Authored by Todd Cornwell Unique Birthday Party Parties for Kids & Reptile Rescue
Ball Pythons (Python regius) make great first pets, they are docile, slow, cool looking, and don’t require a huge space or enclosure. They can also be picky eaters, prone to getting colds (Upper Respiratory Infections or URI), and scale rot.
A lot people looking for a first reptile pet, choose the Ball python (P. regius). There are hundreds of “care sheets”, and books on keeping ball pythons as pets. Almost all of them are incomplete, inaccurate, and can cause just as much harm, unintentionally for sure, but still harmful in some circumstances.
Most people who get a pet, want one they can see. Great for us, not so great for the snake. Snakes for the most part are hiders, they rarely want to be seen, because to be seen means you can be eaten. Ball pythons (P. regius) are the kings of this habit. For one, they’re nocturnal, meaning they sleep during the day, and come out at night to hunt, & drink. We do our best to set the cage up, giving them a hide, water dish and light.
Ball Python (P. regius) Enclosure
Most set-ups look something like this:
Which is for the most part a nice setup, and should be recommended. HOWEVER, there are a few tricks to make this setup proper the snake will enjoy, and keep him healthy.
Burrows and Burns
One, before putting in any substrate I get a piece of self-stick tile from Home Depot, or any other home improvement tile. I cover the bottom of the tank with tile. This does two things, one it adds additional insulation, keeping the heat inside the cage, two, most importantly, it provides a barrier to the heat pad that should be installed on the glass beneath the tank. Snakes burrow, and when they do, they can come in direct contact with the heat source with just the thin layer of glass between them. If you’ve ever touched your window on a sunny day, you know how hot glass can get, without a barrier, your snake can get severe burns, and if not spotted and corrected, this can lead to infection or even death. *Editors Note: Thermostats can and do malfunction they still should be used but an extra layer of protection is always a good idea.
Lighting the Enclosure
Two, the light is there for you, not the snake. The heat source should not be a light bulb. First remember, ball pythons (P. regius) live underground for most of the time. They rarely see the light of the sun. We put on heat lamps to provide heat, and as a side effect, they dry out the enclosure. Ball pythons (P. regius) like to be at 65-80% humidity, and a heat bulb sucks the humidity out of the enclosure. So what do we do? We “mist”, or spray water in the enclosure to up the humidity.
“It’s just like rain”. No it’s not, in the wild, being underground, ball pythons never see the rain. Burrows are designed to keep rain out, the humidity come from being underground.
This constant rain/dry, rain/dry mode can and does cause stress, and URI’s (Upper Respiratory Infections aka colds). When I set up tanks for clients, the light only has a compact fluorescent bulb in it. It just provides light, and when put on a cheap ($5) timer, it can provide you with the ability to see your pet, without drying out the enclosure. Yes, sometimes misting is needed, but never directly on the snake, and usually completely away from them. Mostly, I just fill the water dish enough, and have a big enough one in the enclosure, that the natural evaporation occurring keeps my enclosure at 65-80% humidity.
Substrate: the carpet of the terrarium
Three, substrate. Although there are many substrate choices out there, I prefer shredded cypress about 2 inches deep. Cypress provides a great humidity factor, does not mold easily, looks good, and is not harmful to the snake. Several other readily available choices are with their biggest pros/cons:
Aspen (molds fast), Pine (inexpensive), newspaper (looks trashy IMHO), fake grass (easy to clean, provides nothing for the snake).
Four, the top. All reptile tanks should come with a locking screen top. This is to prevent the pet from escaping. Great, except screens do nothing to keep the humidity in the tank. This is a simple “fix”, most home improvement stores carry sheets of plexiglass. I get the thin plexiglass sheet, and cut it out so it fits on top of the cage. Drill some holes (6-8 ¼ inch holes), and you still get the airflow needed, but it keeps the humidity in the tank where it belongs. It also, keeps the heat in as well.
Five, heat. As already stated, I recommend only using UTH (Under Tank Heaters), usually they’re stuck onto the bottom of the cage. Regulating temperatures is one of the hardest for ball python (P. regius) owners. Ball pythons (P. regius) thrive at 80-90 degrees. That’s, the spot where they spend most of their time (under the hide), it should be maintained at 85-90 degrees. I see too many cages with the strip or stick on temperature gauges up ½ way up the tank. The snake does not live ½ way up the tank! You can use a Zoo Med ReptiTemp Digital Infrared Thermometer (About $16 from Amazon.com), to measure temperatures. Remember, summer temps are different than winter temps! Too many people set up a tank in one season, and forget to check other times of the year. Depending on the size of the enclosure, a second UTH, to provide seasonal heat may be required.
Sixth, Hides. As stated, ball pythons (P. regius) hide most of the time, without a good hide, they can get cranky (fearful), and defensive. It doesn’t really matter what kind you use, as long as the snake can feel protected. I prefer one that can be washed & sanitized in the dishwasher, but even a cardboard box will work!
Feeding and Obesity in Reptiles
Seven, Feeding. This is a big issue, there are several facets to this. Live vs Frozen thawed (F/T), this debate has been and will be fought over till the end of days. This is mostly a personal preference. However, I’ll never leave a prey item in the cage unattended. Rats/Mice are chewers, and if it can be chewed on, it will be chewed on, and snakes will not defend themselves from this. I have seen many a snake with scarring/sores from rat bites. I personally feed fresh killed rats whenever possible, although there are a few snakes that don’t like to eat anything other than live, most will readily accept them with a little time.
The biggest issue I have come upon with feeding though is fat snakes. Snakes don’t move a lot. In captivity, we feed on a regular schedule (say Tuesday nights after work), every week, 52 weeks a year. As the snakes grow, we give them bigger and bigger meals. Almost every “care sheet”, says
“One appropriate sized prey item weekly”.
In the wild, snakes do not eat weekly. They may eat one large meal this week, a mouse 2 weeks from now, a squirrel the next month, etc. Just like most of us, and our pets, we feed too much. I feed “Off-Schedule”, on average I feed my snakes 3 times a month, most of the time, it will be a smaller meal than most people/breeders/pet stores recommend. There is not one ball python (P. regius) out there, who cannot live a healthy happy life on 3 small rats a month. My babies, I feed mostly every week, after they grow up, it’s 3 meals a month average. During the Spring/Fall I feed weekly, and in the Summer/Winter it’s every other week. Even then, I may skip a week or two entirely; this keeps them active and healthy. A fat snake being fed Tuesday at 6pm weekly, soon will never move. He has no reason to. A fat, inactive snake, will not live as long as a healthy active snake.
Hopefully, you enjoyed my little epistle, and learned a few tricks to help you keep your ball python healthy & happy.