How to Set Up a Ball Python Enclosure
Are you getting a pet ball python? Ball pythons can make great pets. However, as exotic animals, it’s important that they have an enclosure built to more or less replicate the conditions of their natural habitat. Otherwise, they can’t survive.
If you haven’t read our article “How to Care for Your Ball Python” yet, start there. Once you’ve read that and have a basic understanding of what your new pet needs from its environment, you’re ready to start setting up your ball python enclosure.
Always set up a reptile enclosure well before you actually have the animal! This gives you more time to save up for the supplies you need, which in turn benefits your pet because you’re less likely to take shortcuts that may decrease its quality of care.
Step 1: Pick the Right Enclosure
Because ball pythons can grow up to 5’ long, they should have an enclosure that measures at least 48”L x 24”W x 24”H, with larger being preferable.
The enclosure can be made of wood, PVC, or plastic, but it should be front-opening, and there should be adequate ventilation, whether in the form of side vents or a mesh top. One benefit of using an enclosure with a mesh top is that it makes it easier to install heat and UVB lamps, while also protecting your snake from coming into direct contact and potentially burning itself.
If the enclosure doesn’t have opaque sides, you will need to cover them with some kind of opaque material to help your pet feel more secure in its environment. This can be as simple as construction paper or picture backdrop, or as elaborate as a 3D background.
Products we recommend:
Step 2: Set Up Lighting and Heating
For a ball python, you will need the following equipment to meet your ball python’s light and heat needs:
- Heat lamps (at least 2)
- UVB lamp
- Heat mat
- On/off thermostat
The two heat lamps should be placed directly next to each other on the far right or left of the enclosure. The UVB lamp should be placed on the same end, very close to the heat lamps so the beams of light overlap. All lamps should be arranged on the enclosure’s mesh top.
If the enclosure you are using does not have a mesh top, the lamps will need to be mounted inside. This requires manually installing ceramic sockets and wire caging for the heat bulbs to protect your ball python from contact burns. The UVB lamp can be installed with fluorescent fixture mounting brackets or zip ties.
Because ball pythons are crepuscular, it’s also best practice to provide a warm hide. This can be as easy as placing a hide box or cave directly under the heat lamps. However, if the heat lamps don’t get the hide to 88-90°F, then you will need a heat mat roughly the same size as the hide under the substrate and an on/off thermostat to keep it at the right temperature. The thermostat probe should be placed inside the warm hide for accuracy.
6500K lighting is not necessary for a ball python enclosure unless you plan to use live plants as part of the décor.
Products we recommend:
- Fluker's Mini Sun Dome Lamp, 5.5" (x2)
- Zoo Med Repti Tuff Splashproof Halogen Lamp, 75w (x2)
- Arcadia T5 HO Forest 6% UVB bulb, 22”
- Arcadia ProT5 Lamp Fixture, 24”
- Exo Terra Reptile Cave (x2)
- Zoo Med ReptiTherm Under Tank Heater (U.T.H.)
- Exo Terra Thermostat, 100w
Step 3: Quarantine Period
Your ball python will need to be quarantined for 3-6 months to make sure that it’s healthy. This involves testing for parasites and IBD, administering medication as necessary, and generally monitoring the animal for concerning symptoms. It’s best to maintain fairly minimalistic conditions during this stage for easy cleaning, as having a fully set-up, naturalistic enclosure can make quarantine more of a hassle than it needs to be.
All you need equipment-wise for a quarantine setup is:
- disposable or easily-cleaned substrate
- sphagnum moss
- hide box or cave (at least 2)
- large water dish
- pressure sprayer
- artificial foliage
- climbing branch
- digital thermometer/hygrometer device (x2)
Make sure the climbing branch can’t bring the ball python too close to the UVB lamp, as UVB levels get stronger closer to the bulb.. It’s ideal to buy or borrow a Solarmeter 6.5 if you can to double-check your basking distance and the UVI that your snake is being exposed to. However, generally speaking:
- Minimum distance over mesh — 6-9”
- Maximum UVI — 3.0-4.0
Place one digital thermometer/hygrometer so the probe is in the warm hide, and the other on the cool side of the enclosure. Temperatures should be as follows:
- Warm hide temperature — 88-90°F
- Cool hide temperature — 72-80°F
- Nighttime — 70-78°F
If your warm hide temperatures are too high, now is a good time to either reduce the wattage of your heat bulbs or dial down your thermostat. If you need higher warm hide temperatures, you will need more powerful heat bulbs.
