When you think of a boa constrictor, you might imagine a huge, terrifying predator that’ll squeeze you to death. Although they can grow quite large, boas are surprisingly docile. Boa constrictors make good pets. In this guide, we’re going to explain how to care for boa constrictors.
Boa constrictors are friendly, non-venomous snakes in the Boidae family. They can grow to be 13 feet long and have some beautiful color morphs. They are relatively easy to care for, making them a good choice for a beginner snake.
This guide will introduce you to caring for boa constrictors, including how to feed and handle them correctly. We’ll also answer frequently asked questions about asked boa constrictors.
Boa Constrictors Pet Care Guide
Boa constrictors are large, heavy-bodied snakes in the family Boidae. Native to tropical regions in the Americas and the Caribbean, these snakes love the heat.
They’re commonly found in the wild, and also popular as pets. Though they are often nicknamed “boas,” boa constrictors are a distinct species. Their family contains 48 other species of boa, according to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System.
Boa constrictors can grow to between 3 and 13 feet long, depending on various factors we’ll get into later. Regarding appearances, typical boa constrictors are usually brown, grey or cream-colored, with reddish-brown “saddle” shaped markings.
However, boa constrictor breeders have produced many different color “morphs” or variations over the years.
As their name suggests, boas capture prey by constricting (squeezing) them to death. Most people who own boa constrictors feed them pre-killed prey, as it’s safer for the snake. Still, their instinct to constrict is strong. They will still strangle already-dead prey before eating it.
What Types of Boa Constrictor Exist?
“Boa constrictor” is quite a confusing term. Scientifically, it refers to a particular species of boa. However, among herpers (snake enthusiasts), the term “boa constrictor” can refer to both boa constrictor imperator and boa constrictor.
These are two distinct types of snakes: b. c. constrictor is a subspecies of boa constrictor, whereas b. c. imperator is a separate species.
The most commonly used nicknames for b. c. imperator include “common boa,” “Colombian boa” or just “boa.” B. c. constrictor is called the “true red-tailed boa,” as it has large reddish-brown patches on its tail. There are a further 9 or so subspecies, though these are less common. Here is some information on how to tell the different species of boa apart.
Though most are greyish-brown in color, the common boa comes in many different color variations. These are also known as “morphs,” and came about thanks to selective breeding.
Here is a list of some of the most popular boa constrictor morphs (colors):
|Boa Morph||Snake Color and Pattern Description|
|Hypo Boas:||Contains less melanin (black-brown pigment) than usual. Their main body markings are both lighter in color than standard boas.|
|Albino Boas:||These are amelanistic, meaning they completely lack melanin. They’re cream to yellow in color, with orangey-red saddle markings.|
|Anery Boas:||They lack the color red. They are usually silver in color with dark grey saddle markings.|
|Ghost Boas:||They contain both anery and hypo genes. They appear similar to anery boas but are lighter in color.|
|Snow Boas:||They contain both albino and anery genes. They are a pale cream color, with whitish markings. As they age, they can become more yellow.|
Are Boa Constrictors Venomous?
As they’re a large, mammal-eating snake found in the wild, many people incorrectly assume that boa constrictors are venomous. This leads to all sorts of fears about being bitten. However, you needn’t worry. All types of boa constrictor are non-venomous.
Boa constrictors don’t produce venom. They constrict prey by wrapping their bodies around it. This constriction cuts off the blood flow.
Even if they did produce venom, they don’t have the teeth for it. Rather than having large fangs capable of injecting venom into prey, boa constrictor teeth are small and hooked.
They only use their teeth for grabbing prey, and restraining it while they constrict it. If a boa constrictor bit you, it might hurt and draw blood, but you wouldn’t become sick or die.
Are Boa Constrictors Dangerous As Pets?
As we’ve already established, boa constrictors have no venom. This means that they’re already much safer to keep in the home than a venomous snake would be. However, there is more to consider than whether their bites can poison you.
The Humane Society reported 17 constrictor-related deaths in the US since 1978, and “scores” of other incidents that did not result in death. However, not all of the culprits were boa constrictors. Many incidents involved much more dangerous snakes such as reticulated pythons.
Boa constrictors, in general, are quite placid and will not attack humans unless severely aggravated.
Boa Constrictor Temperament
Boa constrictors are docile. They’re rarely aggressive or bad-tempered, which is one of the reasons for their popularity as pets. Boas enjoy being handled and will happily sit with you, sharing the warmth of your body.
Like most snakes, as hatchlings, boas can be flighty. This is only natural. After all, they’re very small, and they’ve not yet developed a bond with humans. As your boa gets used to you with repeated handling sessions, they’ll usually become much calmer.
If a boa constrictor is acting aggressively, they’re probably sick, frightened, or have mistaken your hand for prey. They can also be more likely to act aggressively when shedding skin, and after having eaten. We recommend that you don’t handle your boa during shed or within 48 hours after a meal.
So, the boa constrictor isn’t aggressive (usually), and their bites aren’t dangerous. But what about the risk of constriction? Could a boa constrictor mistake you for prey, and try to squeeze you to death?
The chances of this happening are very slim. Most snakes tend to hunt prey that is smaller than a third of their body size. The same is true for boa constrictors.
Depending on your boa’s size, they may enjoy prey ranging from mice to rabbits. Understandably, a pet boa will not usually mistake a human for a meal. Humans are far too big.
That being said, the Humane Society publication did report seven incidences of boa constrictors squeezing young children to death. If you have an unusually large snake, it’s crucial not to allow them into contact with children or other pets. Don’t let them have free reign of the house.
One risk that you may not be aware of is the risk of contracting salmonella from your pet boa. Salmonella is a type of bacteria which can cause a moderately severe infection called salmonellosis in humans.
It causes vomiting, fever, cramps, and diarrhea. You might associate salmonella with ingesting contaminated meat or handling raw chicken, but boa constrictors can also carry it.
After handling your boa constrictor, it’s vital to wash your hands to avoid spreading salmonella. You should also shower and change your clothes if you have allowed your boa to climb on you. This is particularly important if you have, or will be interacting with, children.
In general, though, the risk of you coming into harm from your boa constrictor is quite small. They are non-aggressive, calm pets to have. As long as you practice proper boa constrictor care, and handle them safely, there’s no danger.
How Much Do Boa Constrictors Cost?
There are several costs associated with keeping boa constrictors. The first, of course, is the one-off price you’ll pay when purchasing your new snake. This will vary depending on what kind of color morph you’d like. Some morphs are far rarer and more expensive than others.
Common boas with tan-brown coloring sell for $75 – $150 each. Morphs, such as anerys and albinos, sell for between $500 and $2,000. Very rare morphs can reach prices of over $10,000 each. Examples of such morphs include “blood sunglow” boas and “diamond” boas.
You also have to consider the price of the following:
- The tank, heater, lamp and miscellaneous items for the vivarium. Altogether, this can cost hundreds of dollars to set up.
- A substrate is needed to line the bottom of the vivarium. This will be around $20 per bag, which may last you up to 6 weeks.
- You’ll need to buy food. Your boa will start off with one mouse per week (around $2 each). As they grow, they’ll need larger and more expensive rodents such as rats and rabbits.
- Vet visits. You’ll want to take your boa for occasional health checkups, which can be pricey. Not to mention, if your snake ever gets sick, an emergency vet visit could cost thousands of dollars if you don’t have a pet insurance policy.
- Heating your home. Boa constrictors like heat, so you have to make sure your home is warm when removing them from their vivarium for handling.
How to Set Up a Boa Constrictor Vivarium
If you decide to become a boa constrictor parent, your new friend will need somewhere to live. Pet snakes live in glass or plastic enclosures which we refer to as vivariums (or vivaria, if you prefer). These vivariums must include several elements to keep them happy and healthy.
1) The Tank
The first thing to consider is the enclosure itself. You can choose a plastic or glass enclosure, or a wooden one with a glass or plastic front panel. Many boa owners have a strong preference for one or the other.
Plastic enclosures tend to be easier to clean, easier to move and are less fragile. Wooden enclosures are best at retaining heat. Glass tanks look stylish, but have poor insulation, so keep this in mind if your home is cool.
You’ll need a vivarium which is large enough to allow your boa to stretch out. However, young boas can become stressed in enclosures which are too big. The vivarium’s size should follow these rules:
|Tank depth:||At least 0.5 x your boa’s length|
|Tank height:||At least 0.75 x your boa’s length|
|Tank length:||The same length as your boa. For boas larger than 5 feet long, you should aim for ¾ of your boa’s length.|
As your boa grows, you’ll need to keep moving her to a bigger enclosure. Ensure that you choose a tank that is secure. Boas are strong creatures and if they can escape, they will.
