any reptile keeper and will help you regulate the heat in your reptile's cage. There are many thermostats designed for reptiles to choose from, the reliable ones ranging from $35 up to $300 depending on what fits your needs. For beginners I usually recommend the Hydrofarm thermostat, as it is cheap ($35) and reliable. It is on/off style so the thermostat powers the heating unit fully until it reaches the desired temp, shuts off until the temp drops a few degrees below and then kicks back on. This is the most common style of thermostat and is fine for cages. If you want something even more accurate you can get a Herpstat (starting around $115) which are proportional and keep the temperature at a constant. These are usually better for incubation, but either work well for caging.
I recommend flexwatt or THG heat tape or under tank heating pads. Never use a heat rock, they don't heat evenly and can cause burns. I also advise against heat lamps as they can cause stress (ball pythons are nocturnal, so they do not require a light source), are hard to regulate the heat, and they dry up the humidity inside the cage.
Humidity should be kept at 50-60%. When using screen top cages this is especially hard to achieve sometimes. Modifying the top so that 3/4 or more is covered will help contain some of the humidity inside of the cage. Placing moist sphagnum moss inside the cage and switching to under tank heating instead of light fixtures will also help. I personally recommend considering snake racks, plastic tubs or professional style vivarium caging such as Animal Plastics over glass enclosures for the health of the snake and simplicity for the owner.
Ball pythons can be housed in a variety of different enclosures including glass, plastic tubs, professional caging (such as Animal Plastics, Boaphile, Vision, etc) The easiest setup for a beginner would be plastic tubs, snake racks or professional caging options, avoiding aquariums altogether. More below:
Why avoid glass? Glass is harder to heat, and are typically equipped with screen tops that need to be modified to maintain the right humidity inside of the cage. They are also very clear which could lead to stress in some individuals. A proper setup can be achieved with glass, but a beginner would be better served to start with something a little less sensitive.
But plastic tubs are ugly! While plastic may not be the most attractive choice, it is much more suitable for the snake, needing few modifications to make it an appropriate choice for most snakes. They come in many sizes and are very affordable so starting with something small (essential for neonates) and increasing in size as the snake grows isn't going to break the bank for the owner. Plastic holds heat and humidity well, and there is no screen top. Soldering or drilling a handful of ventilation holes on the sides makes it easy to choose how much air flow is needed to maintain the proper humidity levels inside. Start with less holes, add more as needed. Most tubs are clear enough to see into for the owner, but not so clear the animal will feel as stressed as it may in glass.
If you don't like plastic tubs, or snake racks, you can spend a little more and go with the professional style caging. It looks nice and is durable, made specifically for reptiles so should meet the requirements for holding the proper temps/humidity within. I would still recommend tubs as neonate housing since it is temporary. Buying multiple vivariums for one animal could get very expensive.
Sterile vs Natural A lot of beginners make the mistake of thinking that natural-looking enclosures are beneficial to the snake. While it is true that it is possible to make a functional naturalistic environment, it is expensive and not a task for even the somewhat average experienced herper. It takes a lot to make a natural live (living plants, soil, etc) functional terrarium in terms of patience, money and dedication.
The first priority is the health of the snake, so definitely put aesthetics behind functionality. Many breeders prefer newspaper, paper towel or other paper products such as Carefresh since they are clean and generally don't risk carrying parasites. Many others use aspen wood shavings or cypress mulch (pure, not mixed or treated) - baking mulch is recommended to kill any bugs that might be living in it. Never use pine or cedar as they contain harmful phenols. Sand is also not recommended as it is dry and unhygienic.
Can snakes share the same cage? The question isn't whether they can, but if they should. Snakes can be housed together but most experienced keepers will (passionately) argue against it. Snakes are largely solitary in nature and only come together for breeding in most cases. They do not require companionship.
The most common reasons people want to house snakes together is 1) a matter of convenience for the keeper (no space/money for more cages) 2) misunderstanding or anthropomorphizing the snake's needs 3) general ignorance or misinformation given by a pet store employee, friend, etc 4) Attempting to be "natural" (in nature the snake can escape + less competition for optimal locations) 5) "They've lived together for years!" Just because they are alive and appear healthy to you does not mean it is the best choice. Snakes are tough and I've seen them survive through a lot of things, it doesn't mean it is a good idea. (Heat rocks are another good example)
In contrast, there are many valid reasons not to keep snakes together such as 1)Health and illness transmission- a) more often than not, proper quarantine is not followed with the new addition before introducing to established animals b) spread of illness is much more likely when snakes are in direct contact with feces, fluid, etc from other snakes c) it is hard to determine which animal is showing symptoms (IE identifying suspect feces in a communal enclosure) d) Snakes can withhold showing symptoms for some time, so by the time it is discovered it could be serious d) the cost of vet bills goes up if more than 1 animal needs to be treated. Competent reptile vets are hard to come by. e) most people don't have a reptile vet until after the problem comes up, losing critical time to get the animal treatment
3) Stress, manifested in many ways some of which not easily recognized by people- a) Competition for optimum spots. Many people think snakes are "cuddling", this behavior may look passive but is often a sign of domination and competition. b) sexual stress, males pestering females too much, overbreeding, and male/male combat c) Stress often causes snakes to refuse food which can cause trouble in the long run.
When looking at the facts, the supposed benefits just don't outweigh the risks in keeping snakes in the same cage. If you are a beginner it is best to cut out the unnecessary risk while learning the basics. I am not saying it is impossible to achieve the perfect naturalistic enclosure with a few animals in it, but the average keeper doesn't have the tools at their disposal to start a project like that, and as perfect as the cage is there is still a risk when we're talking about living animals.
