Keep a Pet Ball Python: What You Need to Know

If you’re thinking of getting a ball python for a pet, you’ll want to be sure to read this ball python pet owner’s guide to ensure you’re prepared for welcoming this new animal to your family. Here’s everything you need to know!

Before Buying a Ball Python

The ball python, also known as the rock python, is a non-venomous snake originating from western Africa. These large snakes can easily grow up to 6 feet long once they reach adulthood. Despite their large and intimidating size, their mellow temperament and ability to be handled make them fairly popular choices among snake owners. The name of this species comes from the fact that it curls up into a ball when it’s threatened or frightened.

The hardest aspect of snake ownership is trying to achieve the proper environmental conditions to ensure your pet thrives. Because reptiles are cold-blooded, you will need to make sure the temperature is set quite high. A normal range of 95 degrees Fahrenheit for the basking area in the tank and 78 degrees for the cooler area is highly recommended. The humidity should be kept somewhere between 40% and 60% under normal conditions; this should be increased to 70% humidity when the snake begins to shed its skin.

Ball python on a fallen tree
Ball pythons are popular options for people who want snakes for pets.

Because there is so much equipment you will need to acquire, including the tank, lights, and substrate, owners will need to set aside, at minimum, hundreds of dollars in upfront investment. Caring for a ball python is also a daily responsibility that will require a lot of effort and work. You will need to check the temperature frequently and make sure its needs are satisfied. On the plus side, the ball python can be a rewarding experience for pet owners who want something quite different from the normal dog or cat.

How Much Does the Ball Python Cost (To buy, and own)

The ball python comes in several different color morphs that largely determine the price. The average cost for the typical brown and tan color morph is somewhere between $100 and $200 (and sometimes as low as $40). But there are dozens of different color morphs to explore, including banana, piebald, albino, pastel, pinstripe, and even scale-less. The rarer color morphs can easily cost hundreds of dollars, perhaps even more than a thousand, depending on how hard they are to acquire. This can add an extra visual pizzazz to an otherwise “normal” looking snake.

The cost of the average brown python may seem deceptively cheap, but you will also need to factor in the cost of supplies into your initial budget. The cost of the tank and equipment can be anywhere between $200 and $500 up front, maybe even more for a truly premium setup. It all depends on how much you’re willing to pay. More expensive tanks may provide extra space and useful features that could make care easier.

The annual ongoing expenses will probably run anywhere between $300 and $1,500 per year. Food is the most important ongoing expense, but you will also need to continuously replace the substrate and light bulbs every so often. Some of the other equipment can also run down over time and need to be replaced. If you’re lucky, your snake won’t need much healthcare until it’s fairly old. If it starts to experience health problems, however, then the costs can quickly add up, because you will need to seek out a vet who specialized in exotic pets. It’s unlikely the average vet will have the expertise to deal with a snake.

New owners should have the habitat set up and ready to go by the time you bring your new snake home. Here is what you will need to create a suitable habitat for your ball python:

  • Tank – The tank is perhaps the largest one-time expense besides the snake itself. A young juvenile ball python will need about 10 to 20 gallons of space. A plastic tank may be fine at this juncture, because it is just a temporary habitat. But once it reaches adulthood around three years old, the ball python will need, at minimum, a 40-gallon tank, preferably made from glass. The lid needs to be firmly secure to prevent the snake from escaping. If you opt for a premium terrarium, which may come with a built-in lid and lamp mounts, then it will cost you much more than a standard aquarium. A separate enclosure for feeding is a good idea too. Here are the best snake tanks, reviewed and ranked, to help you make the right purchase the first time.
  • Heat Lamps and Thermometers – The heat lamps should be mounted inside of the tank to maintain the proper temperature at all times. The thermometers should be placed at both ends (the basking area and cooler area) and checked daily. Heating pads can be an alternative to lamps.
  • UV Light – Although the ball python is a nocturnal species, it will benefit from eight to 12 hours of light per day. An infrared or nocturnal lamp is best at night. There is some debate about whether UV lights are necessary, but they are thought to improve the snake’s overall health and immune system.
  • Substrate – A suitable substrate should be placed at the bottom of the tank at all times. Paper bedding, forest bedding, a reptile carpet, or Aspen wood shavings all work well, but the wood will need to be replaced about once a week. Pine and cedar should not be used, because they can irritate the snake’s skin.
  • Décor – The ball python will benefit from an appropriately sized log to hide under and even some climbing branches. Ball pythons are good climbers, and the branches will ensure you’re not wasting space.
  • Water Bowl – The quality of the water bowl doesn’t matter too much, but it will need to be large enough for your snake to soak in.
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Ongoing Needs: What You Need to Care for Your Ball Python

Except for food and the occasional replacement parts, ongoing expenses for the ball python should be relatively minimal.

  • Frozen Rodents – The ball python will need to be fed a semi-regular diet consisting solely of frozen rodents. More information about this is available later in the article.
  • Substrate – It is important to replace the substrate regularly to prevent skin irritation and infections. If you are using a wood or paper-based substrate, then you will likely need to replace it perhaps once a week.
  • Bulbs – Light bulbs will need to be replaced as they burn out.

Exercise and Ongoing Care

Ball pythons do not require much exercise, but it is a good idea to give them climbing areas so they can explore and move around in. They should have plenty of space to uncoil their bodies but not too much to make them feel too exposed. A healthy python will always appear active and alert.

Ongoing care is a huge part of snake ownership. Owners will need to monitor the temperature, refill the water bowl, and clean the tank on a regular basis. In order to clean the tank, you should first remove your snake and place it in a temporary container. Once all of the objects and substrates are removed, you should scrub the tank with a suitable habitat cleaner or 3% bleach solution. Allow the tank to dry for at least 10 minutes before washing it off. This is a good time to replace the substrate with a fresh supply and make other changes to the habitat.

Feeding Your Ball Python

Your ball python should be fed frozen rodents on a regular basis. Juveniles need to eat once a week, preferably mice or small rats; adults will eat once every week or two, and a large rat will often suffice. As a general rule, the prey should be the size of the middle body or widest part of the snake. It may be necessary to experiment with prey size. If in doubt, always go with a smaller option.

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The food should be dead and frozen already, because live prey can easily fight back and harm your snake. The rodent should be thawed out to slightly above room temperature without using the microwave, but you should never prepare the rodent in your kitchen or eating area. It is also a good idea to use a separate feeding tank or enclosure to prevent your snake from associating your hand with food. This can lead to an accidental bite.

How Long Will Your Ball Python Live

Assuming it receives all the proper care and doesn’t experience any significant health problems, the ball python lives about an average of 20 to 30 years in captivity. The oldest known ball python lived up to 48 years in a zoo. Proper temperature and humidity, a consistent diet, and sufficient space and water intake will all contribute to the longevity of your ball python.

Common Health Issues for the Ball Python

A healthy python will be active and alert. It should have clear eyes, smooth skin, and a healthy appetite. The skin should be shed in one piece with very few complications. An unhealthy python, on the other hand, may have bumpy skin, uneven or ragged breathing, a skin infection, or a white substance in the mouth. It may have difficulty shedding its skin or might not shed at all. Vomiting or unusual-looking feces are also signs of a potential problem. If your snake experiences any of these issues, then you should think about contacting your vet. Here are some of the most common health problems experienced by a ball python:

  • Stomatitis – Also known as mouth rot, this condition can result in the buildup of thick mucus or scabs in the mouth, possibly with blood or pus that resembles cottage cheese. If the infection becomes bad enough, then it can result in a swollen mouth that prevents it from eating or breathing properly. Common causes include poor nutrition, overcrowding, and improper temperature and humidity.
  • Dermatitis – Improper environmental conditions that are either too moist or too dry can cause red, inflamed skin with blisters and lesions covering the body. The blisters can become infected with bacteria and cause significant damage to the skin.
  • Respiratory Disease – Respiratory problems can result from poor or damp environmental conditions, viral infections, and bacterial or fungal buildups. Symptoms include labored breathing, lethargy, mucus in the mouth, or bubbles emanating from the mouth or nostrils. It can sometimes occur in conjunction with stomatitis as well.
  • Ticks, mites, and other parasites – External parasites can attach to the skin and draw blood. Ticks are fairly uncommon, but mites can easily hide in the house and hitch a ride on other pets. They can cause itching, skin irritation, anemia, swelling, breathing problems, infections, and other potential issues. Internal parasites can cause digestive problems, vomiting, weight loss, and body swelling.
  • Inclusion Body Disease – This virus, which is exclusive to boas and pythons, progressively affects the nervous system, digestive tract, and respiratory system. The symptoms can vary from one snake to another, but disorientation, stargazing, paralysis, and abnormal positioning are common as the virus progresses. Secondary infections can also result. Since the prognosis is often fatal, snakes with this disease sometimes have to be put down. The virus is thought to infect either via direct contact or transmission through mites.

Where to Buy Your Ball Python

A ball python can be purchased from just about any pet store that sells large snakes. They are some of the most common snakes in the pet trade. However, for some of the rarest color morphs, you may not be able to find one in a regular pet store. Only an exotic pet store may sell some of the most unusual color variations. They can be transported home in a small temporary enclosure.

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Special Considerations with the Ball Python

One of the most important moments in your snake’s life is the shedding process. An adult ball python will shed approximately every four to six weeks, but a juvenile will shed more often, perhaps every three to four weeks. The entire process can take up to two weeks long, but the bulk of the shedding should take only about three days. A lubricating layer will start to form, enabling it to slough off the skin without too much trouble. As mentioned previously, a habitat with extra moisture and 70% humidity will help the process along. A healthy snake will shed its skin in one piece. If it comes off in multiple pieces, then it could be a sign of a medical issue. When the snake first starts to shed, the skin will appear dull and the eyes will appear milky and opaque. This is completely normal and not a sign of any deeper problems.

Another important consideration is how to handle your pet python. These snakes should be handled carefully and cautiously at first until it is fully used to your presence. Support its body firmly with both hands and let the head roam where it wants. It will usually tolerate being handled a few times a week without any issues. However, it is not a good idea to handle your snake while it’s shedding, because it is already a stressful time in the snake’s life. Try to avoid handling your snake when it’s digesting food as well. Keep in mind that every snake is a little bit different and might not respond to physical contact in the exact same manner.

Keep a Pet Ball Python: What You Need to Know FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are ball pythons friendly?

Ball pythons are generally relaxed and mellow once they are familiar with people. Unless they feel directly threatened, ball pythons will not usually bite (and the bite itself is not too harmful). This makes them easy for humans to handle.

How big do ball pythons get?

The ball python has average length of 3 to 5 feet, but they can reach a maximum size of 6 feet long.

Are ball pythons poisonous?

Ball pythons do not have the ability to produce venom. Instead, they kill their prey by constricting it into their coils and swallowing it whole.

Is it hard to own a ball python?

The ball python does require a lot of work to care for. You will need to replicate the python’s exact environmental conditions, including humidity and temperature. On the other hand, it has fewer social needs than your average mammalian pet. Pythons don’t need to spend a lot of time interacting with its owner.

Is there a difference between male and female ball pythons?

In terms of physical appearance, female pythons are generally larger than males and exhibit more pronounced patterns. In terms of temperament, the sexes aren’t really distinguishable from each other, but females are said to be more aggressive once they lay eggs.

Can you house multiple ball pythons together?

It is possible to keep multiple ball pythons together, but you will need to double the size of the tank, and the snakes may be more prone to disease and stress than usual. These are generally solitary animals in the wild and not used to a companion. But keep in mind you should never house different snake species in the same habitat.