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Choosing a Burmese Python

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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Burmese pythons are beautiful snakes and are the most widely bred species of python in captivity in the United States. As a result, they are also among the least expensive and are often bought on impulse rather than as a result of considered thought. This is a very bad idea.

Burmese pythons are extremely powerful constrictors and are capable of overpowering and eating large prey. It seems that at least one human fatality each year can be attributed to a pet Burmese python. It takes only one misstep to become a statistic.

Origin and Life Span

The Burmese python, a subspecies of the Asian rock python, ranges widely through Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Feral specimens have been found in South Florida, but this snake is not yet known to reproduce in the wild there.

The life span can easily reach 25-plus years.

Appearance

These snakes have myriad small, non-keeled, scales. The top of the head has a prominent dark spearpoint marking. There is also a dark stripe through the eye. The ground color is tan to straw yellow, and there are many dark brown, irregularly edged dorsal saddles and lateral blotches. Adults and babies are colored similarly. The eyes are quite similar to the body in coloration and have vertically elliptical pupils.

It seems that a new color or pattern crops up every year or so. Albino, greens, granite, leopard, jungle and labyrinth phases are now all firmly established in captivity.

Burmese 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. Although they are at best a half-inch long, they are employed during courtship.

Behavior

The disposition of the Burmese python varies specimen to specimen. Newborns are often quite feisty. With gentle and frequent handling, this snake usually becomes entirely tractable. However, the potential for damage from a snake 8 feet or more in length always exists.

Additionally, young domestically bred Burmese pythons and those collected from the wild can be quite defensive. They will strike and bite energetically, and even very tame snakes may bite at feeding time.

Captives will often make use of elevated perches, but are more inclined to seclude themselves in substrate-level hideboxes. This snake is most active in the evening and early nighttime hours.

Housing

A 20-inch long baby Burmese python can be housed temporarily in a 20-gallon tank, but as the size of the snake increases, its accommodations must grow also. An adult (8 to 12 feet) should have a cage with a floor space 4 feet by 8 feet. A 15- to 22-footer will need a dedicated room.

The minimum floor space for one or two babies should be 12 by 30 inches. A 20-inch long baby Burmese python can also be housed temporarily in a 20-gallon tank. For one or a pair of 6-footers, a floor space of 6 feet by 2 1/2 feet is suggested. An adult (8 to 12 feet) should have a cage with a 4 foot-by-8 foot floor space. A 15- to 22-footer will need a dedicated room.

Cage furniture in the form of sizable limbs and hideboxes should be provided. Be sure no furniture can shift or topple and injure your snake. The terrarium or cage must be tightly lidded. Adult specimens should have a locked cage to preclude the possibility of injury to either the snake or a curious human.

A substrate of newspaper, packing corrugate, paper towels, mulch or linoleum can be used. This should be changed or cleaned after a snake defecates.

A cage temperature of 75 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit at night and 82 to 90 F during the day will suffice. Heat only one end of the tank to provide a thermal gradient. Winter temperatures, including that of the basking spot, can be allowed to drop a few more degrees (to about 70 at night and low 80s during the day).

It is easiest to sustain the needed warmth if you place a heat tape or an undertank heater (in combination with an overhead basking bulb) under one end of the cage. Provide a hidebox on both the cool and the warm end of the terrarium.

A receptacle of fresh water, preferably large enough for the snake to coil and submerge in, should be present at all times.

Feeding

These snakes feed readily, and hatchlings are large enough at birth to accept adult mice. Adults will require large rats, rabbits or chickens.

Although Burmese pythons can swallow comparatively large prey items, adverse temperature fluctuations, fright, or even casual handling, are more apt to cause them to regurgitate a large meal rather than a small one. As a rule of thumb, the largest meal you feed your snake should not greatly exceed the diameter of your snake's head.

How much and how often you should feed will depend on the size of your snake and the temperature at which you keep it. A baby will start out with a couple of small mice or one small rat every week. We suggest waiting to feed a snake until after it defecates and begins to prowl its enclosure hunting for food. The animal will need larger quantities as it grows, and the goal is to provide just enough to satisfy it. Keep a watch to see whether your snake's ribs show (you're feeding too little) or whether it appears obese (you're feeding too much).

Even very tame Burmese pythons may bite at feeding time. Approach the snakes carefully. Some keepers place their pythons into a specific feeding box in an attempt to reduce the chances of a bite during feeding. Always wash you hands thoroughly after handling a food item and before approaching your python. If it smells food, it may bite you severely.

Many hobbyists consider it macho to feed a snake live food, but we suggest that only pre-killed prey be offered. The bite of a live rodent can cause injury to, or even the death of your snake.

Handling

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.

Even very tame Burmese pythons may bite at feeding time. Approach the snakes carefully. Always wash you hands after handling a food item and before approaching your python.

Do not grasp your snake 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. Keep it away from your face.

If your snake is 8 feet long or longer, have a second person present when you work in its cage or handle it.

Snakes of all sizes with vision impaired by an impending shed of skin are also prone to bite.

Burmese pythons handled soon after eating, especially if the meal was large, may regurgitate their meal. Do not lift them for a few days after they have eaten.

Wash your hands thoroughly after handling your snake or working in its terrarium to protect yourself from the possibility of contracting Salmonella, a bacteria that is often carried by reptiles and amphibians and which can cause illness in humans

Common Diseases and Disorders

  • Thermal burns
  • Mouth rot (infectious stomatitis)
  • Respiratory distress
  • Blister disease
  • Inclusion body disease (IBD)

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