Ball pythons are ready to breed from 6+ months old (male) and 18 months to 4+ years for females. Males mature faster than females and can breed as small as 500 grams of weight, while females need more time and should weigh 1500 grams before breeding in most cases. Weight isn't the only concern, overall body condition and age is important.
I reduce the temperature starting in October and start pairing animals soon after. The male is introduced into the female's cage for 3 days. If copulation is observed and completed earlier I will remove him as soon as they are done and either move him to his next female or put him back into his own cage. The male can handle breeding several females per season, but you should always keep a close eye on the male's body condition and feeding habits - a small male who refuses to feed during breeding season can literally "breed himself to death" - it is up to the keeper to remove him from the breeding environment if he is losing weight rapidly. I offer food to both sexes throughout the breeding season. Most eat, but some do stop feeding. As long as they are not showing signs of illness or rapid weight loss it isn't anything to worry about.
I continue pairing the snakes through winter, into spring and in some cases into summer. I raise their heat back to normal levels gradually by mid Feb-March, ambient temps are still lower due to natural circumstances here in Ohio. Not all females cycle at the same time, follicle growth is different between individual females so pairing continues. Receptive females begin to develop follicles, which later will be fertilized and become eggs. The follicles can be felt through palpation at various sizes depending on the skill of the handler. At the smallest they feel like a string of pearls, later marbles, grapes, and ping pong balls. Do not palpate unless you are confident in your ability to do it safely. Some breeders use ultrasound machines to detect follicles. The follicles reach around 35-45mm before ovulation. During follicle development the female's color will change, she will become lighter (called glowing) sometimes looking like a completely different snake. Some behavioral signs could point to developing follicles, such as staying on the cold side of the enclosure and wrapping around the water bowl.
Once the follicles reach a certain size the female will ovulate. This is hard to miss if you look at your female on a daily basis. She will be very swollen in her mid to lower third, and her tail will appear skinny/sunken in at the peak - there will be a crease in her ventral scales at some point during the ovulation. Please do not harass your female if she seems uncomfortable with your presence - handling females while they are ovulating is not advised, so keep interaction to a minimum during this time. Ovulation lasts approximately 24-36 hours. It is not recommended to palpate females if it is suspected she has already ovulated. If the follicles were healthy they should be fertilized and the male's job is done.
After ovulation the female will most likely refuse to eat until after she lays her clutch. She will almost exclusively stay on or near the heat source. Around 21 days after ovulation she will have what is called the pre-lay shed (PLS) or post-ovulation shed (POS) depending on who you ask. It is the same thing when talking about Ball Pythons. Once the shed occurs the official countdown begins - you can expect eggs 27+ days after the POS. My females seem to lay between 30-45 days more commonly, so don't panic if it seems to take a while. I believe available temperature may influence the duration, genetics may also play a role. As long as the female doesn't appear to be in distress or eggbound things are probably going according to plan. When the female finally lays you get to figure out if they are fertile. Fertile eggs are large, white, and when a light is pressed against them (candling) veins should be visible. Infertile eggs have the same appearance as fertile eggs except they candle yellow without veins. The last option is what breeders often call "slugs" - underdeveloped follicles that are small, yellow, usually hard and definitely not fertile. Occasionally you get what some call "boob eggs" which are shaped funny or have clear/yellow uncalcified areas on the shell. If it has veins it is worth incubating.
Most breeders use artificial incubation over maternal incubation. I go with the former. I put around an inch of natural aquarium gravel in the bottom of the incubation container, place a fitted piece of egg crate light diffuser on top of the gravel, add water almost to the top of the gravel and place the eggs on top of the diffuser. This way the eggs are not in contact with moisture, but humidity is maintained at the right levels within the container, and the gravel can be sterilized/reused later. Incubation duration depends on temperatures provided. I incubate at 88.5F and my babies emerge between 56-60 days typically. Warmer temperature reduces incubation time and colder temperature increases incubation time. Most breeders incubate between 88-90F, some are experimenting with slightly lower temperatures with success. Maternal incubation is possible but you have less control and if the cage is not monitored properly the eggs will perish. Eggs require close to 100% humidity in the artificial environment, in the maternal environment the female adjusts humidity with the tightness of her coils. If her cage is dry she will not be able to regulate the proper humidity levels. She cannot change the temperature of the eggs much either since she is cold blooded, so a reasonable temperature must be maintained. Some females may not eat the entire duration of maternal incubation, but some breeders have reported success with getting females to feed while brooding.
Once the babies hatch I set the neonates up in their own individual tubs right from the start. I use paper towels and mist the babies lightly until they have their first shed, which is usually around 10 days after hatching (some babies do have delayed first sheds.) After the first shed I begin to offer food, usually live hopper mice or African soft-furred rats. After a few successful feedings I begin offering frozen/thawed prey. Most babies take to f/t quickly, but not all will.
In the case of extremely picky feeders who will not eat live or f/t, first check the cage, see if some change may help (add a hide, increase/lower humidity or heat, etc.) If everything checks out, offer food once a week. If it gets to the point the animal is losing weight it is time to attempt assist or force feeding. I personally do not force feed whole prey. I almost exclusively tube feed snakes who are refusing to feed. Tube feeding is less stressful for the snake and much easier to control the amount of food the snake is getting. A product called Carnivore Care or a high quality ferret diet ground up and mixed with water makes a suitable substitute for rodent prey. If more information is needed on tube-feeding please contact me or do further research.