Ball Python Keeping on a Budget

The following article will tell you how to put together a setup that will give your snake everything it requires for the least amount of money. This setup is actually superior to typical glass tank setups in terms of the health of your animal and the ease of care. It can also be used for other species with similar care requirements.

Bare Minimum Equipment Required

– A 41 quart clear Sterilite, Rubbermaid, or similar plastic blanket box will provide a suitable home for an adult ball python. You may also use a taller clear plastic latch box over 100 quarts, if you want to provide vertical space as well, though ball pythons are largely terrestrial. For a hatchling up to one year old, an 18 quart bin is recommended. From age 1 to 2, a 32 quart bin will provide ample space.

– Luggage padlocks or other small key locks, or strong clamps. Ball pythons are quite strong. They can injure themselves easily attempting to pry up the lid on a plastic bin and crawl through the gap, so the lid should be secured tightly and be impervious to being forced open or warped to provide an exit for a strong snake.

– A radiant heat source. This must be safe for use with a plastic bin. Shopping around online in reptile supply stores will give you a variety of options for heat pads that can be used with plastic cages (most such pads can only be used with glass, so shop carefully), or a heat rope.

– A thermostat or rheostat. This is an essential piece of equipment which should never be done without. It may be the most expensive purchase in the setup, but it is the most crucial for your pet’s health and safety. A proportional thermostat of good quality, such as Herpstat or Helix, is best. An analog thermostat such as Big Apple Herp’s BAH1000 is also a decent alternative. Rheostats should only be used in an environment where the room temperature stays very constant, night and day, throughout the year. Never use heating devices without a thermostat or rheostat, as most produce enough heat to burn the animal or cause it to overheat (which could prove deadly). A heat pad that seems to be producing the right amount of heat when you buy it can heat up much further as it ages.

– A water bowl deep enough for the snake to submerge in to soak.

– A substrate. Newspaper or paper towels work very well, and are cheap to replace frequently. Reptile cage carpets which can be washed are also an option, but are difficult to disinfect. Many people prefer aspen shavings or Care Fresh – be sure to change these substrates frequently if you use them, as they can hide urates, so a cage can be dirtier than it looks. Do not use fine silica sand, aquarium gravel, corncob, or other beddings that might stick to prey and be eaten and cause an impaction of the digestive system, nor any that might be excessively drying. The substrate should be dry, as excessive dampness can cause skin infections.

– Two temperature gauges (thermometer). These should be the indoor/outdoor variety which have remote probes. They can be purchased from pet stores, but can also be found more cheaply at places like WalMart, Target, or hardware stores.

– One humidity gauge (hygrometer).

– Two hide boxes or caves, large enough for the snake to fit inside completely, but small enough that the snake can feel secure. They should fit closely around the snake, and have single entrances. You may need to get larger ones as the snake grows, if you get your snake when it is small.

Optional Equipment

– Low, sturdy climbing branches, plastic plants, or other decorations (be sure they are too large to be eaten, and do not stack rocks which might fall if pushed). These are heavy snakes, so anything that’s not very sturdy may be crushed.

– Feeding tongs/hemostats – hand feed your reptiles without getting nipped.

– Book on ball python care (necessary if you plan to breed them, a good idea even if you don’t).

Setting Up The Enclosure

Rinse out the cage with very hot water, and dry it. Use a soldering iron to create a series of small holes along the top edge of the bin. About 2 rows of holes is sufficient, spaced 2 inches apart. Be sure there are no very rough/sharp edges sticking through inside the bin. If using luggage locks, carefully create 4 holes at equal distance along the top rim of the bin which go through the lid as well. Make sure that the distance from the edge of the lid and bin rim is very short, and that your padlocks can fit through the holes. Place the substrate in the bottom. Place one hiding cave one one end of the cage. Place the other hiding cave on the other end of the cage. Place watering dish wherever you like, as well as the other decorations. Be aware you will need to change the water daily, so don’t cover the bowl or place things that will make it hard to take out. Make sure that there is always an available water supply, particularly for hatchling snakes, which are delicate and prone to dehydration. Place one thermometer probe on what will be the cool side of the bin. Place the other remote probe from an indoor/outdoor thermometer on the opposite side of the cage, on the floor of the cage over the heat pad. You can pin these under the hide caves, but do not tape them down – tape poses a hazard to reptiles, they always manage to find a way to stick themselves to it. Place the humidity gauge down low in about the middle of the cage. If you are using an undertank heater, place this beneath one end of the cage, as far to that side as possible. Arrange heat rope to loop back and forth beneath half of the bin (without crossing the rope over itself). (Use either a heat pad or heat rope – not both).

Turn on the heat source, program the thermostat if you are using one, and leave the tank for about an hour. Come back, and read the temperature gauges. The warmest area of the cage should be around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The cool side should be no more than 85 degrees, and no less than 80. If the cage is cooler than this, you will need to add another heat source, or adjust your thermostat or rheostat if they are aren’t supplying full power. If the cage is warmer than this, you will need to turn down your thermostat or rheostat. Most undertank heaters get up to 110 degrees, so a rheostat is necessary. Additionally, many heating pads and devices actually get hotter as they get older, making a reliable controller essential to prevent serious risks of burns or even fires. If you believe your older heating device is getting TOO hot, replace it with a new one. Checking the actual temperature of the cage floor is highly recommended when using an undertank heater. The surface should be no warmer than 90 degrees on the warm side of the cage. You can do this using a thermometer with a remote probe, and placing the probe on the cage floor. It is important to set this up before putting your snake into the enclosure, and preferably before bringing it home.

