Like any pet, ball pythons (royal pythons) can get sick. There are many signs that your snake isn’t feeling too well, and it’s crucial that you learn about them so that you can keep your snake healthy and contented.
It’s vital that you identify health conditions before they worsen. Left untreated, most can kill your snake. We’ll be looking at each of the most common ball python health problems, and detailing what signs to look for so that you can help your snake to recover from illness.
Respiratory Infection (RI)
Respiratory infections are perhaps the most common problem for a snake to experience. They’re similar to the respiratory infections humans get. Essentially, the snake’s nose, throat, and lungs are then clogged by mucus, saliva and bacteria/viruses.
There are many signs that a ball python has a respiratory infection:
- The snake holding its head up (ball python stargazing)
- The snake breathing with their mouth open, rather than just through their nose
- The snake making a wheezing sound when they breathe (a sign that they’re finding it difficult)
- The snake making gurgling sounds when they breathe (a sign that their airways are blocked)
- Mucus dripping from their nose or the corners of their mouth
Respiratory infections are easily reversed in the early stages. As they are usually caused by environmental factors, housing the snake adequately is often enough to help them get over a respiratory infection. In particular, you should check if their enclosure is warm enough, and at the right level of humidity for them.
Mouth Rot Signs (Stomatitis Signs)
Mouth rot is widespread in snakes of all kinds, and ball pythons are no exception. It occurs when the snake has an infected wound in their mouth, especially as a result of losing a tooth/fang.
You can tell that a ball python has mouth rot because of the following:
- Their mouth will smell particularly unpleasant, because of the infection
- The inside of their mouth, especially around the wound, will appear pink or red
- The wound may be ‘weeping,’ i.e., oozing pus
- The snake won’t want to eat their food because their mouth hurts when they try
- Mucus and saliva will drain from their mouth and nose. This is most likely if the infection travels to the throat and lungs, which causes the same respiratory infection symptoms described above
It’s vital to get mouth rot treated quickly. If the infection gets into their bloodstream—which it can, and suddenly, too—then the snake will have sepsis. Mouth rot itself isn’t fatal, but sepsis is.
To treat mouth rot, take the snake to a vet immediately. They will either prescribe or recommend antibiotics. It’s important that the vet identifies which bacteria is infecting the snake. The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association has stated that there are several kinds.
These antibiotics may be injections, or tablets are taken orally. You should also endeavor to keep the wound itself clean to kill the infection there.
Stress in Snakes
Yes, it’s true—ball pythons can get stressed out too. 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
- Housing snakes in an enclosure that’s too warm or too cold
The most obvious sign of stress in ball pythons is head rubbing, especially if they’re rubbing their head against things when they aren’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 they can develop raw spots and sores on their head/nose.
If this happens, figure out what’s causing their stress and correct it. Treat the open wounds as you would any wounds, by disinfecting them.
Mites and ticks are common ball python skin problems. 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 can’t be disturbed.
Mites and ticks are easy to spot. They’re visible to the naked eye. Mites look like small, round, black seeds. Check along their back to see if you can see any of them 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 can get bigger, until they’re the size of a broad bean.
To get rid of mites and ticks, the best option 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 their enclosure. That’s because ticks and mites will hide around the enclosure while they digest their meal (they feed on blood).
Remove the snake, and use the spray following the instructions provided with the can. Then spray the entire enclosure and leave the spray to dry before putting the snake back in. This should prevent mites in the future as well as kill any that are present.
Aside from that, snakes can develop issues during their shed. Occasionally, normally due to environmental factors, the snake will be unable to shed all of their skin at once. It will come off in small patches instead, which causes the snake plenty of stress.
This often co-occurs with other problems like mites and ticks. That’s because shedding problems are related to poor husbandry, which also causes other issues to flourish, like mites.
Increase the humidity in your snake’s enclosure. The extra humidity will make the snake’s skin less dry, and will help it come off. Alternatively, you could give them a bath.
Provide them with a small, shallow bowl of fresh water like this one from ExoTerra. Make sure that they can easily get out of the bowl on their own before you leave them alone. They’ll ‘bathe’ for as long as they need, and should then find it easier to shed.
Afterward, if you like, handle the snake in a soft towel. Hold them relatively firmly, but not to a level that will hurt. This will help them scrape the last remaining skin away. Pay attention to their eye caps and tail tip to make sure they come off too.
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 they’re offered food, their head wobbles back and forth. When they try to strike, they lose their bearings and miss.
The snake may also find it difficult to tell up from down. The only snakes that get a 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 (i.e., it affects the brain).
Inclusion Body Disease (IBD)
According to the Journal of Virology, ball pythons can get IBD. IBD/inclusion body disease is a relatively new disease which is invariably fatal.
It’s best known for affected boids, especially boa constrictors, but it can affect pythons too. Burmese pythons and ball pythons are both affected.
It’s a neurological problem, meaning that it affects the snake’s brain and nervous system in the following ways:
- The snake will ‘corkscrew.’ They’ll twist themselves into a corkscrew shape that they have difficulty getting out of.
- The snake will find it difficult to strike at prey. When they try and strike, they’ll miss and curl up in the distinctive corkscrew shape.
- The snake will have trouble telling between up and down. As such, you’ll find them lying on their back sometimes, unaware that they should try and right themselves. If they’re lying normally and you flip them onto their back, they won’t react.
- The snake will sometimes get stuck ‘stargazing,’ with their head lifted, as if they’re looking up.
- The snake may also experience regurgitation and weight loss, although this doesn’t affect every snake with IBD.
- The snake’s nostrils will get clogged, and they’ll have trouble breathing. This is the same as when the snake has a respiratory infection.
Unfortunately, no cure for IBD is currently known. All you can do is quarantine the snake to make sure that the disease can’t spread. It’s highly contagious, and can kill entire collections if you aren’t very careful.
Isolate the snake in their own enclosure if possible. Wash your hands prior and after handling any individual snake to prevent transmission, or better yet, wear disposable gloves.
Overweight or Underweight
With improper care, it’s easy for a ball python to get too fat or too thin. Whether this is because you’re not feeding them the correct amount, or because they’re refusing food, the symptoms are the same. If your snake is overweight, you’ll notice:
- The snake will be especially large around the middle. All snakes are slightly larger in the middle third of their body, because that’s where their organs are (the top third is all neck, and the bottom third is tail).
- The snake will have a big, thick neck. Again, this is because they have extra fat reserves.
- Overweight snakes display ‘scale spreading.’ This is where they’ve become large enough that you can see gaps between their scales, where you can see their skin. This only occurs on obese snakes. You’ll notice it especially around the snake’s middle and their neck.
By contrast, if the snake is underweight, then you’ll notice these symptoms instead:
- The snake’s sides will be concave rather than convex. This means that their sides curve inwards rather than outwards.
- The snake will have a clear and distinctive ridge along their back. This is their spine, and it’s showing through because they’ve lost so much weight.
- 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 they’re supposed to be eating, whether they’ve just hatched or they’re ten years old.