One of the most frequently kept beginner snakes is the Royal Python, also known as the Ball python. And this is no surprise. It is a beautiful snake with an endearing personality, ease of care and above all else, is very affordable in setup and purchasing the animal. In addition, the Royal Python come in a variety of colour morphs. This is our Ball Python care sheet.
One Snake: Two Names
First off, the name is an important issue. In the UK, the name most used for Python Regius is the Royal Python. However, in other parts of the world, including the USA, Ball python is the most commonly used name. They are the same species and both have legitimate reasons for their name.
The scientific name literally translates to Royal Python from Latin. In addition, Royal Pythons have been associated with royalty for a long time. Cleopatra was said to keep several of them on her wrists while meeting guests and royal collections across the centuries used to keep these animals.
However, Ball python is also another legitimate name because it represents the prime defensive plan of the snake: to curl up into a ball.
For the argument of this article, we will actually use both names interchangeably. This is so we can cater for both our American and UK audiences.
What Is A Ball Python?
A Ball python is one of the most commonly kept pet snakes in the UK and US. It is placid, easy to care for and comes in numerous varieties that mean collections can be varied. There are thought to be more than 8,000 potential morphs available.
Ball Pythons grow to approximately two to five feet long, with females being larger. However, it can be hard to tell the difference between males and females as a small female can be three foot and a large male can be the same size.
The Royal Python can live for thirty years in captivity or longer, so it is definitely an animal that requires a lot of planning for. A recent story in the news had a female ball python laying eggs at an estimated 62 years old. What was an even more amazing aspect of this story was that she hadn’t been with a male for over 15 years.
Royal Pythons In The Wild
Royal pythons are found in a variety of habitats across West and Central Africa. They spend a significant amount of time on or under the ground in ant nests, termite colonies or borrows for other animals. That said, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be found elsewhere. Ball Pythons, especially males and young females, can often be found in trees where they hunt birds.
Ball pythons can be found in a mixture of areas including savanna grasslands, open forests and near farmland. These are areas that are often populated by their main prey: rodents and small birds.
These snakes are rather heavy-bodied. Therefore, in the wild, they hunt through ambush tactics. That is they will sit and wait for their prey to come to them and then strike, killing their prey through constriction. They aren’t a particularly fast snake as a result of their body mass.
In their native environments, the Royal Python is also much revered by locals. The Igbo people of Nigeria consider them a symbol of the earth. Even those who have converted to Christianity will treat these snakes with great care if they enter a village or a property. In many cases a member of the Igbo will allow the snake to move around freely. However, there are times when they will be gently picked up and moved to a more suitable environment.
If a Royal Python is accidentally killed, the community will hold a funeral for the snake and provide it with a coffin.
In Ghana, pythons are considered a saviour. People will not hurt or eat a python because folklore says that a python saved their tribe by helping them cross a river when they were being chased by their enemies. Some stories say the snake turned itself into a log to create a bridge for the tribe.
Ball Python/Royal Python Care Guide
What Enclosure To Use
There are three types of housing that experienced snake keepers use for Royal Pythons. The main option used by snake keepers is the vivarium, a wooden enclosure that has a glass front. There are also top-opening vivariums. Wooden vivariums are easily acquired and can have lighting, heat sources and other equipment attached to the vivarium for ease. Vivariums offer an attractive way to display your snake in a prime location in the home, like the living room. They can also be fairly easy to clean. This makes them the standard housing choice for Royal Pythons.
However, I have often found that vivariums are also easy to escape from. There is also a plastic version of vivariums, known as terrariums. These are less costly than vivariums, and don’t require any assembly but they are harder to include lights and are easier for the snake to escape from. All snakes are escape artists, so you have to minimise the chances by using the proper enclosure.
In addition, terrariums are not suitable for larger Ball Pythons. Only small babies could be kept in a terrarium and considering that there is little strength in the lid, your small snake will escape easily.
