No ball python subspecies are currently recognized, but a variety of ball python colors and patterns can be found from region to region. Breeders are also producing varieties called morphs, but most of these are not naturally found in the wild.
Ball pythons are fairly short, muscular, heavy-bodied snakes. Compared to other pythons, the ball python doesn’t grow to be very large. Their average length when fully grown is considerable — between 4 and 5 feet (1.2 and 1.5 m) — but they only weigh 3-5 pounds.
If you’re considering getting a pet ball python, it’s important to know that these snakes have long potential lifespans. The average ball python has a lifespan of 20-30 years. Forty-seven years is the official record for the oldest ball python in captivity; it lived at the Philadelphia Zoo.
What the ball python lacks in subspecies it makes up for by having a large variety of patterns, markings, and color variations (called color morphs). The most common ball python color morphs are listed here.
This type of color morph lacks the pigment responsible for blacks and browns, which results in a yellow and white snake with red eyes. It’s possible to breed caramel albinos as well as lavender albinos for even greater color variations. Occasionally, an albino ball python will have random black scales or patches of normal coloring. These are called paradox albinos. One type of albino designer morph is the snow ball python, or snow ball (get it?).
This morph is extremely muted, with individual ghost ball pythons exhibiting a particular color or shade. These are referred to as orange ghosts, yellow ghosts, and green ghosts.
These pythons lack the yellow pigment called xanthin and are typically black, white, and gray. Some axanthic ball pythons have brown, silver, or dark gray hues to them.
“Piebald,” used to describe patches of white and black, or white with other colors, is a term that for years has been used to describe black and white horses, and in the reptile world it works just as well. Piebald ball pythons are truly unique in the reptile world. No other reptile can achieve the pure white of the piebald alongside its normal body color. Piebald ball pythons have sections of pure white that can cover anything from a small percentage of the snake’s belly to up to 95 percent of the snake, where only the head and neck are normally colored. Even the normal colorations of piebald balls are not normally patterned, many times appearing in dual stripes running along either side of the snake’s backbone.
Clown ball pythons have beautiful markings on their heads, with the dark background color fusing into a vertebral stripe that travels the entire length of the snake. The clown ball python has a golden yellow-hue and is very distinctive in appearance.
Other morphs include the stripe, banded, pinstripe, sugar, cinnamon, jungle, Mojave, fire, banana, and spider ball pythons. If you want to buy a ball python with a specific color morph or patterning, your best bet is to contact a reputable breeder and buy directly from them.
Because of their relatively small size and docile nature, ball pythons are one of the best types of snake for beginners and intermediate keepers. Caring for a ball python is not as demanding as other snake breeds and most keepers will have little trouble providing a proper captive environment. Captive-bred hatchlings (we always recommend captive-bred pet snakes over wild-caught) are easy to handle and grow into interesting pets.
While wild-caught adult ball pythons have a reputation for refusing foods, captive-bred ball pythons and hatchlings usually have healthy appetites and will embrace a regular feeding schedule. However, it is common for snakes, especially ball pythons, to skip a meal here and there. Unless the snake is acting ill, skipping a week or two usually is not a concern.
Breeders usually sell ball python hatchlings that are already established feeders on rats or mice. Ball pythons have particular tastes when it comes to food. Many ball pythons will imprint on a single food item, meaning they will only recognize one type of animal as food. Some ball pythons will switch between different food types, but many go their entire lives eating only mice, while others will eat only rats. It’s best to ask the breeder you purchase your snake from what their established food source is.
Only feed your snake appropriately sized food. An appropriate-sized food item will leave a slight bulge in your snake. For instance, hatchling ball pythons can eat hopper mice. They should not be fed pinky mice unless they are runts or unusually small. The number of mice you’ll need to feed your ball python depends on the size of the snake. Ball pythons 2 to 3 feet (61 to 91.4 cm) in length can be fed two mice per feeding. Ball pythons between 3 and 4 feet (91.4 to 121.9 cm) in length should be moved up to large mice or small rats. If you’re feeding your ball python rats or rat pups, one rat will suffice. In either case, feed your snake its prey animals one-at-a-time, offering the next only when the previous one has been eaten.
For safety’s sake we recommend always feeding your ball python prekilled food. Feeding your pet snake prekilled food reduces the risk of injury to your snake from rodent bites, which can be very dangerous, and in some cases deadly, for your ball python. Always use tongs or hemostats when feeding your ball python to reduce the risk of bites to you. If using frozen mice to feed your ball python, thaw it under warm water or outside in the sun first. Ball pythons have heat-sensing organs on the tip of their “noses”; they react to heat, movement and scent. So a warm rodent, even if it’s prekilled, will always elicit a better feeding response from your ball python than a cold one will.
