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Boa constrictors (Boa sp.) are a group of 5-12’ long, crepuscular, semi-arboreal snakes native to Central and South America. They prefer subtropical to tropical forest habitats, and spend time both in trees and on the forest floor.
Boa constrictors vary widely in color, pattern, and even size depending on species. Captive breeding efforts have produced morphs, which increases the available variety further. However, generally speaking, boa constrictors have muscular, rectangular bodies, rectangular heads, prehensile tails, and darker patterning on their tails compared to the rest of their body.
Boa constrictors are one of the most common pet snakes in the US due to their hardiness and tolerance toward humans. However, their size and husbandry requirements still make them intermediate- to advanced-level pet reptiles. With good care, they are capable of living 30 years or more.
How to identify different types of boa constrictors:
Most pet boas are either Boa constrictor constrictor or Boa imperator, but there are several other types.
- Bolivian Silver Back/Short Tail Boa (Boa constrictor amarali): Found around southeast Bolivia and southern to southwest Brazil. Averages 5.5-7’ long. Identifiable by silver to silvery-tan based color with black, bat-shaped saddles.
- Red-Tailed Boa (Boa constrictor constrictor): Found in South America east of the Andes mountain range. Averages 7-10’ long. Identifiable by yellow to brown base color, red to reddish-brown tail markings, and dark bat-shaped saddles and spotting.
- Peruvian Long Tail Boa (Boa constrictor longicauda): Found in northern Peru. Averages 6’ long. Identifiable by black and white or black and gold color, with a spear-shaped marking on top of the head.
- Clouded Boa (Boa constrictor nebulosa): Found in Dominica. Averages 10’ long. Identifiable by gray-brown base color, spotted belly, and low-contrast pattern.
- Argentine Boa (Boa constrictor occidentalis): Found from Argentina to Paraguay. Averages 10’ long. Identifiable by dark brown/black base color with lighter pattern.
- St. Lucia Boa (Boa constrictor orophias): Found on St. Lucia island. Grows 10-12’ long. Identifiable by gray-brown base color, darker brown saddles, and black tail markings.
- Macanche Boa/Orton’s Boa (Boa constrictor ortonii): Found in Peru. Averages 9’ long. Identifiable by brown to gray-brown base color and low-contrast pattern with dark outlines.
- Pearl Island Boa (Boa constrictor sabogae): Found around the Pearl Islands. Beige-brown to pink base color with incomplete saddle markings. Averages under 6’ long.
- Central American Boa/Common Boa (Boa imperator): Found in Mexico, Central America, and west of the Andes. Averages 5-7’ long.
- Sonoran Boa (Boa sigma): Found in western coastal Mexico. Identifiable by brown base color with lighter spots and circles.
Minimum terrarium size for boa constrictors
Due to the variation in size between different types of boa constrictor, it’s important to know exactly what species (or subspecies) of boa you have so you can predict its adult length and choose an appropriately-sized enclosure accordingly.
As a general rule, the absolute minimum enclosure size for a boa constrictor should have a length and width equal to or greater than the snake’s expected adult length. Height should be at least 4’ to accommodate climbing behavior, but 6’ or more is better for individuals more than 8’ long. Of course, larger is always better!
Can boa constrictors be kept together?
Cohabitation (keeping multiple boa constrictors in one enclosure) is not recommended.
Are tubs good enclosures for boa constrictors?
You’ve probably seen videos on YouTube and posts on platforms like Instagram of people who keep their boas 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 boa constrictor housing. However, this is not the case.
As suggested by the specifications given above, plastic tubs are simply not large enough to fulfill an adult boa constrictor’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.” Boas 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 boa constrictor
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 boa 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. Boa constrictors must be quarantined for a relatively long period of 3-6 months. You can use your boa’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 boa:
- Keep the snake in a separate room from other reptiles.
- Do not use the same equipment for the new boa as for your other reptiles.
- Fully disinfect the enclosure weekly.
- Get the boa checked by an experienced reptile veterinarian and treated for parasites if needed.
- Observe for symptoms of disease or illness.
After the quarantine period is over, if your boa is completely healthy, you can transfer the snake to its long-term enclosure.
Do boa constrictors need UVB?
Technically they can survive without it, but we still recommend providing appropriate UVB lighting for boa constrictors. 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 boa constrictors are:
- Zoo Med Reptisun T5 HO 5.0
- Arcadia Forest 6%
The bulb you buy should be approximately half the length of the enclosure. For best results, house the UVB bulbs in a reflective fixture from Arcadia or Vivarium Electronics. Position the lamp on the same side of the terrarium as the heat lamp, about 11-13” above the basking branch if over mesh, and 14-16” above the basking branch 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 boa’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. Boas should have a basking UVI between 2.0-3.0, 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 boa constrictors
Like other reptiles, boa constrictors 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, boa constrictors should have a basking air temperature of 86-90°F, and a cool side temperature between 75-80°F. Air temperatures should be measured with at least two digital probe thermometers.
