What to feed your Ball Python

Mice versus Rats

An adult ball python will grow large enough that one adult mouse will not be a sufficient meal. Keeping this in mind, you should begin your ball python feeding on rats, which grow to be much larger than mice. This way, you won’t have to struggle with switching your ball python from eating mice onto eating rats. Some ball pythons take a while to switch over, and some may refuse to switch over at all. So it is recommended that you begin feeding your ball python rats from early on. If you stick to mice, you may end up feeding your adult ball python 3 or even 4 mice per feeding, whereas 1 rat could suffice. The cost of several mice might be more than one rat, so you should keep in mind what makes the most sense financially too.

Where to Buy Rats

You can usually buy live and/or frozen rats at your local pet store, at a reptile expo/show, or online. There are many online companies that are dedicated to shipping frozen rats overnight to your door (depending on where you live, shipping might be expensive). Ask your friends who have snakes where they get their rats, they might be able to point you in the right direction too. 

What size?

Ball pythons can easily eat prey that is roughly 1.5 times the size of the largest part of their bodies (their girth). They’re heads look small and it may seem like the rat you’re offering is too big- but you’d be surprised to learn how much their jaws can stretch when they’re eating! 

There’s a lot of “lingo” when it comes to the prey you’ll have to feed your ball python. Vendors will refer to the size of the rat depending on their age. Newborn rats are called “pinkies”, then “fuzzies,” “hoppers,”…and then adult sizes can be “XLarge,” “XXLarge,” you get the idea. Different companies may refer to the different stages by different names.

You can also figure out what size your ball python needs to eat is by knowing the weight of your ball python, and the weight of the rat. Your snake can eat a rat that is 10-15% of its body weight.

How Often?

Baby ball pythons and juveniles up until the age of about 3 year can eat every 7-10 days. Adult ball pythons (age 3 years and up) can eat every 10-14 days.

Feeding In or Out of the Enclosure

Whether you decide to feed your ball python in or out of the enclosure is up to you. There is a myth that if you feed your snake inside his/her enclosure, they will begin to associate their cage with feeding time and will be more likely to bite you. This is not true! The same logic can be applied if you’re feeding your snake outside the enclosure: they will begin to associate being taken out of their enclosure with feeding time and will be more likely to bite you. Neither scenarios are true. So long as your hand doesn’t smell like rat, your ball python won’t associate your hand with food. 

One reason to feed inside the enclosure is that it will reduce stress. Moving your snake out of the enclosure can be stressful and can cause your snake to refuse to eat. One reason to feed outside the enclosure is if you’re scared of your snake ingesting large amounts of substrate during feeding time. However, you should only feed outside the enclosure if your ball python is willing to eat there; If your snake refuses to eat outside the enclosure, you should shift to feeding inside it.

The best way to feed your ball python, however, is to feed inside the enclosure every time. You can offer the rat on a plate that you put inside the enclosure so that your snake won’t accidentally eat large amounts of substrate during the feeding process.

Important: If you are feeding outside the enclosure in a separate container, you’ll want to take extra care when returning your snake to the enclosure after feeding. They will have a full stomach and you don’t want to cause your snake to regurgitate its meal. Moving your snake immediately after its eaten will also put you at risk for a bite since your snake will still be in feeding mode.

Live Versus Frozen / Thawed

Live: Some people feel that feeding their snake a live rat is the more natural way to feed their snake. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A natural feeding in the wild would require the ball python to actually hunt and find the rat, and the rat would have ample time and space to make an escape. In feeding your ball python in your home, the rat will be placed in a small space for your ball python to easily find it, and the rat will have little to no chance of escape. Feeding live rats to your ball python includes some risk: the rat can easily scratch or bite your snake and cause serious harm to it. Live feeding must be supervised at all times. Do NOT leave your snake alone in its enclosure/feeding container alone with the rat; Unsupervised, the rat can severely harm or even kill your ball python. 

Once your snake grabs the rat and begins to coil it, I recommend holding on to the hands and feet of the rat so they don’t scratch scales off of your snake in the process. Also keep an eye on the mouth of the rat for the same reason. Most owners feel that the risk of feeding live isn’t worthwhile. If you’re going to feed live rats at every feeding, you’ll have to invest the time and money into finding a live rat at every feeding. Alternatively, you could start your own rat breeding colony.

Frozen/Thawed: This is considered the safer alternative to feeding your snake. Choosing to feed frozen/thawed rats to your snake eliminates the risk of your snake being attacked by a live rat. If you have a shy feeder, you can leave the thawed rat overnight with your snake and not fear it might get hurt. Frozen rats are usually cheaper, since you can buy them in bulk and keep them in your freezer. You must make sure the rat is thoroughly thawed before you feed it to your ball python.

Thawing a Frozen Rat

There are a few ways to thaw a frozen rat. Here is the way I do it:

  1. Choose the rat you want to thaw.
  2. Leave it in a container to thaw… thawing time can be several hours depending on the size of the rat, so plan ahead. You might want to thaw the rat overnight in your refrigerator. Treat the rat as you would thaw a piece of frozen meat for yourself. 
  3. Once the rat is no longer frozen, you’ll want to heat it up above room temperature. I use hot water to do this.
  4. While the rat is heating up, set up the things you need for feeding. I separate a paper towel and the feeding tongs. Note: some ball pythons are happy to eat their prey wet, while some will only eat their prey dry. If your ball python eats dry prey, you might opt to use a hair dryer to heat and dry the rat instead of using water.
  5. Check the rat. The head and the hips are the thickest areas and you’ll want those to be quite warm to the touch. If they’re not warm, you’ll want to heat up the rat more.
  6. Once the rat is warm and ready, you are ready to feed your ball python! 

Important: Do NOT thaw or heat up your frozen rat by using boiling water or a microwave. This method will most likely cause the rat to pop or explode!

Warning: If you’re feeding your ball python a wet rat, and you’re feeding INSIDE their enclosure, you’ll want to place a dish or a plate where you’ll be feeding. The rat’s wet fur might cause your bedding/substrate to stick to it, and your snake might accidentally eat it. Small pieces of bedding are OK, but ingesting large pieces of substrate can be dangerous. 

Enticing Your Ball Python To Eat A Thawed Rat

Some ball pythons will eat a thawed rat if you simply place it in their enclosure. Others will need a little convincing. For this, many owners will do what we endearingly call “the nom nom dance” or “the zombie rat dance.” To do this, you’ll want to hold the rat by the scruff of the neck, and make it “walk” or move as if it is still alive. This will trick your ball python into believing the rat is alive, and will entice it to strike, coil, and eat the rat. 

Help! My ball python won’t eat!

There are many reasons why your ball python might refuse to eat a meal:

  • Shedding: if your ball python is going into a shed cycle, he/she might refuse to eat. This is normal. Just wait until after your ball python has shed to offer a meal.
  • Breeding season: roughly October through April is ball python breeding season. During this time, some males and females may be disinterested in feeding. Keep offering food at your regular feeding schedule.
  • Settling in: if you just recently acquired your ball python, he/she might refuse to eat because he/she is still getting used to the new environment. Do not handle your snake during this period. Offer food every 7-10 days.
  • No reason: sometimes your ball python might miss a meal for no reason obvious to us. There is no need to worry unless he/she starts to lose weight. Ball pythons can go a long time without eating (sometimes for several months, or even a year!) and be just fine. Keep offering food every 7-10 days, and keep handling at a minimum.

My ball python ate the rat backwards!

So long as your ball python eats the rat and gets it down to its stomach, how it eats it isn’t important. Some ball pythons will always eat a rat head-first, some will eat rats tail-first, and some will even eat the rat from the side (folding the rat in half). It may look as if your snake is struggling, but you should allow your snake to figure it out on its own. Sometimes a ball python will begin eating a rat backwards, spit it out, and start over eating it head-first. 

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