Feeding frequency can vary, from as often as once per week to as infrequently as once every two weeks. Make sure that your ball python is not shedding before you feed it. Most ball pythons will not eat when they are in a shed.
After you’ve fed your ball python, don’t disturb it for about 24 hours to give it plenty of time to digest its food. Handling a snake too soon or too roughly after eating can make it regurgitate its meal. If you feed your snake in a separate container than its regular cage, it’s OK to gently put it back in its regular cage after feeding—the key word being gently.
Owning a healthy ball python begins with the selection of a well cared for and already healthy snake. Even if you’ve chosen a healthy captive-bred snake, provided it with an optimal environment, and taken good care of it, problems can pop up from time to time that may require veterinary care.
To find a qualified herp vet you can ask your local pet store or contact the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians. Below are some of the special health concerns and considerations related to ball pythons.
Mouth rot, or infectious stomatitis, is an occasional illness in ball pythons and can occur when debris or food gets stuck in the mouth, if the snake’s mouth has become injured, or if the snake strikes at the enclosure.
The earliest signs of mouth rot are bright red spots or spots on the snake’s gums, excessive salivation, or a yellowish cheesy substance in the snake’s mouth. Ball pythons suffering from mouth rot may also refuse food, since eating is painful. If mouth rot occurs, seek veterinary care.
Both internal and external parasites are a concern when it comes to owning a pet snake. Imported ball pythons will almost always have internal parasites like hookworms, pinworms, tapeworms, and flagellates. If you’ve purchased an imported ball python, contact your veterinarian and have him or her test your python’s stool. Most parasites and eggs are microscopic and cannot be seen without a microscope. Traces of parasites aren’t always found on the first test, so whenever testing for them, always conduct two tests on separate occasions.
External parasites like ticks used to be much more common on ball pythons, but these days they aren’t a big problem. Ticks can be easily removed with tweezers, taking extra care if the tick is embedded in the tissue surrounding the snake’s eye socket. Mites, on the other hand, remain a common parasite of snakes.
Mites to snakes are exactly like fleas to dogs and cats. Mites often hide in the grooves between snake scales on the underside of a ball python’s jaws, as well as other snug places like the eyes and corners of the mouth.
Ball pythons with heavy mite infestations may lie in their water dishes in an attempt to drown the mites. In order to get rid of a mite infestation you’ll need to eliminate them from your python and from its enclosure.
The ball python may also look like it’s covered in little white, black, or red dots, which upon closer inspection, can be seen moving and crawling. Mites reproduce at an alarming rate. If left unchecked, mites can cause your larger ball python to stop eating and a smaller ball python to die from severe anemia. There are commercially available products specifically developed for mite removal, but be sure to read the directions and follow them exactly. If you are unable to rid your snake of mites, seek veterinary care.
It is important to note that these mites are not contagious to people or non-reptiles.
Upper respiratory infections and pneumonia are more likely to happen when a snake is stressed. Ball pythons can become stressed for a number of different reasons, like not having enough clean water, too much handling, no box to hide in, a dirty cage, mites, etc.
The most common cause of respiratory infections in ball pythons is keeping their environment too cold or at another improper temperature. Most reptile respiratory infections are detected when the snake begins to wheeze.
More severe signs that your ball python is suffering from a respiratory infection can include the snake sitting and holding its head up, open mouth breathing, and making loud gurgling noises while breathing and oozing mucus from its mouth.
Shedding problems (called dysecdysis) are very common in all snakes. A normal snake sheds as it grows, as well as normal shedding of the old coat. If they have proper temperature, humidity, and areas to rub against, it will help prevent these problems.
Snakes shed their entire body including their eye caps (called spectacles). If the caps don’t come off, it could lead to them being aggressive or skipping meals since their vision will be decreased. If the caps don’t come off after the next shed, you should seek veterinary care.
Prey bites from live food are always a concern for snakes, which is why feeding your snake prekilled food is always recommended over feeding it live prey. Ball pythons can be injured by mice and rats, which have been known to cause scale damage as well as chewing on snakes’ tails, in some cases even gnawing the snake down to its bone.
Ball pythons are relatively docile and like to be handled in small doses; a few minutes a day at most. If you just brought your new pet ball python home, give it at least one week to adjust to its new environment before handling it. Over-handling a ball python will stress it out and cause it to stop eating. Ball pythons also hate having their heads petted and touched, so resist the urge.
The right environment is key to maintaining a happy, healthy ball python. Snakes are escape artists and cannot be contained in a simple glass aquarium topped with boards that are held down with bricks. To ensure the health and safety of your pet, family, and neighborhood, make sure your ball python’s enclosure is completely secured—with a locking top if necessary.
Whether or not you choose to use a glass terrarium or something with a bit more insulation depends on the temperature of the room you plan on housing your ball python. Open, screened terrariums aren’t a good choice unless you live in a warm and humid climate. A 30-gallon (113.6 L) terrarium measuring 36 x 12 x 18” (91.4 x 30.5 x 45.7 cm) is large enough to house an adult ball python for its entire life. These estimates will change if you plan on housing multiple ball pythons, or if you want to create a certain look for the cage with large or multiple furnishings (tree branches and decorative hide boxes, for example).
When it comes to your ball python’s bedding—called substrate—you have options. The simplest option is paper or precut cage liners, which are inexpensive, easy to obtain, and easy to dispose of. Chipped or shredded aspen is another common reptile substrate and is easy to spot-clean but will require whole-cage cleaning, too.
Hiding spaces are extremely important for snakes to feel secure and thrive, especially ball pythons. Ball pythons in particular like tight-fitting hiding spots. You can make your own hide box out of a shoe box or ceramic flowerpot, or you can buy a fancier hide box from a pet store. Keep in mind that you’ll have to clean the hide box, so if you don’t want to do a lot of scrubbing, don’t get a hide box with intricate designs.
When choosing a water dish for your ball python, get one that’s heavy enough to not get flipped over. Ball python water dishes do not need to be large enough for the snake to soak in, but they should be large enough for adequate amounts of water.
If you’re going away on a vacation, leave two water dishes in your python cage—one larger than the other—to ensure your snake stays hydrated while you’re away. Ball pythons are excellent swimmers and may soak in their water bowls from time to time. However, prolonged soaking can signal a mite infestation or an uncomfortable cage temperature.
Since they’re native to savannahs and grasslands, ball pythons don’t climb trees very much. That isn’t to say a ball python won’t enjoy a nice wood perch or branch in its habitat. You can also use live plants to decorate your python’s terrarium, just be aware that as the snake grows it will destroy any live plants and you’ll have to switch to fake plants.
Proper heating is the next important consideration when setting up your ball python’s enclosure. Ball pythons need to be kept warm, not hot, in order to properly digest their food and avoid respiratory infections.
All snakes have a POTZ, which is the Preferred Optimal Temperature Zone. For a single cage, an under-tank heater (UTH) with a thermostat or rheostat is a good option. Do not use hot rocks in your ball python habitat as they often cause burns in snakes. You’ll want a heat source that heats the entire enclosure, air and all, not just one spot, although a hotter basking area is better.
Ceramic heat emitters are another option for heating your ball python’s cage. Many thermostats come with heat probes, so if using this type of thermostat, make sure to put probes next to the heat source as well as the hot spot. Take cues from your ball python. If it’s always in the water dish but doesn’t have mites, your cage is too hot. If your snake spends all its time on the warm side of the tank, chances are the cage is too cool. Remember to make sure that you have a little heat at night as well, but no bright lights during the night.
Ball pythons’ colorings look better under full-spectrum lighting, but it isn’t necessary to the snake’s health. Ball pythons benefit most from a regular light cycle of 12 hours light and 12 hours night. So as long as the room you house your python in has natural lighting, you should be OK. Take care not to place your python cage in direct sunlight, as it can affect the temperature of the habitat.
Ball pythons originate from an area with a naturally high humidity that should be mimicked in their habitat. A humidity level between 50 percent and 60 percent is perfect for ball pythons. Buy a humidity gauge for your enclosure to keep track and make adjustments. One clue that your enclosure is too dry is if your snake is in a shed but having trouble shedding the skin. You may need to increase humidity if this occurs.
Ball pythons are native to West and Central Africa, where the temperatures average 85 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s interesting to note that the ball python population doesn’t extend into the southern hemisphere below the equator. The ball python’s natural habitat is grasslands and savannas, though they are occasionally found in forests and living in termite mounds or rodent burrows.
The African countries of Ghana, Togo, and Benin are the largest exporters of ball pythons, shipping thousands of snakes each year into the United States.
The ball python has somewhat of a regal history, as it was particularly revered by the Igobo people of Nigeria, where rulers wore the animals as jewelry — thus the nickname “royal python.”
Prior to the 1990s ball pythons were considered extremely problematic and difficult to keep alive. This is because nearly all of the ball pythons imported were adults that rarely acclimated to their new environments. But passionate hobbyists and herpetoculturists kept at it and eventually increased their knowledge enough that they were able to successfully breed the ball python in captivity. Today, there are more than 100 different ball python color morphs and designer morphs, with more being bred all the time.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Adam Denish, VMD.