A third option for housing is an aquarium. These are a good option for certain snake species, but they aren’t great for Royal Pythons in my opinion. For one, it is hard to find a tight-fitting, secure top for aquariums. Royal Pythons can be excellent climbers and can escape from the top of an average aquarium lid. Secondly, it is hard to maintain heat and humidity in aquariums to the correct levels. Finally, they are hard to clean and glass has been found to be an unfavourable medium for snakes as they hate touching it. This was confirmed in a research paper that found snakes heavily dislike the feel of glass.
All the above options also fail in allowing you to offer different sizes depending on the snake size. Viviariums are at a minimum of 2 foot (with the exception of one at 18 inches) and this can be the wrong size for many snakes. And it is impractical to buy lots of expensive vivariums or aquariums to cater for one snake. If you want to offer the best royal python care, then you need to find an option that allows you to change the size of the enclosure.
Therefore, I recommend that you use a RUB setup. This is a plastic box with handles which secure the lid to the main box. There are numerous versions of this around, but the best version is the Really Useful Box (RUB). You can read how to prepare a Really Useful Box for snake habitation here.
RUB setups are great and used by breeders and keepers of large collections the world over. They allow you to adjust the humidity within the environment easily, are secure and can be cleaned with ease. In addition, you can use a RUB that is appropriately sized for your snake and then cheaply move it up when it has grown. Or move it down if your snake is unhappy in a new enclosure.
Keeping a snake in an enclosure that is too large for them can stress them out. Royal Pythons are renowned for being fussy eaters and going on hunger strikes. This is often when the snake feels scared in its environment.
Owners will use different sized RUBs at various ages and sizes of the snake’s life. However, there is a rule of thumb about the minimum size for snakes. If the length and width of the snake is shorter than the length of the snake, then the enclosure is too small.
Adult Royal Pythons can be kept in 70 litre or 145 litre RUBs. Both of these have the same floor space available but differ in height. We have found that sometimes a Royal Python is a little clumsy when climbing and falls. So to prevent it from injuring itself, we use the 70 litre in most cases. However, we have kept a Royal Python in a 145 litre RUB with success.
Royal Pythons are kept on many different types of substrate and it often depends on the keeper’s preference. Many large breeders prefer to use substrates like paper towel or paper. However, this is unnatural and can look very sterile. On the other hand, it makes cleaning easier for the keeper.
Another substrate is Aspen and Lignocel. These are fine fibres that can be used. These are easily sourced, smooth, clean and easily maintained. However, I’ve found that Ball pythons like to play with their water bowls and this will often mean that water spills out of the water bowls. This gets the aspen/lignocel wet and this can make it go mouldy. Therefore, more regular cleaning is needed.
You can use wood chips instead. These offer great movement, are kept relatively clean and hold humidity better. Be sure not to use pine wood chips as these are poisonous to reptiles. Orchard Bark is a great option.
What I’ve found is that younger ball pythons do well on lignocel or aspen, but as they reach the 1000 gram mark, they’re better on wood chips. My observations are based on feeding success and shedding. When I follow this regime, sheds have been complete and feeding success is high. I only really have refused feeds when the ball python is going into shed.
Royal Pythons aren’t known to burrow themselves, so you don’t have to put in a deep layer of substrate but it will need to get deeper as they grow as they’re weight can really flatten the substrate.
Heating is an essential part of Royal Python/Ball Python care. This needs to be researched, purchased and set up before you purchase your snake.
If you are using a rub or terrarium setup, place a heat mat under one-third of the tub. In the rub, use a thermostat to prevent the heat mat from getting too hot. The thermostat should be set between 31 and 33 degrees Celsius (88 to 91 degrees Fahrenheit). This might also work with an aquarium, but some heat mats can’t fit under aquariums.
If you’re using a vivarium, you can use a heat mat inside the vivarium, as long as you place a plastic or glass sheet with smoothed edges on the top of the heat mat. This will prevent the royal python from rubbing directly against the heat mat that could cause burns. But this isn’t a recommended option when using a terrarium.
In a vivarium, it is preferable to use a ceramic heat projector. Ensure that you place a guard around the bulb to ensure the snake can’t touch it directly. Always use a thermostat to make sure the temperature is within the correct range. Place the thermostat in the location that you want the snake to bask as this should be the hottest place in the enclosure. A ceramic heat projector is also a good option for aquariums.
