How to Care for Your Boa Constrictor
Table of Contents
Boa constrictors (Boa sp.) are a group of medium to large, semi-arboreal snakes native to Central and South America. They tend to prefer subtropical dry to moist broadleaf forests for habitat, and spend time both in the trees and on the forest floor.
Boa constrictors’ exact color and pattern varies by species or subspecies, and even by locality. Some have high-contrast patterns, while others are lower contrast. Some have speckles, while others are more crisp. Some have a brown/orange/red color palette, while others are more gray/brown/black. Some have vivid red or orange blotches on their tail, while others’ tails are brown or black. And thanks to captive breeding efforts, there’s an even greater variety of morphs!
Boa constrictors are among the most popular pet snakes in the USA. They are fairly hardy and tolerate humans well, but their size and habits still make them intermediate- to advanced-level pet reptiles. With good care, your boa may live upwards of 30 years.
What types of boa constrictors are there?
Most of the boas available in the pet trade are either Boa constrictor constrictor or Boa imperator, although there are others.
Bolivian Silver Back/Short Tail Boa (Boa constrictor amarali): Found around southeast Bolivia and southern to southwest Brazil. Averages 5.5-7’ long. Identifiable by silver to silvery-tan based color with black, bat-shaped saddles.
Red-Tailed Boa (Boa constrictor constrictor): Found in South America east of the Andes mountain range. Averages 7-10’ long. Identifiable by yellow to brown base color, red to reddish-brown tail markings, and dark bat-shaped saddles and spotting.
Peruvian Long Tail Boa (Boa constrictor longicauda): Found in northern Peru. Averages 6’ long. Identifiable by black and white or black and gold color, with a spear-shaped marking on top of the head.
Clouded Boa (Boa constrictor nebulosa): Found in Dominica. Averages 10’ long. Identifiable by gray-brown base color, spotted belly, and low-contrast pattern.
Argentine Boa (Boa constrictor occidentalis): Found from Argentina to Paraguay. Averages 10’ long. Identifiable by dark brown/black base color with lighter pattern.
St. Lucia Boa (Boa constrictor orophias): Found on St. Lucia island. Grows 10-12’ long. Identifiable by gray-brown base color, darker brown saddles, and black tail markings.
Macanche Boa/Orton’s Boa (Boa constrictor ortonii): Found in Peru. Averages 9’ long. Identifiable by brown to gray-brown base color and low-contrast pattern with dark outlines.
Pearl Island Boa (Boa constrictor sabogae): Found around the Pearl Islands. Beige-brown to pink base color with incomplete saddle markings. Averages under 6’ long.
Central American Boa/Common Boa (Boa imperator): Found in Mexico, Central America, and west of the Andes. Averages 5-7’ long.
Sonoran Boa (Boa sigma): Found in western coastal Mexico. Identifiable by brown base color with lighter spots and circles.
How much space do boa constrictors need?
Boa constrictors’ adult size varies widely based on species and subspecies. Some can be as small as just 5’ long, while others can be as large as 10-12’ long. Knowing the expected adult size of your particular snake is important to housing them properly.
As a general rule, the length and width of a snake enclosure should add up to equal or greater than the snake’s expected adult length. Because boa constrictors are semi-arboreal, provide at least 4’ of height to accommodate climbing. For larger snakes, 6’ is a more appropriate minimum. Of course, that’s just the bare minimum. Bigger is always better, and your snake will definitely appreciate it!
Cohabitation (keeping multiple boa constrictors in one enclosure) is not recommended, as keeping them together is likely to cause competition and stress.
Can boa constrictors be kept in tubs?
You may have seen people on YouTube who keep dozens of boas in plastic tubs on shelves. This may seem convenient, and even the pinnacle of keeping boa constrictors 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 over 10’ 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.” Boa constrictors kept in tubs long-term are more likely to suffer from muscle weakness, obesity, and related health complaints.
Boa constrictor quarantine procedure
Note that it’s best to quarantine your new boa 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 boa constrictor might be carrying, maintaining quarantine conditions for the first 3-6 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 for young boas.
Some rules for successful boa constrictor quarantine:
- Keep the snake in a separate room from other reptiles.
- Do not use the same equipment for the new boa as for your other reptiles.
- Fully disinfect the enclosure weekly.
- Get the boa checked by an experienced reptile veterinarian and treated for parasites if needed.
- Observe and/or test for symptoms of disease or illness.
A snake should be completely healthy before being transferred out of quarantine to its long-term setup.
Do boa constrictors need UVB?
They seem to be able to survive without it, but it’s still best practice to provide UVB lighting for optimal health and wellbeing. Providing UVB lighting to your snake gives them all of the vitamin D that their body needs, stimulates better appetite and activity, and generally allows them to be healthier than they would be without.
The best UVB bulbs for boa constrictors are:
- Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 5.0
- Arcadia Forest 6%
The UVB bulb should be half the length of the enclosure and housed in a reflective fixture like the Arcadia ProT5 or Vivarium Electronics. Place this fixture close to the heat lamp, about 11-13” above the basking branch if over mesh, and 14-16” above the basking branch if not.
UVB is blocked by glass and plastic, so you can’t give your snake 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. UVB bulbs decay over time, so don’t forget to replace your bulb every 12 months to maintain good performance.
Lights should be on for 12 hours/day.
How to measure UVB for a boa constrictor
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 boa’s back, the device should read between 2.0-3.0.
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 boa constrictors need?
Like other reptiles, boa constrictors are ectotherms, which means that they need a temperature gradient in their enclosure to help them regulate their metabolism and stay healthy.
Boa constrictors prefer a basking air temperature of around 86-90°F. On the other side of the enclosure, the temperature should be between 75-80°F. Nighttime temps should be between 75-78°F. Measure air temperatures in these locations with digital probe thermometers, with the probes placed in the desired areas.
Provide heat for your snake by imitating the sun with a cluster of halogen heat bulbs placed on one side of the enclosure, positioned over a sturdy basking branch or warm hide. Use enough bulbs to evenly heat the snake’s entire body when coiled. Do not use colored bulbs, as these are not as effective.
Light-producing heat sources should be turned off at night. But if you need supplementary heating at night to hit the right temps, use a ceramic heat emitter or radiant heat panel connected to a thermostat.
How to make a warm hide
Boa constrictors 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 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 night-active 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 boa constrictors.
What humidity levels do boa constrictors need?
Boa constrictors are a tropical species, and need an average humidity of 55-75%, as measured by a digital probe hygrometer placed in the middle of the enclosure. It’s also helpful to install a humid hide for your snake somewhere on the cool side of the enclosure, lined with moistened sphagnum moss. Always having a humid retreat is essential!
Misting your snake’s enclosure with a sprayer each night and again in the morning (if needed) will help create the right humidity levels. If you need more, running a cool mist humidifier connected to a hygrostat overnight can be helpful.
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. These may fit your boa when it is small, but eventually it may need a larger solution. For a DIY humid hide, try an upside-down plastic storage 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 boa constrictors?
Boa constrictors 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.
We recommend the following substrates for boa constrictors:
Layering clean, chemical-free leaf litter on top of the substrate can help with humidity, and also provides extra cover for your snake to hide in as desired.
Substrate should be at least 3” deep and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.
How to clean a boa constrictor enclosure
When you replace your boa’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 décor. If your boa 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 boa constrictors have a bioactive setup?
Bioactive setups can work great with boas 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 boas because the vivarium needs at least one month to get established before adding the snake, boa constrictors 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 boa constrictor, you will need all of the usual supplies mentioned in this article, as well as:
- bioactive-ready tropical substrate mix
- clean leaf litter and sphagnum moss
- 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 boa vivarium include dwarf white isopods, powder orange/blue isopods, springtails, and superworms.
