Image Credit : La Ferme Tropicale
Ball pythons make for a quality pet for the first-time keeper and experienced herpetoculturists alike. As captives they are hardy and typically tolerant of handling.
- Scientific name : Python regius
- Distribution : West Africa
- Average Size : 1.5 m (5 ft)
- Life Span : 25 years or more
- Difficulty : Beginner
Enclosures measuring a minimum of 1.2 x 0.6 x 0.6 meters (4 x 2 x 2 feet) are recommended for singly kept adult Python regius. This allows the animal to fully stretch out (so especially large individuals may require larger housing), provides room for lighting/heating equipment with appropriate clearance below them, climbing branches, hides throughout, and deep substrate. Larger is of course better.
Juveniles can be kept in smaller caging, but they can also be moved into their permanent enclosure immediately following quarantine. Simply ensure the hides are appropriately sized as the snake grows. Plant cover (live or fake) is beneficial when used to cover hide entrances, open patches of ground, and even over branches to create cryptic basking sites. Epipremnum sp. (pothos varieties) are probably the best choice for a first foray into live planting a royal enclosure, though even those may be uprooted depending on the snake’s personality. Most “house plants” that form vines will do well, ferns and dracaena are also good options.
Furnishings should first and foremost provide for their nocturnal and terrestrial nature. Python regius are also positively thigmotactic, so hides should be plentiful, snug fitting, and sturdy. Cork rounds and flats are favorites of mine, especially when mostly buried in the substrate. Stacked rocks also make fantastic “hot hides” when placed under heat lamps. Commercial hides tend to be lofty on the inside and easily shifted, but that can be fixed by mostly filling and covering them with substrate. Beyond that, multiple sturdy branches should be provided for exercise, enrichment, and basking opportunities. Branches should be mostly horizontal and near the same thickness as the snake.
Substrate for Python regius should facilitate elevated humidity and burrowing. Some examples include cypress mulch, coconut products, barks, mosses, leaf litter, and various soils. My preference is a mixture of soil, sand, moss, bark, and leaf litter, at a depth of 0.1 – 0.2 meters (4 – 8 inches). This is also a suitable mixture for bioactive husbandry. A note on that, care will not be much different for bioactive keepers. Unless the cage is especially large and heavily stocked with custodians, you will likely always need to spot clean, though you shouldn’t need to fully replace the substrate. Most of the readily available isopod and springtail species are well suited for royal habitats.
Lighting – Heating
As with most reptiles, Python regius should be provided with gradation in most of their climate parameters. However, the entire cage should not fluctuate. Burrows in the wild are in fact extremely stable in both temperature and humidity, and we know Python regius spend a lot of time in burrows, so they should always have access to a cool, humid, and stable burrow.Burrow (or “cool side”) parameters should remain near 26 C (80 F) always, and the full cage can return to these levels at night. During the day however, the rest of the cage should exhibit ambient temperatures of 28-32 C (82-89 F) with basking surface temperatures of 35-40 C (95-104 F). Keep in mind hides should be provisioned all over these gradients to simulate holes in trees and rock crevices that will be secure but not as climate controlled as a burrow. This ensures the snake does not have to choose between proper heat/humidity and security. Python regius do not exhibit any brumation behavior, but there are other behavioral changes (particularly breeding behavior) influenced by the dry or wet season. If you wish to enact seasonal changes, simply shift all those temperatures down a couple degrees during the “wet season” (May – October).
Heating equipment for Python regius should all be above the animal (heat mats are not advised, burrows should be cooler than the outside world). Ceramic heat emitters and radiant heat panels are both great for night heating and background heating during the day, but they are not sufficient alone during the day as they only provide far infrared light. This is not as biologically available as near infrared, which is emitted by incandescent bulbs.
Full spectrum lighting should be provided during the day (12/12 light cycle, year-round), including UVB/A. Python regius are able to see in the UVA spectrum and it has some behavioral implications. UV light also has antimicrobial properties, I’ve personally seen it positively influence daytime activity and coloration, and it is known to regulate vitamin D3. UV indexes of 0.7-1.0 should exist at the prime basking locations, with peaks of 3.0 being acceptable in some spots. T5HO fluorescents are typically best suited for Python regius, the Arcadia 6% D3 being best with the ZooMed Reptisun 5.0 coming close behind (the Arcadia has slightly higher UVB output and typically lasts longer, while the ZooMed is more readily available in the United States; if using the ZooMed, shorten the basking site distances by 0.05-0.1 meters (2-4 inches)). With these bulbs, basking sites should be 20-40cm (8-16in) away from the bulb, with no reflector. Daytime basking site heating is best done with small incandescent flood lights that provide near infrared, such as 50W halogen bulbs. Look for bulbs with low Kelvin color temperatures (2500k-3000k), wide angle beams (denoted as a “flood” with 50 degrees being typical), and low lumens/watt efficiency (9 – 20lm/w is typical); this means more of that energy goes directly to near infrared. These bulbs should be controlled with dimmers, or ideally dimming thermostats. Dimming thermostats with steel tipped probes (like the Herpstat EZ series) can be used to directly control surface temperatures.
Fresh water should always be available. While Python regius are not known to spend much time in the water, they may choose to soak themselves for a variety of reasons, so the water bowl should be sized appropriately. Filtered water features are also an option, mine is heated to 25-26 °C (78-80 °F) and takes up roughly 15% of the floor space. Python regius will drink from their water bowls, typically without any intervention from the keeper.
Misting should be done as needed to maintain humidity levels. Proper substrates (like those listed above) should have good drainage to prevent this. On the cool side of the enclosure the humidity should be 70-90%. It may drop as low as 50% in the hottest areas of the cage.
Note: if you are having humidity issues, more substrate is likely a better solution than more misting.
Python regius feed exclusively on mammals and birds. Rats (Rattus norvegicus), mice (Mus musculus), juvenile chicks (Gallus gallus domesticus), and quail (Coturnix japonica), are suitable staples. It is recommended to follow a rough 30/70 mammal/bird ratio for males, and 70/30 for females. There is no reason to adhere to these feeder types of course, just about any mammal or bird available in the hobby as feeders of appropriate size are fair game.
A full-size meal should be roughly as thick around as the snake’s widest part, though they can handle bigger or smaller for variety. In the interest of enrichment, this volume can be made up of several smaller feeders simulating a “nest raid”, wherein a cache of pinkies/pups/chicks are hidden in the cage for the snake to discover. Keep in mind adult feeders have in general a better nutritional profile than juveniles, so these exercises should be done in moderation.
Python regius (like many snakes) undergo major physiological changes during digestion, and it takes on average 2 weeks for their bodies to return to a resting state post feeding. In captivity, adults should be fed on average every 6 weeks, plus or minus 2 weeks for the sake of variation and enrichment. Hatchlings may be started on weekly feedings, and duration will stretch with age. Live feeding may help entice a trouble feeder to respond, but they usually accept frozen/thawed or pre-killed prey readily. Pre-killed is my preferred method, and individuals with issues like the “spider wobble” should not be fed live depending on their efficacy in striking.
Typically, Python regius will refuse food when something is incorrect in their husbandry. Following a refused meal, the first things to check would be; access to secure hides, proper heat, and proper humidity. Once those are fixed, wait at least one week before trying again. Seasonal cues may also put them off food. In breeding season, males especially may refuse food as they will be focused on searching for a mate; food in the belly would slow them down. This yearly fasting is normal and even considered beneficial. Adults can fast for several months with no ill effects whatsoever, refused meals are rarely reason to panic with this species.
Python regius are typically very tolerant of handling and make great candidates for educational presentations or for children to interact with (with close supervision of course). They are not particularly flighty, preferring instead to ball up when stressed. When calm, they will move about slowly, flicking their tongue, and likely searching for a place to hide. One must keep in mind though that all animals are individuals, and these tendencies do not apply to all Python regius. You may end up with a highly defensive Python regius that will not tolerate handling without striking; that behavior is natural and should be respected.
Handling a new royal should only be done if absolutely necessary for a medical issue (treating mites for instance), and otherwise new arrivals should be left alone ideally throughout their quarantine period. Handling should also be avoided if the snake has refused to feed and only reattempted after a successful feed. Always wait at least 48 hours after feeding to attempt handling, or when the food lump is completely gone from the belly, which every comes later. Handling is rarely beneficial for the snake, so ensure that the snake’s needs are fully met before indulging in this activity.
Initiating a handling session can be done by hand or with a snake hook. Some Python regius will have incredible feeding responses, and they can be “hook trained” like one would with a larger constrictor. With either method, approach the snake slowly but deliberately. Try not to hesitate too much or make jerking movements. Approach from the side, not overhead (overhead is where most predators approach from). Gently touch the side of the snake to ensure it is awake and aware of your presence, and slide under the body to lift. Support the body well, ideally with both hands, for the duration of the handling session.
Duration of handling sessions should start short, 2 to 5 minutes a few times a week, and may increase as the snake becomes accustomed to the practice. Snakes in educational displays may be out for hours at a time, but these should be older snakes that have built up this tolerance to handling over years of practice.
Cleaning is an essential part of husbandry for any reptile. Python regius are no different. They do not produce waste very frequently, typically as often as they are fed, and this types of waste can simply be removed along with a generous handful of surrounding substrate. This is more effective with deeper substrate, as liquid components of waste will not spread as much. This substrate will be replaced at the same time and it is a good idea to mix by hand all of the substrate at this time.
Porous furnishings can be cleaned with hot or boiling water and scrubbing, non-porous surfaces can be cleaned with chemicals like F10 (a popular veterinarian cleaning agent). For this reason, I prefer non-porous water bowls like glass or glazed ceramic as they can be cleaned more aggressively. Water bowls should be cleaned daily.
For bioactive keepers, the above practices should still be followed though not as much substrate need to be removed and mixed while spot cleaning. It is possible that your custodians will breed to a point that waste is recycled before you even notice it, but one should not assume that is the goal when going bioactive. On the note of bioactivity, filtered water features are also an option, wherein typical aquaria maintenance practices will suffice (unless there is defecation in the water feature, which will require deeper cleaning and a large water change).
Shedding (also called sloughing, molting, or ecdysis) is a regular process in which all squamates remove old skin and replace it with a new layer. In Python regius (and snakes in general), the old skin should come off in one piece, including the eye caps (snakes have no eyelids, instead they are protected with clear scales).
When a Python regius is preparing to shed, they will typically seek areas with higher humidity and may remain there for several days (they may also soak themselves if sufficient humidity is not available in the cage). The first sign is usually a pink coloration on the light colored areas, this would be the belly in wild type individuals. Soon after, dark colored areas take on a dull hue, which progresses into a blue-grey. This is accompanied by a similar grey-blue coloration over the eyes. This does in fact obstruct their vision, and often they will refuse food and act more defensive/stressed as a result. It is usually best to leave them be during the shed cycle and ensure they have access to adequate humidity; 70%+.
This discoloration will progress for a few days, then suddenly they will look as they did prior to the shed cycle. This clear phase lasts a day or so and is the last step before finally shedding. Shedding behaviors start with rubbing their nose against rough surfaces to start peeling the skin from the lips. Once started, they will continue to rub themselves against surfaces in the cage to pull the skin off in one piece. The shed skin will be inside-out once off, and it is a good idea to check for eyecaps once you find the shed. Unlike invertebrates, snakes are not especially fragile immediately following shedding; they are ready for feeding or handling or whatever you have planned.
If the shed comes off in pieces, or pieces are left behind, the culprit is most likely insufficient humidity. Humidity is important at all times, not just during the shedding cycle. Bumping humidity up during the shed cycle is not a proper solution to shedding issues, a highly humid hide or burrow available at all times is the best way to ensure proper shedding cycles. Stuck shed pieces on the body can be gently rubbed off with a wet finger or towel, but eye caps should be left for the snake to handle on its own during the next shed cycle (assuming the humidity issue has been fixed) or seek professional help if multiple layers are present.
Potential Health Problems
Overfeeding and obesity are serious problems in the hobby today. Many captive snakes attain massive sizes of over 2kg, however in the wild males and females tend to stay well under 2kg. With a healthy body tone, they will have a very soft triangle shape; fat is naturally stored ventrally and laterally, not up towards the spine. Juveniles will be slightly sharper in this triangle shape, and their heads will start out nearly as wide as their bodies. As adults, their bodies will be two to three times as wide as the head. Care must be taken to monitor body tone, and your feeding schedule should be tailored maintain a healthy shape.
The substrate should not remain wet for prolonged periods after misting, as this species is susceptible to scale rot. On the other end of incorrect humidity, they are very susceptible to respiratory infections when humidity is too low.
The information contained in this care sheet reflect the opinions and methods of the mentioned keeper, based on his expertise and long-established experience.