The Ball Python is a pet store snake that originates in western Africa. It is also called the Royal Python. The Ball Python is smaller and more docile than some of the other pythons. The name "Ball Python" comes from their habit of coiling up into a ball when they are afraid. They are constrictors like boas and other pythons.
The Ball Python grows to a size of only 3 to 4 feet. It has a lifespan of about 25 years in captivity. Because of the long lifespan that virtually all snakes have, it is important to think about getting a Ball Python as a long term responsibility.
Ball Pythons available in pet stores are often ones that have been caught in the wild. If you ask around at the local herpetological society, you may be able to find a reputable breeder. If you can't, make sure the snake you buy is a baby. Older wild-caught snakes don't do very well in captivity and can be very difficult to feed.
All snakes are escape artists so setting up a secure enclosure is one of the first things you need to consider if you are thinking of having a Ball Python for a pet. An aquarium with a secure lid makes a good enclosure. It needs to have a heat source and thermometers for monitoring the temperature. A gauge for checking humidity is a good idea too. The snake needs a water bowl and a place to hide. This can be as simple as a plastic container with an entry hole cut in one side. Snakes are secretive animals and become nervous if they don't have a spot to get away from it all.
The best diet for a Ball Python is a mouse or small rat every week or ten days. The size of the rodent should be determined by the diameter of the snake. Don't feed a snake a prey animal that is much bigger around in diameter than the snake is. Ball Pythons sometimes are disinterested in eating. The most common reason is that they are stressed.
Remember that most captive snakes are overfed, and that a Ball Python can go as much as 6 months without eating. It will lose weight of course, and this is not a situation to be desired. It is mentioned here to emphasize the fact that you don't have to worry about your snake going without food for awhile. This is especially likely to happen in the winter. Ball Pythons naturally quit eating for the breeding season.
The best way to handle a Ball Python that won't eat is to try to figure out what the source of stress is. If it seems to be in otherwise good health (no mouthrot or blisters, etc.) then look for other stressors. Is the snake shedding? They don't generally eat while shedding. Is the cage located in a busy part of the house? Maybe the python would appreciate being moved to a quieter area. The Ball Python can also feel stressed by too much handling. Try leaving it alone for about a week.
Food for a Ball Python in captivity is usually pre-killed mice and rats. These can be bought frozen in quantity or raised by the snake owner and killed fresh for the snake. In the wild these snakes eat gerbils. Some people have success feeding a finicky Ball Python by giving it a pre-killed gerbil or two. These are more expensive than mice. It's possible to get the scent of a gerbil onto a dead mouse by leaving it in some soiled gerbil bedding for a little while.
The enclosure for a Ball Python needs to be large enough and kept at the right temperature and humidity. Some people keep their snakes in translucent plastic totes, like the ones made by Rubbermaid or Sterlite for keeping sweaters or whatever. These have to have air holes poked in, of course. The tight fitting lid that comes with the tote needs air holes poked in it, especially if humidity gets too high inside the tote. An aquarium is a nicer looking choice. A 30 gallon tank that is three feet long is an ideal enclosure for an adult Ball Python, but a 20 gallon tank will work. You should be able to get a secure screen lid for it at a pet store.
The enclosure should be equipped with a heat source so that it can stay at a temperature of about 82 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (27.7-29.4 degrees Celsius) on one side of the tank and cooler on the other. It's also good to provide a lamp or heater to make a basking spot of about 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius). Pet stores sell a product called "hot rocks" but they are widely discouraged because they can burn your Ball Python. There are heating pads available at the pet store that heat the enclosure from the bottom.
The Ball Python is cold-blooded like other reptiles, so it needs an external source of warmth for digestion and even for movement. It is also sensitive to dry air and needs a relative humidity of 60 percent or more. The water bowl usually provides enough humidity, but it's a good idea to use a hygrometer to be sure. This is a humidity-measuring device you can get in the garden department of your local Wal-Mart. Humidity is especially important when the snake sheds its skin.
The bottom of the enclosure can be lined in newspaper. This makes a safe surface that is easily replaced when wet or soiled. The Ball Python does not eat a lot, so it might only go to the bathroom once a month or less which brings up the subject of keeping records. It's a good idea to keep track of how much (and what) your snake eats, when it sheds, and how often it goes to the bathroom.
Shedding takes at least a week to complete in most cases. The first sign is that the belly of the Ball Python starts turning pink. You should stop handling or feeding your snake at this point. The next sign will be the eyes looking milky and the colors looking dull. This dullness clears up in a few days. It won't be long before the snake will find a rough spot to catch its skin on and pull it off wrong side out in one piece. If the humidity is too low it might come off in shreds. That's a sign to increase the humidity.
The Ball Python sometimes likes to soak in water. If you give it a bowl of water with a hole in the lid it will have a hiding place that it can soak in. Make the hole big enough for it to get in and out. Soaking will help the process of shedding proceed well.
When you get familiar with a Ball Python or two, maybe you should consider learning to breed them. Breeding requires lowering the temperature for a couple of months and some other techniques beyond the scope of this article. It is mentioned here because this is a species of snake that makes a fairly good pet, but most are caught from the wild. If more people would breed their captive Ball Pythons, it could improve the lot of the wild snakes.