Reptile Husbandry Series
As much as we love our four legged, furry friends, sometimes it’s fun to go off the beaten path in our pet ownership journey. You’re heading to the pet store to pick up some food for Fido when you run into the Herps/Reptiles section and see this adorable pile of bearded dragons or the cutest little snake in the corner (yes…snakes can be cute). You think to yourself, “How freakin’ awesome would it be to have a little dinosaur of my own? How hard can it be…they just hang out in their cage and bask on rocks!” While I’m in full agreement with the dinosaur love, it’s also important to know what you’re getting yourself into! As a new reptile owner (proud new owner of an adorable ball python named Kreacher), I began to delve into the depths of reptile husbandry and realized that information isn’t as easy to find as one may think. I decided for the next few blog entries to give some us scale lovin’ folks some direction.
Let’s start out with one of my favorite, docile, legless friends, the ball python.
Natural history: Ball pythons (Python regius) can be found in the forests of Central and Western Africa, on the ground or in the trees. Typically they are active at dawn and dusk (Crepuscular). They earned their name from their tendency to curl themselves up into a tight coil when they’re nervous, hiding their heads in the center of the coil. There are several different morphs or color patterns, but you may need to find a reputable breeder if you’re looking for a very specific type!
The facts and stats:
- Body length: 36-48 inches
- Body weight: Variable with length, age
- Maximum life span: 50 years
- Average captive life span: 20-30 years
- Daytime temperature: 80-85 F
- Nighttime temperature: 75 F minimum
- Humidity: 60-80%
- Hot spot (basking area): 90 F
Unique features: Pythons (and boas) are equipped with anal spurs near the cloaca. These are said to be remnants of hind limbs that snakes lost during their evolution from lizards. The cloaca is a common exit of the urinary, digestive, and reproductive tract. In the wild, ball pythons consume a variety of prey including amphibians, lizards, other snakes, birds, and small mammals. Young ball pythons will typically grow a foot during the first there years. Snakes only have 3 chambers in their heart (us humans have 4) and one main functional lung (the other lung is present, but doesn’t work as hard as its partner!).
Husbandry: What do I need and why?
- Smaller, young snakes tend to do well house in 10 or 20 gallon aquariums. As your snake grows, he/she may need an upgrade to a larger enclosure. Many owners custom build enclosures as their snake gets larger. Pet stores tend to have example set ups for you to see, or you can come in and visit our corn snake, Checkers, to check out her enclosure!
- Bedding material should be easy to clean and nontoxic to your snake. Newspaper, butcher paper, paper towels, or Astroturf are recommended. When using Astroturf, buy 2 pieces and cut to fit in the bottom of the cage, this way you’ll always have a clean piece to change out. Clean soiled areas with soap and water or other mild cleaners (ask your veterinarian for cleaning advice!). AVOID SAND, GRAVEL, WOOD SHAVINGS (CEDAR, ASPEN, PINE). These can be ingested when your snake is going to feed and CEDAR shavings are toxic to reptiles!
- Young ball pythons enjoy climbing and exploring, so natural branches can be a great addition to the cage. Ideally, the branch should slope from the bottom of the enclosure to the top and allow the snake an area to bask if it chooses.
- Hiding places are necessary for many reptiles and should be readily available. There are many logs, rocks, or even plastic pet bowls that work well for hiding spots in the cage.
- A heat source is necessary for the majority of reptiles, which are ectothermic (cold blooded) and need a range of environmental temperatures to regulate their internal body temperature. Ideally, you want to create a gradient in the cage with one end being warmer than the other, this way your snake has a choice for their personal temperature regulation. It is important to place your heat source outside the cage so the snake doesn’t burn itself. Hot rocks should be avoided for this reason. At night, heat isn’t necessary as long as temperatures remain 65-70 F. You can use lamps or heating pads for your heat source. There are a wide variety of heat sources available and you can consult with your veterinarian about which may work best for you.
- UV light is constant topic of debate for snake owners since they consume whole prey for their diet, making it more nutritionally balanced. It won’t hurt to add this lighting to your enclosure, but it may not be necessary
- Some of these little guys are stronger than you think, so securing your top screen with cage clips is a must, especially if your husband is worried the snake is going to get out and eat the dog like my husband is! (My ball python is 73 grams and my dogs are 80 pounds PLUS just for some perspective…)
Wait….you said WHOLE PREY!??!?
That’s right. You now own a predator! Snakes eat whole prey items including mice, rats, gerbils, and hamsters. Larger snakes are capable of eating whole rabbits! Since snakes eat entire prey items, this makes things much simpler for the owner and can help decrease the likelyhood of dietary related diseases that we can commonly see in other reptiles. Ideally, your snake should be provided a thawed (previously frozen) prey item or a freshly killed one. It isn’t recommended to feed live prey to snakes for several reasons. Prey knows it’s prey unless killed and eaten immediately, so you’ll be stressing out your feeder animal in the process if not previously killed! Amazingly, even a small mouse can cause major injury to the snake itself if the snake isn’t hungry! For humane reasons, strongly consider feeding previously killed prey.
How often you feed your snake totally depends on the age and size of the pet. Smaller snakes usually eat twice a week and larger snakes eat once every week to every few weeks. Ask your veterinarian for guidelines and feeding advice! Although snakes can go a long time without feeding, too long can be a sign of serious disease and you may want to seek veterinary advice as soon as possible.
Fresh water in a crock or bowl that won’t easily tip over should be available at all times. Snakes will not only drink from the water bowl but will often bathe in it as well. Make sure the water stays clean since many snakes feel this is their personal toilet!
Coming up next…
I think I’ve given you all a great place to start if you’re interested in our legless friends! Next blog we’ll be discussing common diseases of pet snakes so get your learning eyes and ears in gear! And don’t forget, if you have any questions or would like some one-on-one advice before you go snake hunting, feel free to stop in and visit Dr. Kathy or Dr. Lauren!