Royal Python Care Sheet
Care & Information
The Royal Python, also commonly known as the Ball Python, is a species of snake which is commonly kept in the pet trade. They are a relatively small constrictor, killing their prey by constricting and suffocating it rather than injecting venom. As with all Python species they are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs rather than giving birth to live young. The Royal Python is a beautiful species of snake and is certainly one of my favourite snakes.
Royal Pythons come from central to west Africa, and most wild caught specimens will have originated from Ghana or Togo. These regions are mainly warm and dry, the Royal Python spending most of its time down rodent burrows or in savannah grassland. The regions are sparsely wooded, so although a terrestrial species, the Royal Python does climb low branches.
Size and Longevity
As with most snake species, the female grows larger than the male. Females will reach an average length of 4-5' and males will reach an average of 3-4' in length. There have been cases of females exceeding 6' and the record is set at a little over 6' 6''. If kept well, Royal Pythons can easily live for 20 - 30 years in captivity. The longest lived Royal Python on record died in captivity at age 48. These two cases are extremes however, and you can expect the average pet Royal to grow between 3 and 5 feet and live between 20 and 30 years.
Royal Pythons are shy in nature, and not usually aggressive. The name Ball Python comes from their habit of coiling into a ball when threatened, and even though they often lose this habit when older, they still would rather hide than fight. This could be one of the factors which has led to them becoming such a popular pet, especially for first time reptile keepers. Although bites can sometimes occur, normally around feeding time, the bite hurts little and is as harmless as a paper cut.
Purchasing a Royal Python
When purchasing a Royal Python, always go for a captive bred specimen rather than a wild caught or captive farmed one. Wild caught specimens are notoriously hard to get to feed in captivity, and captive farmed (meaning the eggs were taken from the wild and hatched in captivity) are not always much better. Captive bred Royal Pythons are usually better feeders and easier to get hold of from breeders. You should still always check that the snake is feeding well and shedding properly before buying it. If possible, ask to arrange to see it being fed first.
Signs of Ill Health in Royal Pythons
It is essential to know what problems to look out for in any pet you have or may want to purchase. You should always check for these signs before purchasing it and continue to check regularly afterwards if you go ahead and buy it. Bubbles around the mouth could indicate a Respiratory Infection (RI), and spending a lot of time in its water could indicate Mites are present. A sore nose and mouth could be a sign of Mouth Rot or that the Royal Python has been Snout Rubbing on the glass of its enclosure. You should also check that the vent / cloaca is clean and that there is no mess stuck around this area, and that the eyes are clean and clear.
The size of prey and how often to feed will both depend on the size of your Royal Python. If purchased from a respectable breeder or shop, your Royal Python should already be feeding well on defrosted mice or rats. You should never feed live prey as although not illegal this sort of act is definitely discouraged. Hatchlings should be fed a small to medium mouse every 5-7 days. As they get larger, move to large mice every 7 days. At 12-18 months of age they should be big enough to move on to rat weeners every 7-10 days, and by the time they are fully grown should be on adult rats every 10-14 days. I recommend you do not stick to a specific feeding rota as your Royal Python will learn how often it gets fed and be expecting food at that time when it may not be ready. Instead, feed maybe twice in one week and then wait a week, then feed once and wait again, then feed two times close together, and so on. After all, in the wild a Royal Pythons feeding pattern would be all over the place Some people have talked of feeding chicks and although a Royal Python will probably have no objections to eating a chick, these are not the most nutritious meal out there. Rats have the best nutritional value for your python, which is another good reason to feed small rats rather than large mice. The older your python gets, the less likely it is to want to change diet, so try moving it onto rats as early as possible, if not right from the start.
As Royal Pythons do not always feed as easily as some other snakes in captivity, there are a number of methods you can use to help entice them into eating. I call these Feeding Aids, although they may be known as something different elsewhere. If your Royal Python will not eat a prey item which is left in its enclosure, first try warming the prey item up with a hair dryer, focusing on the head area, and wiggling it in front of your snake with a pair of tweezers. This can fool your Python into thinking the prey is still alive, and they may decide to strike and eat it. If this method fails, you can try braining the prey item. This means you cut open the head so that the brain is exposed, and leave it in the enclosure. The smell of the exposed brain is usually enough to get any Royal to eat. If this method fails as well, you can try live feeding as one of your last resorts, which should be done out of the enclosure in a separate box and under supervision. Never leave a live rat or mouse alone with your Python! If all these methods fail, the last resort can be force feeding, for which you should seek someone with experience in your area to help you. Do not attempt to force feed your snake yourself as this is a very stressful procedure.