Ball pythons do not require a night time drop in temperatures, and allowing temperatures to fall too low at night may put them at risk of respiratory infections. A small drop of 5 degrees should be well-tolerated, but you will need to insure that temperatures stay consistent at night.

Try to avoid feeding your snake a live rodent. If the snake refuses thawed rodents (available at some pet stores, and through mail order), you may try pre-killing a live rodent for them. A live rodent can VERY easily injure a snake, in the close confines of a cage, and they also may transmit internal parasites. In the wild, the snake can escape from overly aggressive prey, but wild snakes are still occasionally injured. You do not want this to happen to your pet. Purchase frozen rodents of appropriate size (these should be as big around as the widest part of the snake). Ball pythons can be convinced to eat frozen/thawed rodents with a bit of patience, if they aren’t already eating them when you get them. If your snake refuses a frozen/thawed rat, try offering a rodent that you purchased live, but have pre-killed for the snake. A frozen/thawed rat can be refrozen once if it has been out no longer than 1/2 hour. Baby rodents may contain less calcium than adults…some people recommend dipping their hindquarters in calcium powder before feeding them, and there is no problem with doing this, though no particular problems have been found from feeding baby rodents without supplementing calcium. Ball pythons have a reputation for being picky eaters, and in many cases, it’s deserved. You may need to experiment to find out what your python will accept. CBB animals have been started on rats or mice – they may accept one, but not the other. They may also be more difficult to convert to eating dead prey than some other species, but patience and persistence will eventually win over all but the most stubborn and finicky individuals. It is well worth the time and effort in the long run, to protect your snake’s health. Make your attempt a long-term effort – give it at least 6 months of trying all of the various methods before giving up and accepting that your snake will only eat live prey. There are a small percentage of ball pythons that fall into this category. Always be sure to supervise them carefully and be prepared to intervene with forceps to help prevent serious bites if they happen to grab their prey the wrong way. NEVER leave a live weanling or adult rodent alone with a snake. Rats and mice have both been known to attack and even succeed in killing a snake. Never starve a snake to attempt to get it to eat a new food item. Ball pythons are more likely to switch to a new food item if they are used to eating regularly – they will be hungry ‘on schedule’. You may wait one extra day to encourage them, but if they refuse the new food item, feed them what they will eat, and try again at the next scheduled feeding time. Ball pythons are well equipped to live for many months without food – in some cases as long as a year! They will not cave in and accept a strange food simply because they are hungry. Snakes have starved to death rather than eat an unfamiliar food.

Because ball pythons can be finicky eaters, it’s best to offer them food in their own cage. Wait until early evening, when the snake awakens and begins to move around – it will often only do so if the lights are out. Also, be sure to wash your hands very thoroughly after handling your snake’s food, before you put your hands near your snake. Snakes have strong predatory instincts that are triggered by movement, and the scent of prey. Your snake may bite you if its predatory instinct is triggered by your hands, either because they smell like food, or because it’s used to food coming when its cage is opened. This is not the snake’s fault – it will usually let go of you immediately if you don’t smell like food…it may hang on and try to eat your fingers if your hand DOES smell like food, because it doesn’t yet realize that it’s you. Once it realizes its mistake, it will let go. Bites due to feeding mistakes are the most common bites received by snake owners…they are always the fault of the keeper. A snake cannot control its own instincts, nor learn not to react instinctively. We must learn to understand their behavior, instead. A misting bottle can be used to stop a snake from hunting if it appears ready for food when you want to handle it. A few gentle sprays will usually send the snake looking for shelter from the ‘rain’ rather than looking for movement of prey. A snake hook or other similar tool can be used to gently touch and move the snake in order to let it know that it isn’t feeding time as well.

Never house more than one ball python in a cage. Ball pythons are generally shy animals, and live solitary lives when not breeding. Company may stress them. Additionally, cannibalism, while rare, is not unheard of.

Clean the cage whenever the snake urinates or defecates – if using newspaper or paper towel, remove all of the soiled paper and replace it. Wipe out if necessary. If using aspen or coconut fiber, dig out and discard the soiled area, and replace it with fresh. Once every week to two weeks, completely replace the substrate. Once every month, completely clean the cage-remove all the furniture, throw out any loose bedding, and wash everything thoroughly with soap and water. Then soak it in a 10% bleach solution or chlorhexedine solution for 5 to 10 minutes (never mix bleach with chlorhexedine). Rinse very thoroughly, and let it dry. Dry any wood furniture in the sun, and replace it after it’s completely dried and the bleach odor is gone. Do this also when preparing a cage that’s been used before for a new animal.

Safe Handling: Wash your hands after handling any reptile or other pet, or handling or cleaning the inside of the cage or its furnishings. Never place a constrictor snake around your neck, as they may tighten their grip to avoid falling. Never permit children to handle a reptile without close supervision.