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A Ball Python How-to, and Troubleshooting Guide.
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Old 02-25-2013, 02:33 PM   #1
A Ball Python How-to, and Troubleshooting Guide.

Welcome to my “How-to Ball Python” guide. You might be here for a few reasons, so I will break everything down into sections. The first section is a basic intro for people thinking about getting a ball python, followed by a very basic tank set up and needs list. Lastly are some troubleshooting tips in case your ball python is having issues.

This care guide is a basic overview of ball python care. You may do something different that works for your animals; this is meant to be a starter and troubleshooting guide for new keepers.

The number one thing you need to do BEFORE you get your brand new shiny ball python is have everything fully researched and set up. The tank should be set up and temps balanced a minimum of three days before you bring home the BP. Ball pythons are very shy and stress easily. You don’t want to bring home a new critter and spend the first few days fiddling, fiddling, and fiddling with the enclosure. It is crucial to have everything running and heating properly before you bring home your ball python. That will save you a major headache in the long run.

So I think I want a ball python.

You are in the right place! This section contains some basic info on choosing the right BP, some basic BP info and things you might not hear from the pet store.

Is a ball python right for me?

If you want a display snake that is out and about all the time, BPs are not a good choice. BPs are shy snakes who like to hide. It is not in their nature to be out and about and visible at all times. In the wild BPs spend the vast majority of their time in burrows. Placing them in wide open glass tanks is not ideal, especially for babies. Most do best in enclosed rack systems. However, if they are set up correctly, BPs can be awesome pets. Many adapt will to being handled and do well as a big lap snake. There are a wide variety of morphs to choose from and many new morphs are being created each year. BPs are fairly tame and are not prone to aggression. They generally stay a manageable size of under 6 feet.

Choosing your ball python.

One thing I can not stress enough is, “cheaper is not always better.”

My number one recommendation for all new BP keepers in to get a captive-bred, and captive-hatched ball python. If this is your first one, do not get a farm-hatched import. Those generally have a harder time getting started and some fail to thrive. Try to find a breeder that is open to answering your questions. Inquire about the type of food it is being fed, and how often it has eaten. If you are opposed to feeding live, try to find a breeder that is already feeding frozen/thawed. Ball python babies can be very difficult to switch over to from live prey to frozen/thawed. It’s best to find one that is already eating what you prefer to feed. Picking a baby that looks established and has a nice plump body is ideal. You want them to have eaten at least three meals for the breeder.

Most chain pet store ball pythons are farm-hatched and can have feeding issues. I do not recommend getting a baby ball python from a chain pet store. Search around for reptile shows or breeders in your area. You might have to wait a little longer, but it will be worth it in the end.

As I mentioned earlier, make sure the tank is fully set up before you bring your new ball python home. Ask the breeder what type of bedding/substrate they are using. Most babies do really well if they are set up similar to what the breeder was doing. You can modify the set-up down the road, but it really helps them settle in better if conditions are similar.

Like all snakes, ball pythons do best on their own. Do not put more than one snake per tank. They do not require any special UV lights, but a heat lamp is generally needed to keep temps up.

Setting up the enclosure and general care tips.

The most common choices out there are glass tanks and plastic tubs. I highly recommend plastic tubs for juvenile BPs. They hold heat much better and offer a sense of security. A 10 gallon or similar is a good starter size. For adults a 41 quart tub or 40 gallon tank is good. The ideal housing for them in an enclosed rack system, but I know not everyone uses racks.

If you are using a tub, you will need to create some vent holes for air. I use an inexpensive soldering iron from Walmart. These typically cost $5 or so. Use the hot end of the soldering iron to poke holes in the plastic. Do this outside because it will smell a bit. Poke holes along the tub about two inches from the top. Start with a few holes on each side. You can always add more holes later. You want to make sure there is air flow to prevent stagnant air.

If you are using a glass tank you will need to make some modifications. Glass is very difficult to maintain heat and humidity in. You need to cover at least half of the lid with cardboard or a towel. You also need to use aquarium background or paper to cover several of the sides. All the wide-open area can really make a BP nervous and it may stop eating. Covering the sides is the best thing you can do for your snake. With a glass aquarium you will also need an overhead light or heater. The two best choices are the red bulb heat lights or a ceramic heat emitter. Bright white lights can be too harsh.

The target temperatures are as follows:
  • 80F ambient temps, upper 70’s on the cool side.
  • 90F basking temps, upper 80’s on the warm side.
  • 75F or below is unhealthy. Night drops in temps are not necessary.

If your home is cool, you may need to run two UTHs- one on the cool side and one on the warm side if you can not use a light. Being too cool will cause your ball python serious health problems. They will refuse to eat, and will develop respiratory infections in temps below 75F. It’s very important to remember that ball pythons are from Central and West Africa; they cannot be kept at the same temperatures as corn snakes. Never use hot rocks to heat the enclosure, they can severely burn your ball python.

When you are measuring temperature, place the probe directly on the glass. You want to measure the heat right where the snake is. The temp should be in the high upper 80’s on the warm side. You can adjust the UTH with a thermostat. Never run an UTH without a temperature controller of some kind. The UTH can overheat and kill your snake.

Here’s a little trick I use when I attach a UTH to tank. Most manufacturers want you to peal and stick them directly on the tank; this makes them almost impossible to remove and the tank harder to clean. What I do is peel off the paper and wrap the sticky side in foil tape. It's not regular duct tape, but the foil tape that is meant to take high heat. Now you have a heater that is movable and reusable! I just attach it to the bottom of the tank with a little more of the foil tape. You can easily remove and reattach the UTH if you need to change tanks or clean them.

Foil Tape Link: Duck Brand HVAC Metal Repair Aluminum Foil Tape.

Once you have the UTH attached it’s important to make sure there is air flow under the tank. I like to use bottle caps to make feet for the tank. Just place a bottle cap in each corner and attach them with hot glue or the same foil tape you attached the UTH with. Air flow helps the UTH run smoother and not overheat or burn out. It also protects whatever surface the tank is sitting on from thermal burns.

If you are using a heat lamp to keep the temps up, you can attach it a couple of different ways. One way is to place the lamp directly on the lid of tank. If you are doing this, make sure the lid is a metal mesh and not plastic or the lamp will melt right through. The second way is to use a lamp stand- this is much safer. You can adjust the height of the stand as needed and the stand keeps the lamp from making direct contact with the lid.

Next you need to pick a substrate. Pure cypress bedding is ideal. The humidity needs to stay between 50-60% at all times. Cypress really holds humidity well without getting moldy or needing constant misting. Repti-Bark is also a good choice, followed by simple newspaper. Aspen tends to stay too dry and mold quickly if it gets damp. When your BP is ready to shed, you may need to mist the tank daily. If the snake is not in a shedding cycle, and your tank is set up correctly, you should not have to mist very often.

Under no circumstances should you keep reptiles on pine or cedar. Pine, cedar and other phenol-containing woods have toxins which can cause significant health problems in a variety of snakes and other animals and should not be used. Sand, gravel, and crushed walnut are also very poor choices for ball pythons.

Ball pythons need a minimum of two hides- one at the warm end and one at the cooler end. Whether store-bought or homemade, a ball python will prefer a hide that is small and snug-fitting, so that it feels "hugged" on all sides and even from above. You also need plants for additional ground cover. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but the more cover available, the more you will probably see your snake.

A water dish should be big enough for your BP to soak in. It also needs to be sturdy enough to not tip over if the snake crawls around on it. Clean the dish and change the water regularly.

Make sure everything is in good working order and all the adjustments have been made to the set-up. Once you have the tank ready to go and the temps stable, it’s now time to bring your ball python home.

Place your new pet in its home and walk away. Ball pythons can be very nervous babies and it needs to explore its new home without a giant human hovering over it. Check on it after a few hours, but do not touch the snake or remove it from the tank. It is very important that you observe a full seven day no handling period. Check on the water and make sure the snake is okay, but do not handle it for a full seven days. Skip feedings during this time as well. You want your critter to be fully settled before you try to feed or start handling.

For babies, keep handling sessions short during the first few months. An over-handled baby is a stressed baby. Keep handling sessions under 10 minutes, no more than a few times per week. Over time, as the snake grows, you will be able to handle it more. Don’t feel like you have to rush!


I’m sure everyone has heard the stories about ball pythons being picky eaters. 90% of the time it’s not the ball python, but a husbandry issue.

Ball pythons eat rodents. You can use mice or rats, but it is best to get your snake feeding on rats as soon as possible. It’s a real pain to feed full-grown adult BP mice. Ball pythons tend to imprint on a favorite food item. Some will imprint on live and refuse frozen/thawed no matter what.

For the very first feeding, offer EXACTLY what the breeder fed the snake last. If it was fed a live mouse hopper, feed it a live mouse hopper. If it was fed a rat pink, feed it a rat pink. You want a BP that is eating successfully before you change up the food type. Once it is eating well, you can start trying to change the food type. Most BPs do really well on fresh-killed prey.

To feed frozen/thawed, you need to do a few things. The first thing is to make sure the prey item is the same type that the breeder was feeding, but in the frozen version. This makes the change easier, because the food is not all that different from what the snake had. Secondly, you have to make sure the prey is hot. BPs are much more sensitive to the temperature of prey items than corn snakes. I keep a hair dryer in the reptile room and blast the feeders with a burst of hot air right before I offer I the prey. Super-hot is super yummy to a ball python.

When feeding, I feed ball pythons directly in their enclosures. Most do not react well to being moved into a feeding bin. In order to make sure your pet is safe, make sure all food items are dry before being offered. This keeps substrate from sticking to the prey item; the hair dryer I mentioned earlier is perfect for drying prey.

Keep in mind some ball pythons will never accept frozen/thawed food. Many will switch over in time, but some will not.

The rule of thumb for feeding ball pythons is one food item that is the same size as the thickest part of the snake's body. BPs are built differently than other snakes, so the rule of one and half times the thickest part would make your snake look like a balloon. A young snakes can be fed every five days, until it is on rat crawlers. After that, every seven days is ideal. An adult ball python can live perfectly healthily on one small rat (50-60 gram rat) once per week.

Ball pythons will not poop often. Some poop weekly, others poop once per month. It depends on the individual snake. I have some that only poop when they shed. Don’t worry if you don’t see poop often. Do NOT soak the snake to encourage pooping; it will poop when it needs to. If your snake ever seems bloated or in pain take it to a vet as soon as possible.

My Ball Python Won’t Eat.

Before we start troubleshooting, please make sure you have the read the guide and you are following those care guidelines. During this time, you will want to handle your BP as little as possible. Getting it back on food is more important than anything else right now. Once the snake starts eating again, then handling can resume, but do not overdo it.

Don’t panic if your snake has only missed one meal. Skipping two or three meals is not out of the ordinary for a baby ball python while it is settling in. The snake will also typically not eat while in shed.

Never offer food more often than every five days. Repeatedly trying to offer food will stress the snake out. If it does not eat, simply wait until the next feeding day and try again.

First things first- check the temps.

The target temperatures are as follows:
  • 80F ambient temps, upper 70’s on the cool side.
  • 90F basking temps, upper 80’s on the warm side.
  • 75F or below is unhealthy. Night drops in temps are not necessary.

If your temps are not in this zone, refer to the housing set up/enclosure set up portion of this guide. Temperature is critical for ball pythons. Staying at under 75F degrees for too long will cause health problems.

The number one cause of non-feeding ball pythons is stress. Being too exposed, or in an area that has too much activity can stress the snake. To remedy this, cover three sides of the tank with paper or aquarium background. Leave one of the short sides of the tank halfway uncovered. Cover the top with a towel or cardboard. Make sure to leave space for the heat lamp to operate safely. You want the tank to be as closed off from outside stimulation as possible. No, you will not be able to watch your pet for a while, but in time, that will change. Once the tank has been covered, leave your ball python alone for a solid week. ZERO handling during this time. Just keep a check on the water. This is what I call the “ball python reset button.” A tank that nearly completely blocked off is like a burrow to the snake, it feels safe and secure. You will also want to make sure you switch to red bulbs for your heat lamp, or a ceramic heat emitter. Bright light and activity is the enemy right now.

After the seven day no handling period has ended, offer the same type of prey item the snake last successfully fed. Place the prey in the enclosure and walk away. Do not keep checking on the snake. It is best to feed in the evening and let the prey item stay in the cage overnight. Make sure the prey item is super-hot before you place it in the cage if you are feeding frozen/thawed. Be sure to offer EXACTLY what was eaten at the last successful feeding.

Over time, you can start to remove some of the paper from the sides. Do not start removing paper until your ball python is feeding well. Once it starts feeding well, you can start removing half a piece of paper every two weeks. This process needs to be done slowly. If your ball python stops eating during the paper removal phase, add some paper back and start over. I know it seems like a lot, but your snake will be much healthier and happier in the long run.

Over-handling can also cause the snake to stop eating. Keep handling sessions short for the young ball python. Handle no more than 10 minutes, two to three times per week. As the snake gets older you can hold it for longer periods of time.

Not offering prey correctly can cause issues as well. Never attempt to feed more often than every five days. Jamming prey in the snake's face can cause issues too. Open the top of the tank and slowly offer the prey towards the snake with long tongs. Some ball pythons will eagerly snap at whatever is in front of them. Most prefer the food to be placed in their enclosure and they will eat once the lid is back on and everything is quiet.

Sometimes feeding strikes can be seasonal. In the winter and early spring males, and sometimes females, will go off feed during breeding season. If this is the suspected cause, double check your temps and wait it out. Offer food every two weeks in this case. There is very little you can do to change the mind of a BP that is off feed for breeding season. Just wait it out. Healthy adults can actually go months without eating and not lose body condition when they decide to go on a feeding strike.

Illness can also be a factor in a feeding strike. If a ball python has been kept too cool for too long, it can develop respiratory problems and stop eating. If you hear wheezing, popping or gasping when the snake tries to breathe, bring the snake to a vet IMMEDIATELY. Mites can also cause illness and make the snake not want to eat because it is uncomfortable. Follow a mite treatment protocol to remedy this.

More to come!!!

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