A young Royal Python will shed more often than one which has finished growing, though Royal Pythons continue to shed throughout their entire life. For the first three years, a Royal Python will grow at a rate of about 1' per year, and probably shed its skin every 1-2 months. After this initial growth spurt, growing slows down and so does shedding. For the rest of its life the Royal Python will shed its skin only once or twice a year, or even less. During shedding, a higher humidity is needed in the enclosure, and a hide full of damp moss should be provided.
Setting Up Royal Python Enclosures
Hatchling Royal Pythons up to 18 months of age can be kept in a plastic tub with a secure lid and suitable holes for ventilation. A number of Faunariums are available online of which the large flat variety are ideal. A lot of reptile keepers use Really Useful Boxes (RUBs). The length of the tub should be at least as long as the snake it contains, and at least 12-18'' of height is recommended. Adult Royal Pythons should be kept in vivarium style enclosures, whether it be an all glass aquarium with a secure lid or a wooden vivarium with sliding glass doors. A 3' long x 1.5' wide x 1.5' high vivarium is ideal for most adult Royal Pythons, though very large specimens may need a 4' long enclosure. I do not recommend the height exceeding 2' in case the Royal Python climbs and falls.
Heating the Enclosure
Royal Pythons, like all cold blooded reptiles, need to thermo regulate their body temperature. This means they need a heat gradient in their enclosure so they can move between the warm and cool ends if they are too hot / cold. This is best achieved in a small hatchling tub by a heat mat underneath 1/3 of the tub. In a large vivarium there are a few options for heating. A heat mat can be used underneath the substrate of 1/3 of the vivarium floor as with a tub, though the heat will not penetrate wood so the mat needs to be inside the enclosure. A heat mat will warm the substrate where it is placed but will not effect the ambient air temperature of the enclosure. You can also use an infrared heat bulb or a ceramic heater or radiator, which will warm up the air temperature as well as creating a basking spot on the floor where it is directed. Heat lamps and ceramics need wire guards coated in heat proof paint so that there is no risk of your Royal Python getting burned on them. Heat mats should also be protected so that direct contact with the mat can not be made, either by having it under the tank or by having a sheet of perspex or specially designed screen between it and the substrate. Never use heat rocks as these have been known to develop patches which reach deadly temperatures and can burn snakes badly or even fatally.
I feel thermostats require their own paragraph away from heating the enclosure so that you take more notice of what is written here. A thermostat is an essential piece of equipment and there have been cases of snakes dying when one is not used. A thermostat controls your heating equipment and ensures they do not exceed preset minimum and maximum temperatures. Without one, a heat mat or lamp which becomes faulty could reach an alarming temperature with terrible consequences for any reptile trapped within the enclosure. A good quality thermostat will allow you to set the temperature you want the enclosure to be and will accurately keep it in the desired range. Some also have a built in alarm which sounds if the thermostat becomes faulty or the temperatures drop too low or rise too high. I have been using Microclimate B1 and B1ME thermostats and thus far they have not let me down!
Temperatures and Humidity
The correct temperature and humidity within an enclosure for a Royal Python are essential and many problems can occur if they are not met. The ambient air temperature in the enclosure should be kept between 22-26*C as this ensures the air of the enclosure feels warm like the Royal Pythons natural habitat. If using a heat mat, which only heats the substrate, placing the enclosure in a warm room should give the necessary ambient temperature. The basking spot, whether it be the area of substrate over a heat mat or the spot under a heat lamp / ceramic, should be kept at 30-32*C. The temperature here should never exceed 34*C or drop below 28*C. The vivarium humidity should be kept between 50-60%, though an increase to 60-70% is preferred during shedding. Choice of substrate, surface size of water bowl, position of water bowl and misting the cage can all help control humidity.
