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Veterinarian Technician October 2006 (Vol 27, No 10) Focus: Exotics

Ball Python Care

by Julie Squibb, VT

    CETEST This course is approved for 0.5 CE credits

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    Key Points

    • Ball pythons have become extremely popular as pets because they tend to be docile.
    • Stress-related illnesses, especially anorexia, are among the primary reasons for veterinary visits.
    • It is important to provide not only the correct temperature but also a temperature gradient within the ball python's terrarium.

    One of the most commonly kept snakes is the ball python (Python regius), otherwise known as the royal python. The size, de­mean­or, and cost of ball pythons make them very popular pets. Veterinary technicians should be knowledgeable about ball python care, including proper husbandry and nutrition, so they can help educate their clients about these reptiles.

    Found in the grasslands of central and western Africa, ball pythons are primarily terrestrial snakes. However, they are also commonly found in trees.1 The ball python is a docile snake, preferring to roll into a ball at the first sign of danger (hence its name). These snakes are extremely unlikely to bite, but they do possess the "fight-or-flight" response, and if provoked, they strike-bite and let go, resulting in multiple superficial lacerations.

    The ball python holds the record for the longest-lived snake at 47 years, recorded at the Philadelphia Zoo.1 Typical life spans in captivity range from 20 to 30 years,1 making these snakes a serious responsibility and not an impulse purchase. The ball python has the widest range in price of any snake, from $10 to thousands of dollars.

    Physical Description

    Captive ball pythons typically reach a length of 4 to 5 feet, although 6-ft wild specimens have been found.1 Hatchlings range from 10 to 17 inches (25.4 to 43.2 cm).1 Captive-raised ball pythons grow to more than 3 feet in length within 3 years.2 The color markings of adult ball pythons range from medium to dark chocolate brown, and juveniles range from yellow or yellow-brown to chocolate brown. The most commonly observed ball python pattern shows 15 to 25 large, pale, rounded blotches along each side of the neck and body. Dark interspaces separate the blotches and connect to the darker dorsal area. The posterior body and tail are the darker color, with a pale vertebral stripe that halts just short of the tip. The ventral surface is off-white or pale grey with some grey flecks. The pattern is disruptive in that the observable profile of the snake is interrupted by the contrasting pattern arrangement, and considerable variation exists between individuals.

    The eyes appear completely black until closer inspection reveals the dark iris and pupil. The neck is slender, giving the snake a diminutive appearance. Selective breeding has produced some spectacular specimens that only resemble the wild or common ball python in body shape. These "morphs" can attain prices in the tens of thousands of dollars, with some costing more than $100,000.3 More than 40 morphs are now available, with new ones being created every year.1

    Housing

    One of the most important aspects of housing is supplying not only the correct temperature but also a temperature gradient within the terrarium. Heat can be supplied by adhesive heating pads, which stick to the underside of the terrarium; a ceramic infrared heater; or an incandescent red light with a metal reflector hood. All lights and ceramic heaters must have screens to prevent burns. Hot rocks should not be used because they can burn the snake. Thermostats and rheostats are recommended. The daytime temperature should be 80°F to 85°F (26.7°C to 29.4°C), dropping down to 75°F to 80°F (23.9°C to 26.7°C) at night with a basking area of 90°F to 95°F (32.2°C to 35°C) that encompasses one-quarter to one-third of the entire terrarium.1

    The minimum terrarium for a juvenile ball python should have a floor surface area as large as that of a standard 10-gal aquarium (20 x 10 inches [50 x 25 cm]).1 A 20-gal (24 x 12 inches [60 x 30 cm]) tank accommodates a young adult, and a 30-gal (36 x 12 inches [90 x 30 cm]) tank is acceptable for a large adult.1 New acquisitions should be housed on newsprint, paper towels, or butcher paper until acclimated, enabling easier monitoring of feces and for mites. Once the snake is familiar with its new environment, the substrate can be changed to decorative shredded cypress bark, fir bark chips, or Astroturf, if desired. Pine and cedar shavings should be avoided because they tend to be toxic to snakes.1 If aspen shavings are used, careful inspection of the snake's mouth is required because these shavings can become wedged in the oral cavity.

