The Captive Husbandry of the Royal Python
Copyright © 2009 Metal Monkey Exotics
(P. Regius; Ball python, Royal python )
P. regius (or more commonly known as the ‘ball python’ in the US) is one of the most popular snakes found in pet shops today. With it’s small size and tendency to “ball” up when feeling threatened, these beautiful African pythons can make rewarding captives as first time reptilian pets.
Ball pythons can live up to 40 years in captivity. Females will average 3-4 feet and can grow up to 5 feet in length; males will average 2-3 feet in length. They are a robust snake with a well defined head and slender neck.
Ball pythons natural range in central and west Africa is mostly in the countries of Ghana, Togo and Benin. They are imported into the US in large numbers, although the captive numbers of ball pythons is quite large and substantial without continued importation. They are also used as a source of meat, sometimes shipping to Asian countries for the meat market.
The care of snakes and other reptiles has advanced by leaps and bounds over the years, even as recent as the past decade. We feel it’s the responsibility of each keeper to ensure that they are up to date with the latest information and make an informed decision to provide the best care for their animals.
Reptiles aren’t for everyone; they need an attentive keeper to ensure the husbandry is constant and appropriate for the individual animal. Since reptiles are cold blooded, offering too cool or too warm of an enclosure can be detrimental to the well being and health of the animal.
This is not meant to be an all inclusive care sheet. We recommend reading more care sheets online and in forums dedicated to ball pythons and their care.
Basics of Husbandry
Hot spot (basking): 85-90F
Cool side/ Ambient (air): 78-82
50%-60% constant; 70% for shedding
Aspen shavings, newspaper/ kraft paper, cypress mulch, expandable coconut fibers, recycled paper products, these all make good substrates. NO CEDER, ceder is toxic to reptiles.
No special lighting needed (UV). Natural ambient light from a window will work, but never, ever leave your animals cage in direct sunlight inside or outside. It will heat up quickly and kill them. Would you leave your child or dog in a car on a hot day? (The answer is no.)
- Cleaning/ replacing soiled bedding and furniture of urates (white chalky urine solids), urine, fecal matter, uneaten prey or sheds.
- Offering clean fresh water 24/7, and feeding weekly (or when appropriate).
- Maintaining optimum climate conditions 24/7.
- Take the animal to a veterinary professional when sick or injured.
- Always acting with respect to the animal and being considerate of others around you. This means acting in a responsible manner when working with the ball python.
Under Tank Heaters (UTH)
Ceramic Heat Emitters (CHE)
Heat Light Bulbs
Radiant Heat Panels
- Always use a thermostat or rheostat to control the heating element! Don’t risk your animal to burns, or worse, starting a fire in your home.
- Always be sure that your thermostat or rheostat is suitably rated for your heating element.
- Never let the animal or moisture come into direct contact with the heating element.
- Don’t guess your temperature! Use a digital thermometer to measure your temps in the animals cage.
- Follow the directions on the products to avoid risk of fire.
- Don’t assume a snake or other reptile will just move off the heat!
Any of the above heating elements will be suitable for your ball python’s cage with the use of a thermostat or rheostat. A thermostat or rheostat will control the heating element, thereby controlling the temperatures in the cage. Do not use any heating element without an adequate controlling device!
I will point out that no heating element should be inside the cage where it will be exposed to moisture — or where the animal can come into direct contact with, as this can possibly result in a burn injury. All heating elements should have adequate ventilation, to avoid the build up of heat and risk of fire.
Heat rocks are advised against, as they tend to heat unevenly, resulting in an incredibly hot surface that will be too hot for your snake, and can burn them.
It has been speculated that snakes may not have a highly developed sensitivity to thermal heat through their ventral (belly) side, and have been known to sit on a heating element while their bellies are burned to a crisp. Don’t expect a snake or other reptile will just move off the heat!
We encourage everyone to research each type of device, online or in person with other keepers, before deciding on one heating element. You may regret spending money on one, when another will work better in your situation.
Thermostat VS Thermometer
A device that automatically controls heating or cooling equipment in such a way as to maintain a temperature at a constant level or within a specified range, generally using a thermometer capable of triggering electrical switches that activate or deactivate the equipment.
An instrument used to measure temperature.