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 colored bulbs, as these are not as effective.
Light-producing heat sources should be turned off at night. However, if the enclosure tends to get colder than 72°F at night, you will need supplementary heating. Use a ceramic heat emitter or radiant heat panel connected to a thermostat to do the job.
How to create a warm hide for your boa constrictor
Because boa constrictors are crepuscular, they generally prefer to sleep in a hidden location during the day and then do their hunting in the evening/nighttime. This means that, while they are known to occasionally bask either fully or partly in the open, they also gather heat energy by sleeping in a hidden but warm location. By providing a warm hide in addition to your basking surface, you can accommodate both behaviors.
A warm hide for a boa should be placed on the warm side of the enclosure. As the heat lamps will be trained on a basking branch, you will most likely need a heat mat to reach appropriate warm hide temperatures. This must be connected to a thermostat for safe and proper function. 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, particularly not for semi-arboreal species. 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. And finally, heat mats can’t be used to create elevated (arboreal) basking sites.
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 boa, it’s best to use a ceramic heat emitter or radiant heat panel to warm the enclosure.
Best humidity levels for boa constrictors
Boa constrictors need ambient humidity levels of about 55-75%. 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 high humidity.
How to create a humid hide for your boa constrictor
In addition to a warm hide, your boa should also have a humid hide available in the middle to cool end of the enclosure. This hide functions like a humid burrow or tree hole to which the snake 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 boa 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 boa constrictors
Providing a thick layer of naturalistic substrate (“bedding”) will help cushion your boa’s body, maintain correct humidity levels, and also helps make your enclosure more attractive! We recommend the following substrates for boa constrictors:
Layering clean, chemical-free leaf litter on top of the substrate can also help with humidity.
Substrate should be at least 3” deep and completely replaced every 3-4 months. Remove poop and urates daily, along with contaminated substrate.
What to know about cleaning a boa constrictor enclosure
Replacing your boa’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 décor.
- 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 boa 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 boa constrictors?
Absolutely. Bioactive vivariums can be a good choice of housing for boa constrictors because they are conducive to higher humidity levels and provide plenty of foliage in the higher levels of the enclosure. 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 boa constrictors 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 boa, 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 boa constrictor vivarium include: dwarf white isopods, powder orange/blue isopods, springtails, and superworms.
How to decorate a boa constrictor terrarium
An empty terrarium makes for a bored boa, reducing its quality of life. Keep your pet entertained and engaged with its environment with the strategic use of decor items that encourage it to exercise natural behaviors!
Since boa constrictors are semi-arboreal, at bare minimum you will need at least two hiding places on the ground, a branch for it to climb on, and foliage for it to hide in off the ground. However, it’s best to include other items such as:
- more branches
- thick, braided vines
- cork tubes/hollow logs
- live or artificial plants
Live plant options for boa constrictors
Boa constrictors may not be as thick as pythons, but they are still larger, heavy-bodied snakes so they can easily accidentally crush live plants in their enclosure — particularly the larger subspecies and localities. This means that you need to be careful in selecting plants that are the most likely to resist occasional trampling as well as climbing. 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 boa.
What to feed to a boa constrictor
Boa constrictors 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 age:
- Newborn-6 months: every 10-12 days
- 6-12 months: every 10-12 days
- 12-18 months: every 12-14 days
- 18-24 months: every 2-3 weeks
- 2-2.5 years: every 2-3 weeks
- 2.5-3 years: every 3-4 weeks
- 3-4 years: every 4-6 weeks
- 4+ years: every 4-8 weeks
Prey items should be around 10% of the snake’s weight and no wider than the snake itself. 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, hamsters, gerbils, young guinea pigs, young rabbits, chicks, quail, and Reptilinks 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 boa, 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.
Do boa constrictors need vitamin supplements?
Boa constrictors 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 boa constrictors
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 boa constrictor
Reptiles generally don’t appreciate petting and handling in the same way that dogs and cats do. That being said, boa constrictors generally tolerate human interaction pretty well! When picking up your boa, 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 boa constrictors
Boa constrictors can be more energetic snakes, particularly when they are young. They still have a reputation for being fairly easy to tame, but it still takes some work. If you don’t gain their trust, they can become defensive and unpleasant, so most of the work on your end will be establishing clear communication and creating 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 boa out from its hiding place, as this is a very effective way to make it feel unsafe.
Worried about getting bitten? Teach your boa 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 a trust relationship with your boa. You can get expert tips from professional snake trainers like Lori Torrini on YouTube.
How to provide enrichment for a boa constrictor
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 boa constrictors, can absolutely benefit from enrichment when it is provided in snake-appropriate ways. Here are some ways to provide enrichment for boas:
- 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 boa constrictor 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
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:
- The ReptiFiles Boa Constrictor Care Guide
- Stockl Boa Constrictors
- “The More Complete Boa Constrictor” by Vincent Russo