When your Ball Python has been eating regularly but stops suddenly, it can be frightening for a novice handler/owner, especially when; as mammals we eat multiple times every day, meanwhile, they can go half a year or more without showing any medical symptoms. In reality, BP’s will periodically take a break from feeding, but if it has been more than three skipped meals, there are a few things you can try.
I’ve learned several tricks to stimulate feeding, and I’d like to share some of them with you.
Understanding their instincts:
To start, as with any creature, you must understand the Ball Python’s wild instincts. They are reclusive and will rarely seek out a meal. They prefer to lay in wait and ambush their prey. One way they do this is by finding underground burrows and holes. Here, they are able to hide from their own predators, while being ready for a quick meal when rodents make their way in.
The key to making an underground burrow work to their advantage is to make sure it never smells like them, otherwise the benefit of surprise that comes with an ambush is ruined. Once a BP has a bowel movement or even sheds, (which often is followed by a bowel movement or urination anyway) their smell will permeate the area around them, a sure sign to prey, that a predator is close. They must find another burrow in order to hunt successfully.
When you think about how they hunt and react in the wild, it makes sense that they would need some extra consideration while in captivity.
How can we apply this:
Remember their instincts. The first thing they do after a shed or an elimination is to move locations. This can be as simple as going from one burrow into the next. In captivity, this takes some doing, but if you drastically change the environment, it may help your BP want to eat. This can include doing an entire substrate and enclosure change. It may even help to move from one area or rack to another if possible. If none of that seems to work, changing the size of the enclosure, or even the color – either up or down both seem to work equally well – can often help. If it is not possible to change it to another enclosure (or tub?), you can try a thorough cleaning and changing of everything in the current space. Make sure you change everything possible, maybe even their type of substrate, so they will feel confident that their surroundings are new and will prepare for an ambush.
Change their hide to something else. Maybe larger or smaller, or a different shape, texture, or even color.
Taking into consideration the smell of prey and the affect on your BP means that you don’t want to constantly keep your prey in the same room. If the smell is present all the time, it may diminish their appetite. Think of it this way: Let’s say you live and work in a bakery, but you never go outside or leave. You love baked items and you eat them all the time. At some point, the constant smell alone will make you crave a break from eating it. On the other side of this, by never smelling the prey, your BP may not be ready to feed as soon as it is brought in. In this case, it may help to bring the prey into the same room a little bit before feeding to sort of whet the appetite. This is assuming you are feeding live.
Your presence can also be a factor:
As humans, we are drawn to observing. This can be detrimental to the BP’s eating. Once you drop the prey in, you should leave. Ideally, you should feed without them seeing you or even knowing you were involved. If they have a see-through enclosure, you may have some luck by extinguishing the lights in the room before you enter. They don’t want an audience while they eat. Humans are large in their eyes and while eating, they are defenseless. Your size alone may be enough to make it feel threatened. If your BP is used to you, this may not be a huge issue, and just like everything else, each one will have their own personality mixed in with their basic instincts.
Remember, they are predators. Though they prefer to be stealthy, they are hunters. They don’t really want their food just handed over to them. Try to be anonymous when feeding.
Check your temps:
Temperatures play an important role. If the temps are too low, they cannot properly digest their food. Poor temperatures can result on a whole host of other issues too. Don’t use the little round thermostats you find in pet shops, these are highly inaccurate, and only measure the temp of the glass they are stuck to.
Time of day:
Unless you have conditioned your ball python to eat during the day, consider feeding them in the evening. This is the time that ball pythons are most active and usually when they feed.
Aside from avoiding bad sheds that make their enclosure look messy, humidity can definitely help your ball python feel more comfortable and eager to eat. What’s a good humidity level? I find that 60-80 percent is best.
Presence of possible parasites:
Parasites may affect the snake’s ability to eat so make sure that there are no parasites such as mites and ticks present. There are also internal parasites, which can be hard to detect. If you believe there may be parasites present or simply want to rule this possibility out, head to your local veterinarian to have that checked.
Another thing we need to consider is whether this could be habit-forming behavior. Just like with anything else you are training, you do not want to reward ‘bad behavior’. If your BP continues to refuse food, it may help in the long run to skip offering it at times.
My general rule, is if they refuse a meal, I might skip them the next time feeding day comes around. I can then slowly increase this time if I need to. Each time it refuses food, it could be creating a habit of refusing food.
I also will skip them if they are close to a shed. Remember, even their eyes shed, so at shed time, their eyesight is even poorer than usual. Even my best feeders, have refused food a few times when getting close to shed.
Different food types:
Changing the prey can have both positive and negative effects. You may have the benefit of getting your BP interested in eating again. Ideally, you will then be able to go right back to the previous food. Unfortunately, you could also be creating a new habit. If you are not careful, you may end up with a BP that only eats the most expensive option of prey. If you usually feed rats, but try a mouse and it snaps it up, that’s great. However, if it won’t go back to rats, you will find yourself having to feed ten times the mice. This might not sound bad until you figure in the extra feeding time and expenses. Again, this is assuming you are feeding live. Some handlers will only recommend trying a different prey after all other options have been tried and failed.
If you feed frozen/thawed food, pay close attention to their temps, or try live food. Live food gives them the chance to hunt. The movement can stimulate feeding in a way a dead meal cannot.
African Soft Fur (ASF) rats and hamsters can be like crack to a ball python, but there can be consequences.
One other thing to try is to set them up to breed. This has been a successful option in both males and females. In females, this may be the instinct to pack on the weight in preparation of laying her eggs.
I never worry so much about males that go on a break, they don’t need the weight for breeding anyway, and a large male, just means his overall intake is higher, and so is the expense to keep him.
Make sure that you’re okay with a clutch from the pair, though, as surprises can still happen even when breeding conditions are not normal or ideal.
Fasting is normal, but keep an eye out. If you start noticing that your ball python is losing significant weight or looks a little too skinny (you can see folds in their skin, and their bones are starting to show) take the ball python to the veterinarian. If the animals health is becoming a concern, it may mean it’s time to intervene.