Lighting the Enclosure
Royal Pythons are nocturnal and therefore do not need any special lighting in their enclosure. At night time the enclosure should not be lit up, as the Royal Python will feel secure and come out in the dark. During the day there should be light, either from a well lit room or by a fluorescent lighting rod in the enclosure. However, Royal Pythons do not need any special UVA or UVB light source. Pet shops which tell you otherwise are probably just trying to make you buy their products, as the main function of a UV light is to help reptiles with calcium absorption as the sun would in the wild. Royal Pythons are nocturnal and thus would not see much of the sun in the wild, and they receive all the calcium they need through the bones of the rodents they feed on in their diet.
Substrate is the technical term for the stuff you put down on the floor of your enclosure. Some reptile keepers will recommend using newspaper or kitchen towel as this is easy to clean and less likely to carry Mites, however I feel proper substrates are just as good and look more pleasing and naturalistic in the enclosure. After all, the floor in regions such as Ghana and Togo is not covered with newspaper! There are many substrates you can use including Aspen Bedding, Beech Chips and my personal preference, Orchid Bark. Put 1'' of substrate across the entire floor surface of the enclosure and then spot clean as required. If your Royal Python passes waste, scoop out that section of substrate and put fresh substrate down in its place. Periodically, perhaps every other month, all the substrate should be taken out along with your python, the enclosure disinfected and cleaned, and fresh substrate put in across the enclosure floor once more.
Essentials in the Enclosure
Apart from those essential things talked about already (heating equipment, a thermostat, normal lighting) and thermometers and hygrometers for reading the temperature and humidity, there are some other essential things to put in the enclosure. Your Royal Pythons will feel most secure when hidden from sight and so should have at least two caves or hides in their vivarium, one on the warm side and one on the cool side. This way the snake can thermo regulate between the two different sides of the cage without having the stress of being out in the open all the time. A water bowl is also essential, so that your Royal Python has a fresh water supply to drink from. The water should be changed daily, and should be deep enough that the python can sit in it if desired.
Optional Decor in the Enclosure
Everything mentioned up to this point is essential and will provide your Royal Python with everything it needs to survive healthily in captivity. However, many reptile keepers want to go above and beyond the bare minimum, instead deciding to give their pet the best enclosure they an afford. There are a number of other things which a Royal Python enclosure can contain, such as the following. Plants, whether real or artificial, make an enclosure look nicer and also give your python more things to hide behind and so feel more secure. A piece of wood or a decent sized rock which your Royal Python can rub against when shedding is also recommended. Another hide can also be put in during shedding or kept in permanently, which should contain damp sphagnum moss, as this will help the python with shedding. A climbing branch or two can also be included and although it is not essential, most pythons will make full use of one when it is offered. The branches should be very secure and placed diagonally within the enclosure at an angle which is not too steep to climb on. Any rocks, wood or plants taken from outside should be chosen and properly cleaned with care, and Cedar and Pine wood should never be used. Any wood from outside should be baked or put in boiling water and dried out before being put into the vivarium to ensure any parasites and bacteria on it are killed and removed.
Things To Remember
Royal Pythons, like all snakes, are natural escape artists right from birth. They will find and exploit any weakness in their enclosure, be it a weak vent, small gap, door left partially open or insecure lid. To minimize the risks of escape and injury to your python, once your enclosure is set up check everything for any signs of weakness. It is better to check than to find out afterwards that a problem was overlooked. Getting a secure lock for sliding glass doors is also recommended, as much for keeping unwanted hands out as for keeping the snake in. I personally have had a bad experience with a Royal Python who tried to squeeze out of a small hole in the vent strip at the back of her wooden vivarium. She managed to get her head out but then got stuck about 1/3 of the way out and remained there until I found her some hours later. I had to unscrew the wooden vivarium top to get her out, and luckily she was not seriously hurt. It is because of experiences like this that you should always check for gaps!
Also, please remember that every snake has its own personality, attitude and habits. The information in this care sheet comes from what I have learned about the average Royal Python and my own experiences with them, but it is in no way certain that everything here will apply to your own. Although most Royal Pythons can become very tame, there are those, usually wild caught specimens, who remain unpredictable throughout their entire life. Some Royal Pythons like to soak in their water bowl, others will only drink from it. Some Royal Pythons like to climb, others will not even attempt it. Almost every Royal will choose a hide to be its favourite, though some may just sleep in plain sight
All information in this care sheet is to be used as a guide. Reptile's Galore takes no responsability for anything that happens to your pet or you while following this guide.