Table of Contents
Ball pythons (Python regius) are a 3-5’ long, crepuscular, semi-arboreal snake native to central and western Africa. They prefer semi-arid grasslands, forests, and fields for habitat. Although they are frequently found in burrows, they are known to hunt in trees.
Ball pythons have thick, muscular bodies and a peanut-shaped head, covered in smooth scales. Wild-type (“normal”) ball pythons have a brown and black pattern outlined by white, with a pale belly. However, thanks to captive breeding efforts, ball pythons are now available in many other colors and patterns.
Ball pythons are one of the most common pet snakes in the US due to their hardiness, manageable size, docile nature, and ease of breeding in captivity. With good care, they are capable of living 30 years or more.
Minimum terrarium size for ball pythons
The absolute minimum terrarium size for a single ball python is 48”L x 24”W x 24”H. Of course, larger is always better! Many people (falsely) believe that ball pythons actually do better in smaller enclosures, but the fact is that they need enough room to stretch out fully, explore, and climb. As long as they have enough places to hide, a large enclosure will not stress them out.
Cohabitation (keeping multiple ball pythons in one enclosure) is not recommended, as ball pythons are not a social species, and keeping them together causes stress.
Are tubs good enclosures for ball pythons?
You’ve probably seen videos on YouTube and posts on platforms like Instagram of people who keep their ball pythons in plastic tubs arranged on shelves. At first glance, this seems like an ideal arrangement: a way to keep more snakes in less space! The snakes seem happy and healthy enough in these posts, which further suggests tubs and racks as the ideal for ball python housing. However, this is not the case.
Plastic tubs are simply not large enough to fulfill an adult ball python’s needs for space according to animal welfare guidelines. The Federation of British Herpetologists states: “Outside of these specific uses the FBH does not support the long-term use of rack systems for snakes where the physical movement of the animals is severely restricted.” Ball pythons that are housed in tubs over the long-term are more likely to suffer from health problems such as muscle weakness, obesity, etc.
How to quarantine a ball python
When you bring home a new pet reptile, it’s best practice to quarantine it first, especially if you own other reptiles. It is especially important if you plan on housing your ball python in a bioactive vivarium. Quarantine is the practice of isolating animals that have arrived from elsewhere or been exposed to infectious or contagious disease.
Even if you don’t have other reptiles, quarantine is still important because it allows you to closely monitor your snake for signs of illness and administer treatment. Due to concerns about nidovirus, ball pythons must be quarantined for a relatively long period of 6-12 months. You can use your ball python’s long-term enclosure for quarantine, or you can use a large plastic tub. Although not ideal long-term housing, tubs are inexpensive, easy to clean, and make an excellent short-term option for quarantine purposes.
Here are some rules for quarantining your ball python:
- Keep the snake in a separate room from other reptiles.
- Do not use the same equipment for the new ball python as for your other reptiles.
- Fully disinfect the enclosure weekly.
- Get the ball python checked by an experienced reptile veterinarian and treated for parasites if needed.
- Test for possible diseases, such as nidovirus.
- Observe for symptoms of disease or illness.
After the quarantine period is over, if your ball python is completely healthy, you can transfer the snake to its long-term enclosure.
Do ball pythons need UVB?
Technically they can survive without it, but we still recommend providing appropriate UVB lighting for ball pythons. UVB lighting helps provide a clear day/night cycle, provides all of the vitamin D that your pet needs, strengthens the immune system, facilitates better digestion, and other benefits.
The best UVB bulbs for ball pythons housed in a 48” x 24” x 24” terrarium are:
For best results, house the UVB bulbs in a reflective fixture. Position the lamp on the same side of the terrarium as the heat lamp, about 9-11” above the basking area if over mesh, and 12-14” above the basking area if not.
UVB is blocked by glass and plastic, so placing the terrarium in front of a window doesn’t count as “free UVB” — in fact it can make your terrarium too hot due to the greenhouse effect. Don’t forget to replace your bulb every 12 months!
Lights should be on for about 12 hours/day. All lamps should be turned off at night.
How to measure UVI
The strength of a lamp’s UVB output is measured in UV Index, or UVI. Coincidentally, this is the same measurement that the World Health Organization uses to measure risk of skin damage from exposure to solar radiation. The best way to measure UVI in your ball python’s enclosure is with a Solarmeter 6.5.
To use the Solarmeter, hold the device vertically at the height of the basking surface, with the lens pointing directly up at the lamp. Ball pythons should have a basking UVI between 3.0-4.0, with UVI everywhere else in the enclosure being lower. Although there is a basking distance recommended in the previous section, note that factors such as the density of your terrarium mesh as well as the exact hood you’re using for your UVB lamp will affect the exact distance needed.
Best temperature for ball pythons
Like other reptiles, ball pythons are cold-blooded, which means that they rely on external temperatures to manage their own body temperature and metabolism. A reptile’s enclosure should offer a range of temperatures to allow them to thermoregulate effectively.
Specifically speaking, ball pythons should have a basking surface temperature of 95-104°F, and a warm hide temperature of 86-90°F. On the other side of the enclosure, the temperature should be between 72-80°F. Surface temperatures can be measured with an infrared thermometer, but air temperatures should be measured with a digital probe thermometer.
Provide heat for your snake with at least two halogen flood heat bulbs, placed close together over the basking area (ex: a piece of flagstone or stone paver) to evenly heat the snake’s entire body. Do not use ceramic heat emitters (CHEs), red bulbs, or blue bulbs, as these are not as effective.
The warm hide should be placed directly below the basking surface. If the heat lamp is not enough to get the warm hide to an appropriate temperature, use a heat mat connected to a thermostat to control the warm hide temperature.
How to create a warm hide for your ball python
Because ball pythons are crepuscular, they generally prefer to sleep in a hidden location during the day and then do their hunting at night. This means that, while they are known to occasionally bask either fully or partly in the open, they gather most of their heat energy by sleeping in a warm burrow. By providing a warm hide in addition to your basking surface, you can accommodate both behaviors.
The warm hide should be placed directly underneath the heat lamps. If for any reason the heat lamps are unable to warm the hide to the right temperature, then you will need a heat mat to supplement. This must be connected to a thermostat to control the warm hide’s temperature. The heat mat should be slightly smaller than the hide itself, buried under 1-2” of substrate to prevent direct contact, with the thermostat probe placed inside the hide.
Are heat mats better than heat lamps?
Heat mats have been used for years for heating snakes, but as our understanding of snake housing has evolved, so has our understanding of snake heating. While heat mats can be sufficient in a small tank or tub, they are not enough to create both appropriate basking and air temperatures in a larger enclosure. However, as outlined in the previous section, heat mats can be very effective for maintaining a warm hide.
Heat lamps produce a higher-intensity form of infrared that allows reptiles to bask more efficiently. Plus, they are able to heat the surfaces beneath them (creating “belly heat”) while also warming the air inside the enclosure.
Of course, because they produce light, heat lamps are not suitable for use at night. If you are having trouble maintaining appropriate nighttime temperatures for your ball python, it’s best to use a ceramic heat emitter or radiant heat panel to warm the enclosure.
Best humidity levels for ball pythons
Ball pythons need average humidity levels between 45-75%, fluctuating lower during the day and higher at night. There should also be a humid hide for your snake, lined with moistened sphagnum moss. Humidity should be measured via digital probe hygrometer, with the probe placed in the middle of the terrarium.
Increase humidity by misting your snake’s enclosure 1-2x/day with a spray bottle. Mist first thing in the morning and then again at night if needed. Mixing water directly into the substrate also helps with maintaining humidity.
How to create a humid hide for your ball python
In addition to a warm hide, your ball python should also have a humid hide available in the middle to cool end of the enclosure. This hide functions like a humid burrow to which ball pythons can retreat when they feel the need for a bit of extra moisture. Having access to a humid hide is essential to maintaining a well-hydrated ball python that consistently sheds well.
You can either purchase a humid hide or make your own. There are several attractive commercial options for humid hides, such as the Zilla Rock Lair and the Exo Terra Snake Cave. These products are fully-enclosed and easy to clean. To DIY your own humid hide, use a tupperware container with a hole cut out for an entrance. Either way, line the hide with moistened paper towel or sphagnum moss. Paper towel must be replaced every 1-3 days to stay clean, while sphagnum moss must be replaced every 2-4 weeks.
Best substrate for ball pythons
Providing a thick layer of naturalistic substrate (“bedding”) will help cushion your ball python’s body, maintain correct humidity levels, and also helps make your enclosure more attractive! We recommend the following substrates for ball pythons:
Layering clean, chemical-free leaf litter on top of the substrate can also help with humidity.
Substrate should be at least 4” deep and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.
What to know about cleaning a ball python enclosure
Replacing your ball python’s substrate is a good time to give the entire enclosure a good cleanout. Here are some general steps to follow:
- Remove your snake from the enclosure and put it inside a temporary, escape-proof holding container. This container should offer a hide, small water bowl, and a thin layer of old substrate from the enclosure for the snake’s comfort.
- Remove all substrate and decor.
- Vacuum and wipe down the enclosure to remove leftover particles.
- Apply a reptile-safe disinfectant to the floor and walls of the enclosure and let sit for the disinfectant’s recommended contact time.
- Meanwhile, soak branches, rocks, hides, and other decor in a disinfectant rated for porous materials for the recommended contact time.
- If required, rinse the enclosure and the accessories with clean water to remove disinfectant residue. Allow everything to dry.
- Pour new substrate into the enclosure. Mix in water until uniformly moistened but not wet.
- Arrange décor. If your ball python is easily stressed by change, put everything back where it was before.
- Reintroduce your snake to the clean setup.
Some veterinary-grade disinfectant options that work for both porous and nonporous materials are F10SC, CleanBreak, and bleach solution. However, for porous materials, bleach solution should be in a 1:10 dilution, while you should use 1:50 for nonporous.
Can bioactive work for ball pythons?
Absolutely. Bioactive vivariums can be a good choice of housing for ball pythons because they are conducive to higher humidity levels and are generally more attractive than other options, which is especially nice if your snake likes to hide most of the time. Bioactive vivariums have the additional benefit of eliminating the need for total cleanouts, and a healthy vivarium always has a fresh, earthy aroma.
Some downsides of bioactive for ball pythons are that they require at least one month to get established before the snake is introduced, the plants that you use need to be sturdy enough not to get crushed, and bioactive is usually more expensive to set up in the short-term. CUC (Clean Up Crew) organisms may occasionally escape, and maintenance in the form of plant care and occasional partial soil replacements are still necessary.
If you want to put together a bioactive setup for your ball python, you will need all of the supplies recommended in this article, plus a few more things:
- bioactive-ready substrate mix
- clean leaf litter
- sturdy live tropical plants that can withstand occasional snake traffic
- 6500K LED or fluorescent grow lamp, spanning most of the enclosure’s length
- tropical CUC organisms to maintain the soil
While it’s possible to mix your own temperate bioactive substrate, if this is your first attempt at bioactive, you’re most likely to have success if you use a pre-mixed bioactive substrate available commercially, such as through Bio Dude or Josh’s Frogs.
Good options for CUC for a bioactive ball python vivarium include: dwarf white isopods, powder orange/blue isopods, springtails, and superworms.
How to decorate a ball python terrarium
An empty terrarium makes for a bored ball python, reducing its quality of life. Keep your pet entertained and engaged with its environment with the strategic use of décor items that encourage it to exercise natural behaviors!
Since ball pythons are semi-arboreal, at bare minimum you will need at least two hiding places on the ground and a branch for it to climb on. However, it’s best to include other items such as:
Live plant options for ball pythons
Because ball pythons are heavy-bodied, they easily accidentally crush live plants in their enclosure. This means that you need to be careful in selecting plants that are the most likely to resist occasional trampling. Here are some plants that are robust and do well in a moderately humid, moderately-lit environment:
- Spider plant
Larger, older plants are more expensive to buy, but they are also sturdier and more likely to survive your ball python.
Is it dangerous for ball pythons to climb?
Some say that ball pythons shouldn’t be given climbing opportunities because they’re “bad at climbing” and “will fall and injure themselves.” This is a myth. Ball pythons are actually quite capable climbers, and routinely climb trees in the wild to hunt bird prey.
If a pet ball python appears to be “bad at climbing,” it’s because it hasn’t had enough opportunities to develop the necessary muscle tone. The best way to start is with a juvenile ball python in an enclosure with sturdy branches for climbing, but even older adults can learn to climb safely if started with low, wide climbing objects.
What to feed to a ball python
Ball pythons are carnivores, which means that they need to eat whole animal prey in order to get the right nutrition. Here is a basic feeding schedule based on snake weight:
- Hatchlings (up to 5 weeks old) — every 5 days
- Juveniles <200g — every 7 days
- Juveniles 200-350g — every 7-10 days
- Juveniles 350-500g — every 10-14 days
- Subadults and adults 500-1500g — every 14-21 days
- Adults >1500g — every 28-56 days
Prey items should be around 10% of the snake’s weight and no more than 1.5x its width at its widest point. Although live prey can be offered, it’s best to use frozen whenever possible. Prey should be thawed in a BPA-free plastic bag in warm water until it reaches ~100°F, then use a pair of soft-tipped feeding tweezers to offer it to your snake.
One of the keys to great nutrition is variety, so aside from offering mice and rats, quail and chicks can also be used to add diversity to your snake’s diet.