2) Heating and Lighting
Boa constrictors are tropical reptiles and thrive in a warm environment. If the vivarium is too cold, your snake could fall ill or refuse to eat. To heat your boa’s enclosure, you’ll require either:
- An under-cage heater, such as a heating mat or heat tape
- A ceramic heat emitter
- Or a basking light.
Most herpers prefer under-cage heaters as they give the most consistent heat. You should only place the heating element at one end of the enclosure. This is so that your boa can choose whether to spend time at the warm or cool end.
The warm end should be around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the cool end should be 80 Fahrenheit. It’s a good idea to purchase a thermometer so that you can monitor the temperature.
Regarding lighting, you don’t need to light the tank up. This is purely optional so that you can see your snake better. If you do, make sure your snake can’t touch the light or it may suffer burns. Only place it over the warm end of your tank, and turn it off at night.
3) Water and Humidity
Your boa constrictor will need to drink water and will enjoy bathing. So, you should always include a water bowl in your boa’s vivarium.
The water bowl should be big enough that your boa can bathe in it without feeling restricted. Be warned that your boa could defecate or urinate in the water, so replace the water (and clean the bowl) every day.
The other benefit of having a water bowl is that it helps to maintain humidity in the vivarium. Humidity should remain at around 60-75%.
Any lower than this and your boa could become unwell. It can also lead to incomplete shedding. You can buy humidity gauges to monitor the humidity. Some tips for increasing humidity include:
- Relocating your vivarium to a warmer and less drafty place
- Using a moister substrate (such as cypress mulch)
- Adding a second water bowl (or using a larger one)
- Mist the substrate using a spray bottle. Don’t leave it too wet for too long, as this can cause scale rot.
4) The Substrate
“Substrate” refers to the material which you use to line the bottom of the tank. There are many options, and it’s up to you which to use. It’s worth experimenting with different mediums. As you become more experienced as a snake owner, you’ll develop a preference.
|Substrate||Description and Features|
|Newspaper:||This doesn’t retain much humidity and is the least attractive. However, it’s the cheapest option and the easiest to replace. It can’t get into the snake’s mouth during feeding.|
|Aspen Shavings:||One of the most attractive options, but can be difficult to clean. It can stick to prey and get into the snake’s mouth.|
|Cypress Mulch and Coconut Shaving:||Quite attractive and helps to increase humidity. This can be handy at times, such as during shedding. However, the moistness means you’ll have to replace it more frequently.|
|Paper Fiber Pet Bedding:||This is heat-treated for hygiene and is more absorbent than wood shavings. It’s also attractive and comes in various colors. The downside is that it’s quite expensive to purchase.|
Along with all of the above, you’ll also need a hide for your snake. This could be a hollow log, a cardboard box, a plastic pot or a ceramic plant pot (with an entrance hole). Alternatively, you can buy purpose-made snake hides online. The hide is the only accessory you need. You can also buy:
- Tank decorations, such as sculptures and drops
- Tree branches (either real or artificial) or shelves for climbing
- Artificial plants and vines (we don’t recommend real plants, as they’re easily destroyed, and the potting soil can harbor bacteria)
These accessories only serve aesthetic purposes. Baby boas enjoy climbing, but they stay terrestrial as they get older. Make sure whatever you choose for the vivarium is easy to clean.
You should spot-clean your boa constrictor’s vivarium regularly. Every day, remove any feces and urates (solid urine) and replace your boa’s water. Clean the water bowl with a 25% vinegar solution and rinse thoroughly before filling it again.
At least monthly, remove your snake from its vivarium to clean it thoroughly. You should completely remove and replace all the substrate. Clean the inside of the tank with a chlorhexidine-based cleaner like Nolvasan to kill bacteria. You should also clean the snake’s hide and any decorations.
Feeding Boa Constrictors
Now that your new friend has got a place to live, you’re almost there. But there’s one main topic left: feeding. Boas, like all animals, need to have a meal once in a while. Let’s find out what they eat, when and how you should feed them, and how long they can go without eating.