This minimalistic setup will need help staying at the right humidity:
- Average humidity: 45-75%
- Cool hide humidity: 80-100%
Use a pressure sprayer to wet down the enclosure every morning and evening, and place a thin layer of moistened sphagnum moss inside the cool hide.
You will also need a good disinfectant to maintain sterile conditions during quarantine. This can be as simple as a bleach solution (¾ cup bleach per gallon of water) or veterinary-grade disinfectants like F10SC and Clean Break.
Products we recommend:
- Blue shop towels
- Galapagos Blond Sphagnum Moss, 150 in³
- Exo Terra Mister
- Zoo Med Repti Rock Corner Bowl, Large
- Exo Terra Ficus Silk Plant, Large (x2)
- Galapagos Walking Wood Grapevine Branch Brown 19 In - 24 in
- Zoo Med Digital Combo Thermometer Humidity Gauge (x2)
Step 4: Add Substrate
Once your ball python has passed quarantine, you can finish setting up its enclosure. While the first phase of setup was strictly practical, now you can get more creative in designing something that will not only be more functional for the snake to use, but also more attractive to look at. This starts with substrate.
Your best option for substrate is going to be a naturalistic substrate that resembles tropical soil. It’s best to have at least 4” of substrate to help maintain higher humidity levels, so for a 48”x24”x24” enclosure, count on at least 80 quarts or 2.7 cubic feet of substrate.
For an enclosure with different dimensions, you can calculate the amount of substrate you’ll need by multiplying the length x width to get the number of cubic inches of substrate it will take for 1” deep of substrate. Then multiply that number by the desired depth of substrate, then convert the resulting number to quarts or cubic feet, depending on the metric you need.
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Step 5: Add Décor
After you’ve laid down your substrate, replace the hides, climbing branch, and water dish. Everything else is going to go around these staple items. This is the time to get creative! Try to more or less replicate the layout of a ball python’s natural habitat as you arrange the décor. You can find habitat pictures on sites like iNaturalist.
Make sure to keep your water bowl accessible and easy to remove, but minimize open space, as ball pythons are most comfortable when they have plenty of hiding opportunities available.
Magnetic ledges offer great lookout points for ball pythons to survey their surroundings, and encourage climbing. Hammocks also offer a similar function.
Wood makes a great material for your ball python to climb on or hide under, encouraging muscle tone or helping reinforce their sense of security. Mopani wood, cork bark, and manzanita wood are less prone to mold in humid conditions and tend to work best. Whichever you choose, make sure branches are large enough to support your snake’s size and weight.
Plants are a great way to make a ball python enclosure more attractive, whether real or fake, and perform the very important role of providing visual obstruction. Live plants help with maintaining your humidity levels, but artificial plants are much more durable.
Live plants should be kept in pots to help keep the water close to the roots, unless the enclosure is bioactive (which this article is not covering). Use tropical plants tolerant of low light conditions, sturdy enough to withstand occasional trampling, and moderate to high amounts of water. They should also be nontoxic if accidentally ingested. Some suitable options include:
- Wandering Jew
For more safe plant ideas, visit The Tortoise Table.
Even after you’ve set up your ball python enclosure, don’t be afraid to continue to adjust the layout! Occasionally changing object placement or adding new things can stimulate your pet to explore, and it’s always a good idea to adjust your ball python’s enclosure as you continue to learn and understand ball python husbandry better.
Image modified from "Royal python" by Sibylle Stofer is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0