While a thermostat will likely be one of the most expensive tools you buy for the keeping of a reptile, it’s also one of the most important. It’s often worth buying a digital thermostat over an analog thermostat or rheostat. Rheostats only regulate the voltage going into the heating element, which causes the temperatures in the cage to fluctuate with the air temperatures of the room the cage is in. An analog thermostat can be quite a bit cheaper than a digital one, but can be time consuming to get the temperatures dialed in to where you want them — whereas most digital thermostats will keep the temperature gradient within ±1 degree!
Humidity (moisture in the air) is important for your ball python. They require a constant of 50-60% for shedding and health. If your ball pythons sheds in a lot of pieces, and still has some stuck, you know that your humidity was too low. An Acu-rite thermometer/hygrometer is one device that can measure your humidity so you know that you’re within an acceptable range.
Using a ceramic heat emitter or heat lamp will suck the humidity out of the air very quickly. You can use a substrate that is resistant to mold, like cypress mulch or coconut fibers. Daily misting on these substrates will help keep your humidity up.
You can also provide a humid hide during the shedding period. Using a container with a hole cut out big enough for your snake, stuff it with damp sphagnum moss (not soaking wet), and let the snake crawl in when he needs a bump in humidity. It’s generally not a good idea to leave it in for long periods of time without changing the moss. Changing it will prevent mold, mildew and bacterial growth.
Ball pythons are timid nocturnal creatures and will hide 90% of the time, only emerging at dusk for their nightly rounds. Ball pythons do very well in a smaller enclosure, and can feel overwhelmed and stressed in a large enclosure if not given appropriate hiding places and cover. We like to “grow” our enclosures with the snake, to avoid stressing them out with a huge tank. When stressed like this, the ball python will often refuse to eat and we want to minimize that risk.
We recommend an enclosure that is suited to the terrestrial (ground dwelling) life of the ball python. Excessive height in an enclosure will likely not be utilized by your ball python, and can actually be a hazard if the animal climbs and falls back down into the cage. For this reason, don’t be tempted by free fish tanks in the classifieds, but rather look for a suitable cage with width and depth instead of height. You will find it easier to control the climate, which in turn will save you a lot of frustration and keep your snake well acclimated.
There are several types of enclosures you can use for a ball python. A popular cage is a glass terrarium. They are sold in almost every pet store, but they can be extremely heavy and cumbersome — not to mention expensive. One slip while trying to clean, and you can break the tank, leaving you empty handed with a big mess and out of your money.
An alternative to a glass tank is one made of acrylic or lexan panes. These tanks will be built similarly to a glass terrarium, but will be much lighter while offering the clear visibility of glass. They are available online, or at specialized pet shops for a reasonable price. Many come with side opening doors for ease of interaction and cleaning. The acrylic panes may actually even insulate heat better than glass, saving you money.
The down side to any tank is the open screen top and see-through sides. Unless properly covered and ventilated, you will lose a lot of crucial heat and humidity, and your snake may feel insecure unless 3 of the sides are covered with paper or decorative background.
The next type of enclosures don’t have open screened tops, and are specifically made for keeping reptiles!
Expanded PVC Cages
These are made with an expanded PVC foam and available online from a few popular retailers and manufacturers. They are incredibly light, well built and will retain precious humidity and heat for your reptile. You can choose to buy them with the heating element built in, so all you have to do is decorate and populate! These are great and we use them for many of our snakes.
Sweater Boxes / Racks
(Sweater box rack)
Another option, if your on a tight budget (and who isn’t these days?), and willing to do some extra work, a plastic sweater box will make a good enclosure as well. While not always aesthetically pleasing to the eye, they are functional and easy to clean and control. This type of enclosure is a very popular choice for large and small scale breeders and keepers worldwide for their space efficiency and ease of use.
Your snake will need a water bowl, and a recommended two hides if space allows. One hide should be placed on the hot spot, the second on the cool side of the enclosure. The water bowl should be placed on the cool side to limit bacterial growth and cleaned with a 10% bleach solution weekly.
When it comes to decorative accessories for your ball python’s environment, the main limiting factor is going to be how many items you’ll be willing to clean often. Fake silk plants like in the pictures above are easy to soak and clean, and will hold up to the ball pythons activities. Live plants can be used, but make sure to research each plant variety you would like to use, and be prepared for a crushed plant, since ball pythons will crush whatever you put in the cage.