    Because these snakes are grassland natives, the humidity in the tank should not be extremely high; providing a medium-sized dog dish filled half to three-fourths full with water should keep the humidity at a reasonable level. Humidity should be monitored using a hygrometer placed in the cage. Humidity is important and should range between 60% and 65% when the snake is shedding and around 50% when it is not. Humidity can be increased by misting the snake daily with water using a spray bottle. An alternative way of providing a range of humidity is by supplying a shedding box for the python to seek out when it requires a higher level of humidity. A shedding box should have two entries, and moist sphagnum moss should line the bottom. The snake may soak in the water dish just before shedding. (Some snakes may soak more often, even daily.) To aid shedding, the humidity may be increased simply by placing the water dish under a heat lamp. Other than the need for heat, no special lighting is required. (Some people still recommend using an ultraviolet B bulb as part of the enclosure, although this is controversial.) Enclosure photoperiods matching those found in nature promote more natural physiologic responses.

    A hide box allows snakes seclusion from light and helps them feel secure. Hide boxes may be as simple as a cardboard box with a couple of holes in it or as decorative as attractive ceramic or resin boxes that can be found at pet stores. Supplying two hide boxes in different parts of the temperature gradient provides the snake with choices for comfort.

    Because ball pythons are notorious escape artists, it is imperative that the enclosure be escape proof. The basic screen tops supplied for fish aquariums are not sufficient; ball pythons can easily pry them open. Terrariums specifically made for reptiles are recommended, and locking mechanisms are preferred.

    Feeding

    Younger ball pythons should be offered food every 5 to 7 days; adults should be offered food every 7 to 10 days.1 The body girth of the prey animal should be equal to the thickest girth of the snake. Prey items include mice, rats, and gerbils in different life stages, from day-old animals (pinkies) to adults. Feeding dead prey is ideal because it eliminates the risk of prey trauma to the snake and prolonged stress on the prey. However, because baby ball pythons have a timid strike response, feeding live prey may be the only way to entice them. Prey can be purchased frozen and then thawed and served at body temperature (warmed under a heat lamp) or killed by cervical dislocation just before giving it to the snake.

    The most common and vexing problem that ball python owners encounter is anorexia, and there are multiple reasons why snakes will not eat. There are two records of ball pythons fasting up to 22 months.1 A healthy-looking snake may fast for a couple of months with no ill effects, but this feeding schedule should not be encouraged. New acquisitions may fast until they become accustomed to their surroundings. When new python owners state that their snake will not eat, the technician should confirm that a suitable habitat is being provided and make recommendations as necessary. One of the main reasons ball pythons refuse to eat is stress, primarily from excessive handling. It is advised that handling be delayed until the snake has eaten at least four times in a row when offered food. The snake should then be handled to a maximum of 15 minutes per week, with halting of any handling if the snake refuses food. A snake is less likely to feed during ecdysis (i.e., shedding). Other reasons for not eating include stomatitis or mouth rot, poor husbandry, thermal burns, and diseases.

    Snakes collected from the wild may refuse food because the mice or rats offered are not their natural prey. These snakes must be persuaded to accept new species of prey items. Rubbing a gerbil over the intended prey item or housing the prey on gerbil litter for 2 weeks just before feeding will assist in this endeavor; however, keeping gerbils is illegal in some states (e.g., California). Lighter-colored or albino rodents seem to be less likely to trigger a strike response; the snake may not identify them as normal prey items.

    Also contributing to decreased feeding habits in ball pythons is that in their native habitat, ball pythons naturally decrease or even cease feeding during December and January when the night temperatures drop into the low 70s (22°C to 22.8°C) or lower. Females have been known to stop eating while gravid until the eggs hatch.1 Stress induced by parasitic overload may also be a contributing factor. A veterinary visit is always recommended for new pets, especially if the snake is losing weight. Following are some suggested methods to encourage feeding in problem ball pythons.

