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Provide your ball python with a long glass tank that provides room for a temperature gradient. The cool end of the tank should be 75-80° Fahrenheit and the warm end of the tank should be 85-90° Fahrenheit with an ambient temperature of 80-85° Fahrenheit. A basking spot at 90° Fahrenheit should also be available. This temperature gradient is important because your snake will have the opportunity to regulate his/her own body temperature, something they can do a lot better than us humans. This ensures your snake is always at the proper temperature, because it will go where it needs to be to regulate its temperature.
Never use pine or cedar as a substrate for your ball python! These woods contain minute particles that can be inhaled by the snake and cause respiratory problems. Newspaper, aspen, or reptibark are some of the most common substrates used for ball pythons. Newspaper is the cheapest, though it does not provide a realistic appearance. If you are after a realistic appearance for the tank, aspen or reptibark will work for those purposes. All of these things are easy to use when cleaning time comes!
Heating is very important, as described above. However, your method of heat is also of importance. The best things to use are heat lamps (with a 60-75 watt bulb, not UV), an under tank heat pad (UTH), or heat cable or heat tape. If you use an undertank heat source, a thermostat with a probe is necessary. The thermostat will regulate the temperature in case the heat source gets too warm for your python. If the hot spot in the tank gets too warm, it can burn your snake. Snakes can only tell the difference between cold and hot, not hot and too hot, so thermostats are a must.
Ball pythons do not require UV light like some lizards do. Often, a fluorescent bulb will suffice for lighting, though many choose to use a heat bulb. This provides your python with lighting and warmth. Either choice is fine, as long as you have an alternate heat source with the fluorescents. Ball pythons need to have a light cycle as they are nocturnal (active at night). Most would recommend a light cycle of 12 hours of light and 12 hours of night. Commercial lighting timers can be used to achieve this, or you may simply turn the lighting off and on manually.
Hide boxes are very important for ball pythons and can actually play a role in whether or not your snake will feed. When a snake is stressed, they like to have somewhere they can go to feel secure, and hide boxes provide them with that. The hide box should be just large enough for your snake to fit into. If a hide box is too large, your snake will not feel secure. They love to have something touching them on all sides when they are hiding. A hide box should be placed on each end so that the snake does not have to choose between preferred body temperature and security. A cardboard box with a hole in one end works well as a hide box, and there are commercial hides available online or at local pet stores. Anything that is opaque (not see-through) and is not made of pine or cedar will work as long as it has a hole in one end and is the appropriate size.
Tank furniture is necessary in tanks with a lot of wide open space left over after the water bowl and hides are provided. Ball pythons do not like wide open spaces, so something should be used to break up the snake’s line of vision. Logs or artificial plants are acceptable and are widely available online or at local pet stores. Make sure any logs that you choose are heavy and do not rock. If they do, the snake can harm itself with them. Place your chosen log on the floor and press down firmly to determine if the log is stable. Or you may choose to permanently mount a log or logs into the enclosure, thus providing the snake with a stable environment.
A large, heavy water bowl is recommended and should be kept in the cage at all times. It should be large enough for the snake to fit its entire body inside for soaking purposes. This is especially important during shedding, because it helps loosen the skin for easy removal. The bowl should be heavy enough so that the snake can’t tip it over, such as a ceramic or heavy glass bowl. If the water bowl is tipped over by the snake, it is important that the bedding be replaced immediately. If a snake lies in a damp area for an extended period of time, it can cause stomach rot.
The best way to size the feeder animal is to wrap your thumb and first finger around the largest part of your snake’s belly. However big that is should be the size of the feeder’s body. Many people recommend feeding freshly killed or frozen/thawed rats or mice. This is a good idea. Many experts will warn against feeding live rats to your snake because the rat or mouse can harm the snake by scratching or biting. Many people will resort to live prey only when they are having trouble getting their ball python to feed, as this species can be particularly finicky. When feeding, don’t offer rats or mice by hand, as ball pythons are aggressive feeders and you risk being bitten. Instead, offer feeder animals with tongs or other such instruments. Do not be alarmed if your snake chooses to constrict a pre-killed rat or mouse; this is the snake’s natural instinct. You should feed your ball python once every 7-10 days (I prefer every 7 because it’s easier to keep track of what day is feeding day) unless shedding. During shedding, they will not feed. However, once they shed, they will be hungry! Do not attempt to handle him or her after shedding until after they have been fed, unless you know your animal well enough to know that it will not try to bite. If a ball python gets a feeder bite on you, it will hurt! Also do not attempt to handle them for twenty-four hours after feeding (shedding or not) because this can stress them out and cause them to regurgitate their food. (Regurgitations are smelly, so you do not want to experience this if you can help it at all.) The snake will not feed during hibernation, either. Hibernation begins around the end of October or first of November and continues until the end of March or first of April. However, only sexually mature snakes will need to hibernate. Females less than three feet should not hibernate, nor males under two and a half feet in length. Young ball pythons should be kept on feed throughout the year if possible.
Your snake will shed its skin periodically. As the animal grows, it will outgrow its skin. It will generally shed every four to six weeks during the summer when it is feeding every week. In the winter, it may only shed once, then once again when hibernation ends, due to the skin simply becoming old. You should notice that the colors of the skin appear darker when shedding begins, and the snake will have a bluish cast to its skin as well. A few days later, the eyes will cloud over, giving them a milky appearance. The eyes will remain this way for a few days, then clear again. Shortly after, your snake will, beginning at the nose, start to rub back the old skin. Then it will catch either side of its body on something in the cage and proceed forward. It will slither right out of its old skin like a sock being turned inside out. When he or she is finished, just remove the shed skin from the tank. (Keep in mind that during shedding, especially when the eyes have clouded over, that the snake cannot see very well. The snake will not have a good attitude during this time.) Inspect your snake after the shed to be certain that all the old skin has been removed, especially the eye caps and the tip of the tail. Infection can grow if any of the old skin stays in place after shedding. You will have to remove this skin. To do this, wet a pillowcase, squeeze all excess water out, place your snake inside, tie it shut, and place it in a plastic tub under the heat lamp in your tank. Leave your snake alone for 1.5-2 hours. When you pull the snake back out, most likely all of the leftover skin will be gone, including the eye caps. If not, fold the skin back parallel to the snake’s body and gently pull it off. If the eye caps remain, take your snake to the veterinarian to have him or her remove them, as damage can be done to the eyes if done incorrectly. But for most healthy animals, this should not be a problem. Healthy animals will also shed in one, two, or three large pieces. If your animal sheds in many small pieces, it is probably because the humidity of the cage needs to be increased (50-60% humidity suggested, 70% during sheds). To increase humidity, spray the cage with water two to three times daily.
Good luck with your snake and do not hesitate to message me if you have further questions!
Breeding ball pythons is usually very easy. Most ball pythons breed readily in captivity as long as they are healthy animals. Those kept at optimal conditions and are fed properly will produce many clutches of eggs; in fact, it is thought that once ball pythons reach sexual maturity, they are able to reproduce until they die. Proper care and knowledge of the animal should be mastered before attempting to breed these animals, as the experience will assist you in your breeding efforts in addition to helping to produce healthy babies.
Each female ball python can lay one clutch of eggs per year, provided that she has stored enough fat during the previous year. Only female ball pythons at least 1200 grams in weight should be considered for breeding, and 1500 grams is recommended. Bigger females mean bigger clutches of eggs or larger eggs, which transfers into healthier babies. The smaller females, however, are more at risk for many problems arising from breeding. One example is becoming egg-bound, resulting in a pricey operation to remove the eggs and possibly causing the female to be unable to reproduce for life— and that’s only one example! The best thing to do is not get ahead of yourself— or your snake, as the case may be— and let her gain the proper weight before you attempt to breed her. Feed her well until hibernation begins., but do not power-feed your animals! (Power-feeding is when one feeds a snake one meal every 3 days or so and basically the snake just has time to defecate before they are fed again.) Just as breeding too young can cause problems, power-feeding can also cause problems because while the snake's weight might be up to par, his/her reproductive organs probably are not. Feed them a regular schedule of one prey item every 7-10 days until they gain sufficient weight. Females usually stop feeding in November or December and do not begin feeding again until after the clutch is laid. It is possible, however, for the female to accept a few meals in the spring before she ovulates.
Male ball pythons can and will breed with a number of females in the same season if given the opportunity. However, the male’s body weight and overall well-being should be considered during the breeding season. Males as small as 500 grams have mated successfully to produce viable eggs with the female; however, males should be at 800 grams before any serious attempts to breed are made. During the breeding season, males will willingly go for months without food if they smell the pheromones of the female. This is not good for your male ball python, as he can lose far too much body weight and become very weak. During the breeding season, it is essential that you keep a close eye on the male(s) and make the decision to pull them out of the mating processes if he exhibits signs of exhaustion. If this is the case, place him in a room away from all females in order for him to regain his desire to feed instead of breed.
Ball pythons begin copulating in autumn, shortly after hibernation begins. Hibernation is marked by the snakes’ refusal of food. In my experience, males begin to refuse food first (sometimes as early as August, but usually in October) while the females tend to stop feeding in November or December. Cooling is often required to achieve this, but if a snake voluntarily refuses his/her food for three consecutive weeks without prior cooling, the keeper should cool the tank. This is done to prevent the male from losing too much body weight (warmer temperatures speed up the snake’s metabolism, so if he/she isn’t feeding the body weight will drop while nothing is being added to increase it). Do not, however, cool the tank until the snake has refused food for three consecutive weeks. If you cool the tank too early, the snake will not properly digest its last prey item.
After about three weeks of hibernation (I usually go by when the male begins to hibernate; I have had females feed and breed during the same month or months), place the male in the female’s enclosure as the males care less about their living quarters during the breeding season. Leave them together overnight. When you observe them the following morning, most likely their tails will be wrapped together. If this is the case, leave them alone until they separate (which in some cases can be as long as two days or as short as eight hours). If they have not begun breeding, a light misting of water can stimulate them to begin. Once the snakes have finished copulating, place the male back in his own enclosure. After four to five days of separation, reintroduce the male to the female (or to another female). Repeat this process until the female ovulates or the male loses interest. Rest assured the female does not have to breed just prior to ovulation. Female ball pythons can store sperm from the males for several months. Females usually ovulate in the spring; this is characterized by a large mid-body swelling that lasts for approximately twenty-four hours, and is usually accompanied by what is referred to as a "tail suck," when the tail looks as though all of the fat has been sucked out.
Gravid, or pregnant, females should not be handled. Once the female has ovulated, do not handle her unless it is an absolute necessity. Approximately fifteen to twenty days after ovulation, the female will shed; this shed is referred to as her “pre-egg-lay shed.” At this time, it is best to place a tray filled with barely damp sphagnum moss over the heat pad inside the tank with the female. She will make a nest for herself, usually over the hot spot. (If you plan to artificially incubate the eggs, this is also a good time to set up the incubator in order to regulate the temperatures at 89-90° Fahrenheit. If you are using a hova bator, this is an especially good idea, as these incubators' temperatures tend to fluctuate for the first few days.) You may also notice your female lying with her belly in the air. It is not known why most (but not all) female ball pythons do this. Some speculation is that the female is more comfortable this way, or that the developing eggs are getting better heat; perhaps it is a combination of both. In any case, seeing this is a very good sign. Approximately thirty days after her pre-egg-lay shed, she will become very restless and soon settle down to lay her clutch. And beware! Even the most docile of ball pythons can become extremely aggressive when it is a female protecting her eggs! It is best to stay calm and try not to make any sudden movements around a female when she is coiled around her eggs.
Maternal incubation is often hard to achieve during captivity. It is just often too difficult to provide the female with everything she needs for the entire duration of incubation.
I have had the best success with artificial incubation. For the incubation medium, I use a mixture of vermiculite and perlite. To mix this, add two cups of vermiculite for every one cup of perlite. Once you have achieved this mixture, dampen it with water. Squeeze out all excess water, as the medium should be damp, not wet. The incubator should be filled with five to six inches of this mixture and a depression made in the center for the egg mass to rest. Once the female has laid her eggs, they may be checked for viability before placing them inside the incubator. To determine if an egg is viable, use a strong flashlight (I prefer the LEDs) in a dark room. If the egg is viable, you will see a series of veins running through the egg. Place the viable eggs into the incubator, moving them with the same side up so as not to disrupt the air pocket inside at the top of the egg. Throw away any eggs that are not fertile. If eggs stick together, do not attempt to separate them; move them as a unit. If infertile eggs are among these, it is okay to leave them alone. They usually will not harm the other eggs. Once all of the eggs are in the incubator, surround them with the medium about ¾ of the way up (if using a hova bator, I would recommend mostly burying the eggs with the medium; since hova bators are short, the heat source will be very close to the top of the pile, and can dry out any eggs there--covering them with medium helps them to retain their moisture). Now is also a good time to remove all of the female’s tank furnishings and wash them with soap and water to remove the egg smell before they come into contact with the female again. She will not feed again until the egg smell is gone; if you are planning on maternal incubation, the egg smell will also determine her feeding habits then as well, so don't expect her to take many, if any, meals until the eggs begin to hatch.
I usually open the incubator once every three days for less than sixty seconds each time to allow air exchange. Also, during the first two weeks of incubation, the eggs should be checked for dimpling. If the eggs dimple, their medium is probably too dry. Add water by pouring water in the medium around the eggs, but do not pour water directly on the eggs as it will drown them. Add water slowly, and check them each subsequent day to determine if they have regained their turgidity. Once they become turgid to the touch, you have reached your desired moisture level. Incubate the eggs at 89-90° Fahrenheit. After 50-60 days of incubation, the babies will begin to hatch. About two weeks prior to hatching, the eggs will begin to dimple. At this time, it is not necessary to add water; they are supposed to dimple before they hatch because the babies are absorbing calcium from the shell and causing it to become weaker.
Once the babies poke their heads out of the egg, they will rest for a while, sometimes as long as twenty-four hours before they fully emerge. It is important that the babies remain in the egg during this time, as they are still absorbing yolk and will not leave the egg until this process is complete. Once they have fully emerged, place the baby in its own enclosure and offer it a warmed hiding spot and water. Neonates should be examined after hatching to determine if any excess umbilical material exists. If so, place the baby on damp newspaper or paper towels until it disconnects, then replace the substrate with dry paper. A full stomach of yolk will tide the babies over until after they have their first shed, which usually takes place about a week after hatching. After their shed, offer them a fuzzy rat. It may take up to two months before they begin to feed, but food should be offered after their first shed regardless. Don't panic if the baby refuses food for a few weeks; it takes some babies longer than others to figure it out. It is suggested that these animals be offered live prey at first, but should be switched over to pre-killed food at the first opportunity.
Once the babies have their first shed, it is very important that the babies are checked to make sure they have removed all of the shed skin, especially the eye caps and the tip of the tail, as this can cause problems in the future if left unchecked.
If you want to sex your baby snakes, it is best to do so before they reach two weeks of age, in which case they gain sufficient muscle control to make the "popping" method not completely accurate. "Popping" is a term for sexing the baby snakes that involves everting the hemipenes of males. Popping, if done correctly, does not harm the baby snakes in the least; however, incorrect popping can cause damage to the reproductive organs, so if you are inexperienced, it is best to have a someone who knows what they are doing show you how to do it. Also, be aware that you should not pop baby snakes that are going into a shed, as this can cause damage to the skin.