Ultimate Ball Python Care Guide
I've learned a ton since I first got Melusina in February, and I've been working on a more comprehensive guide based on my experience and my research. I am working on making a dedicated site for my snake ramblings, but for now I am gonna post a ton of good information here while still trying to get Jekyll to play nice with PureCSS's grid system.
Ball pythons are a very shy snake, and while they are beautiful and docile, even the tiniest bit of stress can send them down the road of a hunger strike. They will 'go off feed' for months at a time (it has happened to me!) and you can triple check and quadrupal check your husbandry and still be baffled as to why your snake isn't eating. To a beginner, this can be escpecially firghtening. Here I have outlined some of the basics of keeping ball python along with product recommendations. Most of these will be from Amazon, but some of them will be from reptile specific companies. I recommend that you purchase everything you will need at least two weeks before you bring the actual snake home with you, so that you can get everything set up and make adjustments if you have to. When I got my boa, I had his home set up a week before hand and that allowed me to observe humidity, temps, and make small adjustments before he arrived!
Humidity A ball python needs at the minimum 60% humidity. This is incredibly difficult to achieve in a glass tank with a screen top. A tub or PVC enclosure makes this super easy as there is less airflow. Humidity should be measured on the ground with a digital hygrometer. The stick on humidity gauges that pet stores hawk are often inaccurate and can cause serious injury or even death if they come unstuck from the wall and stick to your snake. I use this two in one hygrometer / thermometer. I use a dab of hot glue to affix the probe to the center of the warm side of the enclosure, and keep the unit itself on the cool side. This way the "outdoor" temp shows my warm side, and the "indoor temp" shows the cool side/ambient temperature.
Temperature Ball pythons need a thermo-gradiant w one "warm" end between 88F and 90F and a "cool" end of 78Fish - the ambient temperature should never be below 75F, & should be around high 70's. In a tub or a PVC enclosure, you will want an under tank heater - heat tap, heat mats, heat pads. I recommend the flexwatt that you can get with the Animal Plastics enclosure or the ultratherm from Reptile Basics. If you have trouble keeping the ambient up in the PVC enclosure, you may want to get a radiant heat panel, which installs to the ceiling of the enclosure. For a glass tank, you will probably need a ceramic heat emitter installed over the cage to keep ambient temperatures appropriate. CHE sucks out humidity, so you will need to be extra on top of that. CHE gives off no visible light. Red lights are often given out like candy at PetCo/Smart places as good ways to provide heat at night. They are not. Ball pythons can see red light, and it messes up their day/night cycle. You will also want an IR thermometer gun. This is good for spot checking temperatures without moving around probes & also checking the temps of the prey items.
Thermostats Any & all heat sources you have for your ball python need to be controlled by a thermostat. Failure to appropriately control your heat source can lead to it quickly becoming 120F and injuring your snake. I highly recommend Spyder Robotics Herpstats. You can get larger ones w more probes so that you can control all your heat sources w one unit. They have a ton of good safety features.. The cheaper ones are around $100ish. If that is too much for you, there are a lot of people who use the Jumpstart thermostats, but they have less safety features & can wear out quickly. They also make a loud clicking sound periodically. I cannot stress this enough, this is not a place to cut corners. You need a thermostat.
The PVC Enclosure I have has cut outs on the bottom of the enclosure to put thermostat probes. I have the probe in that slot, and the under tank heater taped with aluminum tape to the outside bottom. The heat goes through the plastic and heats the floor of the enclosure. I have the thermostat set to 98F, and that puts the floor temperature of the enclosure at 90F. Even though I have the thermostat, I also always check the thermometer I have affixed to the inside floor to make sure the thermostat is working. For Radient Heat Panels, you wil want to dangle the probe next to the RHP. The RHP will be screwed to the ceiling, and you then dril a hole to dangle the probe through or drill a hole on the side to slide it in and then affix it to the ceiling.
Enclosure Glass tanks with screen lids are very bad for ball pythons. Glass tanks are bad at keeping heat in, and the screen lid is bad at keeping humidity in. For a cheap but effective route, you could look at getting a tub set up (using a rubber maid/sterilite /iris tub & soldering or drilling holes into the sides - here is a good tutorial of setting that up ). I highly recommend the Iris Weathertight, it has plenty of clips on the edge for security. If you choose another type, without these locking clamps, you should also look at luggage straps for security.
Another option is a PVC enclosure. I have an Animal Plastics T8 for my ball python. It has sliding glass doors, I installed LED's myself, and I got it with the flexwatt under tank heater. It came unassembled, but with clear directions, I was able to build it and install my LED lighting in a single evening. Another reputable maker of PVC cages is Boaphile, I have not had direct experience with them, but their cages come pre-assembled, and you can ask for the lighting and heating to already be set up. For my Animal Plastics cage, it did take about five weeks for it to show up. If you want to go this route, plan way ahead. The tub route is cheaper, but takes more DIY skills. The PVC cage route is more expensive, but very aesthetically pleasing.
