How to Care for Your Ball Python
Table of Contents
Ball pythons (Python regius) are small- to medium-sized, semi-arboreal snakes native to the semi-arid grasslands, forests, and agricultural areas of central and western Africa. Although they are frequently found in burrows, they are known to hunt in trees — thus their semi-arboreal nature.
Ball pythons are typically 3-5’ long, although they can be as small as 2’ or as large as 6’ in rare cases. They have a thick, muscular body and a peanut-shaped head, and males are typically significantly smaller than females. Wild-type ball pythons have a brown and black pattern outlined by white, and a pale belly. However, due to captive breeding efforts, ball pythons are now available in a diverse array of colors and patterns called morphs.
Ball pythons are among the most commonly-kept pet snakes in the US, due to their hardiness, manageable size, docile nature, and slowness of movement. This also makes them a good option for first-time reptile keepers. With good care, they are capable of living 30 years or more.
When you’re planning on getting a pet ball python, you need to be patient and set up the enclosure first — long before you bring it home. This gives you time to save up and buy everything you need to care for your new pet properly. Waiting to buy the enclosure and supplies on the same day or after you’ve bought the snake increases the likelihood that you won’t have everything you need to care for your pet properly.
How much space do ball pythons need?
Ball pythons are commonly perceived as inactive snakes that don’t need very much living space, but even if they may not be quite as active as some others, they still need enough room to stretch out fully, explore, and climb. According to the latest recommendations released by the British Federation of Herpetologists, ball pythons require an enclosure that meets or exceeds the following formula relative to the animal’s length: 0.9 x 0.45 x 0.3 times the total length of the snake.
For most ball pythons, this means that they should be housed in no smaller than a 48”L x 24”W x 24”H enclosure. For individuals longer than 4.5’ long, however, they must be housed in something proportionately larger. Regardless of size, larger than this minimum is encouraged, and the extra space will be happily used! Male ball pythons in particular are known to be enthusiastic climbers.
Cohabitation (keeping multiple ball pythons in one enclosure) is not recommended, as ball pythons are not a social species, and keeping them together causes stress.
Can ball pythons be kept in tubs?
You may have seen people on YouTube who keep dozens to hundreds of ball pythons in plastic tubs on shelves. This may seem convenient, and even the pinnacle of keeping ball pythons as pets. After all, at first glance, the snakes seem happy and healthy enough. But the fact of the matter is that no tub is large enough to fulfill the minimum space requirement for acceptable welfare in a snake capable of growing to 5’ long.
According to the Federation of British Herpetologists: “Outside of these specific uses the FBH does not support the long-term use of rack systems for snakes where the physical movement of the animals is severely restricted.” Ball pythons kept in tubs long-term are more likely to suffer from muscle weakness, obesity, and related health complaints.
Ball python quarantine procedure
Note that it’s best to quarantine your new ball python first. Quarantine is the practice of keeping an animal isolated and under sterile conditions in order to reduce the potential spread of disease.
Even if you don’t have other reptiles that could potentially get infected by anything the ball python might be carrying, maintaining quarantine conditions for the first 6-12 months will enable you to more easily monitor for concerning symptoms and more easily treat them as well. You can do this with the enclosure that you plan to keep the snake in long-term, or you can do this with a large tub. As long as it is set up appropriately, a tub can make appropriate short-term quarantine housing.
Some rules for successful ball python quarantine:
- Keep the snake in a separate room from other reptiles.
- Do not use the same equipment for the new ball python as for your other reptiles.
- Fully disinfect the enclosure weekly.
- Get the ball python checked by an experienced reptile veterinarian and treated for parasites if needed.
- Test for possible diseases, such as nidovirus.
- Observe for symptoms of disease or illness.
A ball python should be completely healthy before being transferred out of quarantine to its long-term setup.
Do ball pythons need UVB?
They can survive without it, but it’s still best practice to provide UVB lighting for optimal health and wellbeing. UVB gives ball pythons all of the vitamin D that their bodies need, stimulates better appetite and activity, and generally allows them to be healthier than they would be without.
Ball pythons do best with low-strength UVB as part of their enclosure. The best UVB bulbs for ball pythons housed in a 48” x 24” x 24” enclosure are:
- Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 5.0, 22”
- Arcadia Forest 6%, 22”
The UVB bulb should be housed in a reflective fixture by Arcadia or Vivarium Electronics and placed close to the heat lamp, about 9-11” above the basking area if over mesh, and 12-14” above the basking area if not. UVB is blocked by glass and plastic, so you can’t give your ball python UVB by placing its terrarium in front of an open window. Also make sure that the fixture your UVB bulb is in does not have a clear plastic bulb cover.
Due to their equatorial origin, ball pythons should receive roughly 12 hours of light year-round.
How to measure UVB for a ball python
UVB strength is measured by UV Index, or UVI. This is most accurately done with a device called a Solarmeter 6.5. When you hold the Solarmeter vertically on the basking area at the height of the ball python’s back, the device should read between 3.0-4.0.
Factors such as the density of the mesh over your enclosure and the exact fixture you’re using can affect exactly what basking distance is needed to achieve the right UVI.
What basking temperatures do ball pythons need?
Like other reptiles, ball pythons are ectotherms, which means that they need a temperature gradient in their enclosure to help them regulate their metabolism and stay healthy.
Ball pythons should have a basking surface temperature of 95-104°F, and a warm hide temperature of 86-90°F. On the other side of the enclosure, the temperature should be between 72-80°F. Surface temperatures must be measured with an infrared thermometer, but air temperatures should be measured with a digital probe thermometer.
Provide heat for your ball python by imitating the sun with a pair of halogen flood heat lamps clustered on one side of the enclosure, positioned over the warm hide. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective.
If your basking temperature is too hot, you will need to reduce the heat lamps’ output with a rheostat. If too cool, then you will need higher wattage bulbs.
How to make a warm hide
Ball pythons are crepuscular, which means that they’re primarily active at night, and sleep during the day. This also means that they are not active baskers. While they occasionally bask out in the open, it’s important to also provide a secondary “basking” location where the snake can warm up during the day while staying hidden.
The warm hide should act like a burrow that gets warmed by the sun during the day and retains a gentle warmth for the snake to use as needed. If the heat lamp is not enough to get the warm hide to an appropriate temperature, use a heat mat connected to a thermostat to control the warm hide temperature. The heat mat should be slightly smaller than the hide itself, and the thermostat probe should be placed inside the warm hide.
Heat lamps vs heat mats
Heat mats have been historically the most popular method of providing warmth to terrestrial snakes, and they can work as a primary heat source in undersized enclosures. However, the fact of the matter is that they often fail to warm the air in appropriately large and well-ventilated enclosures, increasing the risk of the snake getting burned by excessively prolonged basking. Heat lamps are far more effective at both warming the surfaces beneath them and increasing the air temperature of the enclosure.
Some assert that heat mats are necessary because nocturnal species require “belly heat” in order to digest properly. This is a myth. While snakes are well known to bask on sun-warmed surfaces such as stones and roads, this is because they are using a resource that is available during their active period, not necessarily out of preference. Heating from above can be just as, if not more, effective in promoting healthy digestion and metabolism in ball pythons.
What humidity levels do ball pythons need?
Ball pythons need an environment with both dry areas and humid areas, creating a gradient between 45-75% on average as measured by a digital probe hygrometers placed on both sides of the enclosure. There should also be a humid hide for your snake, lined with moistened sphagnum moss. Always having a humid retreat is essential.
Misting your snake’s enclosure with a sprayer first thing in the morning and again at night will help create the right humidity levels. If you need more, moisten the substrate by mixing water into it as needed.
How to make a humid hide
Keeping a humid retreat available for your snake available at all times is important to keeping them well-hydrated. The humid hide in your enclosure will function as a burrow would in the wild, offering a cozy, secure spot for your snake to hang out while minimizing the risk of dehydration. It is especially essential for a snake preparing to shed its skin.
Use an enclosed, easily washable container for your humid hide. There are many attractive pre-made options for humid hides, such as the Exo Terra Snake Cave and the Zilla Rock Lair. For a DIY solution, try a tupperware container with a hole cut out for an entrance. This should be lined either with a dampened paper towel or sphagnum moss to create humid conditions inside the hide. Paper towel should be replaced every 1-3 days, and sphagnum moss needs to be changed out every 2-4 weeks.
What substrate is good for ball pythons?
Ball pythons require a thick layer of moisture-retentive substrate to cushion their bodies and help maintain healthy humidity levels. As an added perk, it also tends to make the enclosure more attractive.
Ideally, this substrate should resemble what ball pythons naturally live on in the wild: soil. It should have small particles and hold moisture well. We recommend the following substrates for ball pythons:
Layering clean, chemical-free leaf litter on top of the substrate can also help with humidity.
Substrate should be at least 4” deep and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.
