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Boa Constrictors

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Boa Constrictor, Constrictor
Gary Ruplinger

The Latin name, Boa constrictor constrictor, refers to a snake commonly kept as a pet. The name "red-tailed boa" is sometimes given to the same snake, although there is a true red tailed boa. These snakes originate in Mexico and South America. Another species from Honduras is a smaller snake, not getting more than three feet long. The Boa C. constrictor, however, can get quite large, although not as large as some reports indicate. Ten feet is a common adult length, but longer snakes, even up to fifteen feet long, are seen.

A large boa constrictor can be dangerous so it is very important that you treat them with respect. It is also important that you follow proper precautions when feeding or handling these pets.

A newborn is likely to be only 14 to 22 inches long. It can get by on one mouse every week. The size of the mouse should equal the girth of the snake. As they get a little older, they might need two mice every week. After they pass three feet in length, they are probably ready for a rat of appropriate size when feeding. Beyond six feet long, they can handle a rabbit, but should only be fed every ten to fourteen days.

Make sure you don't overfeed boa constrictors. They can become constipated, a condition that can be fatal. It is also a good idea to not feed two or more constrictors in the same cage. Boas have inadvertently constricted their cage mate thinking they were holding their food.

Feeding requires special care. Do not let the scent of the prey food get onto your hands or clothes. To keep this from happening, wash your hands with soap and water before feeding. Then use long handled tongs to grasp the prey animal for giving to the snake. Live food is not recommended for any captive snakes. Live prey animals fight back, and can inflict injury to a snake. Food animals, such as mice, rats, and rabbits, can be purchased pre-killed and frozen. Thaw them thoroughly before using them.

A boa constrictor has strong instincts about food. Scent, movement, and warmth all denote a prey animal nearby. A cat or dog in the room can seem like potential food to a boa, as can its owner. Keep warm blooded pets away from the snake, and don't get their smell on you before handling the boa.

A boa needs a secure enclosure, or "vivarium," as a cage. Young boa constrictors like to climb, and should have a few branches in their enclosure. The enclosure for any size of snake needs to be big enough for it to move around. The minimal size for a baby is two feet long by eighteen inches wide and tall enough for a few branches. The top or door must be tight fitting and escape proof. Keep in mind that all snakes are escape artists.

A large adult boa should have a cage at least six feet long by three feet wide and three feet high. A larger cage is needed if there is more than one snake in the enclosure. Newspaper or paper towels can be used to line the floor of the vivarium.

Like other snakes, boas need warmth in the enclosure. A thermometer should be used on each end of the cage about an inch from the bottom. This way you can monitor the temperature where the snake lives. You should try to have t at about 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (26.6-29.4 degrees Celsius) with a basking spot of 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (35-37.7 degrees Celsius). There are inexpensive plastic thermometer strips that attach to the walls of the vivarium that are useful for this purpose.

Pet stores sell undertank heating mats that can be attached to the bottom of a vivarium. Another option is a fiberglass mat called a "pig blanket." It's a device used by veterinarians when pigs are giving birth. It can have a thermostat attached to it and be used to heat the vivarium from below. Either of these methods should be used under only part of the cage, so the snake can choose from several temperatures to find where it is most comfortable.

Light bulbs and ceramic heat bulbs can be used as well. They need to be enclosed in screen in order to keep the boa from getting too close and getting burned. Some people have success using small ceramic heaters and say that they don't have the hot spots found with other heaters. There are hot rocks available in pet stores, but they are strongly discouraged by snake experts because the rocks don't provide safe, even heating.

A boa constrictor needs a large enough water dish to immerse itself. Boas tend to defecate in their water, so it should be changed very frequently. The water helps when it comes time to shed its skin.

If the boa constrictor is eating enough to be growing normally, it will probably shed about every month. The first sign that a snake is about to shed is that its eyes cloud over. The complete process takes a few days. It is better if the snake does not eat during this time. A stick or something similar in the cage gives the boa something to rub on while shedding. If the humidity in the enclosure is high enough it will come off in one piece. If it comes off in shreds, you need more humidity. It's a good idea to mist the snake daily while shedding is taking place. The entire skin should eventually come off, including the skin over the eyes.

Soaking is good for treating occasional constipation. If the temperature in the cage is right, this shouldn't be a problem, but soaking helps. Keep track of the snake's feces so that you can tell if there is a problem, such as looseness or signs of parasites (worms). Similarly, respiratory problems are often caused by the cage being too cool. Signs of a respiratory illness include breathing with its mouth open, mucus, or bubbles in the nostrils.

It's possible for a snake to get ticks, fleas, or mites. Of these, mites are the most common. A two inch square of bug-killing strip used in the vivarium overnight will kill them. Make sure the insecticide is either on top of a screen lid or inside a box with holes poked in it. You don't want the snake to come into direct contact with the insecticide. The cage needs to be kept clean, too.

Routine maintenance of a boa enclosure requires a daily check of temperature and humidity, and a change of water. Remove uneaten food and wastes as needed. Weekly, the inside surfaces should be wiped down with a disinfectant. The water and feed bowls should be washed and rinsed. Substrate should be replaced monthly. Also clean any accessories such as branches and hiding places.


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