Where to get feeders for your snake
Most pet stores sell frozen mice and rats in various sizes for feeding to snakes. This is convenient because you can buy prey one at a time. However, the variety is most likely to be highly limited, and quality is questionable since there are no controls for how the feeders are raised or how healthy they are at the time of euthanasia.
Alternatively, you can buy feeders from a breeder online. The internet makes it easier to get a variety of prey for feeding your ball python, and it gives you more control over the quality of prey and the way they were raised. However, you often have to buy in bulk, and shipping costs are relatively high due to the need to ship perishable goods quickly.
Why do ball pythons go off feed?
Ball pythons are well-known for their tendency to refuse food, being labeled as “picky eaters.” This is partially because they are often fed more often than needed, but also because they often have a habit of going on long fasts, sometimes as frequent as every year during the same season.
This may be alarming to you, but the fact of the matter is that ball pythons are built to eat infrequently. Juveniles shouldn’t miss a feed too often since they’re growing, but adults can easily survive long periods of fasting without their health taking a significant hit. However, losing 10% or more of their body weight, particularly within a short period of time, is a reason to go to the vet to make sure they’re not sick.
Do ball pythons need vitamins?
Ball pythons can survive without supplementation, but using them every once in a while can help prevent your snake from developing a nutritional deficiency, helping it live healthier. We recommend Repashy Calcium Plus LoD, lightly dusted on the prey item before offering.
Providing drinking water for ball pythons
Of course, don’t forget a large water bowl for your snake to drink from and soak in! Change the water daily and scrub the bowl with a reptile-safe disinfectant weekly, or whenever it becomes soiled.
How to handle your ball python
Reptiles generally don’t appreciate petting and handling in the same way that dogs and cats do. That being said, ball pythons generally tolerate human interaction pretty well! When picking up your ball python, be gentle and try to pick it up from the side or below rather than from above. Support as much of its body as possible, and NEVER pick it up by its tail, as this can damage its spine!
Taming tips for ball pythons
Ball pythons are perceived as gentle, so they’re often also perceived as easy to tame. However, this isn’t always the case. Ball pythons are often timid, which means that you have to work to gain their trust, and be especially careful to create a positive association with yourself in their mind. It’s best to encourage the snake to come out of the enclosure and climb onto you on their own, rather than simply grabbing them whenever you’re in the mood for handling. Never grab your ball python out from its hide, as this is a very effective way to make it feel unsafe.
Worried about getting bitten? Teach your ball python to tell the difference between food time and handling time. One way to do this is by tapping on the front of the enclosure with your fingernails right before offering food, so the snake associates tapping with food. When it’s handling time, don’t tap. Of course, if the snake still looks coiled and interested, you can use a paper towel roll to gently tap the snake on the head and distract it from thinking about food.
Additional training is very worthwhile for building up your ball python’s confidence. You can get expert tips from professional snake trainers like Lori Torrini on YouTube.
How to provide enrichment for a ball python
Enrichment is the practice of strategically providing items and activities to encourage a captive animal to exercise natural behaviors. This also helps increase activity, reduce stress, and generally increase the animal’s welfare.
Some argue that snakes are “too dumb” to benefit from enrichment, but this is false. Snakes, including ball pythons, can absolutely benefit from enrichment when it is provided in snake-appropriate ways. Here are some ways to provide enrichment for ball pythons:
- Rearrange the enclosure. If total overhauls are too stressful, move one thing every so often at your snake’s pace. For some individuals, that may be once a month, for others they might like once a week.
- Puzzle feeders. This can be as simple as placing the snake’s prey in an open box or plastic cup.
- Simulated nest raids. Instead of offering one prey item, place a cluster of much smaller prey (ex: pinky mice or pinky rats) somewhere in the enclosure for the snake to find.
- Supervised explore time outside of the enclosure. Make sure to keep them away from situations that you can’t get the snake out of.
- “Box of things”. Introduce your snake to a box or bin full of different items of different sizes and textures: branches, pipes, easily-washable plushies, etc.!
When should you take a ball python to the vet?
Dogs and cats aren’t the only pets who need veterinary care — snakes get sick and need professional help the same as any other pet. If you notice that your snake has any of the following symptoms, make an appointment with an experienced reptile vet right away:
- Noisy breathing
- Mucus discharge from the mouth/nose
- Unexplained weight loss
- Large patches of missing scales
- Discolored belly scales
- Swelling or bumps anywhere on the body
- Sudden, unusually aggressive behavior
Ball Python Resources
*This care sheet contains only very basic information. Although it’s a good introduction, please further your research with high-quality sources. The more you know, the better you will be able to care for your pet! Here are some great sources we recommend checking out: