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These are my recommendations. I give this to anyone that wants their first ball python, or even if they have a few already. A new owner, I will usually make them take it home and read it thoroughly, and come back later to buy/adopt their new pet.
Things you will need:
1) Habitat (usually glass aquarium with closable lid.) Breeders will typically opt for a rack system, so they can house many snakes separately in a smaller space.
2) Large heat pad. The bigger the better, should cover ½ the underside of the tank. Should be set all the way to one end of the tank so the snake can have a heated area and cool area.
3) Rheostat or Thermostat. Thermostats are more expensive, but better for your pet. We’ve used Helix proportional thermostats, Herpstat (spyderrobotics.com) and both were good. Currently All our racks are running with Freedom Breeder thermostats because they mount nicely on the racks. Our incubator runs with a Herpstat Intro.
This is the MOST important thing!!!! NEVER USE A HEAT LAMP, HEAT ROCK, OR UNDERSIZED HEAT PAD, as the primary heat source, EVER! The warm end of the tank should be about 86-92 degrees.
A proportional thermostat dims, and puts out just as much heat as is needed to maintain the temp, instead of turning off and on.
I highly recommend not using lamps at all. They dry out the air, and your ball python needs a high humidity. Unlike many other snakes, ball pythons do not sun themselves on racks in the dry heat. They crawl in holes and hide.
4) Substrate. Feel free to experiment. “Carefresh” works well with one or two animals. Aspen bedding is good. Newspaper (Use only unprinted paper or printed when the ink has had at least six months to dry.) Unprinted paper may be found for free as roll ends at many newspapers, or purchased in sheets at U-Haul or most moving and storage companies.
Update: In 2018 we switched from unprinted newspaper to ReptiChip <click to follow> coconut fibers for all our ball pythons.
5) Screen lids should lock or snap in place. If not you can buy clips to hold them tight. Snakes are escape artists. Screen should be almost completely covered to prevent humidity from escaping. 80%-90% covered. The open end should be on the cool end of the habitat.
6) Two hides, one in the warm end, one in the cool end. I like dishwasher safe hides. I’ve never had trouble with mites, but I can imagine they would be hard to get out of wood.
7) Thermometer. You can get the stick-on kind for inside the tank, or an infra-red non-contact thermometer. These are sold at many pet shops for around $40. If you go to Harbor Freight, you can find them for $10-$15 depending if they are on sale or not. If you don’t see them, ask. Here is an example on Amazon for an infrared thermometer.
8) Water dish. Use a heavy ceramic crock so it won’t tip over. Clean and disinfect a bowls weekly, or more often. If you get one big enough for the snake to crawl into, they may take a refreshing bath from time to time. When they get out, watch for poop in the water and change immediately. Keep water dish on cool end of tank. If you are having a tough shed, you might move the water to the warm end of tank for a while, but if you do, sterilize it daily, because the heat can accelerate additional bacterial growth.
9) Water conditioning drops. This is used to remove chlorine from the water. An alternative is to leave the water out, in a wide mouthed container for at least 24 hours before using it for your pet. The chlorine will dissipate on it’s own. We are on a well, so we don’t have chlorine.
10) Something to scratch on, and something to climb on. These may be the same thing, or different. They need to scratch on things when it’s time to shed. This could also be the hide.
11) Long hemostats if you are going to be feeding frozen-thawed food. For live food, either you can grab the food by the tail with rubber tipped tongs, or even salad tongs to wrap around the body of the mouse/rat.
Shedding: A good shed will be in one or two pieces, and should be rolled up when you find it. If your snake often has trouble with sheds, try a humidity box. This could be a Gladware container bigger than your snake’s coil. Cut a hole to climb in. Wet several paper towels to place in the bottom, and set in warm end of tank. Your snake will use it like a hide, and crawl in where it is VERY humid. Keep wet, replace towels and thoroughly clean if signs of mold or mildew. It should be cleaned long before it gets to that point.
The first sign of shed will either be the colors on the snake’s body fading, or it’s eyes turning blue. If you see the eyes turn blue, it’s about 4-5 days before shed. Be sure at this time, that your snake has ample humidity.
If we have a stuck shed, we will often give the snake a tepid bath. Take a 15 quart (or so) storage container with adequate ventilation, fill this with conditioned water that will go up about ½ way on the snake. Then we place this over a heating pad to heat the water to 85-88 degrees. Once the temp is good, you can introduce the snake and snap the lid closed. Your snake can bath here for up to 24 hours if the shed is bad enough to warrant it. If he/she soils the water, change it and start over. Do not do this within 36 hours after eating. Snake regurgitation in this water is NASTY.
Handling: I suggest handling your snake no less than twice a week, at least 5 minutes, under normal circumstances.
I know it’s hard, but with a new snake you should not hold it more than 5 minutes a day until you acclimate it to it’s habitat, and your presence. You can slowly increase this over time. An older snake may already understand you don’t want to hurt him/her and already be “Friendly.”
Ball Pythons will never bite out of anger. They will bite only in one of three conditions: 1) They are afraid of you, and want to be left alone. 2) Feeding mistake. They may strike if they think you are food. This would be most common if you are feeding frozen-thawed food, that is not warm. They may mistake your body temperature for that of the rat. You may always use longer tongs, or heat up the food on a heating pad before offering it. 3) They have just laid eggs, and are protecting them instinctively.
Ball Pythons are a solitary animal. They spend most of their time underground hiding, resting and staying warm.
Recommended book: “The Complete Ball Python” <Click link to follow> A little outdated, but a wonderful read.
Feeding: Do not worry if your snake refuses a meal or two, especially in the winter. Snakes can go for months without eating. I would only worry about a very young snake (under 100 grams) or one that seems to be rapidly losing weight. The record for a ball python going without food, is 22 months in some zoo somewhere.
There are multiple schools of thought on feeding the snake in its habitat. Many suggest you feed your snake in a separate container. I will usually feed in their regular habitat, unless this is a snake that has had some feeding or biting issues in the past. If this is the case, I will feed in a large Rubbermaid storage container. This way the snake learns it MUST allow people to handle it, if it wants to eat.
Others argue that if you feed them outside of their habitat, they will think they are getting fed every time you hold them.
If you have a new snake that is refusing to eat, it may be stressed. Make sure it gets all the solitude possible, and you should not handle it until it does eat. (except while cleaning the habitat)
Your ball Python will also go off food if it is getting ready to shed. I believe this is because their eyesight gets cloudy, and they are too timid to strike at anything that they cannot see well.
You should not feed your snake with any mouse or rat that is larger across, than twice the width of the snake’s head.
Frozen-thawed is the recommended food. You may easily keep several meals in the freezer, thaw them out as needed, then heat (not in a microwave) to body temperature, and serve on the end of a pair of tongs. You should hold the mouse or rat by the scruff of the neck to give the snake a better chance of grabbing it. Frozen-thawed or fresh killed should be used if possible. Dead food cannot bite the snake back. The process of freezing the mouse or rat will kill most parasites that could come via food. Ideally the food should be frozen for at least 6 months to kill all parasites.
You may also further entice the snake by moving the rat/mouse as if it were alive. Have it slowly get in the snake’s face (no closer than ½ inch) then scamper off. If the snake grabs and constricts, feel free to grab the mouse/rat by the tail and give it a bit of a tug so the snake feels a pseudo struggle. Use with tongs or hemostats only, never your fingers.
If you must feed live food, do not leave it with the snake for long. If more than a few minutes throw a few pieces of dog or cat food in the habitat as well, so the rat/mouse will eat the food if it gets hungry, and not the snake.
I feed live food, but only because it is too time consuming to feed frozen thawed to a large number of snakes. Tease feeding takes time. In the long run it would get easier, as the picky eaters finally conform to the F/T food.
I hope to expand on many of these topics in other articles, but this was just enough to give a first time ball python owner/caretaker enough to get him through his first few days.