Like any pet, ball pythons (royal pythons) can and do get sick. There are many signs that your snake isn’t feeling well, and it’s absolutely crucial that you learn about them so that you can get your snake healthy again.
Health problems in ball pythons most commonly affect the skin, mouth, and respiratory system. If you notice changes in your ball python’s behavior and attitude to handling, it’s likely to be sick. Personality changes can indicate pain, stress, and unhappiness.
A sick ball python will only get worse if it’s left untreated. Some health problems, such as snake mites and regurgitation, can easily be treated at home. Other health problems and diseases require care from a vet.
Is My Ball Python Sick?
We’ll look at the most common ball python health issues. You’ll then be able to help your ball python to recover from illness as soon as possible.
Respiratory Infection (RI)
Respiratory infections are the most common health problem for ball pythons. The snake’s nose, throat, and lungs will be clogged by mucus, saliva, and bacteria. Here are the signs of respiratory infection:
- Holding its head up (stargazing)
- Breathing with its mouth open
- Wheezing sounds during breathing
- Gurgling sounds when breathing
- Blowing bubbles from its mouth
- Mucus dripping from the nose/mouth
Respiratory infections can be reversed in the early stages. As they are usually caused by environmental factors, housing the snake in the right conditions may be enough to clear up a respiratory infection.
Optimal temperatures and humidity levels are species-specific. Check that the enclosure is warm enough and the humidity level is optimal.
Mouth Rot Signs (Stomatitis Signs)
Mouth rot in ball pythons occurs when the snake has a bacterially-infected wound in its mouth, perhaps due to losing a tooth or fang. You can tell that a ball python has mouth rot due to the following:
- Their mouth will smell bad because of the infection
- The inside of its mouth, especially near the wound, will be pink or red
- The wound may be ‘weeping,’ i.e. oozing pus
- The snake won’t want to eat food because its mouth hurts
- Mucus and saliva will drain from its mouth and nose
It’s vital to get mouth rot treated quickly. If the infection gets into its bloodstream—which it definitely can—then the snake will develop sepsis. Mouth rot itself isn’t fatal, but sepsis is a life-threatening condition.
To treat mouth rot, laboratory testing will be required. The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association has stated that there are several kinds of bacteria that can be responsible for mouth rot. It’s vital that the vet identifies which bacteria is infecting the snake.
Once the bacteria have been identified, antibiotics will be issued. These antibiotics could be injections or tablets that are taken orally.
Stress in Snakes
Ball pythons can get stressed out. Stress in snakes is the result of many easily preventable husbandry issues, such as:
- Housing multiple snakes together in the same enclosure, which almost all species dislike. Snakes are not social animals.
- Housing snakes in an enclosure that’s too warm or cold
- A particularly noisy living environment
- The snake’s enclosure is in the same room as other pets
The most obvious sign of stress in ball pythons is head rubbing, especially if your snake is rubbing its head against things when it isn’t shedding.
This can be a sign of a mite infestation (see below), but it can also be a sign of stress. If this behavior continues, then your ball python can develop raw spots and sores on its head and/or nose.
Snakes can catch parasites just like any other pet. Both ticks and mites feed on the snake while they’re inside their enclosure. They then scuttle off to the corners of the enclosure to places where they won’t be disturbed.
Mites and ticks are easy to spot as they’re visible to the naked eye. Mites look like small, round, black seeds. Check along their back to see if there are any mites moving around.
But look around their eyes—mites like to sit around the edge of a snake’s eye. Ticks are larger. Initially, they’ll appear as small black dots as big as apple pips with their heads hidden underneath the snake’s scales. As they feed, they will start to get bigger and more noticeable.
To get rid of mites and ticks, the best option we’ve found is Provent a Mite. It’s the only mite spray created by a breeder with experience with snakes. It’s also the only product that will not hurt your snake.
When you treat mites and ticks, you have to make sure to spray both the snake itself and its enclosure. That’s because ticks and mites will hide around the enclosure while they digest their blood meal.
Remove the snake and use the spray in accordance with the instructions provided with the can. Then spray the entire enclosure (after it’s been cleaned) and leave the spray to dry before putting the snake back in.
Snakes can develop issues during their shed. Normally due to environmental factors, the snake will be unable to shed all of its skin at once. It will come off in small patches, causing the snake stress.
Most shedding issues center around the eye caps and the tail. If the snake can’t shed its eye caps, it can go blind. A snake that can’t shed its tail could get a bacterial infection that potentially leads to sepsis.
Increase the humidity in your snake’s enclosure. The extra humidity will make the snake’s skin less dry, and will help it to come away. Alternatively, you should allow your ball python to soak in a bowl of warm water.
Provide it with a small, shallow bowl of fresh water. Make sure that it can easily get out of the bowl on its own before you leave it to soak. It’ll ‘bathe’ for as long as is required, and should then find it easier to shed.
Twitching and Neurological Issues
More regular twitching and spasming might be related to neurological issues. A head wobble, for example, is a condition that specific morphs of ball python have.
Essentially, the head wobble is where the snake can’t balance properly. When it’s offered food, its head wobbles back and forth. When it attempts to strike, it loses its bearings and misses.
The snake may also find it difficult to tell up from down. The only snakes that get head wobble are spider morph ball pythons, and any morph that includes the spider variation. These include the following:
- Spider morph ball pythons
- Bumblebee morph ball pythons
- WOMA and Hidden Gene WOMA ball pythons
- Champagne morph ball pythons
- Super sable morph ball pythons
- Powerball ball pythons
There is no ‘cure’ for a head wobble as it’s a neurological condition.
Inclusion Body Disease (IBD)
According to the Journal of Virology, ball pythons can get Inclusion body disease. IBD is a relatively newly-found disease that is fatal.
It primarily affects boids, especially boa constrictors, but it can also affect pythons. Unfortunately, this means that ball pythons are also at risk.
It’s a neurological problem, meaning that it affects the snake’s brain and nervous system in the following ways:
- Corkscrewing. It’ll twist itself into a corkscrew shape that it has major difficulty getting out of.
- Difficulty striking prey. When a ball python tries to strike, it’ll miss and curl up into a distinctive corkscrew shape.
- Unable to tell between up and down. You’ll find the snake lying on its back sometimes, unaware that it should try and right itself.
- Stargazing. The snake will sometimes get stuck ‘stargazing,’ with its head lifted, as if it’s looking up.
- Loss of weight. The snake may experience regurgitation and weight loss, although this doesn’t affect every ball python with IBD.
- Congestion. The snake’s nostrils will get clogged, and it’ll have trouble breathing. This is the same as if it has a respiratory infection.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for IBD. All you can do is quarantine your ball python to make sure that the disease doesn’t spread. It’s highly contagious and can kill all of your pythons and boas if you aren’t careful.
Isolate the snake in its own enclosure. Wash your hands before and after handling other snakes to prevent transmission, or wear disposable gloves.
With improper care, it’s easy for a ball python to get fat. Whether this is because you’re feeding it too much or too often, the symptoms are the same.
If your snake is overweight, you’ll notice:
- Large around the middle. All snakes are slightly larger in the middle third of their body, because that’s where their organs are located. The top third of the body is all neck, and the bottom third is tail.
- Thick neck. This is because they have extra fat reserves.
- Scale spreading. This is where the snake has become so large that you can see gaps between its scales, revealing its skin. You’ll notice this especially around the snake’s middle and neck.
If the snake is underweight, or has become anorexic, then you’ll notice these symptoms instead:
- Concave sides. The snake’s sides will be concave rather than convex. This means that its sides curve inwards rather than outwards.
- Spine. The snake will have a clear ridge along its back. This is its spine, and it’s showing through because it’s lost so much weight.
- Ribs. You’ll be able to see the snake’s ribs because the muscle and fat have been used up.
To help a ball python to stay healthy, check our care guide. We detail exactly how much ball pythons are supposed to be eating, whether they’ve just hatched or they’re 10 years old.