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Choosing a Ball Python

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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The ball python is one of the smaller pythons, and if obtained as a captive bred and hatched baby, it is usually hardy and long-lived. In fact, longevity of more than 45 years has been reported for one captive ball python and 20 to 25 years is commonplace.

History and Origin

The ball python, Python regius, is also known as the royal python and hails from West Africa. It is a relatively heavy-bodied snake that can grow to 4 to 5 feet in total length. Because of this small size (for a python at least), a ball python can be kept throughout its long life span in a relatively small cage. The small adult size of a ball python also prevents him from being in violation of regulations instituted by many municipalities prohibiting the keeping of snakes more than 6 feet in length.

Most of the ball pythons now available in the pet trade are either captive bred and hatched domestically or farmed at African facilities. In contrast to wild-collected adult ball pythons that can be problematic feeders, most hatchlings feed readily and are large enough at birth to accept fair-sized mice. Adults require adult mice or rats.

Appearance

Ball pythons have many small, non-keeled scales. The top of the head has a prominent dark spear point marking. There is also a dark stripe from the tip of the snout, through the eye, to the back of the head. The ground color is tan to tan-brown. A broken dark brown vertebral stripe is normal, but this, as well as the body patterns, is variable. Downward extensions from the vertebral marking may form circles, semi-circles, "E-T faces," figure eights, or other figures on the sides. Adults and babies are colored similarly. The eyes are dark and have vertically elliptical pupils.

Ball pythons have a pair of cloacal spurs – remaining vestiges of bygone days when snakes had legs. The spurs of the males are larger than those of the females and are employed during courtship.

Albino, caramel, jungle, reverse-stripe, anerythristic, ghost, lemon pastel, pastel jungle, pied, and striped, are just some of the hobbyist derived color and pattern phases of ball python now being bred. It seems that a new color or pattern crops up every year or so.

Behavior

The disposition of the ball python varies from specimen to specimen, but most are quite shy and non-aggressive. Even those that show some feistiness will quiet down when handled gently and frequently. Typically, a disturbed ball python will coil itself into a tight ball (hence the name) and hide its head in the center of its coils. It may remain in this position for minutes or hours, depending on how frightened it is and how much activity is taking place around it.

Ball pythons are usually considered terrestrial snakes and they do spend most of their time on the ground. However, they also may ascend into brushy tangles. They also indulge in subterranean activities, hunting for food and depositing their eggs in the burrows of rodents or other mammals.

These snakes seem to "prey imprint" early in life, and it may be difficult to induce wild-collected adults to accept readily available mice and rats. They may instead insist on gerbils, jirds, hamsters, or prey species that are even more difficult to obtain. For this reason it is always better to start with a baby ball python that has been hatched in captivity and has been started on rodents that are readily available to you.

Feeding

Ball pythons are powerful constrictors that are capable of easily overpowering the small mammals that comprise their base diet. They may also eat some lizards, ground-dwelling birds; incidences of cannibalism have been reported.

Wild-collected adults can be difficult to induce to feed. Try all types and colors of all available rodents and birds. Try offering a reluctant feeder its pre-killed prey in the evening in the solitude of the hide box. Captive hatched baby ball pythons are usually amenable to accepting the commonly offered lab rodents. They usually feed readily, especially if given hide boxes in which they can seclude themselves and feel secure while eating.

Handling

Ball pythons handled soon after eating may regurgitate their meal. Do not lift them for a few days after they have eaten. Ball pythons with vision impaired by an impending shed of skin may bite. Pythons may respond defensively – or alternatively, hide their head in the coils – if confronted with fast movements or movements from above. They are more tolerant of slow movements or approach from the side. When you are trying to accustom your ball python to being handled, try gently lifting it frequently until it becomes used to the procedure.

It will probably ball up each time for many weeks, but will eventually become used to being handled. Never grasp your ball python by its neck. Rather, slide one hand under it about a third of the way back from the head, the other hand about a quarter of the way forward from the tail tip, and holding the snake loosely, lift it slowly. If not startled or frightened, the snake will probably hold you. Keep it away from your face. Never try to handle your ball python without thoroughly washing your hands after handling a prey item. If it smells food, it may try to bite you.

Housing

At hatching, ball pythons are just over a foot in length. If fed often they will grow quickly, doubling size in the first year of life, and attaining maturity in their third year. Ball pythons are most active in the evening and early nighttime hours. The minimum floor space for one or two babies should be 12 by 30 inches. As they grow, a larger cage – one having a floor space of at least 18 by 48 inches will be necessary. Cage furniture in the form of sizable limbs and hide boxes should be provided. Be sure no furniture can shift or topple and injure your python. The terrarium or cage must be tightly lidded.

A substrate of newspaper, packing corrugate, paper towels, or non-aromatic mulch can be used. Ball pythons hide much of the time, but might come out on cool days to bask under a heat-providing lamp. Be sure that the snakes cannot come in contact with a bare bulb or ceramic heating unit, lest they burn themselves. Under cage heating pads can also be used. A cage temperature of 75 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit nights and 82 to 90 F days will suffice. Heat only one end of the tank to provide a thermal gradient.

Common Diseases and Disorders

  • Thermal burns can occur from a malfunctioning hot rock or improperly baffled bulb or ceramic heater.

  • Rodent bites can be very serious. Never leave a live rodent unattended in your snake's cage. In fact, we suggest that you never feed a snake a live rodent.

  • Mouth rot (infectious stomatitis) can occur if a snake's teeth are broken, the mouth lining is injured, or if a struggling rodent being constricted, bites the snake.

  • Respiratory distress can occur if the cage temperature changes radically, especially if humidity is high or the cage is damp.

  • Blister disease can occur if the cage is too wet, and especially if the cage is both wet and dirty.

  • Inclusion body disease (IBD) is a very communicable, insidious and eventually fatal affliction of boas and pythons with no known cure. If your ball python shows a lack of body coordination, consult your veterinarian immediately.

  • Improper shedding (retained eyecaps, etc.) may occasionally occur if your snake is not properly hydrated or if the cage humidity is too low.

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