How to clean a ball python enclosure
When you replace your ball python’s substrate, this is a good opportunity to completely clean out the entire enclosure:
- Remove your snake from the enclosure and place inside a temporary, escape-proof holding container. This container should offer a hide, small water bowl, and a thin layer of old substrate from the enclosure for the snake’s comfort.
- Remove all substrate and decor.
- Vacuum and wipe down the enclosure to remove leftover particles.
- Apply a reptile-safe disinfectant to the floor and walls of the enclosure and let sit for the disinfectant’s recommended contact time.
- Meanwhile, soak branches, rocks, hides, and other decor in a disinfectant rated for porous materials for the recommended contact time.
- If required, rinse the enclosure and the accessories with clean water to remove disinfectant residue. Allow everything to dry.
- Pour new substrate into the enclosure. Mix in water until uniformly moistened but not wet.
- Arrange decor. If your ball python is easily stressed by change, put everything back where it was before.
- Reintroduce your snake to the clean setup.
F10SC, CleanBreak, and bleach solution (1:10 dilution) can be used for disinfecting porous materials. The same can be used for nonporous materials, although the concentration of bleach solution should be changed to 1:50.
Can ball pythons have a bioactive setup?
Bioactive setups can work great with ball pythons because it can make it easier to maintain higher humidity levels, eliminates the need for routine total cleanouts, tends to have a fresh, earthy smell; and is generally very attractive to look at.
On the other hand, bioactive setups can be inconvenient with ball pythons because the vivarium needs at least one month to get established before adding the snake, ball pythons are heavy-bodied and likely to crush most live plants, and CUC critters may occasionally escape the enclosure. Setting up a bioactive enclosure is also usually more expensive than other options, and it’s best practice to partially replace the substrate on a regular basis to help reduce pathogen concentration and keep the soil healthy.
To create a bioactive setup for your ball python, you will need all of the usual supplies mentioned in this article, as well as:
- bioactive-ready substrate mix
- clean leaf litter
- sturdy live tropical plants that can withstand occasional snake traffic
- 6500K LED or fluorescent grow lamp, spanning most of the enclosure’s length
- tropical CUC (Clean Up Crew) organisms to maintain the soil
If it’s your first time setting up a bioactive vivarium, it’s best to use a commercial bioactive substrate mix, such as Bio Dude or Josh’s Frogs, rather than mixing your own, as this reduces your likelihood of error. Appropriate CUC for a ball python vivarium include dwarf white isopods, powder orange/blue isopods, springtails, and superworms.
What décor can you use in a ball python’s terrarium?
It’s terribly boring for a snake to be stuck in an enclosure with nothing in it except substrate, hides, and a water bowl. It doesn’t matter how big the enclosure is if you don’t put things in it for your pet to use and interact with.
The most important “accessory” to put in your ball python enclosure is at least two caves or hides. These should be small enough to provide a snug fit for your snake when coiled up, as ball pythons like to feel cramped in their burrows.
Aside from hiding places, you will also need other decor items to give your ball python things to explore and climb on:
- sturdy branches
- cork tubes
- cork flats
- sturdy live or artificial plants
What live plants can be used with ball pythons?
Ball pythons are heavy-bodied snakes, so any live plants you decide to use in the enclosure must be large and sturdy enough to withstand occasional trampling. Here are a few options that work well in a moderately humid, moderately-lit environment:
- Spider plant
Note that larger plants are usually sturdier, which is one argument for using a taller enclosure such as a 4x2x4 for ball pythons.
Are ball pythons good climbers?
There is a myth that ball pythons are bad climbers, and will injure themselves by falling if they are “tempted” to climb with things like branches inside of the enclosure. The fact of the matter is that ball pythons are known to routinely climb in the wild, and the only reason why a pet ball python might seem bad at climbing is because it hasn’t had enough opportunity to practice. If you start your ball python with climbing opportunities from a young age, it will learn to climb quite skillfully!
If you have an older ball python that doesn’t have a lot of experience with climbing, start with low, wide climbing objects that will help increase your snake’s muscle tone while decreasing the risk of falls.
What do ball pythons eat?
Like other snakes, ball pythons are carnivores, which means that they need to eat whole animal prey in order to get the nutrition that they need. Here is a basic feeding schedule based on snake weight:
- Hatchlings (up to 5 weeks old) — every 5 days
- Juveniles <200g — every 7 days
- Juveniles 200-350g — every 7-10 days
- Juveniles 350-500g — every 10-14 days
- Subadults and adults 500-1500g — every 14-21 days
- Adults >1500g — every 28-56 days
Prey items should be around 10% of your snake’s weight and no more than 1.5x its width. Although live prey can be used, it’s safest and most humane to use frozen instead. Prey should be thawed in a plastic bag in warm water to approximately 100°F before offering with a pair of soft-tipped tweezers.