What Do Boa Constrictors Eat?
Boa constrictors are predators, meaning they eat other animals. In the wild, they eat whatever small creatures they can find. According to research in the Journal of Herpetology, this includes mostly birds and lizards, but also small mammals.
Pet boa constrictors, kept in captivity, are happy living on mice and rats. These are the safest food options for your boa and are quite easy to get hold of.
You should feed your boa constrictor a mouse or rat which is equal to the girth of its body. A boa will ignore a mouse or rat which is too small.
If it’s too large, they’ll eat it, but will regurgitate it as it’s too large to digest. Mice and rats come in various sizes, from “pinkies” (newborn, hairless babies) to “jumbo” or extra-large. If your boa outgrows the largest rats available, you can move on to rabbits.
It’s important never to feed boa constrictors live prey. Though some herpers do this, it’s unwise. Live prey can fight back. It’s not unheard of for a rat to injure or even kill a snake. Not only that but feeding your snake pre-killed prey will help it become less aggressive.
How Do You Feed a Boa Constrictor?
So, now that you know what boa constrictors eat, how do you go about feeding them?
You must source your food. Frozen rodents are available at pet stores, but you can also use a specialist online retailer. Buying in bulk often lowers the cost. When you purchase your boa, ask the breeder what food it’s used to eating. They’ll help you decide which size mouse or rat to start with.
Once you bring your boa constrictor home, avoid feeding it for the first five days. Moving home is a stressful event for a snake. If your boa is stressed, it will likely regurgitate its meal.
To feed your boa, you should thaw the frozen mouse or rat. Place it into a Ziploc bag and submerge it in warm water for half an hour. Then, use a pair of tongs to dangle the prey in your snake’s line of sight. She will soon grasp and constrict the rodent, then begin the long feeding process.
Once your boa has finished eating, leave her alone for at least 48 hours. Avoid handling your snake for two days after feeding. The stress of handling can often cause snakes to regurgitate their food.
You can either feed your snake inside their vivarium or in a separate container. It’s really up to you, though some herpers will argue for one method or another.
If you feed in a separate container, make be very gentle when placing your boa back into their vivarium. Don’t do this for at least two hours after their meal.
How Often Should You Feed a Boa Constrictor?
Young boa constrictors need to be fed more often than adults do. Boa constrictors grow very quickly, and they’ll need a lot of fuel to support this growth.
When you purchase your boa, make sure to ask the breeder for the age of the snake. You should also ask them how often she usually feeds, to get a good starting point.
This is how often you should feed boa constrictors based on their age:
|Boa Age||Feeding Schedule|
|Baby Boas (less than 6 months)||One meal every seven days. The rodent should be slightly smaller than the diameter of the snake at its widest point (its girth).|
|Young Boas (6-12 months)||Continue feeding every seven days. But from this point on, choose a rodent equal in size to the snake’s girth. Make sure to start feeding them larger mice and rats as your snake grows.|
|Yearlings (1-2 years)||Provide a meal roughly every ten days.|
|Adult Boas (3+ years)||Feed approximately once every two weeks.|
Some people find that their adult boa only requires feeding every three weeks. However, others prefer to feed every ten days throughout the boa’s life. Use the health and happiness of your snake as a guideline.
Pregnant females need feeding slightly more often, just like pregnant women. This is because boa constrictors are viviparous (they live birth to live young). They’ll need extra nutrients while their babies are developing.
If your boa regurgitates a meal at any point, don’t attempt to feed her again for two weeks. Regurgitation may happen if your boa is stressed, or if the meal is too big. However, it can sometimes happen for seemingly no reason.
How Long Can Boa Constrictors Go Without Eating?
Sometimes, you may notice that your boa constrictor goes on a “hunger strike.” Snakes are finicky beasts, and boas will sometimes go off their food for odd reasons. These reasons may include:
- They’re shedding. Shedding is a stressful event, and boa constrictors don’t usually like to eat throughout the process. They may avoid food for a week or so before and after the shed. Eating during the process often results in regurgitation. So, if you notice that your boa is shedding, don’t offer them food.
- The temperature is too low. Boa constrictors are tropical snakes. They’re cold-blooded, so if their habitat is too cold, they can’t function properly. Ensure that your vivarium never drops below 75 Fahrenheit.
- They’re sick. Parasites, infections, diseases and internal obstructions can all prompt your snake to avoid food. Keep an eye on your snake’s health and if you’re unsure, visit a veterinarian.
- They’re stressed. Many different things can stress a snake out. For example, moving into a different environment, meeting a new person or another snake, or excessive handling.
According to research in the Journal of Experimental Biology, snakes can go months without eating. In the cited study, the researchers deliberately starved multiple species of snakes for over five months. Though they lost weight, they didn’t die.
So, if your boa constrictor hasn’t been interested in a few feeds, you don’t have to worry about them dying. However, you should look into the reasons behind your snake’s anorexia. If at all unsure, contact a veterinarian or professional herpetologist.
Frequently Asked Questions
You should now be familiar with all the basic know-how required to get you started. However, there are some additional things that you might want to know.
Do Boa Constrictors Shed Their Skin?
Yes! Boa constrictors need to shed their skin to grow. Their skin should come off in one whole piece, starting at the head. Young boa constrictors can shed up to 9 times a year. For adults, 4-5 times per year is normal.
Your boa constrictor should have no trouble shedding on its own, as long as the humidity is right. The first thing you’ll notice is your boa’s eyes becoming cloudy or “milky.”
From this point, avoid feeding or handling your snake. The eyes will eventually become clear again, and shedding will start shortly afterward.
You’ll notice your boa nudging its nose on various objects in its vivarium to get the shedding process started. The old skin will eventually start to peel off, and it’ll come off in one piece.
If your boa’s shed is incomplete, or she seems to be having problems, it may be because the humidity is too low. Try upping the humidity in your snake’s enclosure, and soaking her in a bowl of water to loosen the skin.
How Big Do Boa Constrictors Get?
Boa constrictors start off small. Newborn boas are approximately as big as the palm of your hand (curled up). However, they don’t stay small for long.
During the first few years of life, boa constrictors grow quickly, and they never stop growing. Even once they reach adulthood, your boa constrictor will continue to grow for the rest of its life.
Adult boa constrictors commonly reach lengths of 6 to 13 feet. Your boa constrictor’s size will depend on how long it lives, and how well you take care of it. Feeding your boa more often will cause it to grow larger. However, it’s important not to deliberately overfeed as it can lead to obesity and premature death.
Interestingly, females tend to grow larger than males. This may be because larger females can carry larger (and more) babies, which would help the species survive.
A report in the scientific journal Spixiana identified a boa constrictor which was approximately 14.9 feet long. Though it’s rare for boas to reach such lengths, you can never be sure how big yours will grow.
What’s a Healthy Weight for Boa Constrictors?
Boa constrictors grow throughout their lives. They reach maturity (adulthood) around the age of 3, but they continue to grow throughout adulthood. As they get larger, they’ll weigh more.
If you follow our above feeding guide, your boa constrictor should stay at a healthy weight throughout her life. However, if you feed her too often or not often enough, that could change.
The best way of determining whether your snake is a healthy weight is by visually examining it.
- The Spine. Your snake’s body should be rounded and smooth. If your snake’s spine sticks out or comes to a point, it’s a sign that they’re too thin. However, if you notice raised fat reserves on either side of the spine, your snake is overweight.
- The Skin. Your boa’s skin should be taught. If the skin feels stretchy, or they have extra loose skin, they may be underweight. Also, examine your boa’s scales. If the scales appear to spread out, with skin in between each scale, your boa may be overweight.
- The Shape. An underweight snake may have a concave belly. On the other hand, an overweight snake may have “fat rolls” or creases when they curl up. Take a look at the tail area, too. If there’s a bulge of fat just before the tail begins, this is a sign that they’re overweight.
If you suspect that your snake may be over or underweight, take them to a veterinarian for confirmation. Then, adjust their diet accordingly.
How Long Do Boa Constrictors Live?
In captivity, the average life expectancy for a boa constrictor is 20 to 30 years. Some live even longer than this. It all depends on how well you take care of them. Providing adequate water, humidity and food (without overfeeding) is the best way to ensure a long lifespan.
When deciding to purchase an animal, you must factor their lifespan into your timeline. A boa constrictor, like any species of snake, is a long-term commitment.
If you can’t dedicate 20 to 30 years of your life to looking after an animal, a snake probably isn’t the best choice. Most snake species have similarly long lifespans to boa constrictors.
