Ball pythons (python regius) are heavy bodied terrestrial snakes that are crepuscular, but also employ basking and semi arboreal behaviors including climbing. They are native from sub-Saharan Africa to the coast of Senegal, and are almost exclusively found in higher humidity areas. They are one of the most popular pet snakes, if not the most popular. They have a docile temperament, without getting too large, and a large variety of “morphs” that draw beginners and veterans in alike. Ball pythons have a lifespan of 20-40 years, and are obligate carnivores, with a diet of almost exclusively birds and mammals. Males hit about 3-4 feet, and females are longer and heavier on average at about 4-5 feet.
One of the biggest questions we get about ball pythons is what to house them in. There are many options, ranging from a plain glass aquarium to beautiful PVC enclosures, with several options in between.
Starting with the most common enclosure, we come to glass aquariums. These are plentiful and often included with snake ‘kits’, proudly featuring the ball python on the box. Many people online keep them in glass aquariums, and several care sheets claim an adult ball python can live its entire life in a 40 gallon or less. Unfortunately, glass aquariums simply aren’t a suitable long term enclosure for most situations involving ball pythons, due to a host of issues they come with. Bad heat insulation, humidity problems associated with screen tops, the sheer amount they weigh, and the inability to have it being a front opening enclosure (without modifications) make them less than stellar options for long term. Glass aquariums can be modified to suit your needs and correct heating and humidity issues, but they are often more of a pain than it is worth. In addition, in what is most likely the greatest drawback to glass aquariums, is that the gallon size needed for the recommended minimum of 4x2x2′ is a 120 gallon, which can cost just as much or even more as a similar sized PVC enclosure. For baby ball pythons, glass aquariums can be helpful as a quarantine set up, however, as stated before, they are not good long term options for housing.
The next step people tend to take when getting out of glass aquariums are plastic tote bins. A seemingly popular option due to their cheapness, widespread availability, and how they tend to hold heat and humidity better than glass aquariums, you still run into similar issues like a glass aquarium. There are not a lot of options for tubs in the 4x2x2′ range, much less bigger, outside of Christmas tree tubs which can be a seasonal item and typically are shorter than 2′. They also need heavy modification in order to allow for overhead heating, and can be cumbersome to open from the top if you have a bunch of lamp fixtures, including UVB. Another huge downside to tubs is the melt and fire risk that can happen if your thermostat fails. This can be fatal to your animal.
They can be modified to be front opening, but that increases the escape-risk that comes with tubs since most tubs aren’t the most secure. Creating a naturalistic vivarium in a tub can be challenging as well, but not impossible. A final point, to put it bluntly, is they don’t look as nice either. Tubs do have their place in the reptile world, and can be a cost effective option while saving for a PVC or Melamine enclosure, but as a long term option they aren’t the best.
Melamine and wooden enclosures are seemingly very similar, but both have their pros and cons. A melamine enclosure is a laminate wood with a veneer, melamine, on top. Melamine with silicone sealing the edges works well for low humidity species, but for tropical species or those that have a water feature, sealing with drylock or a polyurethane water based sealant will ensure no leakage, which can cause the laminate to swell if it reaches the wood portion of melamine.
Plywood and other woods, such as birch, are also commonly used however furniture grade plywood is preferred. ALL wood needs to be sealed with a water based sealant or drylock. Despite this, their low cost of build or purchasing make them a lucrative choice if you don’t mind the weight of them. They hold heat and humidity quite well, and can be built by yourself at home for relatively cheap, or purchased for cheaper than PVC if you have a local maker (can be shipped as well but the weight makes shipping quite costly from some suppliers).
PVC is logically the ‘end all be all’ for BPs. They have very similar pros to the melamine and wooden enclosures, while also being much lighter and easily stackable. The downsides for PVC is the price point, but if you buy an adult sized enclosure (minimum of 4x2x2′) you save a lot of money in the long run instead of having to buy a new enclosure every few months to match the growth rate of the snake. They also look very nice in terms of aesthetics, and can be customized to fit any ideas that you have, as well as holding your heating elements. PVC also does not need to have a water based sealant applied to it. PVC is naturally waterproof and can withhold humidity with ease, but you should still silicone the seams meet.
The enclosure you end up with all comes down to you. Our recommendation is to start with a PVC 4x2x2′ right off the bat as long as it is properly set up décor-wise. A big enclosure is useless if it is barren and doesn’t provide coverage for the animal, particularly if they are young. If that isn’t an option for you, try and either source a 4x2x2′ wooden/melamine enclosure, or work with a large tub (such as a 50g or Christmas tree tub). Our recommendation is to avoid glass aquariums due to the aforementioned cons above, it will save a lot of headache in the long run to not use them.
A largely controversial question is “Do Ball Pythons need lights?”. The short, simple answer, is yes. Ball pythons are crepuscular, and need something to stimulate a day/night cycle. This can be achieved with both UVB, heating, and LED plant lights or a combination of all three. A common myth is that ball pythons are stressed by lights, which is simply untrue. Ball pythons will exhibit stress behaviors when they have no option for cover. With a well cluttered enclosure, a bright daytime LED light bar, halogen, or UVB bulb will not stress out a ball python, but will instead invite them to exhibit natural behaviors including basking and climbing.
For UVB, ball pythons fall into the category of “Not Life-threatening to not have, but incredibly beneficial to provide”. They do best with a ‘forest’ or ‘tropical’ strength UVB, such as the Reptisun 5.0 or Arcadia 6%. In a 4x2x2′ enclosure, a T5 Arcadia 6% 24″-48″ bulb is our recommendation, the Reptisun 5.0 works as well. How far of a distance your basking area should be from your UVB will depend on whether your UVB fixture is inside the cage (such as most PVC/Wooden enclosures) or on top of the enclosure through mesh (such as Zen Habitats or an aquarium). Your UVB should extend into your basking zone as that is where the animal will spend its time, but having UVB too close to the animal can be detrimental as well. Below is a starting point for the distance. The actual distance will depend on the type of uvb you buy and the manufacturer instructions.
UVB should be on a 10 on/14 off cycle to best show a day cycle, however any range within 9-12 hours will work.
Heating is relatively simple for ball pythons. For the warm side, optimal basking surface temperatures should be no more than 95F (35C) at the hottest point. There should then be a temperature gradient down to 78-80F (25-26.5C) during the day. At night, a drop in temperature will stimulate naturalist behaviors. A Ball Python enclosure should not drop below 72F (22C), and can have a warmer section of 78F (25C) at night.
Our recommendation for daytime heat that provides light are Halogen Flood Lights. The wattage needed will depend on a multitude of factors, but somewhere between a 50-80w should be sufficient. These bulbs are readily sold at places like Home Depot, Lowes, Menards, and ACE Hardware. If you are having trouble choosing which halogen light, you want to mostly focus on the voltage and wattage of the bulb to match your light fixture. After that is choosing your par. Par is the angle that the light emits. Many keepers opt for a Par 38 as it gives a nice wide angle, but we’ve had success with bulbs that are Par 30, 20, and 16 depending on the enclosure and what temps we’re aiming for.
For lightless heating, Arcadia Deep Heat Projectors provide optimal Infrared wavelengths like IR-A and IR-B, unlike Ceramic Heat Emitters which only emit IR-C, and can be run 24/7. The downside with Deep Heat Projectors is they are only made by one brand (Arcadia), and are continuously low on stock in the US. They only come in 50w and 80w options, with the 50w reported as being too weak for most enclosures. Ceramic Heat Emitters are another option for lightless heating. These bulbs are readily available at more reptile stores including Petco and Petsmart, reasonably cheap, and efficient. They can come with issues, such as lowering humidity. Wattage will again depend on external factors, so trial and error may be needed.
For Quarantine heating, heat tape/heat mats can be used. This is the only instance we recommend UTHs for Ball Pythons, as they only heat the surface and produce only IR-C wavelengths.
As always, any heating elements should be regulated by a thermostat. Bulbs do best on dimming/dimming pulse controllers, such as Rheostats, Herpstats, and Viv Electronic thermostats. They can also be controlled by simple plug in lamp dimmers, which are readily found online and big box hardware stores. Be sure to have an Infrared Temperature Gun on hand to triple check your basking temperatures, as well as digital thermometers and hygrometers.
Substrate is another big question we get. Aspen is seemingly heavily recommended for ball pythons, but this is NOT a suitable substrate for them. Ball pythons do not live on shaved aspen, they encounter dirt mixtures. So then, what is a good substrate mix? Here are a few that we have found work well:
The rest of your enclosure is up to your imagination. Natural branches, cork bark flats, fake plants and flowers can make a beautiful enclosure. You can also make a custom foam background, which you can read about in our article [here]. If you choose to go naturalistic/bioactive (which we highly recommend), there needs to be a long grow out period for the plants. Preferably 6 months at the shortest. Ball pythons are heavy bodied bulldozers, so ensuring your plants have enough time to establish themselves is crucial. Hides should be relatively snug for the ball python to feel secure, and water bowls should be relatively heavy to avoid random tipping. A basking spot can be provided as well, by using a flat piece of tile, stone, or a well placed climbing branch. These can also be worked into a bioactive enclosure, which will be covered in a separate section.
While there is generally no such thing as “too big”, there is such a thing as under cluttered. A large enclosure is set up to fail if it only has one hide, one stick, and one fake plant. A well-done large enclosure will have a ‘cramped’ feeling to it, with a thick layer of ground cover for the snake to travel from one end of the enclosure to the other without being exposed.
For water dishes, a large, shallow dish should be sufficient. We recommend keeping the water dish either in the middle or on the cool side to aid in humidity levels. They should be given fresh, clean water daily.
Humidity is quite possibly the most difficult part of a ball pythons care. Ball Pythons come from high humidity areas, including spending time in termite mounds which are on average 100% humidity. Outside of termite mounds, they experience humidity gradients from 60% to 80% with spikes of 90%, as shown by the chart below:
Based on ecological data, our recommendation is to go no lower than 60% ambient humidity inside the enclosure. During the summer months, simulating spikes in humidity and then letting it fall naturally throughout the day is beneficial.
Your humidity will be the highest on the cool side of your enclosure, close to the ground. This is where you should base most of your humidity readings, however it is important to monitor the warm side humidity levels as well. Heat tends to dry things out in reptile enclosures, and your warm side will naturally have lower humidity. Aim to not drop below 50% humidity on the warm side.
The issue people struggle with is raising humidity, and keeping it raised. Below are some tips and guidelines on how to raise and maintain humidity:
If you are experiencing difficulty lowering your humidity, the only answer tends to be to increase your ventilation. In tubs, this can mean replacing more of the lid with screen mesh, drilling more holes in a W pattern along the sides, or even installing circular mesh soffit vents. In PVC enclosures, make sure the vents are staggered in a way to replicate the stacked or chimney effect.
Ball Pythons are a species of animal that is commonly overfed in the reptile community, and we regularly see overweight and obese animals. A healthy ball python will have a soft, sloping triangle shape, with good muscle definition and grip. They shouldn’t have ‘hips’, thick rolls (some rolls at the bends of a snake is normal, but when they start looking particularly puffy is when there is cause to worry), or indents along the spine. A mostly round ball python but a sharp spine is indicative of lack of muscle tone, but a ball python with a sharp triangle shape all around is underweight. Below is a few examples of each of these conditions:
[Image grid of Ideal, Overweight, Obese, Underweight, and Malnourished]
Paying attention to the body shape of your animal all ties into feeding regimens. Below are general starting points for feeding:
Again, these are all just very general starting points. For feeder size, the percentages will help give guidance, but they should be adjusted along with gaps between feedings to maintain the ideal, healthy shape. Prey items should be roughly the width of the snake’s body as its widest point, no more than 1.5x the size.
An important step is choosing feeders. We highly recommend feeding frozen/thawed prey items, from both a safety aspect and a humane aspect. A coiled rat can still bite and injure a ball python. Accidents and injuries can still occur even with the keeper watching. In addition, it is more humane for the feeder to be culled off site. To top it off, a stock of f/t feeders is cheaper than buying live week after week, especially for younger ball pythons. Whatever is not used can be donated to reptile friendly pet shelters, local reptile groups, or kept for your next snake.
Prey variety is key to ball python health. Many people try to stick to mice only, which may work when the snake is very young or small, but they will eventually size out of mice sizing. Rats are larger and overall have more protein and fat, but they are not the only feeder out there. Quail, chicks, and african soft furs can make great additions to a varied diet.
Our thawing process for f/t feeders is as follows:
These are the most common issues we’ve encountered with the health of our Ball Pythons.
We are not vets. If you are unsure, or seeking advice on how to treat something, go to a vet. Many of these issues can spiral and lead to permanent disfigurement or death. The information below is meant to be educational and not used in lieu of proper veterinary care.
Dehydration is quite apparent in ball pythons, as poor sheds are the most obvious symptom. Depending on the duration and severity, dehydration can cause respiratory infections, bowel impaction, retained sheds and eyecaps. However, as long as it is caught relatively early, Ball Pythons can bounce back from this issue.
Credit to: Katelyn Hawley’s body-tone file from “Not Just a Pet Rock” the Facebook Group
Credit to: Katelyn Hawley’s body-tone file from “Not Just a Pet Rock” the Facebook Group
Overall, ball pythons are wonderful heavy-bodied snakes that are docile and easy going that are suitable for newer snake keepers, as long as you do your proper research and start with quality products off the bat. Maintaining correct humidity is the most important part of keeping ball pythons, as well as providing enough coverage and space for them to exhibit natural behaviors. Most interested keepers will find a ball that suits their needs in terms of activity levels, coloration, and personality. They’re a wonderful animal with lots of personality!