For any heating system, you should create a temperature gradient. This is where you have one side that is warmer than the other. This can be done by placing the heat source at one end and leaving the other side free from a heat source.
This requirement is due to snakes, like all ectothermic creatures, using the environment to control their body temperature. A snake will travel to an area to heat or cool its body as is required.
Therefore, you need to create an environment that allows it to warm up or cool down. For the cool end of the enclosure for the royal python, you want a temperature of approximately 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit).
Most snakes do not require any special lighting. This is because most of them are crepuscular or nocturnal. Therefore, they are most likely hiding during daylight hours and would not come into direct sunlight during the day. Many researchers have stated that royal pythons will hide during the day. Keepers will also contend that most ball pythons will hide during the day.
That doesn’t mean that lighting can’t be beneficial. UVB might offer some health benefits, but that isn’t proven. However, a good day/night cycle can be beneficial and if you place the royal python’s enclosure in a darker room without much access to natural light, then lighting can help to provide that natural stimulus to the snake.,
If you want to use lighting ensure that you are using your UVB lighting for only 8-10 hours a day. You can vary this during the year, if you like, to simulate the seasons that royal pythons might experience in the wild.
All enclosures should use decorations to create a habitat or environment the Royal Python would be happy with. Most snakes like clutter and this is no different for the ball python whose main way to avoid predators is to hide. Lots of ‘clutter’ is great for snakes. This can be achieved by placing plastic plants around the floor of the enclosure. Plastic plants are a good choice because they can be easily cleaned. You can also use several other items like logs, cork bark and other accessories to create clutter on the floor of your enclosure.
Be sure to check for safety when it comes to shop-bought decorations. Some people have bought elaborate decorations only for the snake to try and squeeze through a hole and get stuck. This has injured the snake.
In addition, you should have two hides. One should be placed on the cool side and one should be placed on the warm side of the enclosure. You can also add in a third hide during shedding that contains damp moss to aid in shedding. Hides can be made from bought plastic hides, flowerpots and other items. The moist hide, designed for shedding, can be made from a Tupperware box or ice cream tub with a hole cut in the top to allow access.
Finally, you need to add a water bowl. This should be large enough for your snake to soak in. Most snakes don’t drink a lot of water, getting most of their moisture from prey items (Dumeril’s Boas are an exception). But occasionally they will have a drink and they do like to soak, especially if they are going to shed. Francais, our Royal Python loves to soak in her water bowl.
You can also add in branches for climbing. Males have been found to be more enthusiastic climbers, but females will also climb. However, some are clumsy and may fall. If you’re worried, use an enclosure that has less height and offer easier items to climb on.
Feeding Your Royal/Ball Python
Wild Diet Of Ball Pythons
Royal Pythons have a varied diet in the wild. They will mostly eat rodents, but they’re also known to eat lizards, other snakes and birds. The ball python is an ambush predator. It will sit and wait for a prey item to come by before striking. It will then constrict the prey before swallowing the prey whole.
While many believe that the constriction is to suffocate the prey item this is untrue. Research from 2015 found that constrictors actually kill by stopping the circulation of their prey and causing a heart attack. This is a much more effective and safe way for the ball python to kill. Prey items that are being suffocated are more likely to thrash and cause injury, but stopping the circulation reduces the movements of the prey item.
In captivity, you’re most likely to feed your royal python rodents. When a python is young you’re best to feed your snake mice but you should try to upgrade the food item to rats as quick as possible. This is because rats have more nutrients and are healthier for snakes. We feed rats to all snakes as soon as we can.
You might also want to consider multimammates, which are another rodent. Or you could try chicks. However, chicks can have long term health problems and it is known for some royal pythons to regurgitate their food should they be given a chicken to eat after being given rodents for their whole life.
The size of the prey item should be between the thickness and one and half-thickness of your snake. I’ve always found that feeding the thickness of the snake, but feeding more often will result in fewer missed feeds.
Royal pythons are known as fussy feeders, which is probably one of the new negatives of this species. However, they aren’t impossible. Some royal pythons will only eat live food. It should be noted that it is illegal in the UK to feed live vertebrates to another animal unless absolutely necessary. This is a sensible law. Live food can cause injury to your ball python and is stressful for everyone (owner, snake and prey). Instead, you should move onto frozen/thawed prey as soon as possible.