If there is absolutely no way around having a glass tank, you can cover three sides of it in foam board (ball pythons hate being exposed) to give them more security, and to help keep some heat in. You can also cover about 3/4ths of the screen lid in saran wrap to help keep humidity in. Using a substrate like coconut husk can also help with humidity. You may still end up having to mist the tank a few times a day, and you may have to keep the temperature of the room the tank is in higher to help out.
Regardless of what type of enclosure you get, it should be kept in a room with minimal sound and activity. Keeping it in a busy living room will result in a stressed ball python.
Hides You want at least two similar, enclosed hides. Half logs are NOT suitable, they are too open & they stress out the BP, as they can't watch both ends at once for a predator. Some of the best hides are these ones from Reptile Basics. They are enclosed on all sides with just a small entrance. They are dishwasher safe & also very cheap. If you want a more naturalistic looking hide, these are suitable as they are enclosed on all sides and have only one entrance.
You want them to be similar if not identical, so that the snake does not have to choose between feeling safe & thermoregulating. You will want one on each side of the temperature gradient. Feel free to add more that are different for diversity in the enclosure. I also have some fake vines and leaves in mine so that she feels more invisible.
Water dish You will want a water bowl that is large enough for the ball python to soak in. This should be changed daily, as they like to poop & pee in their water. You'll want something sturdy as they like to tip them over. I got some crock dishes from Reptile Basics. You don't need any water treatment for the snakes water unless you treat water for yourself. If you tap is safe for human consumption, it's safe for your snake.
Feeding Ball pythons eat every 5 - 7 days as hatchlings and yearlings, as adults they can go longer. Ball pythons are NOTORIOUSLY picky eaters. The ideal for a ball python is a proper sized rat fed either pre-killed or frozen/thawed. I feed frozen/thawed rats from Perfect Prey. Just a heads up - they ship with fiber glass insulation & dry ice. I try to open the packages outside so my cats don't get into it. They come in freezer bags and I just store them in my regular freezer. If even one thing is wrong in your husbandry, your ball python will likely not eat.
How Much To Feed The feeding amount depends on the weight of the ball python. You will want a digital kitchen scale. While under 750g, you want to feed about 10%-15% of their body weight about every 7 days. Once they are in their second year you want to feed 7%-10% of their body weight, after they are in their third year, you want to feed about 5% every 7 to 14 days. I document all feeding days and the weight of the prey in my google calender.
You should be weighing your snake at least once a month to track how much you should be feeding. You should not disturb or move or handle your snake for at least 48 hours after feeding.
Frozen / Thawed I get the rat out the night before the day I want to feed. I put it in the fridge. About two hours before I feed, I get it out of the fridge and put it on the counter to get it to room temp. And then I soak it in a zip lock bag in warmish water (I use a temp gun to get water around 110F) for about 20 minutes, and use a temp gun to make sure the rat is around 100F, and then I run the head under running hot water until its 110F. The head of the prey should be warmer so the snake has a target. I then use tongs to move it around in the enclosure to mimic it being alive. She (usually) strikes pretty quickly. If she doesn't, I leave it in overnight, and throw it out in the morning if she doesn't eat it.
I prefer frozen thawed cause I can buy cheaply in bulk. It's also safer. As ball pythons get bigger, they require larger prey - and rats have sharp teeth and sharp claws and can seriously injure your snake. Mice are not as nutriucious as rats, and as your ball python gets older, mice will be too small to be a full meal, meaning you will have to feed multiple prey items. Feeding multiple prey items is stressful on the snake and usually after they swallow one, they are reluctant to try another. The sooner you switch to rats, the easier your life will be.
Myths of Cage Aggression You do not need a separate cage for feeding it. This is a myth. The best way to reduce stress at feeding time is to feed in their regular enclosure. This minimizes the risk of regurgitation.
Substrate Stay away from aromatic woods - such as pine. A lot of people like to use coconut husk, unprinted newspaper, or paper towels. Newspaper and paper towels are cheap and it is easy to clean up messes. They do not help raise humidity, though. Coconut husk or ReptiHhip are great for a naturalistic look and can help keep or raise humidity. They require soaking in water before hand, and then either allowing to dry or baking. I will soak them in water over night, and then let them air dry for a bit before throwing them in the stove for about an hour at 250F. After I get them out, I let them cool down and then add to the enclosure. You can remove them both, rinse and bake them multiple times. These should last a year before you need to buy new. I scoop out the solid wastes when I see them, and then every few months rinse and bake. There might be small wood mites in these, but the baking process or boiling it before hand should kill them. There should not be snake mites in these. Either way, boiling or baking will kill them. If you have a chip type substrate and are worry about ingestion of substrate while feeding, put a plate down before hand. Aspen can mold super easily so not really recommended unless you want to be changing out your substrate often, which might stress out your ball python.