What décor can you use in a boa constrictor terrarium?
It’s terribly boring for a snake to be stuck in an enclosure with nothing in it except substrate, a branch, 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.
Here are some décor ideas for enriching your boa’s environment:
Whatever you choose to use, make sure that the snake has plenty of cover to hide in so it can feel secure in its environment.
What live plants can be used with boa constrictors?
Boa constrictors can be fairly large snakes, so any live plants you decide to use in the enclosure must be large and sturdy enough to withstand occasional trampling and climbing. 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 as tall of an enclosure as you can provide.
Are boa constrictors good climbers?
There is a myth that while boas may climb when they are young, they don’t need/want to climb as larger adults, and it can even be dangerous for them to climb because they will injure themselves by falling. These statements are false!
The fact of the matter is that boa constrictors are semi-arboreal, and routinely climb in the wild, even as adults. The only reason why a pet boa might seem bad at climbing is because it hasn’t had enough opportunity to practice. If you start your boa with plenty of varied climbing opportunities from a young age, it will learn to climb quite skillfully!
If you have an older boa 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 boa constrictors eat?
Like other snakes, boa constrictors are carnivores, which means that they need to eat whole animal prey in order to get the nutrition that they need. Here is a rough feeding schedule based on snake age:
- Newborn-6 months: every 10-12 days
- 6-12 months: every 10-12 days
- 12-18 months: every 12-14 days
- 18-24 months: every 2-3 weeks
- 2-2.5 years: every 2-3 weeks
- 2.5-3 years: every 3-4 weeks
- 3-4 years: every 4-6 weeks
- 4+ years: every 4-8 weeks
Prey items should be around 10% of your snake’s weight and no bigger than the snake at its widest point. Feeder options include mice, rats, gerbils, young guinea pigs, young rabbits, chicks, and quail. Variety is the key to a balanced diet!
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.
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 boa constrictor stops eating?
Boa constrictors are well-known for having a hearty appetite, and for not being very picky. However, this only makes a lack of appetite in this species more concerning.
Keep in mind that it is perfectly normal, and even healthy, for boas to go off feed for a few months around winter time. This winter fast helps them maintain a healthy weight and may even help extend their lifespan.
However, if your boa constrictor is consistently refusing to eat otherwise, it’s best to have a look at your husbandry parameters (temperatures, humidity, lighting, etc.) to see if something might be stressing your pet. If your husbandry parameters check out, this may indicate a health problem causing your snake enough discomfort to refuse food. Make an appointment with an experienced reptile vet to see what might be going on.
Do boa constrictors need dietary supplements?
Snakes can survive without vitamin or mineral supplements, but occasionally using them can help prevent nutritional deficiencies and optimize your pet’s health. We recommend Repashy Calcium Plus LoD.
How to provide drinking water for your boa constrictor
Make sure to provide a tub or bowl of water large enough to accommodate the snake’s entire body. Keep the water in this tub clean at all times, and scrub with animal-safe disinfectant once a week.
Do boa constrictors like to be handled?
Few reptiles actually “like” to be held, but boa constrictors generally tolerate human interaction well. That being said, there are still some basic rules for handling snakes:
Wait at least 2 weeks before attempting to handle a new boa. Babies and juveniles tend to be more nervous and defensive than adults. Be gentle, and pick up the snake from below rather than from above. Support as much of its body as possible, and NEVER pick a boa up by its tail! Keep handling sessions brief at first, and always end them on a positive note, with the snake acting calm.
How to tame your boa constrictor
Taming your boa 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 boa 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 boa’s confidence in its environment and trust in you. Snake trainer Lori Torrini’s YouTube channel is very helpful!
Enrichment ideas for boa constrictors
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 boa constrictors, can absolutely benefit from enrichment when it is provided in snake-appropriate ways.
Here are some ideas for enrichment activities that your boa 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: young rodents, quail chicks, etc.) 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 boa constrictor 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: