Ball pythons (royal pythons) are medium-sized nonvenomous snakes native to central Africa. They live in savannahs and grasslands, feasting on small rodents. Though they aren’t native to America, ball pythons are arguably the most popular pet snake in the country.
Ball pythons are a good first snake. They aren’t venomous, never grow larger than 5 feet long, and have calm temperaments. Ball pythons are easy to care for, non-aggressive, and allow normal handling.
We cover what you need to know about keeping your first ball python. You’ll learn what ball pythons are, how to set up their enclosures, and how to feed them. We’ll also run you by the most common ball python health problems, and answer common questions.
Ball Python (Python Regius) Species Information
Ball pythons, scientific name Python regius, are also called royal pythons in some parts of the world. They’re constricting snakes, like boa constrictors. They kill their prey by wrapping their bodies around it and squeezing it to death.
Ball pythons are native to sub-Saharan Africa. They spend a lot of time on or in the ground and don’t climb trees. Though you won’t find ball pythons in the wild here, they are often imported and bred in captivity. Ball pythons get their nickname from their tendency to curl up into a ball when they feel threatened. Here are some further interesting facts about ball pythons.
Are Ball Pythons Venomous?
No, ball pythons are not venomous. Since they kill their prey via constriction, there’s no need for them to possess any venom. They don’t have fangs but have several small teeth which they use for gripping their prey. So, if you ever sustained a bite from a ball python, it wouldn’t do you any harm. You would bleed, but the bite wouldn’t hurt very much.
You may be wondering about the risk of constriction. However, there’s nothing to worry about. Because ball pythons stay so small, they would never attempt to eat you. Ball pythons eat rodents in the wild, and humans are too big for them. Even if a ball python did mistake your hand for food, you could easily detach the snake by unwinding it, starting at the tail.
What Ball Python Morphs Are Available?
Wild ball pythons are dark brown to black in color, with tan blotches along the back and sides. In the pet trade, these are called “normal” ball pythons. Ball python breeders have also created some very interesting colors and patterns by playing with ball python genetics. These are called “morphs.”
There are literally hundreds of different ball python morphs out there, so we can’t list them all here. However, we’ll describe a few of the most popular morphs, as well as our personal favorites.
|Ball Python Morph||Identifying Colors and Markings|
|Albino Ball Python:||These have no brown or black pigment (melanin). They appear white with yellow patches.|
|Banana Ball Python:||These are pale lavender in color, with bright yellow markings. Some bananas are also patterned with small black dots.|
|Axanthic Ball Python:||These lack yellow pigmentation. Axanthic ball pythons are black, with grey and white blotches.|
|Pastel Ball Python:||These are dark brown to black in color, with large, bright yellow patches.|
|Spider Ball Python:||These are tan in color with distinctive black, “spidery” line markings.|
|Piebald (Pied) Ball Python:||These have normal markings and color, with large unpigmented white sections along their bodies.|
It’s also possible to breed different morphs together, to produce a ball python which has traits of each. For example, “Axanthic Spider” ball pythons have the distinctive spider pattern but are completely black and white in color. A “Banana Pied” ball python has the same color and markings as a banana ball python, interspersed with large patches of white.
How Big Do Ball Pythons Grow?
One of the appealing parts about owning ball pythons is the fact that they stay relatively small. On average, male ball pythons will reach 2-3 feet in length. Females, on the other hand, can reach 3-5 feet. They won’t outgrow their welcome in the same way that a reticulated python might.
You may wonder: when do ball pythons stop growing? Actually, like most snakes, ball pythons continue to grow throughout their lives. However, they do almost all of this growth in the first few years. Juveniles grow extremely fast, but they reach almost full size by the time they’re 4. For the rest of their lives, they grow extremely slowly.
Though males and females differ in size, ball python life expectancy for males and females is the same. In the wild, they tend to live around ten years. However, a well-treated captive ball python could live to be 20 to 30 years old.
The oldest ball python on record was 48 years old, according to the Chicago Herpetological Society. He lived at the Philadelphia Zoo from 1945 until his death in 1992. Interestingly, although he was old, he didn’t grow much larger than “young adult size” throughout his long life.
Do Ball Pythons Like to Be Handled?
It would be anthropomorphizing to say that any snake “likes” being handled. Snakes are solitary creatures and do not socialize with or groom one another in the wild. They, therefore, do not get any enjoyment out of handling. Handling our snakes is purely for our enjoyment as snake lovers.
However, as snakes go, ball pythons are incredibly docile. Captive-bred ball pythons typically do not see humans as a threat and tolerate handling very well. As long as you support them properly (holding them at one-third and two-thirds along the length of their body), they will quite happily hang out in your arms. Ball pythons are good-natured and do not typically hiss or show signs of aggression with their keepers. If anything, they’re a little shy.
Ball Python Vivarium Requirements
Now that you know the ball python basics let’s get into their care requirements. The first topic that we’ll cover is the vivarium – where your ball python will live. There are many elements which must be fine-tuned to make up the perfect vivarium.
Ball Python Enclosure
When choosing an enclosure for your ball python, there are many things to consider. The first is size. Your ball python will need room to stretch out completely. So, if your snake is 2 feet long, the enclosure should also be at least 2 feet long.
This means that if your snake is a juvenile, you’ll need to replace their enclosure as they grow up. You may be tempted to purchase a massive enclosure for them to “grow into,” but this is a mistake. A baby snake will feel lost and terrified in an enclosure which is too large.
For this reason, it’s generally a good idea, to begin with, a plastic tub with a locking lid. These are far cheaper to replace as your snake grows, compared to decorative glass or wooden cages.
There are many benefits to plastic tubs:
- They’re lightweight, and easy to move around.
- Their locking lids make it easy to a) maintain humidity and b) prevent your snake from escaping.
- Plastic tubs hold onto heat far better than glass tanks.
- Plastic is easy to clean and non-porous, giving it an advantage over wood.
The only downside of plastic tubs is that they don’t look as attractive or “fancy” as glass or wood vivariums. The choice is yours.
Ball Python Temperature and Humidity Requirements
Although ball pythons come from a tropical part of the world (central sub-Saharan Africa), they don’t live in the rainforest. This means that their humidity requirements aren’t as demanding as some other species of tropical snakes, such as the boa constrictor.
Ball pythons generally require 50-60% humidity throughout their enclosure.
A large water bowl contained inside the vivarium should be sufficient to keep humidity high enough. It will also satisfy your ball python’s other water requirements (drinking and soaking).
Use a hygrometer to monitor the humidity levels. If it drops below 50%, you can mist the inside of the enclosure once a day. Keeping a hide box filled with moist sphagnum moss can also help.
With regards to heating, you have several options:
- Heat mat
- Heat tape
- Ceramic heat bulb (glass tanks only, as they can melt plastic lids)
Whichever way you choose to heat your snake’s enclosure, use it on one side of the enclosure only. This will create a cool end and a warm end, allowing your snake to regulate her body temperature.
The tank’s cool end should be 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit, and the warm end should be around 90-95. Monitor the temperature closely with a thermometer. If possible with your chosen heating method, use a thermostat so that the temperature automatically adjusts.
Ball Python Substrate
Though ball pythons enjoy the humid air, they don’t do well with a damp substrate. In the wild, they spend most of their time in savannahs and grasslands. We’d recommend you avoid substrates which retain humidity, such as cypress mulch. A damp substrate can result in scale rot.
The recommended substrate for ball pythons is aspen shavings. Aspen has many benefits:
- It doesn’t hold moisture, so it provides the perfect “floor” for ball pythons
- It’s cheap and available from almost all reptile stores and online suppliers
- It’s easy to spot-clean. You remove the area that has been peed or pooped on, and you can leave the rest.
Many new snake owners choose newspaper to use on the floor of the enclosure. Though these are also cheap, they can’t be spot-cleaned. If your snake pees on the newspaper, the entire substrate has to be replaced. Some people worry that newspaper ink could harm snakes, but it’s not scientifically proven one way or another, so use at your own risk.
Though wild ball pythons hide underground, they don’t dig their own burrows. They use the burrows of other animals, such as rodents. They can even hang out in termite mounds. For this reason, burrowing isn’t a behavior that ball pythons typically exhibit in captivity. You don’t have to provide a thick layer of substrate – about an inch will do.
Vivarium Accessories and Cleaning
There are a few accessories which you must include in your ball python’s vivarium and some which are optional.
- Hide. Ball pythons need somewhere to hide away and feel secure. You should provide at least two hide boxes – one at the warm end, and one at the cool end. The box should be large enough for your snake to curl up inside, while small enough to feel “snug” and secure. You can buy purpose-made snake hides, or use a cardboard or plastic box with an entrance hole cut out.
- Water Bowl. Your snake will need to drink, of course. Many ball pythons also enjoy curling up inside their water bowls to bathe themselves. Choose a bowl which is at least as big as your snake, and easy to clean.
- Decor. These are optional but do provide enrichment for your snake, and help mimic a natural environment. You can use rocks, hollow logs, branches, artificial foliage, and plants. We wouldn’t recommend using live plants, as soil can harbor bacteria and parasites.
When adding accessories to your vivarium, leave enough space for your snake to stretch out and slither around. However, too much space can be intimidating, so ensure your snake has plenty of places to hide.
Cleaning Your Ball Python’s Vivarium
It’s crucial that you keep your ball python’s vivarium clean. Dirt, feces, and urine can all harbor bacteria. This could result in your ball python developing an infection and falling ill.
Every day, perform a check of your snake’s enclosure to spot-clean it. Remove your snake’s water bowl, scrub it in hot, soapy water, and disinfect it. A popular choice of disinfectant is chlorhexidine.
Then, examine the cage for any urates (solid urine) or feces. Remove the waste products along with any substrate that they have touched. Also, remove any uneaten food or shed skin.
At least once every two weeks, thoroughly clean out the vivarium. Place your snake into a temporary box for this.
- Remove and discard all substrate.
- Remove all tank accessories. Clean and disinfect them individually, and leave them to dry.
- Wash out the tank using soap and water, disinfect it using chlorhexidine, and leave to dry.
- Place fresh substrate inside the tank along with the clean accessories, and then reintroduce your snake.
Ball Python Feeding Guide
Now that you know how to house and care for your ball python let’s move on to another important subject: feeding. We’ll teach you how to choose appropriate food for your ball python, and the ins and outs of the feeding process.
What Do Ball Pythons Eat?
The diet of a ball python consists mostly of mammals. In the wild, ball pythons would prey on rodents that live in the African grasslands. For example, this may include African soft-furred rats, Gambian pouched rats, shaggy rats, gerbils, and striped grass mice.
Occasionally, ball pythons may also eat birds, though this isn’t their first choice of prey. Ball pythons exclusively feed on endothermic (warm-blooded) creatures, with the help of their infrared-sensing facial pits.
In captivity, ball pythons subsist well on a diet of rats and mice. These rodents contain all of the nutrients that ball pythons need, and so there’s no need to supplement their diets.
We would always recommend feeding frozen-thawed rats and mice, rather than live prey. This is because live prey can often fight back, hurting or even killing the snake. There are plenty of online suppliers selling frozen rodents in a variety of sizes, from “pinky” (newborn) to “jumbo.”
You can use mice to start with, but your ball python may eventually outgrow them. We find it easier to use rats from the start, to avoid problems that sometimes occur when switching. Ball pythons tend to “imprint” upon a particular food source and refuse to eat anything else.
How to Feed a Ball Python Frozen Mice and Rats
Feeding your ball python begins with selecting an appropriately sized rodent. The prey item should be approximately as wide as your ball python. Any bigger or smaller, and your snake may not recognize it as food.
Once you’ve got a food source, here’s how to feed your ball python:
- Thaw the rodent out in room temperature water. This could take 10 minutes to an hour, depending on the rodent’s size. Never use hot water as the rodent may explode.
- Once the rodent is fully thawed, soak it in a bowl of warm water to heat it up. Ball pythons find it easier to recognize prey when it’s warm.
- Remove your snake from its vivarium and place it inside a temporary feeding box. This is optional, but we recommend it. Firstly, it means your snake will avoid ingesting any substrate. Secondly, your snake won’t associate its vivarium with food. This means your snake will be less likely to mistake you for prey when you approach her for handling, or to spot-clean the vivarium.
- Offer the rodent to your snake, using a pair of long-handled tongs. Do not use your hands, as your snake may mistake them for food. It may help to “wiggle” the rodent around, to mimic a live animal.
Once your ball python has taken the rodent, she will constrict it by wrapping her body around it. Once she’s satisfied that it’s “dead,” she’ll swallow it whole. Leave her for at least an hour before placing her back inside her vivarium. Avoid handling your snake for 48 hours after feeding, as this could cause regurgitation.
How Often Should I Feed My Ball Python?
Many ball pythons are voracious eaters who will devour food whenever it’s available. A study in Physiology and Behavior found that ball pythons feel hungry again as soon as 24 hours after eating.
Though this prevents wild ball pythons from starving, it means that captive ball pythons would happily overeat. This could lead to excessive weight gain, so it’s important to keep your snake on a feeding schedule.
As a general rule, juvenile ball pythons need to eat more regularly than adults. This is simply because they’re growing fast, and need the extra nutrients. Ball pythons under a year old should be fed one appropriately-sized rodent every 5 to 7 days. For yearling ball pythons (1-2 years old), feeding can be reduced to once every 7 to 10 days.
Once your ball python reaches two years old, this is when they’re generally considered adults. At this point, you have two options. You can either continue to feed them smaller meals every 7-10 days, or you can switch to a larger rodent every 2-3 weeks.
Each snake is different, so play around with your feeding schedule until you find something that works. Some snakes will not recognize smaller rodents as food, whereas others prefer them.
Why Is My Ball Python Not Eating?
If there’s one drawback to ball pythons, it is that they can be extremely fussy eaters. This is because, in the wild, they prey on a variety of animals that we can’t offer them. These are all brown in color, whereas the rats and mice we offer them are usually white.
Ball pythons can, with patience, be trained to feed on white mice and rats successfully. If you’ve bought your python from a reputable breeder, they should have already done this. So, if your ball python isn’t eating, there’s likely another reason. For instance:
- Your snake could be starting to shed. Like most snakes, ball pythons won’t eat while they’re shedding.
- The prey could be too large, or too small. If your ball python thinks the rodent is too big, she won’t attempt to eat it. If it’s too small, she won’t deem it worth eating.
- The vivarium could be too cold, too hot, not humid enough or too humid.
- Your ball python could be sick or stressed.
If none apply, it’s likely that your ball python isn’t hungry. Ball pythons tend to skip a meal every now and then, and this is normal. Remove the prey item and try again in a few days. It can help to offer the prey during the night, as ball pythons are naturally nocturnal.
It can also help to offer live rodents rather than pre-killed. However, if you choose to do this, be sure to closely supervise the feeding session in case the rodent attacks your snake.
Ball Python Health Problems
Like all snakes – and all animals – ball pythons can be susceptible to certain health problems. Luckily, most of the common health problems are entirely treatable.
- Weight Issues. If your snake is overweight, you’ll notice large fatty deposits either side of the spine, or “fat rolls” when the snake is curled up. If your snake is too skinny, their spine will be sticking out prominently, giving them a triangular body shape. You may also notice loose skin.
- Respiratory Infections are reasonably common in snakes. They’re indicated by wheezing or crackling sounds when breathing, mouth-breathing, and discharge from the mouth or nose. Respiratory infections can be caused by viruses, according to research in the Virology However, they can also be bacterial or fungal in nature.
- Parasites, both internal and external, are most prevalent in wild-caught snakes. The most common parasite is mites. If your snake has mites, you’ll notice tiny insects hanging out on your snake’s scales.
- Mouth and Scale Rot. Scale rot (brown, flaking scales) usually affects the belly and happens when the snake’s environment is too damp. Mouth rot can be a result of trauma or another illness. You’ll notice a reddened and swollen mouth, excessive saliva, and pus.
- Burns can be an issue when your heat source malfunctions, or is set too high. They’re most common when using a heat mat. If your snake has a burn, you’ll notice reddening, scale peeling, and open wounds in severe cases.
- Neurological Problems can be present in certain ball python morphs (such as spider, champagne, and woma) due to genetic issues. They present as a “head wobble” when moving, which can be mild to severe.
Of course, this list is far from exhaustive. If your snake is refusing food, seems listless or is showing any physical sign of illness or damage, take her to a vet. Don’t attempt to treat anything by yourself if you aren’t a professional.
Ball Python Frequently Asked Questions
How to Tell a Ball Python’s Gender?
In ball pythons, the most obvious indicator of sex is size. Females tend to grow larger than males, to carry as many eggs as possible. As adults, males remain around 2-3 feet, whereas females can reach 3-5 feet.
However, as babies, both genders start off equally small. If you purchase your snake from a reputable breeder, they should be able to tell you the snake’s sex. If not – or if you want to confirm it – there are two ways of doing so.
- Cloacal probing involves inserting a thin metal rod into your snake’s cloaca (genital cavity). In males, the probe will penetrate far deeper than in females (farther than the width of the snake’s body).
- Cloacal popping involves holding your snake either side of the cloaca and gently everting their hemipenes (male sex organs) using a rolling motion with your thumb. In females, nothing will pop out.
These practices should only be carried out by experienced snake hobbyists and herpetologists. If you’re a beginner, never attempt these methods without someone experienced there to guide you.
How Often Do Ball Pythons Shed Their Skin?
Like all snakes, ball pythons shed their skin occasionally. Shedding happens more regularly in juveniles, as they’re growing faster. Young ball pythons tend to shed every 3 to 4 weeks. Adult ball pythons (over a year old) will only shed roughly once every 6 to 8 weeks.
When your snake is about to start shedding, her skin will appear darker and duller than usual. Next, her eyes will cloud over and appear blue. At this point, it can be helpful to increase the enclosure’s humidity. From this point onwards, avoid handling and feeding your snake. She’ll lose her appetite and can become reclusive during the shedding process.
After about a week, her eyes will clear up and return to normal. A few days later, your ball python will start shedding. She’ll begin the process by nudging her nose up against something and will eventually slither out of her old skin completely.
Her skin should come off in one piece, complete with eye-caps and the tail tip. If any skin remains attached, it’s a sign that the humidity was too low. Giving your python a gentle bath in lukewarm water can help remove stuck shed.
Why Is My Ball Python Not Pooping?
As a general rule, ball pythons will defecate after every 2-4 meals. They release their waste in one large go, rather than little and often. It’s not uncommon for ball pythons to go a month, or even two, without pooping. Some ball pythons wait until they shed.
As long as your snake is eating and behaving normally, with no sign of illness, it’s not a cause for concern. However, if you are worried about constipation, try soaking your snake in warm water (around 90 degress Fahrenheit). This works like a laxative, by warming up their digestive system and helping things along. Don’t be surprised if your snake defecates in the water – make sure to remove her straight away.
If your ball python goes more than 12 weeks without pooping, or you notice any other signs of poor health, take them to a veterinarian.
Why is My Ball Python Trying to Escape?
Even tame snakes, like ball pythons, are wild animals at heart. It doesn’t come naturally to any snake to live in a small enclosure. So, if they get the opportunity to leave their vivarium, they will. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not caring for her properly – snakes naturally want to explore.
However, your snake shouldn’t always be pressing herself up against the glass, trying to find a way out. If your snake is seems unusually fixated on escaping, seems stressed out, or is refusing food, there may be something wrong. For instance:
- The vivarium could be too hot or cold, too humid, or too dry.
- The enclosure may be too empty, making your snake feel insecure. Try adding more hides and artificial plants to give her more cover.
- The enclosure may be too small, causing stress. As a rule, your snake’s vivarium should be roughly as long as she is, to give her room to stretch out.
- You may not be cleaning the enclosure well (or often) enough. In the wild, ball pythons would find a new den when the old one starts to smell too strongly of the snake. Make sure to thoroughly clean and disinfect not only the cage but everything in it.
- Your snake could be hungry and isn’t recognizing your offerings as suitable prey for whatever reason. Try a smaller rodent.
If your snake seems ill, or you can’t figure out what the problem is, take her to a veterinarian.
Can Ball Pythons See In the Dark?
Something that you may have heard about snakes is that their vision isn’t so great. This is true if you’re comparing their vision to ours. Ball pythons can only detect a limited range of colors, and they can’t pick up on the detail of inanimate objects like we can. Instead, their vision is fine-tuned to detect movement of prey and predators.
Many snakes are nocturnal (hunting at night), which means they also have excellent night vision. Ball pythons are among them. However, this is not thanks to their eyes, but to a different sense entirely. According to the Journal of Herpetology, ball pythons can actually “see” heat (infrared radiation) using specialized organs near their lips. This allows them to detect animals, such as rodents and birds, even in the pitch dark. They also have an amazing sense of smell thanks to their Jacobson’s organ, which is present in all snakes.
Why is My Ball Python Hissing At Me?
Though it’s true that ball pythons are generally quite docile, every snake can act aggressively at times. The only time your ball python will hiss at you is if she feels that you’re a threat. A hiss is designed to be intimidating, and send an unequivocal message to “leave me alone.”
If your snake is hissing at you, chances are one or more of the following apply:
- You’ve made a sudden movement which has scared your ball python. Make sure to handle snakes slowly and gently, but confidently.
- You aren’t handling her as often as you should. Regular handling (daily, or every other day) will desensitize your snake to your presence, and help her realize you’re not a threat.
- Your ball python is hungry, or has recently eaten and wants to be alone to digest.
- Your ball python is shedding. Shedding can cause stress in any snake, because of the energy it requires. Not to mention, when their eyes are clouded over, they find it difficult to see. Having poor vision will make your snake feel more on edge.
Can I Keep Ball Pythons and Other Pets?
It’s possible to keep snakes in the same house as cats and dogs. However, you must go about it sensibly.
- Never let other pets near your snake’s enclosure, as their presence may stress her out. If necessary, keep your vivarium in a dedicated room which your other pets are not allowed to enter.
- Never allow your pets in the room while you’re handling your snake. Either the snake or the other pet, may act aggressively or become stressed.
- Always wash your hands before and after handling your snake. Salmonella, which almost all snakes carry, can affect dogs and cats as well as humans.
What about other snakes? Can ball pythons be housed together? Ball pythons are solitary animals, and wouldn’t socialize with other snakes in the wild. For this reason, being housed with another snake would cause a lot of stress. Ball pythons have even been known to eat other ball pythons on rare occasions. So, always keep your ball python alone in its enclosure.
When is Ball Python Breeding Season?
Ball python breeding should only be attempted by serious snake hobbyists with plenty of experience. It’s not as simple as sticking two snakes together and waiting for eggs. However, here are the bare-bones breeding basics.
In the wild, ball pythons would breed in the spring. In captivity, ball pythons can breed all year round. It does help to lower the temperature slightly for a couple of months before putting the pair together, but this can be done at any time of year.
If breeding is successful, the female will ovulate. She will remain gravid (pregnant) for about 6-8 weeks. This can be considered the ball python gestation period; except at the end of it, she will lay eggs (rather than give birth to live young).
Ball pythons tend to lay around six eggs per clutch on average. According to the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, this can range from 3 to 14. Ball pythons naturally want to stay coiled around their eggs to protect them. However, many snake breeders choose to remove the eggs and incubate them manually, to keep a closer eye on them. The ball python egg incubation period typically lasts for around 53 to 55 days. After that, the eggs will hatch.
Are Ball Pythons Good Pets?
We love ball pythons. Most people agree with us, too. They are one of the most popular pet snakes in the U.S., and there are many good reasons for this. Ball pythons stay relatively small, and even adult females will rarely reach 5 feet.
This means that their enclosures don’t take up a lot of room, and they’re less intimidating for beginner snake owners. They’re non-venomous and very easy-going snakes, who don’t mind being handled. Even if they mistook you for prey, a bite from a ball python wouldn’t hurt much.
Another attractive aspect of ball pythons is their affordability. “Normal” (wild-type) ball pythons can sell for as little as $15 apiece. Morphs are more expensive, but some more common variations (such as pastel, fire, and spider) can be found for less than $100. Regardless of color or pattern, all ball pythons are beautiful animals that make great companions.
All in all, ball pythons make excellent pets and are perfect starter snakes. As long as you have the means and funds to take care of one, and follow our guide, a ball python would make a great addition to your home.