To prepare the F/T prey, take it out of the freezer and let it defrost in a safe place at room temperature. Smaller items can defrost within 20-30 minutes, rats can take a couple of hours. Never use a microwave to defrost your prey items, this can make your royal python very ill.
Once the prey item has been defrosted there are several ways to offer the prey item.
- Feed straight to the snake without heating: some snakes will take food like this and prefer it this way.
- Heat the prey item in hot water (about 35 degrees Celsius) for about 6 minutes.
- Heat the prey item on a heat mat for about 30 minutes.
Once you’ve heated the item (or not), you can offer the prey item to your snakes. Use tongs to hold the prey item by the tail or back legs. To encourage feeding you can move the prey item in front of the snake or by the entrance to the hide, or area of the ground close to the snake. It can sometimes take a few minutes for the snake to accept the prey item.
If unsuccessful, you can try to leave the prey item nearby for a few hours. Some snakes prefer this.
Snakes are notorious for refusing food at times. This is to be expected at times and you should be prepared for this. As long as the snake isn’t losing weight and is otherwise healthy, don’t panic. Some ball pythons have gone 6-9 months without eating and then started to eat again. We’ve not experienced this.
You should never move a snake to a different enclosure for feeding. There are several reasons for this. First of all, it can encourage the snake to associate you moving it with food and it may strike at you when you move it for cleaning or handling in the future. In addition, when moving it back to the enclosure it may regurgitate the prey item. This can harm your snake.
It may sound obvious but remember to clean your tongs and surfaces you put the prey item on afterwards. Treat it like you would raw meat in your kitchen.
How Often To Feed Your Ball Python
Most Ball pythons should be fed once a week of the prey item. I’ve found that this can calm them down. Those that are not for breeding can sometimes be fed every other week. But I have often found weekly feeds are better.
Royal pythons are a delight to handle. They’re very docile. However, snakes can be very nervous and you should train your ball python with handling. It is best to handle your snake for about five minutes to start with and then build this up. Look out for stress signs in your snake and return it to its enclosure if you see signs of it becoming stressed.
There are times when you should not handle your royal python. For instance, you should not handle your snake within 48 hours of being fed. Nor should you feed it when it is in shed. Either of these two times can stress the snake out.
Handling is very easy. You need to locate the snake and then place one hand underneath the belly of the snake and lift it. Never squeeze the snake, this can harm the snake and you might get bitter in response.
Once in the hand, you will naturally find that you can hold and control the snake. Just let it explore in your hands. Royal pythons often ball up when being handled, which makes it easier to control them.
Royal pythons will shed. This can be as often as once a month but can be longer, especially for older snakes. The shedding allows the snake to grow and for it to replace dead cells on the top layer of skin. All animals do this in some respects, humans regularly shed their skin. We do it all the time in tiny particles that it’s hardly noticeable. Snakes do it all at once, which is very efficient.
The first sign of a snake going into shed is its eyes going cloudy. This will last for about two or three days. Then that will clear up and their skin will look duller. A few days later they will then shed their skin.
You can help shedding by using a moist hide in the enclosure and something rough for them to rub up against. If the snake is having trouble with its shed, you can bath the snake to help it remove any skin that hasn’t come off in the first go. However, look at the humidity and temperatures in the enclosure. A snake with stuck shed demonstrates that something is wrong and you need to correct this for better royal python care.
Regular Maintenance For Best Royal Python Care
To keep your snake healthy and happy you need a careful maintenance routine. Every day (or at least every 2nd day) replace the water in their bowl.
You should also spot check for waste. Small waste can be cleaned up quickly. Leaving waste can increase the amount of harmful bacteria in the enclosure and can cause infection. Often you will find that the royal python will produce waste two-three days after feeding or when they’ve shed.
Every month you should clean out your snake and disinfect your snake’s enclosure. There are specially created reptile disinfectants you can use. Don’t use commercial or home disinfectants.
More Information For Ball Python Care
If you have a question about royal/ball python care, please feel free to contact us.