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Ball Python Problems- Eating, Sheds, & Humidity

Updated on February 21, 2014

To begin, a brief history of our herps:

Truffles, our first plain ball python, was purchased December 4, 2012. To read more about my experience buying Truffles, and the care he received early on, read my other hub- Pet Ball Python.

Butterbean, our albino ball, was purchased February 10, 2013.


Throughout our ownership of the pair we have learned a lot more about giving these snakes proper care than what we knew from the care sheet the pet store gave us. We were led to believe by three different pet stores, a reptile show, as well as, many sites on the internet that having a ball as a pet would be a breeze. Everyone’s main concern was their picky eating habits, but little else by way of potential problems was even mentioned.

my snakes in their beloved little log
my snakes in their beloved little log | Source

Problems We've Encountered:

  1. Bad sheds
  2. Humidity regulation
  3. Regular feeding (a very recent happening)

incomplete shed
incomplete shed | Source

Bad Sheds

One of the first problems we encountered, shortly after our purchase of Truffles, was improper shedding. When snakes shed, it should come off in large pieces- ideally only one large piece.

Truffles would shed little flakes of scales for what seemed like a week at a time, and at the end still have flaky pieces attached to him that would not come off. At one point, after two such sheds my husband actually soaked Truffles repeatedly and peeled the rest of the stuck flakes off. Bad sheds can be detrimental to pythons especially if the eye caps don’t come off- it can leave the snake blind.

We have several friends who keep all types of snakes and breed them, so we had them take a look at our setup and got a lot of helpful advice. We found out that, basically, we were doing everything wrong. At the suggestion of the pet shop in which Truffles was purchased, I also bought a 10 gallon glass aquarium with a locking screen top, aspen snake bedding, a heat lamp, water dish, and hide log.

According to our snake keeper friends, about the worst thing you can house a ball python in is an aquarium with a screen top lid.

Here’s why:

-The sides are too high in proportion to the floor space, which limits the air flow in the tank.

-The screen top lid lets all the humidity in the tank go right out the top, essentially making the inside of the tank a super dry, desert-like enclosure. Since ball pythons live in an arid environment in the wild, you’d think that would be okay, but it’s definitely not.

-When the snakes get older, they may start throwing themselves at the screen top trying to break out.

Further complications with our setup:

  • needed a larger water dish to allow the whole snake space to soak
  • aspen bedding is a very dry bedding and since we used it exclusively it was contributing to the shed problem
  • heat lamps dry out the cage more than what an under tank heater will
  • we had no humid hide box
  • the snake’s eyes were flat looking instead of being round, a sign of dehydration. Hydration is a key element for a good shed

Fixin’s:

First, we ordered a new cage, a closed top one that opened from the font. We found a great one from Showcase Cages online. I cannot express how happy I am with it- looks amazing, super functional, and easy to clean. Top of the line cage for sure.

Then we bought new bedding. First, we converted to using cypress for the entire substrate. We have since tried many variations, including a mix of cypress and coconut coir which we are currently using. (More about that in the next section.)

We bought a heat pad, and got a lower strength bulb just to use so the day/night cycle wasn’t disrupted.

We started monitoring the snake’s eyeballs. Anytime they weren’t perfectly round, he enjoyed a soak.

Finally, when we noticed the snakes were about to shed we began misting the tank in the morning and at night, and immediately placed a hide box filled with moist sphagnum moss in the enclosure.

Since these alterations took place, we’ve never had another bad shed. And, through our experimentation with the cage interior, and as conditions improved, the need for soaking drastically decreased.

Humidity Regulation

The bad shed problem was kind of a lead-in to this one. We needed to get our snakes more hydrated so they would shed properly, and one of the most effective way to ensure hydration is regulating the humidity in their cage. Once we changed all the things detailed above, the new challenge of keeping the humidity where we wanted it crept up.

Fixin’s:

We got a digital humidity gauge to replace the cheap petsmart needled one we originally had. It gives a much more accurate reading.

The new cage alone helped somewhat. Now that we had something with a closed top, the humidity was already slightly higher. When we took away the high watt heat lamp, put on the under-tank heater, and put in the larger water dish, it raised again. Our digital gauge usually read about 20%.

We’ve found that humidity is very closely related to the substrate used in the enclosure. As I wrote above, we ditched the aspen bedding. We simply found it too difficult to raise and maintain the humidity in the cage to a desirable 45%-60% using it as the exclusive bedding. First, we tried cypress, but found it dried out too quickly after misting, so we went completely opposite and tried sphagnum moss as the substrate. However, after further consideration, we thought that may be too moist an environment and scale rot may occur, so we switched again.

Finally, we came up with a mix of about 40% cypress and 60% compressed coconut coir. The cypress is laid out so it remains dry, and the coconut is the wet portion of the tank. The coconut stays moist and holds the water nicely so it isn’t soaked, but also doesn’t dry out in half a day.

This is what finally worked, and what we are still using. After the initial new bedding is put in the tank we wait 3-4 days, until the coconut looks like it’s drying and mist it. After that it is misted once daily to ensure the humidity level stays within the 45%-60%, and so it doesn’t become dusty. We’ve seen some people say that when the coconut becomes completely dry and dusty it can cause respiratory problems.

Our current setup- front opening cage, mixed substrate, large water dish, hides
Our current setup- front opening cage, mixed substrate, large water dish, hides | Source

Finicky Eating Habits

This has been a more recent occurrence, and the only problem we were ever warned about. I thought we had somehow gotten a pair of magically not-picky ball pythons because of how easily they switched from live to frozen food. Not so.

Around the end of October 2013 Truffles stopped eating. Everything we read and everyone we talked to said not to worry about it- balls will frequently stop eating in the winter months. Butterbean continued to eat up until January 2014.

Our feeding regimen hadn’t changed:

  • Truffles had been eating one small rat once weekly, while Butterbean would have one XL retired breeder mouse weekly.
  • They are laid out at around 7 am to thaw and around 10 pm are heated with a hair dryer so they are not damp when the snakes go to feed.
  • After heating the rodent’s head is punctured so it smells more, something that we’ve found is absolutely necessary or the snakes won’t eat.

Fixin’s:

After such a long time of Truffles not eating we began to think about other things that may be impacting feeding habits. We turned our attention to the enclosure. The only thing that had changed in recent months was a log. With the snakes growing, we purchased a larger log for them to hide in. So, we tried putting the small log back in. And they both ate the next week (last Wednesday). It may have been a coincidence, but then again, maybe not. Ball pythons forums caution against stark changes in cage décor, because it may contribute to poor eating habits.

In Conclusion:

Caring for ball pythons is not as simple as most pet stores and webpages make it sound. There are a myriad of problems that creep up that are not all related to their eating habits, although, that is a major concern. I’m sure we are in store for much more learning about our ball pythons. Still being fairly new to keeping reptiles, we are constantly evolving our care for the pair of them, and are always looking for ways to improve.


Disclaimer:

I am in no way an animal professional. This hub was written in hopes of helping others with ball pythons remedy undesirable situations based on what helped with my snakes. If you have other problems, solutions, or suggestions please leave comments! Thanks for reading.

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