Remember, the key to great nutrition is variety! Aside from offering mice and rats, quail and chicks can also be used to create nutritional variety in your ball python’s diet.
Where do you buy prey for snakes?
Most pet stores sell frozen mice and rats in various sizes for feeding to snakes. However, you can access a greater variety of feeders by buying from reputable prey breeders online. You may also be able to get higher-quality (healthier and more nutritious) prey from these breeders compared to what you would get from the pet store.
What do you do if your ball python stops eating?
Ball pythons are notorious for going on “feeding strikes” every once in a while. This can be as frequent as every year, and they can last as long as six months. Some say that this is a bad thing, and that a happy, healthy ball python should never refuse food.
However, as long as your ball python doesn’t lose more than 10% of their body weight, is otherwise healthy, and temperatures and humidity within the enclosure are still within an acceptable range, fasting is nothing to worry about and can be considered part of a ball pythons’ normal behavior. Often these fasts coincide with the winter season and may be part of an evolutionary adaptation to survive periods of scarce prey and suboptimal weather.
Do ball pythons need dietary supplements?
Ball pythons can survive without vitamin or mineral supplements, but occasionally using them can help prevent nutritional deficiencies and optimize your snake’s health. We recommend Repashy Calcium Plus LoD.
How to provide drinking water for your ball python
Your ball python should have access to clean, fresh water at all times. Provide a water bowl large enough for the snake to soak its entire body if desired. Change the water daily and scrub the bowl with a reptile-safe disinfectant weekly, or whenever it becomes soiled.
Do ball pythons like to be handled?
Few reptiles actually “like” to be held, but ball pythons generally tolerate handling well. Be gentle, and pick up the snake from below rather than from above. Support as much of its body as possible, and let it freely move in your hands, rather than restraining it. NEVER pick a ball python up by its tail!
How to tame your ball python
Taming your ball python means teaching it to trust and feel comfortable around you. This requires consistent positive interactions to build the trust relationship. While a negative experience or two won’t ruin your taming efforts, it can slow them down, so it’s best to be consistent. It’s best to encourage the snake to come out of the enclosure and climb onto you on its own, rather than forcibly grabbing it. Avoid removing it from its hiding places, as hides are supposed to be safe, private places.
You can prevent accidental bites by training your ball python to tell the difference between food time and handling time. An easy way to do this is by tapping on the front of the enclosure with your fingernails immediately before offering prey, but not when it’s handling time. If you’re still nervous about your snake confusing you for food, use a roll of paper towels to gently tap the snake on the head to distract it.
Target training and stationing training can help increase your ball python’s confidence in its environment and trust in you. Snake trainer Lori Torrini’s YouTube channel is very helpful!
Enrichment ideas for ball pythons
Enrichment is what good zoos use to keep their animals happy, active, and engaged. Some say that snakes are too stupid to benefit from enrichment, but this is false. Snakes, including ball pythons, can absolutely benefit from enrichment when it is provided in snake-appropriate ways.
Here are some ideas for enrichment activities that your ball python is likely to enjoy:
- Rearrange the enclosure. If total overhauls are too stressful, move one thing every so often at your snake’s pace. For some individuals, that may be once a month, for others they might like once a week.
- Puzzle feeders. This can be as simple as placing the snake’s prey in an open box or plastic cup.
- Simulated nest raids. Instead of offering one prey item, place a cluster of much smaller prey (ex: pinky mice or pinky rats) somewhere in the enclosure for the snake to find.
- Supervised explore time outside of the enclosure. Make sure to keep them away from situations that you can’t get the snake out of.
- “Box of things”. Introduce your snake to a box or bin full of different items of different sizes and textures.
Signs you need to take your ball python to the vet
Veterinary care is an important part of having any pet, including snakes. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms, make an appointment with an experienced reptile vet to get them checked out immediately.
- Noisy breathing
- Mucus discharge from the mouth/nose
- Unexplained weight loss
- Large patches of missing scales
- Discolored belly scales
- Swelling or bumps anywhere on the body
- Sudden, unusually aggressive behavior
*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please do further research with high-quality sources to obtain additional information on caring for this species. Here are some other great sources to read: