Understanding what and how often to feed your ball python can make the difference between a healthy snake and one that struggles with health. Ball pythons are smallish pythons that can grow as long as five feet long, but most will never exceed four feet.
Ball pythons are among the most popular pet snake species and have more color pattern combinations than almost any other snake in the pet industry today. Variations include spider, lavender, and freeway ball python morphs, and they are all beautiful. They’re easy enough to care for, and many individuals tolerate and even enjoy some gentle handling.
Understanding Proper Ball Python Nutrition
Wild ball pythons have been documented eating all manner of animals, including rodents, mustelids, parrots, bats, and woodpeckers. Like all snakes, ball pythons are obligate carnivores that eat other animals. In the wild, this mostly includes birds and mice or rats. Males tend to eat more birds, and females tend to eat more mice and rats. While this may be because of their size difference because females are significantly bigger than males, no one knows for sure.
There are times when a snake, usually a sick or young snake, needs a smaller bit of food. Fortunately, there are prey items plenty small enough even for the smallest ball python to swallow whole! If you can’t find a local retailer for ball python food, there are several online sellers that give much better prices when you buy in bulk.
To provide your ball python with proper nutrition, many experts recommend a ratio of bird-to-mammal that varies according to the sex of your ball python. If you don’t know whether you’ve got a boy or a girl, it’s fine to go 50-50 until you do. However, many ball pythons survive quite well on rats and mice throughout their lives, depending on the availability of other prey items.
Snakes don’t need to eat vegetables to maintain a healthy diet. We feed them whole prey items because that rat, mouse, or bird has everything they need — vitamins, minerals, protein, etc. The prey animal’s gut often contains some partially digested items, and when you include everything — bones, skin, and organs — you have a complete meal.
Ball Python Digestive Process
A snake’s digestive system doesn’t function quite the way other animals do. When they take a meal, their stomach, and other internal organs can increase in size by as much as 40%, depending on the species. Their heart rate and respiratory functions also change, increasing to allow more blood flow to aid in digesting their food.
Juveniles under a year old need to eat about once weekly because they’re growing much more quickly, and their meal sizes are smaller. As they grow, keepers begin to spread their meals out further — incrementally so they can adjust.
As reptiles, ball pythons need more than just a few days between meals! The internal organs increase in size to help digest their meals — many snakes do this, and some increase their blood flow and intestinal tract’s size by as much as 40%. The physical changes they undergo when digesting a meal take energy. As a result, they need time to return to a resting state afterward, so spacing meals out over several days or weeks according to age and size allows that to happen naturally.
Suitable Prey Items at Different Life Stages
The best prey for your ball python is something that’s no bigger than one to one and a half times the widest part of its body. If that sounds ambiguous, it is! Although keepers have learned more and become more science-based in their husbandry, determining whether their prey is appropriately sized requires having eyes on it.
What to feed your ball python is pretty easy — day-old chicks, rats, and mice are the most common. According to a study, the nutritional content is similar across the various species, but rats tend to be the most nutritious for ball pythons. Hatchling ball pythons are usually restricted to pinkie rats or mice because of their size. However, as they grow, keepers sometimes offer different types and sizes of prey to more closely mimic what the snake access in the wild. It also keeps these predators thinking just a little.
If you decide to offer different prey items, make sure that you’re also varying the timing appropriately for the size. For example, if your adult ball python normally takes a small rat every six weeks, feeding a large mouse is a smaller meal. Meaning that, instead of waiting six weeks after the large mouse, perhaps four or five weeks is a better interval.
The Debate on Live vs Frozen/Thawed
Whether you decide to feed live food or prey that’s been prekilled and frozen ahead of time is personal. However, we can offer some advice on making a decision based on the experiences of keepers and rescue organizations.
Being the most natural choice, people also assume it’s also the best. You’ll hear things from keepers like they’ve never had a ball python reject a live meal or that it stimulates their hunting instincts. These are probably very true — but not always valid reasons for feeding live.
Live meals, aside from being closer to what they would hunt in the wild, are riskier. When the prey animals are small, like pinkies or rat fuzzies, there isn’t much danger to the snake. It’s all pretty quick. However, when ball pythons graduate to bigger and bigger prey and get to small rats, it’s different.
Rats are smart and do not give in without a fight. The bigger the rat, the bigger the fight. When prey fights back, snakes can get injured — sometimes fatally. But more than that, the prey also suffers. The rat has been placed into an enclosure that it cannot escape, and its only recourse is fighting. Whereas in nature, it would simply bite and run.
There’s one last difficulty with feeding live: is it available? Many local stores do not sell live feeder mice or rats. You may have to breed them yourself, which opens up a whole new set of challenges.
That said, sometimes a live meal is the only thing a snake will eat. If that’s true for your pet, do not leave your snake unsupervised. Remove the prey animal if your snake refuses to eat and try again another day.
Frozen & Thawed Prey
If a ball python is going to get picky, this is usually where they do it. Ball pythons are notorious for going on hunger strikes — sometimes for months! The record is over a year, but the snake was perfectly healthy and only lost a few grams of weight; nothing to worry about in a healthy adult ball python.
Proponents of frozen and thawed prey items say that you can more easily source food for your snake (or snakes!), even when live isn’t available. Then, because they typically purchase several at a time, they have it ready when feeding time hits. There are several online suppliers that ship out freshly frozen food with dry ice so they arrive still frozen solid on your doorstep in only a few days.
Another argument in favor of frozen and thawed prey is that there is no risk to the snake. In addition, the animal itself does not suffer the fear and stress of being tossed in with a predator. Also, even if you run out, most major pet supply retailers offer them in smaller packages in a pinch.
Note: If you have a spider morph with a wobble, frozen/thawed is the ONLY safe way to go.
Keep in mind that the following chart is only a guideline. If your snake has been off of food for a few months, offer a smaller meal than it would typically take. Always be aware of your snake’s body condition! Ball pythons are sedentary snakes, and most are not as active as other species. Their metabolism is slower, and they do not need to eat as often as many people recommend.
The biggest meal any ball python should take is about the same size as the thickest part of their body. Bigger than that is dangerous.
Many older guides recommend feeding every two weeks, regardless of body composition and size. That’s not recommended anymore because there seems to be an epidemic of obese ball pythons.
|Age/Size||Feeding Interval||Prey Items|
|Hatchlings up to 100 grams||4-5 days||Crawler mice|
|Juveniles up to 500 grams||7-14 days||Weaned mice, rat fuzzies, medium mice, rat pups, large & x-large mice, smaller rat weaned rats, and bigger rat pups|
|Subadults up to 1000 grams||14-21 days||Small or medium rats, day-old chicks|
|Adults 1000 grams and larger||3 to 6 weeks||Small or medium rats, day old chicks|
Hunger Strikes in Ball Pythons
These beautiful snakes come in hundreds, if not thousands, of colors and patterns. They’re gentle snakes that are stout enough to be handled by kids (with supervision!) and generally easy to keep. However, as wonderful as ball pythons are for beginner snake keepers, they are notorious for hunger strikes.
In discussion groups, you’ll often see questions like: Was it the rat’s color or the temperature? Maybe it was too small, or the wrong time of day. You can continue to offer food every week or two until they eat, but they’re likely to skip for a while.
Owners worry when their pet snake goes off feed. However, assuming all the husbandry is on point and the snake is otherwise healthy, it’s not usually something to worry about in adult snakes. Just offer a fresh rat or mouse every week or two, and they’ll typically start eating again without issue.
Here are a few reasons a ball python will go off of feed:
- Maybe it was mating season! Male snakes generally won’t eat in the spring because they’re looking for a mate. That fat rat you offered would only slow them down.
- Enclosure temperatures are too cool or hot. Reptiles have specific temperature requirements that must be met for them to digest properly.
- Humidity levels are out of balance. Ball pythons come from a pretty humid environment, so keeping the humidity above 60% is necessary.
- Not enough hiding places. These snakes spend a lot of time hiding and need multiple hides to select the correct one for their current needs.
Things to Avoid
One of the easiest ways to keep your ball python happy, healthy, and feeding normally is to keep its enclosure parameters within acceptable ranges — temperature, humidity, etc. But by avoiding a few simple mistakes, you’ll be able to prevent most hunger strikes and health issues.
- Prey items that are too hot or cold. Getting the temperature right isn’t hard, but it can make or break your snake’s desire to eat — and prevent your hand from being the warmest thing in the tank.
- Getting too big a meal. Ball pythons can eat animals about as big around as they are at their widest.
- Feeding too frequently. As adults, these snakes don’t need to eat every week or even every two weeks! They can get fat, which brings its own set of problems.
- Moving your snake to a different tank to feed. Just don’t do it. It causes unnecessary stress for snakes and can make them regurgitate their meal — snakes that regurgitate their meals can develop other problems or even a pattern of regurgitation.
- Handling too soon after a meal. No matter how gentle, it can make your snake regurgitate its meal.
- Live food with spider morphs. The head wobble that many spider morphs exhibit makes striking a moving target difficult. Frozen/thawed meals are better for them.
We used to keep ball pythons in small enclosures because we assumed that they were sedentary and preferred small places. However, while they are more sedentary than other species and love having a cozy little hide or three, they also like to explore. Newer research and science-informed husbandry practices show that most ball pythons do better and use the space in a bigger enclosure. Now, most experienced keepers recommend that the smallest enclosure an adult ball python should have is 4x2x2 feet — but with a ton of cover and clutter. These snakes slither through the underbrush of their home territory in central Africa, so clutter in their enclosure is vital.
One thing to note: Yes, we know that breeders keep their snakes in racks. We’re not knocking rack systems because they have their place. However, for the average keeper of a small collection, larger enclosures with appropriate clutter, hides, humidity, etc., are completely feasible and recommended.
Basic enclosure recommendations
- An enclosure that’s at least 4x2x2 feet in size for adults.
- Lots of clutter, several hides on the warm and cool sides
- Humidity 60-80%
- Water dish
- Hot side with the basking spot between 88-95º F
- Keep the cool side between 78-80º F
- Digital thermometers and hygrometers — yes, digital!! Analog is fine as a backup, but don’t rely on them.
- Bonus item: infrared thermometer. These allow you to get precise readings of any spot in the enclosure.
Your setup may be different, but as long as your pet snake gets what he or she needs — that’s all that matters! For health concerns, your first line of defense is your vet. Sometimes finding veterinarians for exotic animals takes more time, but it’s time well-spent to ease concerns and keep your animals healthy.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Keung/Shutterstock.com
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