    Brown-Bag Method

    The ambient temperature of the terrarium should be raised to 85°F to 90°F (29.4°C to 32.2°C). Using a paper punch, punch a few holes in a large brown paper bag. Place the ball python in the bag along with an almost-weaned rat. (An almost-weaned rat is used because it does not pose a physical threat to the snake, it is not very large, and it is mobile enough to entice a strike response.) Fold over the top of the bag, staple it shut with the snake and rat inside, and leave the bag in the terrarium overnight. If the snake fails to eat, repeat this once a week for 2 more weeks. Then try a variety of prey items such as a nearly weaned gerbil, a prekilled adult gerbil, or a prekilled mouse. In my opinion and experience, this method works best for most problem eaters and would be the first recommended alternative feeding method.

    Rodent-Hole Method

    Cut a hole the size of the snake's girth halfway up the side of a small plastic bucket and place the bucket in the terrarium. Place some bedding or natural substrate and feces of the prey being offered in the bucket. Next, place a fuzzy or nearly weaned rat in the bucket and put a lid on the bucket. If the snake fails to eat overnight, repeat once a week for at least 2 weeks. Again, switch prey items back and forth. Baby prey items may entice a timid or stressed snake to feed because they are helpless and offer less resis­tance. This method encourages the natural hunting instinct for the snake to locate prey burrows and enter on its own.

    Another version of this method is to present the prey in a cardboard tube overnight. This presentation resembles a burrow tunnel.

    Leaf- or Grass-Scent Method

    Replace the substrate with a layer of dry grass or leaf litter. Offer a prey item. If the snake does accept the prey, gradually replace the leaf litter with more of the regular substrate.

    Some anorectic ball pythons may be enticed by live prey. Live prey should always be supervised closely as long as it is in the terrarium because prey items can turn on the snake. Larger rats and gerbils have been known to kill snakes. Also, the prey should not be left in the terrarium for more than 30 minutes because any prolonged stress on the prey is inhumane. Because feeding live prey is not ideal, the goal should always be to eventually get the snake to eat prekilled prey. After confirming good husbandry, a decent acclimation time, lack of handling or stress, and a good veterinary examination, the best advice for owners of snakes with feeding problems is to keep trying new methods and different prey at different life stages. Force-feeding and liquified diets can be administered, but this must be done by experienced individuals and should be considered a last resort because the inflicted stress has a tendency to induce regurgitation and counteracts the intention of the procedure.

    Sexing and Breeding

    Male and female ball pythons have cloacal spurs, but males typically have larger and more curved spurs. However, the tips are usually worn in older adult males and may appear smaller than the spurs of similar-sized females, making this method of sex identification unreliable.1 The best method of sexing is by using a sexing probe (a smooth, blunt, thin rod). The lubricated probe is inserted into the cloaca and pushed caudally and laterally (never medially) against the posterior wall of the cloaca. The size of the probe must match the size of the snake. A probe diameter of 1 to 2.5 mm for mature adults and 0.5 mm for neonates is sufficient. In males, the probe passes into one of the inverted hemipenes to the length of eight to 10 subcaudal scales; in females, the length of probe allowed is typically only two to four subcaudal scales. Careful restraint is essential, and the procedure is best done by two individuals.

    An alternative sexing identification procedure, used exclusively for hatchlings, is a method known as popping.1 Rolling pressure is applied from the base of the tail cranially to the vent in an effort to invert the hemipenes of males.1 Females are identified by two small red dots, which are the entrances to the postanal glands. This method should only be attempted during the first few weeks after hatching because after that time, males develop greater muscle control of the hemipenes.1 Also note that this method should only be done by experienced individuals because the hatchlings are delicate and the potential for injury is high.1

    As with most reptile species, sexual maturity depends on size and weight as well as age. The overall health and condition of the animal should be paramount considerations when choosing to breed because reproduction is metabolically expensive and taxing for both males and females. When given the choice between mating and eating, males have been known to forgo meals to the point of starvation.3 Conscientious owners must closely monitor the health of all breeding snakes. Although male ball pythons may produce viable sperm as early as 6 months of age, they usually become sexually active when they are 16 to 18 months of age and weigh about 650 g.1 Females are sexually mature at 27 to 31 months and a weight of at least 1,000 g.1 Ball pythons have long reproductive lives; a female ball python kept at the St. Louis Zoo was known for laying a clutch of fertile eggs at 35 years of age.1

    Successfully breeding ball pythons is an intricate process. Mating season is triggered by manipulating environmental conditions. This is accomplished by gradually decreasing the light cycle to 9 hours at winter solstice and lowering the ambient temperatures to 87°F (28°C) during the day and 75°F (24°C) during the night until about the last week in February. At this time, normal maintenance temperatures are gradually returned. During this cooling period, a supplemental basking spot should be provided to warm a small area to 85°F to 92°F (29°C to 33°C).1 Breeding snakes may be housed in a variety of ways: a male may be placed with up to five females starting in late December, may be introduced to females for a few days and then separated, or may have the females introduced into his terrarium.

    Copulation usually occurs during the shortest day lengths and coolest temperatures in January and March after the females have resumed eating. Although most captive ball pythons naturally decrease feeding in the fall, food should not be offered to those selected breeding snakes starting 2 weeks prior to the cooldown period. Because heat is essential to digestion, the cooler temperatures can cause undigested food to remain inside the snake, thereby predisposing the snake to disease. This induced anorexia is part of the reason why only the healthiest individuals should be selected for breeding. If it appears that the snake's health is being jeopardized, the reptile should be withdrawn immediately from the breeding program, its enclosure temperature should be gradually returned to normal levels, and then it should be offered prey.

    Food should be offered to the breeding group in early March. Ovulation usually occurs from mid-March to April, spanning 6 to 30 days after the last copulation.1 A sudden midbody swelling marks the time of ovulation and lasts for about 24 hours as the released ova are positioned along the lengths of the oviducts. As soon as the ova are in position, the female's body returns to near-normal proportions and symmetry. The female begins a shed cycle about 20 days after ovulation, and eggs are laid 24 to 34 days (average, 28.4 days) after shedding.1

    Ball python eggs measure 71 to 96 mm in length and weigh 65 to 103 g each.1 There may be up to 11 eggs in a clutch, but the typical clutch size is six. The eggs may adhere to each other. Eggs hatch in 53 to 60 days.1 Females can successfully brood the eggs only if certain conditions are met: Temperatures should range between 86°F and 88°F (30°C to 31.1°C)1 and the humidity should be relatively high, but the eggs should rest on a dry surface. Eggs hatched via an incubator should be kept in a temperature range of 86°F to 91°F (30°C to 32.8°C) and be placed in damp vermiculite1 or vermiculite-perlite mixture (2:1). A constant temperature is best.1 About 2 weeks before hatching, the eggs dimple.1 The clutch loses any adhesion 3 or 4 days before the eggs hatch.1

    At hatching, the baby ball python uses its egg tooth to slit openings in the shell. The neonate remains inside the egg for about 24 to 36 hours after the initial slit.1 During this time, the yolk is gradually absorbed by large blood vessels still connected to the umbilicus.1 The snake emerges after the process is complete and the umbilicus is closed.1 At this time, the hatchlings should be transferred to their own enclosures.1 As with most reptile species, they eat their first meal after their first shed at about 2 weeks.1

    Conclusion

    The ball python is one of the most popular snakes in captivity today. Consequently, increasing numbers of ball python owners are visiting veterinary hospitals. Technicians play an important role in taking a snake's history (e.g., feeding, shedding, cage setup) when these patients present to the clinic. Technicians also are integral in educating owners and future owners about proper husbandry and nutrition, thereby helping to prevent problems caused by suboptimal care.

    1. Klingenberg R, Vosjoli P, Barker D, Barker T: The Ball Python Manual. Mission Viejo, CA, Bowtie, 1995.

    2. Kaplan M: Melissa Kaplan's Herp Care Collection: Ball Pythons. Accessed July 2006 at http://www.anapsid.org/ball.html.

    3. Barker D, Barker T: Ever popular. Reptiles Mag 10(3):48-61, 2002.

    References »

    NEXT: Diagnostic-Quality Images of Reptiles

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