♦♦ We do not support any type of blunt force trauma, stunning, “whacking” of live feeders; to either make them unconscious, stunned, paralyzed, or dead. This is not only incredibly inhumane and likely unnecessary, but if done improperly can cause severe pain to the animal.
If the feeder animal were to recover, they would be in a defensive and aggressive state. We don’t want any prey animal in severe pain and ready to defend itself while in the same enclosure as our snakes. ♦♦
We only support and recommend euthanasia with CO2. Visit this link to our article on Humane Euthanasia.
Ball pythons are constrictors and can be picky eaters. Some may never eat pre-killed; which would require the keeper to feed the snake a live prey item. Some people are not okay with this, and that’s perfectly fine — but it can be necessary for the well being of your snake. For us, the well being of ALL our animals always comes first. It can take a lot of patience and time to successfully switch a ball python to pre-killed from live prey, but the end results are always worth it.
Ball pythons can be fed an appropriately sized feeder weekly. A good rule of thumb for young and juvenile snakes is to feed a rat or mouse that is as big around as the widest point of the snake. Once the ball python reaches the rat “weaner” size (a rat approximately 3-4 weeks of age, or 60-80 grams), they can generally stay with this size prey for the rest of their life.
Due to the nocturnal nature of ball pythons, we offer the prey at night when the ball python is active. Pre-scenting the area around the snakes cage is recommended. This can be done by either thawing or keeping the live feeder in a secure well ventilated tub on top of or near the cage.
If feeding a pre-killed or frozen thawed feeder, heat it up in hot water (tap water hot, not boiling). When the belly is warm, squishy and thoroughly thawed, you can then place the head of the prey near a hot lamp for 30 seconds or so to “warm up” the head area of the prey to mimic the temperature of a live animal. Ball pythons have heat pits on the sides of their face and will be able to “see” the prey animal’s heat signature.
While the feeder is still warm, using hemostats, grab the scruff of the neck of the feeder and present it to the snake. It may be necessary to twitch and jiggle the feeder a little bit to get the snake to strike. You should see an interested ball python emerge from his hide (or sometimes right smack in front of the cage) and smell the feeder almost excitedly. When his neck draws into an ‘S’ shape, they are ready to strike. When he strikes, let go of the feeder and allow the snake coil.
You can feed young live mice and rats with hemostats, but sometimes they just wiggle too much and are hard to hang onto. If this is the case, we drop the feeder into the cage and monitor the snake as he hunts and strikes. When he strikes and coils, we watch (or listen and wait if watching is too upsetting) until the feeder is dead and the snake begins to eat it.
Do not leave a snake unattended with a live feeder EVER. All animals have the ability to defend themselves; limit the risk of injury and always monitor a live feeding.
~Even as slight as a possibility as it seems, snakes have died from injuries related to attacks from unmonitored feeders.
Ball Python WILL NOT EAT
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, your ball python just refuses to eat.
You should review this care sheet and make sure your husbandry is 100% spot ON and remove any noise or stress your ball python could be exposed to. Stop handling until he eats consistently.
Only offer food once a week. Offering every night is a huge stressor for snakes and can cause them to continue refusal. Prescent the room for a half an hour before feeding. Make sure there are no disturbances, bright light, noise or cluttering of the area around the snake. Offer very late at night as well.
Please follow these links below for feeding strategies for getting ball pythons to eat. In the meantime, I will likely write up a page on my own concerns and strategies for getting ball pythons to eat.
I highly recommend joining the forum www.ball-pythons.net, and creating a thread about a non-eating ball python. Try to include every little detail about the snake and your set up. They are a wonderful group of people, and I will likely help answer any questions.
And please, if you are worried, take the snake to a reptile vet. There is no suitable online forum to take the place of seeing a veterinary medical professional.
This care sheet was not meant to be all inclusive. It is a basic guideline to begin the education for a new keeper on the basic set up and care for their ball python.
There are many wonderful and informative websites, and forums that go in depth into every aspect of keeping ball pythons. Below is a small listing of these websites and forums we found to be the most helpful and easy to understand for the new keeper.
We hope you enjoy your new ball python for many years to come!
::Connie and Chris (MMX)
Husbandry Supply Dealers