What Are the Common Boa Constrictor Health Problems?
Boa constrictors are one of the hardiest types of pet snake. They’re quite forgiving of care mistakes in general. However, like all other animals, they experience health problems. Here are the most common ailments:
- Parasites. The most common parasite is the snake mite (ophionyssus natricis). You may be able to spot small insects living on your snake’s body, or in their water bowl.
- Respiratory Infections. These can come about from poor humidity or inadequate heat. You might notice labored breathing, wheezing or nasal discharge.
- Scale Rot. This can occur as a result of the snake’s environment being too hot, or too humid. You may notice some scales looking damaged or discolored, usually on the belly. It’s often accompanied by blisters.
- Mouth Rot. This is an infection which is usually triggered by some underlying condition. It can be identified by swelling and redness of the oral tissue, and pus around the mouth.
- Inclusion Body Disease (IBD). This is a very serious disease, caused by a virus. According to the Journal of Virology, it exclusively affects the family Boidae. Sadly, IBD is almost always fatal. Early signs include anorexia (poor appetite), regurgitation, head tremors, and mouth-breathing. In the later stages, your boa will start to lose control of her movement.
Boa constrictors can also suffer from ailments such as organ disease, cancer, and even gout. If you suspect any health problems with your boa, read our guide and take it to a veterinarian for advice.
How Do You Handle Boa Constrictors?
Many people consider handling to be one of the most fun parts of snake ownership. Handling refers to getting the snake out of its enclosure and allowing it to slither over your arms and body.
You don’t need to handle your boa constrictor if you don’t want to. Handling is purely for our amusement. However, if you choose not to handle your boa constrictor for weeks at a time, she may object to being handled again. Regular and consistent handling will keep your snake tame. Here are some tips:
- Wash your hands before and after handling your boa. If you smell like food, your snake may mistake you for prey. They can also carry bacteria like salmonella. If you’d prefer, you can wear protective gloves when handling.
- Use a snake hook to lift your snake out of their vivarium. If you use a snake hook every time, your snake will learn that the hook means it’s handling time and won’t expect food.
- Be confident. If you’re nervous or panicky, your snake won’t appreciate it. Make slow, deliberate movements and be gentle. Don’t “flap” or make sudden movements as your snake could become stressed or mistake your hands for prey.
- Recognize the signs of stress. If your boa is hissing, striking, thrashing around, drawing back or trying to get away from you, these are signs that she does not want to be held right now.
- Don’t grab your snake’s head. Hold your boa from the mid-body area, rather than the head, neck or tail. When handling your snake, try to support their body as much as possible.
- Avoid handling while shedding, and for 48 hours after feeding. If you ever move your snake to a new environment, leave it alone for 5 to 7 days before handling it again.
Can Two Boa Constrictors Live Together?
It’s easy to imagine that your boa constrictor might get lonely, spending all of its life by itself. However, boa constrictors are strictly solitary animals.
In the wild, they would never choose to socialize with another snake. The only reason you’d ever find a boa with another is during the mating season. Boas in the wild mate roughly once per year, and avoid each other the rest of the time.
For this reason, boas don’t usually get on well when housed with other snakes. Housing two snakes together could create so much stress that your snake may even stop eating.
There’s a chance your snakes may fight, which could lead to injury. If one snake is significantly smaller than the other, it may even end up becoming the other snake’s meal.
So, avoid the temptation to purchase a friend for your boa constrictor. You’re free to purchase a second snake – make sure it has its own vivarium.
Are Boa Constrictors a Good Beginner Pet?
In general, boa constrictors make good beginner snakes. They’re beautiful creatures that can bring so much joy to our lives. Boas are relatively easy to take care of once you know how and are usually remarkably tame. However, you’re the only one who can decide if a boa constrictor is right for you. Before making your decision, ask yourself:
- Would I be comfortable handling and feeding a snake which could grow to be 13 feet long?
- Do I have the funds to properly house, feed, and care for a boa constrictor?
- Will I have the resources and time to take care of this animal for the next 20 to 30 years?
Along with the above, there is one more thing that any boa constrictor owner needs: a love and passion for snakes. If you have the necessary resources, time and dedication, boa constrictors are very rewarding reptiles to keep as pets.